In praise of limestone

At my class last night, we were asked to think of things which are yellow and someone said ‘limestone. I’m not sure whether I would say limestone is yellow, it is the palest of yellow if it is… however it triggered a memory for me of a poem which, although I did not really understand, I was very fond of when I was at school.

‘In Praise of Limestone’, is by W.H.Auden and he wrote it in Italy in 1948. I didn’t know that when I first came across the poem when I was about seventeen, I guess I thought of the hills here which are limestone, the Mendips. The Mendips run across Somerset and fall into the sea at Uphill where I live, with a couple of hiccuping hillocks, the promontory of Brean Down and then the island of Steep Holm out in the Bristol Channel.

The limestone quarry face just beyond the boatyard in Uphill… this is how I think of limestone

However, Auden was far away from Somerset and England, he was on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples when he wrote ‘In Praise of Limestone’. Here is the first verse:

If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones,
Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly
Because it dissolves in water. Mark these rounded slopes
With their surface fragrance of thyme and, beneath,
A secret system of caves and conduits; hear the springs
That spurt out everywhere with a chuckle,
Each filling a private pool for its fish and carving
Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain
The butterfly and the lizard; examine this region
Of short distances and definite places:
What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm? From weathered outcrop
To hill-top temple, from appearing waters to
Conspicuous fountains, from a wild to a formal vineyard,
Are ingenious but short steps that a child’s wish
To receive more attention than his brothers, whether
By pleasing or teasing, can easily take.

I went back to my copy of his shorter collected poems, and in the front I found a card which had been attached to the book token I had used to buy the book. It was from my  aunty and uncle, Beryl and Ken, who sadly are no longer with us… a nice little reminder of two dear people.




  1. Alice

    I love finding little memories in books (especailly poetry). My sister gave me a piece of Kansas limestone with little insect fossils in it (it is not yellow but white). I keep it n the gazebo.


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