THE FAMOUS FLOWER OF SERVING MEN by MARTIN CARTHY
This is one huge post so I’ll kick off with the simple stuff.
Immediately above is Martin Carthy singing a song called The Famous Flower of Serving Men. Please give it a listen by clicking on the text.
Immediately below is a link to a detailed explanation of the origins of said song, Child Ballad 106,The Famous Flower of Serving Men, a traditional English ballad collected by the American folklorist Francis James Child in the late 19thcentury.
THE FAMOUS FLOWER OF SERVING MEN – ROOTS & SHOOTS
My connection to the above. In 2005, I wrote the first draft of a poetic extrapolation from the Martin Carthy arrangement of the song. Thirteen years later I have arrived at something resembling a final draft. It may be another Dick Jones grande folie or it may be a work of some reasonable substance. All I know now is that the writing of it absorbed my creative energies as few other longer pieces have and I enjoyed enormously my time spent in the hallways, fields and forests of the unnamed kingdoms inhabited by the protagonists.
By all means, if you’re sticking around for a bit, progress directly from Carthy’s performance to the epic poem called The Famous Flower,leaving all the verbiage in between to look after itself. Alternatively, if you have unassigned time in abundance on your hands, then please read my contextualisation of the epic poem that has grown so gloriously/so grotesquely from the source work. Or, of course, assuming you’ve even got this far, make a note to self to come back and check this out when the kids have been fed, or those income tax forms have been filled in, or that box set has finally been swallowed whole. Here we go…
These are exciting times for the arts: eyes and ears are open wide and there are few if any barriers standing in the way of experimentation. So within these exciting times of relative freedom from the constraints of rigid tradition and strict orthodoxy in style and form, it’s a truism to say that art thrives on synthesis. In all regions of the wide cultural territory that lie before us in the early 21st century, there is abundant cross-fertilisation, the elements of which are drawn from the most disparate of sources and made subject to the broadest of influences. For painting, for music, for dance, for theatre, for poetry, these are, in many ways, the best of days.
One who showed the way through example was Bertold Brecht. His passionate search throughout the first half of the 20th century was for a theatrical form that would present human truth to the world, not as bound by the constraints and limitations of the immutable individual character of naturalistic/realistic theatre, but as a collective phenomenon through which human character is shown as being both formed and modified by the social, cultural, economic and political context. His search was characterised by an omnivorous appetite for artistic forms, styles and influences from across the world and the melding of them into a homogeneous whole, this prefiguring by decades the post-modern readiness to absorb and synthesise.
In his presentation of formative influences, Brecht makes enthusiastic reference to a treatise by Goethe and Schiller. Through it they sought to apply to the poetic dramas of the late 18th century, principles established in Aristotle’s seminal work On Poetics. Aristotle established – and Goethe and Schiller reiterated – fundamental distinctions between two different narrative devices available for the telling of tales. There is the ballad (identified by Goethe and Schiller in the treatise as ‘drama’ because all plays were in verse, the two modes enjoying a relationship now largely abandoned) as presented by the minstrel, the storyteller, its structure formal and its method of presentation bound by fixed conventions and devices that remove from it any sense of immediacy. The spectator now listens to the storyteller, rapt and absorbed, but able still to maintain alongside his/her involvement in the narrative, a necessary degree of objectivity and detachment whereby to enable reflection and judgement even as s/he is taken up by the tale. And there is the ballad presented as if the events were unfolding before the spectator in the here and now, drawing him/her in, implicating him/her in a course of action that, because it is immediate, is unchangeable. And, as an inevitable result of the well-told tale, these unalterable events must provoke empathy for the inevitable sufferings of the protagonists. As the protagonists pass through the fire and emerge purged, so the spectator, through the processes of catharsis, is purged too.
Here’s how Goethe and Schiller characterised these distinctions.
Concerning the treatment of the whole, the rhapsodist, who presents what is completely past, will appear as a wise man, who, in quiet self-possession, surveys what has taken place; the purpose of his presentation will be to quiet the listeners, whereby they will listen to him protractedly and gladly, he will distribute their interest evenly, because he is not in a position to quickly balance an overly lively impression, he will refer backward and forward and wander at will; one will follow him everywhere, because he has only to do with the imaginative power, which generates images for itself, and which, to a certain degree, is indifferent to which kind it calls up. The rhapsodist should not appear himself as a higher being in his poem; he should, at the very best, read behind a curtain, so that one might abstract from all personality and only the voice of the muse would be believed to be heard in general.
The mimic actor, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite case; he represents himself as a definite individual, he wants one to participate exclusively with him and his closest surroundings, that one sympathize with the suffering of his soul and his body, share his predicaments, and forget oneself by way of him; certainly, he will also go to work in stages, but he can dare much livelier actions, because with sensuous presence, even more so the stronger impression can be destroyed by a weaker one. The onlooking listener by rights must remain in a constant sensuous exertion, is not allowed to elevate himself to reflection, he must passionately follow, his imagination is completely reduced to silence, one is allowed to make no claim upon it, and even what is narrated, must be as if it were graphically brought before one’s eyes.
Brecht fell upon the former category and, through a delicate and masterfully judged balancing of individual character idiosyncrasy and, through specific performance and design theatrical devices, a carefully managed distancing of the audience from emotional identification and the perceptual pitfalls of catharsis, he set the protagonists within the wider social context, all now agents of their own fortune. The audience is thoroughly entertained because Brecht was a master of spectacle within which dark drama was interspersed with musical interludes, commentary and humour, frequently pantomimic and bawdy. But, ideally, through the questions constantly provoked by the actions of the play, they learn too and with consciousness raised they come to appraise and assess their own position in the scheme of things differently.
Great folk song falls very much into the broad categories of that former category too. Indeed, a principle function of the early ballads was pure reportage – a rendition of actual contemporary events placed within certain universally recognised stylistic forms that must with the passing of time adopt the status of myth, uncoupled from the now forgotten situational provenance of the tale. Thus character, rather than being at the living centre of the narrative, becomes more a symbol of a range of moral constants carried by the story. The listeners are entertained, enraged, moved, made to laugh and through the seamless combination of powerful words and beguiling melody they learn and with consciousness raised they may come to view their own position in the scheme of things differently.
Whilst driving through country lanes listening to Steeleye Span singing The Dark-Eyed Sailor, I began to ponder this demarcation between the immediate subjectivity of the ‘dramatic’ and the relative objectivity of the ‘narrative’. Suddenly it occurred to me that it might be interesting to tamper with the equation as interpreted by Brecht in his re-articulation of the Goethe/Schiller proposition and extract a poem from that traditional English ballad that moved back through the formalised structures of the rhyming ballad towards the immediacy of the events that inspired the song in the first place. The unifying themes, the sequencing of events and the ‘rhapsodic’ narration would remain the same, but there would be applied to the storyline an element at least of the emotional interactions between the human protagonists themselves and their experiences within the wider context, this forming a kind of ostensible mésalliancebetween the two oppositional modes that might, in fact, actually work.
Drawing on the storyline of The Dark-Eyed Sailor, the resulting poem was entitled, rather lamely, Folksong 1 and I posted it to Dick Jones’ Patteran Pagesin 2005, accompanied by a podcast of the song as performed by Steeleye Span plus a reading of the poem and renditions of other folk songs plus commentary. The relatively few reactions it provoked were cautiously positive. Maybe I should have taken heed of the fact that there were relatively few reactions, but I blundered on, this time with a much more substantive source-work.
Later in the year 2005, I bought the box-set The Carthy Chronicles, a four-CD retrospective tracking Martin Carthy’s long career as Britain’s premier performer of traditional folk song. On it I rediscovered Martin Carthy’s 1972 version of the extraordinary ballad, The Famous Flower of Serving Men. The song is not in fact a pure folk song in that, although it has some traditional provenance, regarding this version, both its authorship and the date of its publication are known (the balladeer Laurence Price and 1656). But it tells a tale of infanticide, flight, cross-gender disguise, occult revelation and savage vengeance absolutely typical of many ballads from the English tradition. In Martin Carthy’s version (to which he added some material) the musical setting provides a striking synthesis of sparse, driving melody, percussive picking and dry, woody voice that lifts the powerful and compelling words to the level of masterpiece. On playing it just the once, it wove its spell on me all over again and I couldn’t get either melody or lyric out of my mind. Instantly, it presented itself as providing potentially a much more fully developed example of my notion of a poem that seeks to bridge both the epic and the dramatic. Narratively, it wouldn’t attempt to embrace Brecht’s highly personalised version of Marxist dialectic as the informing force but would rather fall back on a more ancient understanding of ethics and morality – one based on an implacable adherence to a code of justice through vengeance. And living and breathing within this superstructure would be two protagonists reflecting constantly on the meaning of the events that, like tangled currents, rush them along.
Since 2005 I have been writing and re-drafting a poem called The Famous Flower, which attempts to apply to the song The Famous Flower of Serving Men the same principles that drove Folk Song 1, albeit on a mightily amplified scale. In 2008 I posted to the Patteran Pagesa draft of the first few hundred words of the poem, just to invite a response to what was emerging as, to all apparent intents and purposes, a piece of fantasy literature in verse form – not everyone’s favoured medium by a long chalk! It drew a handful of somewhat equivocal responses, suggesting, maybe, that in heading in a direction so fraught with cliché landmines, I had bitten off somewhat more than I could chew! But sometimes against reason and inclination a deeper dog-with-bone stubbornness and tenacity prevails and so here, pretty much 10 years on, is a draft – far from final – of The Famous Flower. Sisyphus Ascending doesn’t have anything close to the readership that my previous blog enjoyed in those earlier days of shared endeavour and mutual support. Only a few old friends ever respond to my posts and I apologise to them for heaving this huge, unwieldy archaism up the hill with Sisyphus. By all means allow it to roll back down again alongside that persecutory stone to lodge then amongst my unheeded back pages! But at least bear with me because I have to do this…
THE FAMOUS FLOWER
An adaptation by Dick Jones of the ballad ‘The Famous Flower of Serving-Men’
as arranged by Martin Carthy
This is how it was. So long a journey from that place of blood
to this whitethorn fire; from the scattering of the may blossom
to the blowing of these hag-tree ashes amongst the bones.
This is how it was. I must draw the deepest breath to wrap this
story in – a broad breath both to feed the birthing and then to clothe
a tale that comes brawling into the world on a bloodtide.
For this is how it was.
This is how it was.
It is a spring night.
A hunter’s moon
is trimming back the clouds.
A vixen cries in the coppice.
My baby suckles, eyes closed
against the pulse of milk.
My lover lifts an apple bough into the fire
and turns to reach for another.
And, noiseless from the steep stair,
like wraiths who find their form
only in firelight, five men
are in my chamber.
One has drawn his sword;
the others bear knives.
And unhindered by passion,
free of guilt, they work
like men harvesting
in advance of a storm,
brisk and thorough,
tight-lipped and breathing hard.
My lover barely rises to his knees and they cut him down,
his mouth in a gargoyle rictus, lipless and wrapped around his jawline.
Two more strokes and his right hand goes spinning down
into the hearth like a shed glove.
Then a silence thickens the air. A light, green and glaucous,
like through deep water, traps us between one moment and the next.
The men pause, breathing heavy still, like cattle who have run
the length of a field. And motionless, looking beyond the instant,
I am a dreamer:
(I am a child wrapped in white furs,
sleigh-bound across deep snow.
I am a lover bearing the blessed weight
of a lover on a bed of moss under pines).
But my baby moves in my arms.
He shifts his warm body inside the plaid shawl
that wraps him, cranes his head to see our visitors
so as to smile around his two small pearly teeth at them,
so as to fix his round sea-blue eyes on them,
so as to welcome them to our hearth
with his precious early words.
And one cuts him down.
With skill. It must be said,
with skill for his black blade
passes my face in a whisper,
a thing half seen, half-imagined –
the swift clean arc of a bird
glanced between two clouds,
or a leaf blown in a hard wind.
I feel its dangerous breath;
I feel its voice deep within
my cage of bones
(as now I hear it; as I shall hear it ever).
And my milky babe makes no sound
as he passes swiftly from this place.
Was present, is absent with no sense of the journey made.
(And this small grain of mercy, dropped from the store
whose bounty it is God’s to grant or to withhold,
is what I have hoarded through the long years).
They turn to go, their black cloaks gathered
like Dominican shrouds.
Save for the sword-bearer, the
baby-slayer. He turns back his head
and his cowl falls away to bare his face
to show across the left cheek
a lattice-work of scars,
So it is. My stepmother’s man.
Now all’s as clear as a chain of falling water:
my mother’s man, her seneschal,
and this disfigurement her work,
her hand in his hair in sudden anger
on a winter’s morning in the servants’ hall,
the cause forgotten now, and she pulls him
by his donkey’s mane to the kitchen grate
and thrusts his face against
the bright hot morning griddle.
And yet still he does her will – this, all this,
for her, his black, disfiguring angel, all this
to forestall the white dove’s prophecy that,
my father slain, the bastard son shall rise
and rule in my unblooded mother’s stead.
And now he strikes the sullied sword twice
upon the granite hearth, sheering the blade in two
and casts the hilt behind him for man
may not sheath a sword that bears a baby’s blood
and even now he fears for his immortal soul.
Hilt and blade sing off the stone they fall upon.
He turns and follows his companions
down the winding stair,
the scuff of their falling feet
their valediction into the night.
The earth at the moat’s edge is soft with the night’s rain.
It yields to the broken sword, its hilt and tongue of blade.
The winding sheet must be the plaid shawl that wound me
through the winter by the fire as I gave breast and crooned
the songs he took with him into his moonlit dreams.
The sword, its hilt and bloody blade are the cross of Christ
to raise above my boy. The bell that tolls him through Eden’s
gate is the blade struck hard against the mounting block
(that block from which in spring, in summer
I would ride, laughing, to hunt the hind).
His marker is a hawthorn spray,
placed by this witness cruelly spared.
And the psalm is wound
into the wordless sounds that,
like some beast, its tongue ripped out
by the root, I cry into the night.
And as dawn arises – curds and whey
in a heartless sky – I hack away
my sunset locks, the hue of brass and gold
that once my lord would comb and plait
so that I might slumber, weightless,
timeless and wave-borne.
And the bone-white face, bound in a corolla
of ragged flame, that shivers back at me
from the white sun in the morning water
weeps for the last time. A man’s face now,
drawn and grim, with sea-grey eyes
that must look back always towards
where the hills encircle the birthing place,
the bower, the hearth, the fire that died.]
Clad in his hauberk and helmet
and with his surcoat stained to black
from the ashes of that final fire
and the moat-side mud wherein lies
my babe, I climb astride my dead lord’s courser.
I cross bridges numberless, pass over
close waters that roar like oblivion
or within the deepest gorges slumber,
out of seeing and unheard, until the marches
fall away and the long, sad, flat reaches
of the fens lift towards gentle hills and valleys
and the questing loops and curls
of hearthside fires rising.
But pacing me south like a woven skein I see
the forest’s edge, now close with elm
and larch and beech and oak, plaited
against the light, now rimming the horizon
like the faintest memory of trees
Thus it begins, as in the manner of all such things:
a horseman comes alone out of the north, wearing
the threads and hide of a week’s desperate weather.
I watch him from high above, the slow, unguided
pricking steps towards the gate that he senses
more than sees. Only a child or a woman should so
embrace a horse’s neck, I note, as I turn toward
the narrow stair and so descend to greet my fate.
It is said that all may know the road from
its first few stones. Yes, and so it is.
The courser stands at my bridgehead, blowing,
his great head hanging. His rider lifts a bone-white face.
Two sea-grey eyes look down. They neither ask,
nor do they demand, nor do they plead. And
as I wave away my two gatemen and step
onto the bridge; and as I take up in my right
hand the hanging reins; and as I brace against
the heft of that slim body sliding down the horse’s
sweating flank, I know of my heart’s turning; I know
that now no other moon will ever tug my tides again;
I know in this instance that I am a king in chains.
‘My famous flower’, I dub him, my Sweet William,
and I bind him to me as my chamberlain,
my chatelain, the hoops of keys chiming to sound
like muffled bells within the flowing robes he wears.
Moons come and go unheeded; leaves form and fall
and ever he moves down passages, through doorways,
under arches cowled like a fragrant, pastel-drawn
Dominican, his voice, so rarely heard, a grass-blown
whisper. Some deep and distant sorrow hoods his eyes.
He sees amongst the blazing logs and branches
late at night swift phantoms, shifting spectres.
From my chair I watch him, turning and turning
his empty flagon, fire blooding the marble
of his cheeks. And if I speak of this, my fingers
on his wrist as one might seek to still the pulse
of a sickly child, he leans away towards the dark
beyond the fire and I’m alone inside the light.
And yet come dawn he pours my water –
lifts the ewer like an offering,
fills the bowl, watching
the water fall as if in benediction.
All is ceremony:
the cloth across his arm,
the opening of the casement,
the tipping of the ewer,
the turning with the heavy bowl.
And as at the heart of all such sacrament,
there is, I know, I know, across the reaches of
the passing days, the flame incarnadine of love.
Not worship, fear or fealty, but love unlimited.
And from the tail of an eye I can spy them
smirking like children, even those who wear
my favours in their caps, those who hold
their fortresses and fields at my good behest,
those who have my love as won in battle. Loyalty
is mere duty. To know the lineaments of my soul
so as to read my true intent – there’s no one here
can see beyond the radiance of my crown, behind
the lion’s golden face. No one save, perhaps,
my silver son, my close and bounden one, my
Sweet William, famous flower of serving men.
With the owl still calling from the oak
and only a rim of red above the hills,
my lord goes riding. Even before I have risen
and slipped into my robe and tried the door
between our chambers, he is gone.
Although he keeps his unstrung bow and his quivered arrows
in with his tack below, I know he’s off to the hunt
for his jerkin’s out of its press and his water’s poured.
Whenever he rises as the stars fade, he goes alone.
His bright hair coiled within his hood, the cloak that wraps him
fashioned from darkness itself, he sets his saddle
while the grooms sleep on. By dawn he’s cleared
the brakes and dykes and he’s reining in at the forest’s edge.
He knows where the hind drinks and where the boar roots
and he would bring down with a single shaft
the one who follows with officious sword and shield
to guard his king as he chases his chosen prey
through copse and thicket.
This quest is his alone,
its purpose and its urgency
denied even to the one
who keeps his keys and who
– if the stars were scattered differently –
would unlock his heart.
The wind rolls gentle from the west
and as the sun’s wheel turns the day,
the boys run down to the river where
a ship with two indigo sails docks
and unloads spices, bolts of cloth and three
caged falcons. And then, running from
the sudden rain, tossing between them
a painted leather ball, four-and-twenty
of my lady the mother-queen’s maidens.
Now, joined by their lords and suitors,
they scatter crying like seaside birds about
the empty hall, chasing the arcing ball
through fading sunbeams and gathering
shade. Alone beneath the great mantle
beam, before the unlit grate, I watch
and yearn as the brace and girdle of
tyrant memory hold me fast. And here,
most alone, I close my eyes and cross
my arms across my breast as one
in the fastest sleep, a replica of death.
And through the whoop and halloo of
those scampering fools, I hear as
a deep enfolding echo the boom of doors
flung wide and the iron-shod clamour
of a horse’s hooves on flagstones. As
I drop my arms and open my eyes
to the dusty gloom, all in a moment
my lord is high above me, wrenching
his skittish courser sideways so the better
to lean and gather me up before
his pommel, half across the horse’s
neck and half in his encircling arms.
And before the stilled and unbelieving
crowd, he kisses me cheek and chin
and eyes and hair and weeps as one
distracted. Holding me hard with one
tight shuddering arm as if I were
to drown, with his free arm he flails
the air and cries to the company within
to quit this hall on pain of slaughter.
And as they tumble in a moiling flight
of legs and turning heads through the
open doorway, we must tumble too, out
of the saddle and into the ashes of
the empty hearth. Face to face we kneel
like marble saints, his hands amongst
my cropped inglorious curls, his eyes
defying mine to spurn his gaze, begging
that I should read some diamond-hard
effulgent truth within and so believe
far beyond the call of simple hollow words.
But I am in retreat as all refracts
and shivers into a halo of tears and all
that’s true and palpable are his two
hands around my face and his breath
against my lips. Rising, he lifts me and
I’m guided gently pacing over rushes
to a settle flush against the wall.
We sit and with crooked finger,
knuckle raised, he draws my tear
back to its source and sighing deep
and long just once, he tells his tale.
In at the day’s birth as I strap the girth
beneath his belly. I hug his great head
to still the hooves treading the straw,
and kick closed the stable door. I want
no bleary grooms fresh out of their dunghill
dreams to reach down bridle and harness
half asleep, or a watchman, fresh on his rounds,
eager to jump step and dance attendance
on his king. I long for the dew to rise at my gallop;
for the black air to part against my speed.
I need, oh need, to bleach the livid phantoms
that visit me by night to tug intangible
at my sheets, that would have me cast off
my garments and cross those twenty paces
to your door and through to unleash havoc.
So as I rein in at the forest’s edge and stand
high in my stirrups, I rejoice in my solitude
and breathe in lime and leaf-mould. Here,
where the sudden trees crowd deep, I am one
and one alone. And now as I edge us in between
the mighty boles to find the ancient tracks
laid down before (so long before) our hubris
had us call each other king or commoner, I’m
in my peace. My eyes are honed on the dark:
I read the arcane script engrained in trunk
of oak and sycamore; I watch the ooze of silver
sap from the birch and golden from the maple.
My ears are sifting every tiny sound – the fall
of a single leaf through buttresses of branches
high above; the switch and turn of a weasel
deep inside the forest floor; the clap of the
pigeon’s wings in a clearing half a league away.
I urge my Champion forward. He picks and steps
across and around the twisted roots and down
the mossy banks. I stoop low in my saddle,
my face along the horse’s neck and branches
plucking at the bow across my back. One
clearing and another and the bramble and
the bracken yield to a pathway laid through
thickets fettle-deep. I crane down low, half
hanging, stirrup-free so as to seek for scats,
or broken stems, or the trace of cloven hoof.
I straighten and my yellow hair is laced
with the rust of ferns and tiny flames of gorse.
And I rise into silence. All is still and clear,
as if the forest should slumber on the instant.
I sit, ear tilted to the breeze, like a rabbit
on a stump. And even as I sit the last breath
of air subsides and all there is to hear is
the blood-beat of man and beast, hunter
and steed, two hearts that cross and chime.
Light arrests and shadows freeze. I close
my eyes against the mass of silence, here
on the cusp of old familiar day and something
just beyond, something half-familiar from
the hinterland of dreams and the dawn of
just awakening. I open my eyes and there
in three long shafts of light shining through
the rising terraces of a mighty beech,
a hart of purest white stands motionless on
a catafalque of woven fern and purest moss.
His perfect neck is yielded as an offering,
a steady pulse embossed like a silver cord
from jaw to scapula. As one in the honey weight
of sleep, against the sense that all that’s due
is homage, I slide my yew bow from back
to hand and lift an arrow to the nocking point
and draw the bowstring back to where
my knuckle for a heartbeat touches the lobe
of my right ear and I let the arrow fly.
Even as I lower the bow and grasp the pommel
as my horse goes turning, turning in a gyre
of sudden fear, I twist to see the ash-wood
arrow run the fifty paces from this patch
of earth to where the milk-white hart awaits,
still as a patient lover. And that nave of air
between us turns into a chamber charged
with some strange humour, thick yet aqueous
and my arrow passes like a cautious fish that
noses forward, straight but circumspect.
I watch the fletching ripple in the current; see
the nock engraved like the cross of Christ; and
I note the kissing moment of the head against
that silver corded pulse to loose a plait of blood
go twisting, purest red against the ivory. Then
so lifts the caul, the amniosis and my horse,
my brave, strong Champion, his nostrils drinking in
the air like a swimmer risen, hacks back
a step or two. He staggers and his haunches drop
so that when I turn to spy the star-white hart,
he’s gone. There’s blood upon the leaf and branch
and fallen like ruby tears on the forest floor,
but never a broken twig nor trampled covert,
never a parted thicket nor spray upon the sand.
As if she flew thus trackless, the blood-trail
tugs me spellbound through that dappled day,
winds me into coiling nets of brambles, under
the grappling arms of beeches, down through
root-bound tunnels plunging, up the ferny sides
of valleys, scattering pebbles crossing runnels,
racing the long beams of the setting sun across
the sudden swards, chasing the bloody pearls
that shine like buboes in the dying light until
at last the trail ends in a sanguine cross laid
like a marker at the forest’s edge and we spin
and turn and sink, winded and blown, beneath
the tresses and against the waist of a mighty oak.
Great shadows cloak the spreading moss beneath.
Foxglove, heather, bluebell gleam within the gold
and copper pools. And before us, laid like a mighty
green and velvet cloth amongst the cautious trees
that dare not tap the sacred earth beyond,
a smooth and grassy glade. And in the centre,
fixed like a boss, a tomb aligned from east to west,
a single basalt box, the length of a man who would
be blessed either head or foot by the long walk
of the sun. And even as we catch our breath
beneath the hanging branches, all the forest
stills once more like a great settling of wings.
Light withdraws; shadows blacken the turf
like water rising from beneath its roots. No bird
lifts or settles; no creature scatters the leaf-mould,
troubles the canopies of leaves. Horse and man
as one in battle, bold Champion and I hold hard
to the shade. He snickers once and tilts a hoof.
I rise up in the saddle, shift a hand from pommel
to sword hilt, watch unblinking as for a glint
of dying light from a blade, or a thread of smoke.
Then, even as I gaze into the far treeline,
a spectral form like a grounded cloud bleeds
into the gap between two trees. In motion yet
glacial too, standing clear as if forever
fixed in place and time, the white hart, head
turned back, the arrow proud and a bright chain
of blood from neck to flank to earth that seems
to tether him for the taking. I draw my sword
(for arrows seem to pierce this beast in vain)
and blade before, I heel my charger forward.
From the touch of frog on clover, a hoof parting
the paper bells, a song begins. Full-throated but
so far away, as if it were blown like vapour through
the crowded trees; so many voices pitched from
keening trebles out of the thinnest air down to
rich profundo rolling out of thunder, wordless,
or in some tongue unspoken since the first footers
made their mark on sand or parted grass. As if
these tussocks were spikes of mist that rose
from the skin of some enchanted lake, we glide,
unsailed and rudderless, onto the lawn.
As the pagan introit melts back into the trees,
so fades like a fume the phantom hart, once chalk-
white pelt, now smoke, now dream. Again, I close
my eyes and shake the fancy out of seeing;
open them and in wonder watch a dove – fashioned
surely from the very salt and snow of my errant
hart – go soaring high from that self-same place,
into the dusky blue, now pocked with early stars.
Then, like one such star, the dove comes falling,
wheels and turns and alights upon the northern
head of the sable tomb. I sheath my sword
as we tread the carpet grass. Against the
flawless black, the dove is silver now, tipped and
still like a crescent moon. And as we draw
beside the tomb, it seems that through some
silken valance, rippling like water, first a sleeping
face and then the outstretched form, full and clear,
of an armoured knight reveals within, shield arm
across a naked sword, sword arm severed from
the wrist, his feet upon a serpent, coiled
and striking. And as I slip to earth and make
to kneel in some obeisance to this marvel,
a voice as deep as the fastest clay, yet as close
as two lips pursed in secret discourse at my ear
begins at once to speak.
And the tale is your tale
from the apple bough fire
to the slaughtered babe,
to the sword cast down
by the hoodless murderer,
your stepmother’s thrall.
I feel the slicing of the air
by silent blades; I hear
the breath in the throats
and mouths of labouring men;
I smell the blood that gouts
and eddies over the flags.
And I see your grey eyes
in my own contorted face,
hanging over the moat-water.
And your grief, red-raw,
laid open to the briny air,
beats inside my own heart’s pulse
and stills my very breath.
Oh, the bee’s-wing brush of fingers
on my lips, the tender tug of fingers
in my hair, the dry leaves of a voice
falling to silence through dust and dark!
For a lifetime moment in the wake
of the tale, there is the sound only
of the wind in the chimney breast and
a pigeon’s wings as she passes from
one high window to the next. And then
he rises, rises as one so weary of
the darkest transports of this world,
and he stands half shadowed,
half illumined and all about us in
that empty hall the strands and tresses
of the two tales, his and mine, settle
amongst the leaves and dust and dark.
But he is a king and bred into the warp
and weft of pledges, oaths and fealties.
His sword is dinged and dented from
a hundred battles fought to break
or build within his realm of mountains,
meads and rivers and beyond. And now
as he slowly turns as one out of late
dreaming and into this time and place
of honour, debt and obligation, fire
rises behind his eyes, bone and sinew
realign and his sword hand strays
to the hilt. I am looking up at a man
who will reach for his bridle, who will
climb into his saddle and set his eyes
on one dark mark upon a long horizon.
And he will ride as straight and true
as the multitude of roads and passes
will allow, untroubled by reflection,
guided by the lodestar retribution
and the love entire and boundless
in whose radiance I am standing now.
THE BLOOMING of the MAY
He takes a cohort of his finest – each man strange to mercy
in the service of his king. And beneath a new device – a dove
upon a sable field – in three days they are clear of our gentle lands;
in four they cross the fens; and in a further six they reach
the same hills that encircle the birthing place, the bower,
the hearth where the fire died.
And on a lambent dawn fashioned more for the properties of love,
they burn her gatehouse, breach her mighty gates
and sack her citadel.
In a corner of her hall, she crouches like a shitting beast
behind her seneschal. He swings his mace right-handed; in his
left he wields a sword. He knows that he shall die and as he turns
and turns about, he sings out loud a wordless song. My lord ensures
within the circling of his blade that, with a stroke, he severs
the seneschal’s right hand and with another he guts his man
from groin to jawline and then steps back so both
may watch him die amongst his liver and his lights,
unsinging and unsung.
And she my stepmother, her eyes crazed white
and spittle on her chin like some trapped and fevered dog,
attempts to rise, but falls back into her own rank juices.
So then she’s taken from that place
and down through all the broad lands
to our hearth and home. For near a year
she languishes in irons bound, awaiting
the blooming of the may again so that
she might be brought into the spring fields
for the reckoning.
And now the may is blooming
and dressed in a verdant gown and crowned
with plaited quickthorn, she is queen of the pyre.
Some dance at her foot, circling and circling
the maypole’s axis mundi, singing the catches
of the season. Others grim with purpose lift
and heave and stack the thorny bundles high.
I sit upon a white mare. Now my hair
falls down my back, held at my nape
by a twisted silken cord. Mounted close,
my lord’s right hand covers my left.
His middle finger turns my golden ring.
We are still; we are silent. There is
no triumph in the directing of these
engines of redress. All must submit
to the greater will that binds us
in the dark. And so he tips his head
the once to his watching chamberlain
and the burning brands are thrust
deep into the bosom of the stack.
The fire cracks and spits. Inside
the flames, leaves curl and cat-haws pop.
Yet from the shading beech a thrush
is singing, a pearly chain of falling notes
as if to purify the air.
And then, like the sound of the tearing
of some mighty tree by a hurricane
from the rocky bonds of earth,
my lady cries abroad from her nest,
swathed in smoke and licked by tongues
of fire: Alas the day that she became
the famous flower of serving men!
And in my belly like a dancer turns
the boy conceived in love alone, he
who as the dove foretold shall take
the orb, the sceptre and the sword
to rule the land in peace and plenitude.
My lord, he leans from his saddle low
and plucks a sprig of hokey green to tuck
into my hair. I pick a single leaf. I lift it
to my lips. This shall be a sacrament
t o be held in a locket of gold against
the dark winds of the world and for
the love that might slumber through
the heart’s long winter but shall rise
exultant with the blooming of the may.
Income tax forms??? Phew. It’s only May. You got me worried there for a minute.
It’s a stylistically risky poem but I take my hat off to anyone who takes the stylistic risk of being deemed unfashionable.
The more I peruse it, the more I enjoy it. What fascinates me is how much easier it is to accept the violence and the shocking ethos of revenge in a Fantasy setting.
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Thanks, Dom, for being the one to take on this vast, wilfully anachronistic piece! I’m glad that the reading of it brings some pleasure. Once I’d got into the narrative swing, I enjoyed writing it enormously. And that’s an interesting point about the sanitisation of violence within myth or fantasy. A possible exception is ‘Game of Thrones’, in which the violence is always shocking in its immediacy and moral exceptionalism. But then ‘GoT’ is really as much about today as it’s a depiction of events a far away and long ago.