The Poetry of History

I’ve got a History degree – apparently one of those unsaleable degrees, which is stupid since History teaches you so much about human motivation, how people behave in groups, how societies and organisations change, how people can change things, how to assess and marshal evidence, how someone’s perception of things subtly or grossly changes the account they give…oh, and the origins of countries, customs, beliefs…

 

No, we just want to think one year ahead and five minutes behind.

 

So how does my knowledge of and interest in History influence my poetry?

 

Well, obviously in some cases because I have written historical poems. My particular interest was in the English Civil War and Commonwealth period – Oliver Cromwell and all that – and over some years I wrote two poems about that period.

 

One apology at this point. as before, I’m hitting “remove formatting” and the unspeakable formatting is still appearing in the post. It is not experimental poetry. It’s a nuisance. But if you think it’s marvellous poetry, enjoy it!

 

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MARSTON MOOR

 

On Marston Moor the rubbish grows

Beside the road, great pile on pile

And those who choked on their own blood

If they could see, would wryly smile,

 

If they could smile, at this New World

Which marks their death with rusty iron,

Snapped plastic, aluminium;

And those who tried to build their Zion

 

Or serve their King, may hear the chant

“Behold, we’re making all things new:

The bloody rout on Marston Moor

Is no concern of me or you”.

 

The Yorkshire soil is doing its job:

Fed deep by Scots and English blood

It brings forth cabbages and beans

Where shattered horses writhed in mud.

 

The moorland’s gone, the muskets too,

But over flat and docile land

A harsh wind blows and voices call

Of hopes we would not understand.

 

Marston Moor was one of the most important and bloody battles of that civil war. Outside York on 2 July 1644, forty thousand soldiers in two armies clashed and at the end over 4,000 were dead. The decisive victory for the combined Scottish and English Parliamentarian forces over the Royalists helped decide the outcome of the war.

 

The poem grew from my experience visiting the battlefield. The land was once a mixture of farmland and moorland, but is now all flat, fertile farmland. I found a 19th century memorial surrounded by a wrought iron fence, against which the farmer had stacked bales of hay. On the other side of the small road was a big rubbish tip. This shocked me. Could we find no better memorial?

 

In the poem I use ideas and vocabulary from the time. This was a time when the American colonies were being developed and many people in England were fired with the idea that these colonies represented a new start, a chance to do things better. So to describe the modern world of the rubbish tip as a “New World” is bitter irony. “Zion” does not refer to the political and philosophical movement  behind the state of Israel, but to the immediacy and importance of the Bible to 17th century English and Scots, especially on the Parliamentarian and Scots Covenanter side where some saw the political turmoil as a chance to build an ideal state in harmony with God.

 

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FORLORN HOPE

 

Stand firm behind the Good Old Cause

The King is subject to the Laws

The People are the true sovereign

Though they were robbed, to great lords’ gain

 

The fight is won, the Norman yoke

Is in the dust, the crown is broke

But now the new lords stand on high

For what, then, did we fight and die?

 

The Cause is down, the free are sheep

The Spirit does not die but sleep

Those who are blind will one day see

And those in chains will soon be free.

 

This is a more personal poem about the same period, written as if from the mouth of a Parliamentarian soldier with Leveller or similar radical beliefs. Each verse stands for a period: during the first, the Civil War is being fought; the second represents a later time when the military struggle has been won but the radicals face political disappointment; while the third speaks of the restoration of the monarchy, the crushing of such people’s hopes but also a survival. Again I’ve used language of the time. The Good Old Cause became the name used by Parliamentary supporters for their cause, continuing into the 1680s (a plotter against Charles II referred on the scaffold to “That Good Old Cause in which I was from my youth brought up”). That the King was subject to, not above, the Laws was common ground on the Parliamentary side, but the idea that the people were the source of power and the true sovereign was much more radical and new. The Levellers believed traditional English freedoms had been crushed by the Norman Conquest in 1066: royal and lordly power were “the Norman yoke” and the Civil War was a war of national liberation. Cromwell and his senior officers were nicknamed “grandees” and accused of acting like the lords they’d defeated.

 

This is getting quite long, so as Hilaire Belloc might have said,

 

“I’m getting tired and so are you.

Let’s cut the blog into two”. Or three even.

 

I’ll return to this and look at how I’ve reflected other historical subjects and also how History has had a subtler influence on what I’ve written.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Love the poems and just as much your explanations of the philosophy behind them…It was such an amazing time in England’s history, and I feel that until recently we were still feeling the reverberations… though not since New Labour…Haven’t read Hilaire Belloc for fifty years, but used to love his essays and quirky thinking…

    Reply
    • Thanks, Valerie.

      We’re definitely still feeling the reverberations. This was the beginning of some ideas now much more widespread. Look at the Leveller proposal for a constitution, “The Agreement of the People”, and the resemblance to the American constitution – which in turn had huge influence – is no coincidence. Liberals, Labour and people further left all claim the Levellers as ancestors and religious movements, chiefly the Quakers, germinated in this soil. In turn they played a big part in the anti-slavery movement.

      Of course it was a terrible as well as a marvellous period, with a higher percentage of the population killed in the wars than in 1914-18 or 1939-45, and the idea that it was a fight between members of the landowning classes with the mass of people caring for neither side is simply wrong if you study the local history of the period.

      Simon

      Reply
  2. ‘Forlorn Hope’ is as beautiful as its title leads the reader to believe it will be, Simon.

    Reply
  3. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

     /  October 8, 2013

    once again you have weaved the magick of time before into now
    with history to connect us even closer
    Wonderful Simon….as always I go away enjoying the knowledge
    you share…
    Thank You …
    Take Care…You Matter….
    )0(
    maryrose

    Reply
    • Thanks, Maryrose.

      By the way, if you said “Mary Rose” to any British historian or anyone interested in British history, they’d think Henry VIII’s warship that sank in the Solent and was raised relatively recently.

      Reply
      • LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

         /  October 8, 2013

        I know about the “Mary Rose”
        I read somewhere she was a seamstress and gardener (the one it was named after…) I thought was interesting…since I do hand work, and a gardener ..
        I saw the article about Her being lifted….I would like to see her…

        and you’re welcome..I enjoyed the poem you wrote as well as the history …
        Hope you are having a wonderful day….
        Take Care…
        )0(

      • The Mary Rose foundered with the loss of almost all on board. It’s a horrible thought that the nets laid across the decks to trip up boarders would have trapped men trying to escape.

        There are lessons (apart from the basic ones about war): she was an old ship that had been extensively altered to increase her firepower, without considering that this would make her unstable; and it seems that many of her crew were inexperienced in handling ships of this sort. There is a suspicion that as she turned after delivering one broadside at the French, when her instability made her dip low on one side, the gun ports on that side had been left open, which would have been fatal. Leaders still add stuff on without rethinking the whole system and still send people into combat with inadequate training.

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