Gates and Reeds

OK, there’s not much in common between those two words (the letter E, yes, and four other letters each), though it would be a good poets’ competition to find something that linked them. Poets are good at linking one improbable thing with another – one poet with another, for example.

 

Here’s two poems I’ve written recently and I thought I’d share them together even though they don’t have a lot in common (my conscious mind says).

 

THE GATE

 

Mordor

Pearly gates

The high walls steady.
They are topped with clawing black wire.
Around me the ground is featureless
But the dark gate is wide open.
An empty watchtower stares down dully.
That is all except for a dim light inside.

But here comes one who has gone to the entrance
And stopped at a line on the surface, hearing music
And reports that from there the watchtower changes,
A fountain of colour and shapes, red-jewelled, craft-gilded, live.

I stand looking up at the old brutality
Of the bare, angular tower.

I have seen it before, that gate.
It was on the shore as the salt tide came slithering in
It clanged open the moment I fell asleep
And grunted on runners as I, puzzled, woke again.
I saw it where the stream ran from the rocks.
I have thought I’ve seen it in eyes.

Nothing is what it seems to me
But then, neither am I.
If the gate was of gold and silver, of agate, would I go?
The gate stands open.

 

Illustrating poems does risk stressing one interpretation above another, so please consider the words before the pictures.

 

And then, in a different mood:

 

REEDBED

Reedbed

As I lay sick I had a vision of a reedbed
Waving gently in the wind, naked of birdsong now
Only a few sharp calls.
A great heron lumbered into the air
From the edge of the water I could not see, but cherished.

 

By the way – I was sick for a couple of days, now well recovering. Ear infection threw my sense of balance into chaos – frightening till it was diagnosed and extremely limiting and exhausting for another day and a bit. No big deal now, but I thought I’d better explain “as I lay sick” was not complete invention and should not be a cause for worry.

 

I expect I’ll post again before Christmas, but if not, Happy Christmas!

 

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What I have left

swirl

 

I’m still going to talk about poems that appear to be about one thing but arguably are actually about something else – extended metaphors, if you like. But here first is something that came to me driving back from a poetry and music evening in Colchester. When I say come to me – it started to come as if of its own accord and then I composed (the form is quite strict) but in a state of excitement from the first inspiration.

 

 

WHAT I HAVE LEFT IS WORDS

What I have left is words
To sing the wind
To wet the sea
To warm the fire
To leaf the tree
What I have left is words

What I have left is muscle
To crest the hill
To cross the stream
To track the path
To fashion dream
What I have left is muscle

What I have left is eyes
To see the wind
To star the dark
To fish the sea
To ground the ark
What I have left is eyes

What I have left is words
To run the river
To shape the fire
To draw the frown
To cut the wire
What I have left is words.

 

 

 

Water, water

Drop Falling into Water

 

I sort of promised to come back and talk a bit about those two poems about water, or maybe I should say “with water”.

 

So I’ll sort of do that.

 

The first one, “Dead Water”, runs through a number of changes involving water. The Sahara was once not a desert, but grassland, so had much more water than today. Rising water levels and subsidence led to much of the great ancient city of Alexandria on the Egyptian coast disappearing into the sea. The area now occupied by the Black Sea was once fertile, low-lying land which was inundated quite quickly when the Mediterranean broke in, perhaps sparking the widespread legends about a great flood in the Middle East. Mars once had both standing and running water. But as I go, I’m becoming less descriptive and more visionary.

 

All these changes lead me to the thought a lot of people push away – that the human race itself, and its planet, are mortal. But I end with imagining rebirth.

 

Water has an obvious and literal presence in this poem, but it’s also probably an image standing for life.

 

“Beach at High Tide” is more straightforward and literal. It’s about a beach at high tide – the one near my home, mainly. Most of the people I meet there have dogs. The dogs lead the people – or they give the people an excuse to walk by the waves without seeming odd. My “justification” is not a dog, but a pair of binoculars.

 

Then I turn from the people and their nervousness to the sea itself. There is change – “the new sun”, suggesting it’s early in the morning – but also changelessness. The sound of the waves is old.

 

Now here’s one more water poem. I fear I am becoming epigrammatic. An epigrammarian? Epigrammatician?

 

WATERCARRIER

I carry water: my body is mostly
Made of it.
Squeeze me to remember
The sea.

Titles

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I said I might put out something about titles – not Mr, Ms or Reverend, but the titling of poems. This is a problem for some poets. Somehow the relationship between the title and the content for a novel seems closer and more evident – probably wrongly, as novels are often given titles to get people to buy them, whereas the title of a poem will not be the title of a book unless you want it to be. On one of the LinkedIn discussion groups I belong to, there was quite a long discussion about poem titles – whether to use them at all and if you did, how to find one.

 

Some short poems for which a title doesn’t come naturally can be titled with the first line. I’ve done that sometimes. I know one poet who just numbers his poems. That seems to me to be missing a chance to use the title to good, though it is similar to the numbering of works of classical music (and when those classical orchestral works are given word titles, they often seem grandiloquent – Beethoven’s “Eroica”, Nielsen’s “Unextinguishable” symphony, a title which always suggest “Undistinguishable” to me: it’s the Fourth and I prefer his mysterious, ominous, triumphant Fifth.

 

If I think about some of the titles of other people’s poems I most admire, most of them seem pretty straightforward: Ode to a Nightingale, The Wreck of the Deutschland, The Wild Swans at Coole, or the often long and chatty, but informative, titles used by the Metaphysical poets. Some are less obvious – for example Louis MacNeice’s “The Wiper” and “Bagpipe Music”. The former does concentrate on a wiper on a  car windscreen, but the poem is more about the car’s journey through night rain (and about our journey through life to death) than about the wiper merely. The latter? I’m not really sure why it has that title. There are Scottish references in it, but perhaps it’s supposed to be a song that could be accompanied by the bagpipes. Maybe someone knows? It’s a very pointed, funny and wry poem anyway, with those fantastic lines “The glass is falling hour by hour, the glass will fall forever/ But if you break the bloody glass you won’t hold up the weather.” It sounds even better in a Northern Irish accent.

 

And Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Byzantium”? Without the title, the second poem anyway might not be related to Byzantium, but Yeats’ Byzantium is more a fantasy world full of meaning than a historical empire. For the importance of titles, though, note that “Sailing to Byzantium” was originally titled “Byzantium”, but Yeats felt he hadn’t reached a satisfactory conclusion, just made progress on the way – to the second poem -so the new title was highly significant.

 

Some titles, then, direct your attention to a key part of the poem, or work as a kind of clue to a puzzle. Above all, whatever the title does – IT’S PART OF THE POEM.

 

This discussion has made me just a bit uneasy that many of my own titles are clever-clever, unnecessarily obscure. Let’s look at a few, obviously with the whole poem, so keeping the choice to shortish poems. Here goes.

 

KNIGHT AT ARMS

Riding a jet-black steed
In snow-white armour clad
He aims for noble deed
In war of good on bad

He seeks the Holy Grail
In purity of thought
No failing on the trail
Will have him lured and caught

He’ll sacrifice his life
Or any other’s too
The outcome of the strife
Depends on being true

And noticing the stain
From some unlucky beast
Or villager’s loud pain
Would shamefully have creased

His shining banner and cause
So quickly he rides on
Ruled by his Order’s laws
But where the light has shone

It travels not with him
And all his noble death
It stays on blood and skin
Impure and loving breath 24

 

 

It is indeed about a knight in shining armour, on the face of it, so this title is quite straightforward, though of course the knight stands for anyone who is ruthless in the pursuit of high ideals, particularly of purity.

 

THE BLUE-BLACK SLOES

The queen has made a laurel wreath
For the new champion to wear
So he will not grow old and weak

The whisper of the brittle leaves
Is of a people falling down
And of a king that cannot breathe

The blue-black sloes have gathered round,
The blackberry and scarlet hip
They twine about the king’s own crown

Inside the castle nothing moves
The guests are frozen to the walls
And spears of ice hang from the roof

The withered wreath has taken root
And pressing through the embroidered cloth
Will resurrect the warmth and doubt.

 

It seems to me this case is rather similar to “The Wiper”. The sloes (fruits of the wild plum known as Blackthorn) are part of the poem, but I choose to draw attention to it.

 

THE ROADS TO ROME

I don’t say it’s a long way home
Because I don’t know home exists.
Wandering in forests, confused by mists,
I’ve heard that all roads lead to Rome:

Maybe that legend is a lie
And all roads lead to a silent shore;
But memories of a light, a door
Suggest there was a home, but why

The road to it will always twist
And turn away and run instead
Towards the city of powerful dead
I cannot say, but having missed

No pointing tree or flying crow,
No sudden cold or smear of blood,
No reddening sunset, opening bud,
Maybe I’ve found the home I know.

But carving on a rotten log
Tells of an easy way to rest
While still the broken branch points west
Over the river blurred in fog.

 

I’d say this title is similar to “Sailing to Byzantium”. My Rome is not the Rome of Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, not exactly, and not the Rome of the Vatican either, but more of a state of spirit which I characterise with reference to those two Italian Romes. But the title is a key part of the poem, hopefully helping with a fairly obscure poem.

 

COMING OUT

A gentle soup is around you
You belong to a circle and beat
At an alarm you struggle
In time of peace you sleep

Now the world is warped by a warlike
Beat from a tunnel of change
And the light at the end of the tunnel
Is the light of an oncoming train

But if you can grab a handrail
Hold on to the train if you can
For the scenery’s into this world, and
You won’t get a ticket again

 

Now that was naughty. The “coming out” is not at all about revealing one’s sexuality, but about birth, which is, though, of course a “coming out”. Did I mean to cause brief puzzlement? To catch attention? Can’t remember.

 

BRITISH NATIONALITY

Nobody gave me a choice
Of where I’d like to be born
Nobody set me a test
Nor asked me to swear allegiance
To a fixed smile in a dress

I feel as Irish as Scottish
I’m English and Welsh in the blood
How could they accept me as British
Who’d trade in the crown for the mud?

 

Obvious, straightforward, OK? It’s a thoughtful, irreverent poem about British nationality and my identity.

 

NEW THINGS

It will not be all new when we meet again
The blood will still be on the old stone steps
The man at the corner will still be glancing after
The drunken girl who retches beyond the railings.

We recognise the smears, you and I
We know the use of bleach on the grimy standard
Will wreck it beyond loving, and the raising
Of a pure standard is a call to killing.

But where the stray cat wolfs the fallen burger,
Where up the bloodstained steps you come by night
There is the cancer that will grow and scatter
The knowing of the dark, the love of light.

 

 

That’s less obvious. It refers to the start of the poem, the first line. The message of the poem, I suppose, is that things won’t be perfect but can get better and that grime and retching (as metaphors and as specifics) are part of life. Sounds trite now, doesn’t it? In my mind the title refers among other things to the idealism of the radicals of the English Civil War and Commonwealth with their bible quote “Behold, we are making all things new.”

 

I’d better stop there, because I’m churning out loads of words and just asking you to look at the first one or two. I’m somewhat reassured about my own titles, though.

 

 

Book Reviews: The Flood, David Maine; The Land of Decoration, Grace McCleen

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These are books I picked up in my local public library. By an odd coincidence, they raise some of the same questions, questions quite unusual for a small English public library.

David Maine’s book is a retelling of the biblical story of Noah and the Flood. It follows the biblical account loyally, but of course, embellishes. You could interpret it as an exercise of “If this was literally true and these were real people, what would it have been like?” Some people will see it as irreverent. At times Noah’s sons see their stubborn father, not the best of communicators, as an old fool. There’s a lot of sex – but there is in the Bible (remember all those “begat”s?

It took a while for me to get into this novel, but the time came. The characters came to life. Of course, there are difficulties about a literal telling of the Flood story. The ark wouldn’t be big enough. How, if the flood was over the whole world, did they get the Australian and American animals? This version does mention armadillos, but I’m inclined to think the American author had forgotten these are purely animals of the Americas. We also learn of peoples who were apparently totally wiped out in the Flood, but we know mysteriously reappeared, such as Phoenicians.

It was interesting, but not enthralling. Throughout it asks, but does not answer, questions about a God with unlimited power, a God who cares and creates but punishes ruthlessly. The role of people, it seems, is to obey or rebel.

Grace McCleen’s book had me hooked from the start and its impact on me was far greater. A ten-year-old girl in a small town (it seems to be in South Wales) is being brought up by her deeply and stiffly religious father: her mother is dead. They belong to some strict sect: it sounds very much like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The girl is bullied at school. She seeks escape in a fantasy world she constructs in her bedroom, a model of things in the real world. She wishes it would snow so she could avoid school and the bully she fears will kill her. She makes mock snow with cotton-wool in her model world. It snows in the real world and school is cancelled. God is speaking to her and telling her she has great power. She tries something else – to bring back a neighbour’s missing cat. The cat returns. She brings snow again. A series of events follow which, if they were true, would seriously interest an open-minded scientist. What she does in the Land of Decoration does seem to be reproduced outside.

But things go wrong. She tries to talk to her father about it but he won’t listen. The boy bully blames her for the trouble he faces from a new teacher and he and his friends begin to cause trouble and damage outside her house , a campaign of harassment. She could – she believes – strike at him, but she doesn’t want to. God is unhelpful and says she’s caused what is happening.

In the end – well, I’d better not say. We learn how her mother died and why her father, a decent man, seems stiff and haunted. Her father and God had assured her that decent, loving people like her neighbour with the cat will be destroyed if they don’t hear the word, but the ending seems to reject this. Finally the link between events in the World of Decoration and our world is broken.

I was totally engaged. I’m unsure, though, what the author is wanting us to believe. The series of events goes well beyond credible coincidence, but the God speaking to the girl is cold and in the end, wrong. The dust cover tells us Grace McCleen grew up in South Wales in just such a religious community. I would be curious about what she believes now.

Two short poems

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WHO IS THE THING THAT DOES NOT CRY?

Who is the thing that does not cry?

Who marches through without a loss?

Who finds no shadows in the forest,

Lives on a rock where nothing dies?

I made a statue with my hands

To clamp down happiness and peace

But it turned a killing beast

And I was left cold-eyed to stand.

THE FIRST STEP TO PEACE

The first step to my peace is restlessness,

For knowing of something else is reaching out

Reaching out is wondering

Wonder is peace

Not wondering is death

A quiet death

And I would sing.

Now first of all, anyone who recognises the statue – nothing personal. This is not a comment about a particular country and political and religious divide.

Secondly, both these short poems were written during the same activity, same place, same day. I wonder if anyone might guess at it. Precise right answers are very unlikely but wrong ones would be interesting.

See you. Hear you.

Simon

City

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As I’m now being cautious about posting new poems because it may rule them out for competitions, I’m starting to go back to much earlier stuff I haven’t previously posted. This was an early long poem sparked off by the New Orleans floods. I think it has flaws, but also some very good lines. I suppose the theme was how easily familiar life, order and organisation could crumble.

CITY

I

At night

A pattern of lights

In ordered ranks and spangled liberty

And some are gliding silently

By day the veil’s off

Cars screech and jerk

A jumble of people bubbles out of doors

And eddies round the litter bins and beggars

In cavernous hall

Hypnotised army listens,

Watches a magician

Whose golden fingers weaving manycoloured

Threads of the painful sounds of boundless joy

Pull them to silence.

A couple find the world again,

Make coffee and even conversation.

Somewhere in one great block behind another

A window breaks and someone dies

And someone sends them off with hate

A man sits at a shimmering screen

On polished wood from a forest’s death

People come to him one by one

Young old proud lonely and holding hands

Then out the door in rows they troop

At even distance with even gait

Their mouths and eyes are all the same.

The good are gathered beneath a dome

To celebrate that they are loved

Outside a boy whistles and stops

A mad girl sings to a shower of rain

Dogs snarl, fight and the loser whines.

II

The day before the storm

Was one of scurrying

To finish jobs or pack the car

Voices spoke calm

But e-mails, like migrating birds,

Fell in their thousands on hard ground

And neighbours wandered round

The garden or the shopping mall.

III

The city walls of law and work

The bounds of land and logic break

And floating past the City Hall

Wash up in the Police HQ

Though government is standing tall

Water that is the base of life

Crushes a paper hat

That was a school, and then a house

Floats gently off like some child’s boat

To meet a bus and dance with it

Down a great busy thoroughfare

With bodies, billboards, toys and boats

With random inquisitive force

It breaks down doors or lets them stand

And pulls the love from lover’s hand

You want a sign?

Here’s one that says:

City Museum.

There is no law, the lines are down

To leaders of religion

A life’s exchanged for a loaf of bread

And starving dogs receive the dead.

IV

Progress is a long rambling walk

In billowing mist from crumbling edge

Of desperate crag to gentler land

And after stumbles, stops for drinks

Arguments and a song or two

The mist clears and we find we stand

On ground that, as we watch it, cracks

From stinking heap of rubbish and lives

A jittery banjo edges out

Beginnings of a newborn tune.

Now the mystery quotes. The last one (come on!) was from Ariel’s Song in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (“Storm coming? Brandish your weapons!”). Here’s another one that should be easy:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And Heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour.”

CLUE: Innocent? Or Experienced?

Book Review: The Hanging Garden, Ian Rankin

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Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin has become one of my favourite authors for his dark, intelligent Edinburgh crime novels featuring the tough, conflicted, driven police detective Inspector Rebus. The earlier books are a little mannered, with the names chosen for characters (like Rebus, for example) forming a pattern, for example references to the Sherlock Holmes stories. The later ones are more naturalistic and perhaps emotionally deeper. “The Hanging Garden” is one of these. Two gangsters are fighting a war for territory, but each firmly denies starting it. Police see an opportunity to take one of them out of the game, but is someone else ready to step in? An apparently gentle old man may be an SS war criminal. Rebus’ daughter is seriously injured by a hit-and-run driver. The narrative weaves these themes together as Rebus struggles to find out the truth. Just a very good read if you don’t mind description of pain, worry and waste.

Now on poetry. My mystery lines last post but one were by Christina Rossetti (“Remember”). The clue (“Close to Arkhangelsk?”) was fairly obscure: Christina Rossetti’s brother, also a poet, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Gabriel was of course an archangel.

Here’s the next puzzle – another example where I couldn’t really quote just two or three lines because the whole is greater than the parts:

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But what to say of the road?

The monotony of its hardly

Visible camber, the mystery

Of its far invisible margins,

Will these be always with us,

The night being broken only

By lights that pass or meet us

From others in moving boxes?

Clue: His bagpipes were irredeemably heterosexual.

 

Book Review: Exit Ghost, Philip Roth

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This is a short book and very readable. One reaction might be – Not another novel by an American Jewish writer about an American Jewish writer (possibly himself writing a book about an American Jewish writer)! Can’t these people get written about by Filipino Catholic cleaners?

But this one is different. It’s a study of old age and uncertain pasts. The main character is an old, frail writer, a big name but a failing body and mind. As one might expect with Roth (“Portnoy’s Complaint)”) he’s resolutely randy but medical treatment has probably finished the physical side for him. His predictably declining life is turned upside down by meeting a young couple. He becomes obsessed by the woman. Her old friend pursues him because he’s writing a book about one of the hero’s heroes, a writer of an older generation now largely forgotten. He will revive that author’s name – and allege a dark secret of incest. The hero angrily resists this; the young man can’t understand. The hero also meets a face from the past, the dead author’s former girlfriend, once beautiful, her beauty now wrecked, her mind wandering. She gives her account of the dead man. Nothing is certain, neither the long-gone nor what is happening now. The book contains long dialogues which appear to be imagined by the hero, of him talking with the young woman. These are fairly obviously at least partly imagined. But what about the other things he describes, including the threats in the post from what appears to be a deranged far-right activist?

A disturbing book, but meant to disturb – and not without hope or compassion.

Now to throw in more mystery lines and see if someone knows (or guesses) who wrote them. No googling please!

Remember me when I am gone away,
   Gone far away into the silent land;
   When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Well?

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.