Week 39: The Kaleidoscope, by Douglas Dunn

The Kaleidoscope

To climb these stairs again, bearing a tray,
Might be to find you pillowed with your books,
Your inventories listing gowns and frocks
As if preparing for a holiday.
Or, turning from the landing, I might find
My presence watched through your kaleidoscope,
A symmetry of husbands, each redesigned
In lovely forms of foresight, prayer and hope.
I climb these stairs a dozen times a day
And, by the open door, wait, looking in
At where you died. My hands become a tray
Offering me, my flesh, my soul, my skin.
Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry
For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.

Douglas Dunn

This is one of a series of elegiac poems that Douglas Dunn wrote after the loss of his wife, in a delicate and moving exploration of a complex grief.

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Week 38: Dick Darval’s Song, by Anon

Dick Darval’s Song

I saw a young man come one night
An apple in his hand.
By moonlight and candlelight
We find the Mollhern land.

I saw a young man come one night
All weeping bitterly
By moonlight and candlelight
We find the gallows tree.

Anon

I came across these haunting stanzas, which are possibly only a fragment of a larger piece, in a book about Berkshire ghosts.  To quote: ‘Molly Tape was a local who entered into a passionate love affair with a farmer named Dick Darval. Eventually, Dick rejected the poor girl and, in despair, she hanged herself in the lane between Hurst and the hamlet of Hinton. An old song about Dick indicates that Molly may have unsuccessfully tried her hand at witchcraft in order to win him back. Her scantily clad spirit still haunts the lane.’

The ‘Mollhern land’ is witch-speak for the underworld or land of the dead.

If anyone knows if any more than these two verses exist I should be very pleased to hear from them. Also if anyone knows more about the word Mollhern – the OED gives it as a variant of moll-heron, a grey heron, but what a grey heron might have to do with the land of the dead I don’t know.

Week 37: The Two Maidens, by G.K.Chesterton

The Two Maidens

‘Robin loved Our Dear Lady
And for doubt of deadly sin
Would never hurt a company
That any woman was in’

– Old Ballad of Robin Hood

The wind had taken the tree-tops
Upon Sherwood, the noble wood,
Two maidens met in the windy ways
Held speech of Robin Hood.

And the first maid to the second said,
‘He keeps not tryst today’.
And the second said to the first maiden,
‘Mayhap he is far away.’

And far away on the upland
The last trees broke in the sky
As they brought him out of grey Kirkleas
To bend his bow and die.

High on the moors above Kirkleas
The mighty thief lay slain,
The woman that had struck him down
He would not strike again.

And the maid cried as the high wind
In the broken tree-top cries,
‘They have taken him out of the good greenwood
And I know not where he lies.

‘The world is a wind that passes
And valour is in vain
And the tallest trees are broken
And the bravest men are slain.

‘Deep in the nettles of a ditch
He may die as a dog dies
Or on the gallows, to be the game
Of the lawyers and the lies.

‘The wood is full of wicked thieves,
Of robbers wild and strong,
But though he walked the gallows way
Of him I had no wrong.

‘Because he scorned to do me scathe
I walked forth clean and free
And I call my name Maid Marian
Because he honoured me.’

‘I too am only a simple maid,
Our stories are the same.
As your green gown to my blue gown
Your name is like my name.

‘The world is full of wicked men,
Of robbers rich and strong,
To plot against my maiden fame,
But of him I had no wrong.

‘And because he scorned to do me scathe
I have travelled many a mile
To bring you a word out of his mouth
To lift your face and smile.

‘He is not dead in the ditch-nettles
Or on the gallows-tree;
But a great king has taken him
To ride with his chivalry.

‘And made him a master of bowmen
For the memory of the day
When one that died at the king’s right hand
Was a thief on the king’s highway.

‘And I have travelled many a mile
From a city beyond the sea
To give you news of your true-love
Because he honoured me.

G.K.Chesterton

Sometimes about a poet’s work the head may say ‘This won’t quite do’ but the heart goes its own way regardless. I feel this way about the wildly romantic but oddly compelling figure of G.K.Chesterton, whose long narrative poem about Alfred the Great,‘The Ballad of the White Horse’, was the first poem I ever loved. This shorter piece puts the unique Chestertonian spin on another staple of the English imagination. I find the stately restraint of its metric fascinating.

Week 36: Carentan O Carentan, by Louis Simpson

Carentan O Carentan

Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.

This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.

The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the guns did sound,
But here the sky was blue.

The sky was blue, but there a smoke
Hung still above the sea
Where the ships together spoke
To towns we could not see.

Could you have seen us through a glass
You would have said a walk
Of farmers out to turn the grass,
Each with his own hay-fork.

The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.

I must lie down at once, there is
A hammer at my knee.
And call it death or cowardice,
Don’t count again on me.

Everything’s all right, Mother,
Everyone gets the same
At one time or another.
It’s all in the game.

I never strolled, nor ever shall,
Down such a leafy lane.
I never drank in a canal,
Nor ever shall again.

There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.

Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.

O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain’s sickly
And taking a long nap.

Lieutenant, what’s my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too’s a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.

Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.

Louis Simpson

This great antiwar ballad is all the more devastating for its surface naivety, the broken rhythms and stumbling rhymes mirroring the mind of a young soldier faced for the first time with the realities of combat.