Week 113: The Death of Lancelot, by Sir Thomas Malory

You have to feel sorry for King Arthur. He starts off in the earliest matter of Britain, the now sadly fragmented Celtic sources, as a true legendary hero in his own right, leading a band of extraordinary warriors on quests to hunt monstrous boars, as in ‘Culhwch and Olwen’, or to steal magical cauldrons from the Otherworld, as in the poem ‘Preiddeu Annwfn’ that can still give one a shiver of the mysterious: ‘’Three times the fullness of Prydwen we went in…None but seven ever came back from Caer Rigor’. Then along comes Lancelot and not only cuckolds him but nicks all the best lines. Disapproving Dante might have been, but it was still Lancelot and Guinevere, not Arthur, who inspired one of the most beautiful passages in the ‘Inferno’, and despite the title of his work, ‘Le Morte d’Arthur’, it’s Lancelot who gets the great send-off from Sir Thomas Malory….

The Death of Lancelot

AND when Sir Ector heard such noise and light in the quire of Joyous Gard, he alighted and put his horse from him, and came into the quire, and there he saw men sing and weep. And all they knew Sir Ector, but he knew not them. Then went Sir Bors unto Sir Ector, and told him how there lay his brother, Sir Launcelot, dead; and then Sir Ector threw his shield, sword, and helm from him. And when he beheld Sir Launcelot’s visage, he fell down in a swoon. And when he waked it were hard any tongue to tell the doleful complaints that he made for his brother. Ah Launcelot, he said, thou were head of all Christian knights, and now I dare say, said Sir Ector, thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And thou were the courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest. Then there was weeping and dolour out of measure.

Sir Thomas Malory

Week 112: Ha’nacker Mill, by Hilaire Belloc

There is a real Ha’nacker Mill, Halnaker Mill near Chichester in Sussex, and maybe there was a real Sally, but what draws me most to this poem by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) is its hauntingly prophetic image of what might be called the unpeopling of the countryside. I am old enough to have just caught the last years of a rural way of life now vanished, to remember a time when farms employed whole gangs of workers and an obliging tractor-driver, innocent of health and safety, might give small children a ride on the end of his trailer as it bumped its way across the fields with its harvest load.

Ha’nacker Mill

Sally is gone that was so kindly,
Sally is gone from Ha’nacker Hill
And the Briar grows ever since then so blindly;
And ever since then the clapper is still…
And the sweeps have fallen from Ha’nacker Mill.

Ha’nacker Hill is in Desolation:
Ruin a-top and a field unploughed
And Spirits that call on a fallen nation,
Spirits that loved her calling aloud,
Spirits abroad in a windy cloud.

Spirits that call and no one answers —
Ha’nacker’s down and England’s done.
Wind and Thistle for pipe and dancers,
And never a ploughman under the Sun:
Never a ploughman. Never a one.

Hilaire Belloc

Week 111: Hamnavoe, by George Mackay Brown

I first met the work of the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown (1921-1996) through the short stories in ‘A Calendar of Love’, and for a while assumed that he was a prose writer who dabbled in poetry, till I realised that this was as unjust as seeing him as a poet who tried his hand at prose: the work is seamless and stamped in both forms by strong individuality and a kind of elemental clarity. As in this poem in memory of his father, that both celebrates and transcends the particulars of his Orkney life.

‘Cuithe-hung’ refers to the practice of hanging cuithe, a kind of fish, round the doors of houses to dry: they took on a woody texture and gave off a kind of phosphorescence.


My father passed with his penny letters
Through closes opening and shutting like legends
When barbarous with gulls
Hamnavoe’s morning broke

On the salt and tar steps. Herring boats,
Puffing red sails, the tillers
Of cold horizons, leaned
Down the gull-gaunt tide

And threw dark nets on sudden silver harvests.
A stallion at the sweet fountain
Dredged water, and touched
Fire from steel-kissed cobbles.

Hard on noon four bearded merchants
Past the pipe-spitting pier-head strolled,
Holy with greed, chanting
Their slow grave jargon.

A tinker keened like a tartan gull
At cuithe-hung doors. A crofter lass
Trudged through the lavish dung
In a dream of cornstalks and milk.

In ‘The Arctic Whaler’ three blue elbows fell,
Regular as waves, from beards spumy with porter,
Till the amber day ebbed out
To its black dregs.

The boats drove furrows homeward, like ploughmen
In blizzards of gulls. Gaelic fisher girls
Flashed knife and dirge
Over drifts of herring,

And boys with penny wands lured gleams
From the tangled veins of the flood. Houses went blind
Up one steep close, for a
Grief by the shrouded nets.

The kirk, in a gale of psalms, went heaving through
A tumult of roofs, freighted for heaven. And lovers
Unblessed by steeples lay under
The buttered bannock of the moon.

He quenched his lantern, leaving the last door.
Because of his gay poverty that kept
My seapink innocence
From the worm and black wind;

And because, under equality’s sun,
All things wear now to a common soiling,
In the fire of images
Gladly I put my hand
To save that day for him.

George Mackay Brown

Week 110: Art and Reality, by James Simmons

James Simmons (1933-2001) was one of a generation of fine Ulster writers. I admire this poem for its mix of truthfulness and rueful tenderness, though one has to wonder if the object of the poet’s contemplation was quite so enamoured of it: ‘Huh, so much for twenty years of diet and exercise, remind me again why I bothered…’

Art and Reality

From twenty yards I saw my old love
Locking up her car.
She smiled and waved, as lovely still
As girls of twenty are.

That cloud of auburn hair that bursts
Like sunrise round her head,
The smile that made me smile
At ordinary things she said.

But twenty years have gone and flesh
Is perishable stuff;
Can art and exercise and diet
Ever be enough

To save the tiny facial muscles
And keep taut the skin,
And have the waist, in middle-age,
Still curving firmly in?

Beauty invites me to approach,
And lies make truth seem hard
As my old love assumes her age,
A year for every yard.

James Simmons