Week 130: The Haystack in the Floods, by William Morris

If you have been led to think of William Morris only as an arty Victorian with an interest in patterned wallpaper it may come as a surprise to discover that he was also the writer of some powerful poems set in the Middle Ages notable for their unsentimental view of that grim period, such as this brutal tale of force majeure. 

The Haystack in the Floods

Had she come all the way for this,
To part at last without a kiss?
Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain
That her own eyes might see him slain
Beside the haystack in the floods?

Along the dripping leafless woods,
The stirrup touching either shoe,
She rode astride as troopers do;
With kirtle kilted to her knee,
To which the mud splash’d wretchedly;
And the wet dripp’d from every tree
Upon her head and heavy hair,
And on her eyelids broad and fair;
The tears and rain ran down her face.
By fits and starts they rode apace,
And very often was his place
Far off from her; he had to ride
Ahead, to see what might betide
When the roads cross’d; and sometimes, when
There rose a murmuring from his men
Had to turn back with promises;
Ah me! she had but little ease;
And often for pure doubt and dread
She sobb’d, made giddy in the head
By the swift riding; while, for cold,
Her slender fingers scarce could hold
The wet reins; yea, and scarcely, too,
She felt the foot within her shoe
Against the stirrup: all for this,
To part at last without a kiss
Beside the haystack in the floods.

For when they near’d that old soak’d hay,
They saw across the only way
That Judas, Godmar, and the three
Red running lions dismally
Grinn’d from his pennon, under which
In one straight line along the ditch,
They counted thirty heads.   So then
While Robert turn’d round to his men
She saw at once the wretched end,
And, stooping down, tried hard to rend
Her coif the wrong way from her head,
And hid her eyes; while Robert said:
‘Nay, love, ’tis scarcely two to one,
At Poictiers where we made them run
So fast–why, sweet my love, good cheer,
The Gascon frontier is so near.
Naught after this.’

But, ‘Oh!’ she said,
‘My God! my God! I have to tread
The long way back without you; then
The court at Paris; those six men;
The gratings of the Chatelet;
The swift Seine on some rainy day
Like this, and people standing by
And laughing, while my weak hands try
To recollect how strong men swim.
All this, or else a life with him,
For which I should be damned at last.
Would God that this next hour were past!’

He answer’d not, but cried his cry,
‘St. George for Marny!’ cheerily;
And laid his hand upon her rein.
Alas! no man of all his train
Gave back that cheery cry again;
And, while for rage his thumb beat fast
Upon his sword-hilts, some one cast
About his neck a kerchief long,
And bound him.

Then they went along
To Godmar; who said: ‘Now, Jehane,
Your lover’s life is on the wane
So fast, that, if this very hour
You yield not as my paramour,
He will not see the rain leave off–
Nay, keep your tongue from gibe or scoff,
Sir Robert, or I slay you now.’
She laid her hand upon her brow,
Then gazed upon the palm, as though
She thought her forehead bled, and–’No!’
She said, and turn’d her head away,
As there were nothing else to say,
And everything were settled: red
Grew Godmar’s face from chin to head:
‘Jehane, on yonder hill there stands
My castle, guarding well my lands:
What hinders me from taking you,
And doing that I list to do
To your fair wilful body, while
Your knight lies dead?’   A wicked smile
Wrinkled her face, her lips grew thin,
A long way out she thrust her chin:
‘You know that I would strangle you
While you were sleeping; or bite through
Your throat, by God’s help–ah!’ she said,
‘Lord Jesus, pity your poor maid!
For in such wise they hem me in,
I cannot choose but sin and sin,
Whatever happens: yet I think
They could not make me eat or drink,
And so should I just reach my rest.’
‘Nay, if you do not my behest,
O Jehane! though I love you well,’
Said Godmar, ‘would I fail to tell
All that I know?’ ‘Foul lies,’ she said.
‘Eh? lies, my Jehane? by God’s head,
At Paris folks would deem them true!
Do you know, Jehane, they cry for you:
‘Jehane the brown! Jehane the brown!
Give us Jehane to burn or drown!’–
Eh–gag me Robert!–sweet my friend,
This were indeed a piteous end
For those long fingers, and long feet,
And long neck, and smooth shoulders sweet;
An end that few men would forget
That saw it–So, an hour yet:
Consider, Jehane, which to take
Of life or death!’     So, scarce awake,
Dismounting, did she leave that place,
And totter some yards: with her face
Turn’d upward to the sky she lay,
Her head on a wet heap of hay,
And fell asleep: and while she slept,
And did not dream, the minutes crept
Round to the twelve again; but she,
Being waked at last, sigh’d quietly,
And strangely childlike came, and said:
‘I will not.’ Straightway Godmar’s head,
As though it hung on strong wires, turn’d
Most sharply round, and his face burn’d.
For Robert–both his eyes were dry,
He could not weep, but gloomily
He seem’d to watch the rain; yea, too,
His lips were firm; he tried once more
To touch her lips; she reach’d out, sore
And vain desire so tortured them,
The poor grey lips, and now the hem
Of his sleeve brush’d them.     With a start
Up Godmar rose, thrust them apart;
From Robert’s throat he loosed the bands
Of silk and mail; with empty hands
Held out, she stood and gazed, and saw
The long bright blade without a flaw
Glide out from Godmar’s sheath, his hand
In Robert’s hair, she saw him bend
Back Robert’s head; she saw him send
The thin steel down; the blow told well,
Right backward the knight Robert fell,
And moaned as dogs do, being half dead,
Unwitting, as I deem: so then
Godmar turn’d grinning to his men,
Who ran, some five or six, and beat
His head to pieces at their feet.
Then Godmar turn’d again and said:
‘So, Jehane, the first fitte is read!
Take note, my lady, that your way
Lies backward to the Chatelet!’
She shook her head and gazed awhile
At her cold hands with a rueful smile,
As though this thing had made her mad.

This was the parting that they had
Beside the haystack in the floods.

William Morris

Week 129: Where do they go?, by Douglas Dunn


I imagine we have all had the experience of being mysteriously drawn to a face, perhaps only glimpsed in passing, as if it held something important to us, yet having no time to work out what that it is and being left only with a vague regret for what might have been. This poem by Douglas Dunn captures that experience with a wistful exactitude.

Where do they go?

Where do they go, the faces, the people seen
In glances and longed for, who smile back
Wondering where the next kiss is coming from?

They are seen suddenly, from the top decks of buses,
On railway platforms at the tea machine,
When the sleep of travelling makes us look for them.

A whiff of perfume, an eye, a hat, a shoe,
Bring back vague memories of names,
Thingummy, that bloke, what’s-her-name.

What great thing have I lost, that faces in a crowd
Should make me look at them for one I know,
What are faces that they must be looked for?

But there’s one face, seen only once,
A fragment of a crowd. I know enough of her,
That face makes me dissatisfied with myself.

Those we secretly love, who never know of us,
What happens to them? Only this is known,
They will never meet us suddenly in pleasant rooms.

Douglas Dunn

Week 128: The Coast: Norfolk, by Frances Cornford

Frances Cornford (1886-1960) was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin now perhaps best remembered for her somewhat condescending poem ‘To A Fat Lady Seen from the Train’, which begins ‘O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,/Missing so much and so much?/O fat white woman whom nobody loves/Why do you walk through the fields in gloves’ and which aroused the ire of the redoubtable G.K.Chesterton who, himself inclined to corpulence, leapt to the stout lady’s defence with a poem that begins ‘Why do you rush through the field in trains,/Guessing so much and so much?/Why do you flash through the flowery meads,/Fat-head poet that nobody reads…’. This is all good fun, but a bit unfair to Frances who did write some fine lyrics including this favourite of mine, that seems to me a perfect evocation of the East Anglian landscape.

I suspect that the ‘finches on the telegraph’ were actually corn buntings, which love to sit on telegraph wires and were at that time classed with finches, but are now placed in a different family. But enough of the ornithological pedantry… 

The Coast: Norfolk

As on the highway’s quiet edge
He mows the grass beside the hedge,
The old man has for company
The distant, grey, salt-smelling sea,
A poppied field, a cow and calf,
The finches on the telegraph.

Across his faded back a hone,
He slowly, slowly scythes alone
In silence of the wind-soft air,
With ladies’ bedstraw everywhere,
With whitened corn, and tarry poles,
And far-off gulls like risen souls.

Frances Cornford

Week 127: From W.B. Yeats to his Friend Maud Gonne, by Jon Stallworthy

I have tended to move in practical rather than literary circles and consequently have spent most of my life among people who regard poetry, if they think about it all, with intense suspicion: ‘Why can’t it say what it means?’. This has sometimes moved me to mild protest: ‘It does say what it means, it’s just that sometimes it means more than it says’. But really it does a poet no harm to be reminded from time to time that there is a world out there with concerns very different from his or her own, and I take wry comfort from the fact that if this poem by Jon Stallworthy is to be believed, I am in august company!

It is probably unnecessary to explain that W.B.Yeats nursed an unrequited passion for the political activist Maud Gonne, and made her the subject of some of his best poems, and that sometimes books used to be issued with their pages uncut, so that if you actually wanted to read them you had to get busy with a knife.

From W.B. Yeats to his Friend Maud Gonne

‘From W.B. Yeats to his friend Maud Gonne’.
The writing modest as the words upon
the title-page. Him I can understand;
picture him turning the pen in his hand
considering what to write: something not cold
nor yet embarrassingly overbold.
But in the gallery where my portraits are
I cannot see the heart that, set ajar
for anarchists and peasants and sick birds,
could not be crowbarred open by such words
as break the heart of time; that fountained out
in tears or laughter at a newsboy’s shout
– only to the poet remaining shut
as these clenched pages that she never cut.

Jon Stallworthy