While I like very much this poem by Ursula Fanthorpe about folksong, I think its conclusions are unduly pessimistic and a little unfair: it seems to me that while folksong may now survive mainly as a commercial art rather than springing naturally from the lives of the common people, we have been blessed in the last fifty years or so with plenty of artists who have treated the tradition with great respect and integrity, as well as taking it in new and sometimes interesting directions. Possibly it was the drawing-room treatment of folksong that Ursula was mainly objecting too, and I’m certainly with her there, but I’d have liked to know what she made of, say, June Tabor, Anne Briggs, Maddy Prior and the like.
The Quiet Grave
(for Cecil Sharp)
Underground Rome waited solidly
In stone patience. Orpheus might lose
A beast or two, cracked apart by roots
Of brambled centuries, but still
Foundations lasted, knowing, like the princess,
That one day a ferret and a boy
Exploring a rabbit hole would find an empire.
But this was a kingdom that lived
Some kinds of earth are reliable. The black
Peat of Somerset, and Norfolk mud
That tenderly cradled the deathship’s spectral
Long-rotted timbers. Some kinds of dryasdust
Air, too, responsibly cherish papyrus.
But this was a kingdom that lived In the living air.
Who held the keys of the kingdom?
Unfriendly old men in workhouses;
Bedridden ninety-year-olds terrorized
By high-handed grandchildren; gipsy women
With the long memories of the illiterate;
Old sailors who could sing only
Within sound of the sea. These
Held the keys of the kingdom.
Where was the kingdom?
The kingdom was everywhere. Under the noses
Of clerics devoted to folklore it lived
Invisibly, in gardens, in fields and kitchens,
In the servants’ quarters. No one could find it
But those who were in it already.
When was the kingdom?
The kingdom was while women washed
And men broke stones. It was
Intervals in birdscaring; between
A cup too low and a cup
Too high; when a great-grandfather
Sang like a lark. Then
Was the kingdom.
Who cared for the kingdom?
An old woman gathering stones,
Who seized Sharp by his gentle –
Manly lapels, blowing her song into his mind
Through wrinkled gums. A surly chap
In Bridgwater Union, holding
Sharp’s hand between his own grim bones,
Tears falling on all three. These
Cared for the kingdom.
What were the treasures of the kingdom?
Scraps of other worlds, prized
For their strangeness. A derrydown and a heyho.
And a rue dum day a fol the diddle dee.
These were the treasures of the kingdom.
Who were the heirs of the kingdom?
The kingdom had no heirs, only
A younger generation that winked
At senility’s music and switched on the gramophone.
What was the end of the kingdom?
Massed choirs of the Federation Of Women’s Institutes
filling The Albert Hall; laconic
Improper poetry improved
For the benefit of schools;
Expansion of The Folk Song Industry. These
Were the end of the kingdom.
For this was a kingdom that lived
In the dying air.