Week 269: A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon, by Charles Causley

Time for another by that modern master of the ballad, Charles Causley. Here he hauntingly interweaves two elegies, one for Henry VIII’s first queen Katherine of Aragon, transplanted from her sunny clime in Spain to end up intombed in cold Peterborough cathedral, the other for a schoolmate killed in Italy in the Second World War.

Note: The route of the Flying Scot ran through Peterborough on its way from London to Scotland. A ‘party’, as in Spanish party, was naval slang for a girl. And I’m sure that, unlike me, you won’t need to read the poem half a dozen times before it dawns on you that Causley’s friend Cross probably wasn’t actually christened Jumper.

A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon

As I walked down by the river
Down by the frozen fen
I saw the grey cathedral
With the eyes of a child of ten.

O the railway arch is smoky
As the Flying Scot goes by
And but for the Education Act
Go Jumper Cross and I.

But war is a bitter bugle
That all must learn to blow
And it didn’t take long to stop the song
In the dirty Italian snow.

O war is a casual mistress
And the world is her double bed
She has a few charms in her mechanized arms
But you wake up and find yourself dead.

The olive tree in winter
Casts her banner down
And the priest in white and scarlet
Comes up from the muddy town.

O never more will Jumper
Watch the Flying Scot go by.
His funeral knell was a six-inch shell
Singing across the sky.

The Queen of Castile has a daughter
Who won’t come home again
She lies in the grey cathedral
Under the arms of Spain.

O the Queen of Castile has a daughter
Torn out by the roots
Her lovely breast in a cold stone chest
Under the farmers’ boots.

Now I like a Spanish party
And many O many’s the day
I have watched them swim as the night came dim
In Algeciras Bay.

O the high sierra was thunder
And the seven-branched river of Spain
Came down to the sea to plunder
The heart of the sailor again.

O shall I leap in the river
And knock upon paradise door
For a gunner of twenty-seven and a half
And a queen of twenty-four?

From the almond tree by the river
I watch the sky with a groan,
For Jumper and Kate are always out late
And I lie here alone.

Charles Causley

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