Another piece that my primary school headmistress, God rest her formidable but caring soul, read to us in those far off Literature lessons (see week 419) was extracts from John Masefield’s long narrative poem ‘Reynard The Fox’, in which she, or someone of her acquaintance, had cleverly substituted names from our local Hertfordshire countryside for many of place-names in the poem, such that we small children could follow the great hunt in our minds by woods and fields that we ourelves roamed over. I have had an affection for the poem ever since, and while the more cerebral fashions that followed may have seemed to sweep Masefield’s verse away, I think that at its best it had a vigour and clarity that was and remains admirable. And whatever one thinks of fox-hunting, the poem is very even-handed in its treatment: those who feel that there is something not quite right about taking pleasure in pursuing a small animal to exhaustion then watching it being torn to pieces by dogs can find some consolation in the fact that the actual hunt is written very much from the point of view of the fox, while those who see hunting as a fine old tradition inextricably woven into the fabric of British country life can enjoy the long Chaucerian prologue with its basically sympathetic description of the various human characters involved, and the loving celebration of the English countryside that forms its backdrop.
So here are three extracts from the poem: the first from the prologue, a portrayal of Tom Dansey, the hunt whip; the second from mid-hunt when the fox is still fresh and has hopes of going to earth; the third from towards the end.
….His chief delight
Was hunting fox from noon to night.
His pleasure lay in hounds and horses;
He loved the Seven Springs water-courses,
Those flashing brooks (in good sound grass,
Where scent would hang like breath on glass).
He loved the English countryside:
The wine-leaved bramble in the ride,
The lichen on the apple-trees,
The poultry ranging on the lees,
The farms, the moist earth-smelling cover,
His wife’s green grave at Mitcheldover,
Where snowdrops pushed at the first thaw.
Under his hide his heart was raw
With joy and pity of these things.
… the hunt gets underway….
The pure clean air came sweet to his lungs,
Till he thought foul scorn of those crying tongues,
In a three mile more he would reach the haven
In the Wan Dyke croaked on by the raven,
In a three mile more he would make his berth
On the hard cool floor of a Wan Dyke earth,
Too deep for spade, too curved for terrier,
With the pride of the race to make rest the merrier.
In a three mile more he would reach his dream,
So his game heart gulped and he put on steam.
Like a rocket shot to a ship ashore,
The lean red bolt of his body tore,
Like a ripple of wind running swift on grass,
Like a shadow on wheat when a cloud blows past,
Like a turn at the buoy in a cutter sailing,
When the bright green gleam lips white at the railing,
Like the April snake whipping back to sheath,
Like the gannet’s hurtle on fish beneath,
Like a kestrel chasing, like a sickle reaping,
Like all things swooping, like all things sweeping,
Like a hound for stay, like a stag for swift,
With his shadow beside like spinning drift.
Past the gibbet-stock all stuck with nails,
Where they hanged in chains what had hung at jails,
Past Ashmundshowe where Ashmund sleeps,
And none but the tumbling peewit weeps,
Past Curlew Calling, the gaunt grey corner
Where the curlew comes as a summer mourner,
Past Blowbury Beacon shaking his fleece,
Where all winds hurry and none brings peace,
Then down, on the mile-long green decline
Where the turf’s like spring and the air’s like wine,
Where the sweeping spurs of the downland spill
Into Wan Brook Valley and Wan Dyke Hill.
… alas for the tox, he finds the entrance to his earth has been barred. I still remember vividly the gasps of shock and howls of outrage from the class of rapt ten year olds when the headmistress delivered the line ‘The earth was stopped. It was barred with stakes’. But the fox runs on and if you don’t know or have forgotten what happens in the end, I won’t spoil it for you….
He thought as he ran of his old delight
In the wood in the moon in an April night,
His happy hunting, his winter loving,
The smells of things in the midnight roving;
The look of his dainty-nosing, red
Clean-felled dam with her footpad’s tread,
Of his sire, so swift, so game, so cunning
With craft in his brain and power of running,
Their fights of old when his teeth drew blood.
Now he was sick, with his coat all mud.