Week 435: The Death of Robin Hood, by Anon

I have always found the mediaeval ballads of Robin Hood rather disappointing, with nothing like the quality of the best border ballads. It is a bit of a tragedy that our great rich-robbing redistributive national hero has never been given quite the literary apotheosis he deserves. Yes, there has been a cameo appearance in Sir Walter Scott, and another rather engaging one in T.H.White’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’ (‘stop leaning on your bow with that look of negligent woodcraft’), and see also G.K.Chesterton’s fine effort in week 37, but it’s not enough, nor do any of the innumerable film versions really capture the myth – Errol Flynn too debonair, Russell Crowe too stolid, Kevin Costner too Kevin Costner, while a TV series some years back actually had me rooting for Richard Armitage’s Sheriff of Nottingham instead of for Robin. How one wishes one could go back in time to a certain playwright. ‘Look, Will, forget this faffing about with fairies in a wood near Athens, you’ve got the chance to do something with a real English hero in a proper English forest – don’t blow it!’. Ah well, perhaps in some parallel universe a fully realised Robin Hood is stalking the boards nightly and declaiming magnificent soliloquies against a background of brooding oak-trees; meanwhile I think that this one, which is Child ballad 120, is about the best of an unsatisfactory bunch. I give the version (sadly a bit damaged) found in the Bishop Percy folio; there is a later, more complete but to my mind inferior version.

The Death of Robin Hood

‘I will never eat nor drinke,’ Robin Hood said,
‘Nor meat will do me no good,
Till I have been at merry Churchlees,               Kirklees
My veins for to let blood.’

‘That I read not,’ said Will Scarlet,                   read=counsel
‘Master, by the assent of me,
Without half a hundred of your best bowmen
You take to go with ye.

‘For there a good yeoman doth abide
Will be sure to quarrel with thee,
And if thou have need of us, master,
In faith we will not flee.’

‘And thou be feard, thou William Scarlet,        and=if
At home I read thee be:’
‘And you be wroth, my dear master,
You shall never hear more of me.’

‘For there shall no man with me go,
Nor man with me ryde,
And Little John shall be my man,
And bear my benbow by my side.’                    good bow

‘You’st bear your bow, master, your self,          You should
And shoot for a peny with me:’
‘To that I do assent,’ Robin Hood said,
‘And so, John, let it be.’

They two bold children shotten together,
All day their self in rank,
Until they came to black water,
And over it laid a plank.

Upon it there kneeled an old woman,
Was banning Robin Hoode;                             cursing
‘Why dost thou bann Robin Hood?’ said Robin,
. . . .
[Nine stanzas missing; contents unknown. This ‘washer at the ford’ prophesying death is a very old idea, though, that crops up in the Irish saga telling of the death of Cuchulain.]
. . . . .
‘To give to Robin Hoode;
We weepen for his dear body,
That this day must be let blood.’

‘The Dame Prior is my aunt’s daughter,
And nigh unto my kin;
I know she would me no harm this day,
For all the world to win.’

Forth then shotten these children two,
And they did never lin,                                     tire, give up
Until they came to merry Churchless,
To merry Churchlee[s] with-in.

And when they came to merry Churchlees,
They knocked upon a pin;
Up then rose Dame Prioresse,
And let good Robin in.

Then Robin gave to Dame Prioresse
Twenty pound in gold,
And bade her spend while that would last,
And she should have more when she would.

And down then came Dame Prioresse,
Down she came in that ilke,
With a pair off blood-irons in her hands,
Were wrapped all in silk.

‘Set a chaffing-dish to the fire,’ said Dame Prioresse,
And strip thou up thy sleeve:’
I hold him but an unwise man
That will no warning leeve.                              believe

She laid the blood-irons to Robin Hood’s vein,
Alack, the more pity!
And pierced the vein, and let out the blood,
That full red was to see.

And first it bled, the thick, thick bloode,
And afterwards the thin,
And well then wist good Robin Hood              knew
Treason there was within.

‘What cheer my master?’ said Little John;
‘In faith, John, little good
. . . .
[Again nine stanzas are missing; content unknown. Robin is evidently set upon by an enemy called Red Roger.]

‘I have upon a gown of green,
Is cut short by my knee,
And in my hand a bright brown brand
That will well bite of thee.’

But forth then of a shot-window                      window that opens
Good Robin Hood he could glide;
Red Roger, with a grounden glave,                   sharp sword
Thrust him through the milk-white side.

But Robin was light and nimble of foot,
And thought to abate his pride,
For betwixt his head and his shoulders
He made a wound full wide.

Says, ‘Lie there, lie there, Red Roger,
The dogs they must thee eat;
For I may have my housle,’ he said,                  Eucharist
‘For I may both go and speak.

‘Now give me mood,’ Robin said to Little John,
‘Give me mood with thy hand;                         burial
I trust to God in heaven so high
My housle will me bestand.’                             avail

‘Now give me leave, give me leave, master,’ he said,
‘For Christ’s love give leave to me,
To set a fire within this hall,
And to burn up all Churchlee.’

‘That I read not,’ said Robin Hood then,          counsel
‘Little John, for it may not be;
If I should do any widow hurt, at my latter end,
God,’ he said,’ would blame me;

‘But take me upon thy back, Little John,
And bear me to yonder street,
And there make me full fair grave,
Of gravel and of grete.                                     stones

‘And set my bright sword at my head,
Mine arrows at my feet.
And lay my yew-bow by my side,
My met-yard wi . . .

[The last few lines are missing.]

Week 434: At The Funeral, by David Sutton

My elder sister died last month, just another Covid statistic, and had her funeral this week. She had no wish to die, but had at least been quite looking forward to her funeral, with a church full of mourners, lots of hymns and a good party to follow. Alas, she got twenty minutes in a crematorium with a mere handful of masked and socially distanced attendees who had nowhere to go afterwards but home. What a regimented society we have of necessity become. I begin to wonder if even my own simple instructions regarding the disposal of my remains, involving a Viking longship, some barrels of tar and an archer on a headland with a flaming arrow, might not fall foul of some regulation or other…

This poem was written some years back, when I was beginning to witness the departure of my parents’ generation, and things could still be done with a little style.

At The Funeral

Funerals of the old are for the old:
The young, even the middle-aged, intrude,
Stiff in their unpractised piety,
Distracted by oak poppyheads, by light
From stained glass windows blue as irises.
There may be grief, but they are grateful too
To simplifying death that has unpicked
This knot of care from their much-tangled lives.
It is the old that mourn without alloy,
That shoulder loss and lay it to its rest.

Who are they though, so lusty at the back
With lifted voice, needing no book of hymns,
The sad spruce women and the grey-haired men?
What is it that they stare at past the air?
Outside, in winter sunlight, all’s revealed:
The cousins of her youth, friends, neighbours, come
To honour old acquaintanceship; now lives
Like long-divided rivers meet again,
A swirling confluence of memory
Carries the dead one to the final sea.

How gently they exclude one. ‘That would be
Before your time.’   ‘That’s going back a bit.’
But always to such time they do go back:
To rationing, the Blitz, heroic toil,
The fields of childhood, legendary snows,
Shops, terraces long gone. I understand:
Each dying nerves a new resistance, firms
A final bond of shared exclusiveness.
This is a closing ranks: like pioneers
They man the dwindling circle of their days.

The January sunlight has turned cold.
The ceremony’s over. They depart
Down unsafe streets to doors they must keep locked.
What they came to do is done: somewhere
A girl they knew is running over grass
In a green country, leaving them behind
To counters and containments, ritual
And stoic unsurprise, such as they use
Whose lives have fed on long adversity,
Who know betrayal, and will not betray.

David Sutton

Week 433: Partial Comfort, by Dorothy Parker

A bit of light relief this week in the shape of a quatrain by American wit Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), who specialised in four-line squibs which may not be great poetry but are kind of neat. Though I have to say that in my book neither John Knox nor Helen of Troy seem likely to make good dinner guests: Knox would no doubt be off on some Calvinist rant while Helen would spend the time checking her Twitter feed at #thousandships. Be that as it may….

Partial Comfort

Whose love is given over-well
Shall look on Helen’s face in hell,
Whilst those whose love is thin and wise
May view John Knox in Paradise.

And as a follow-up bonus this week here is an extract from the mediaeval French chantefable ‘Aucassin et Nicolette’. A chantefable is a story told in a mixture of prose and verse, and this one is a sort of irreverent pastiche of the chivalric romances popular at the time. Here the hero, required to choose between salvation and the woman he loves, expresses much the same sentiment as Dorothy.

Captain: “Nay more, what wouldst thou deem thee to have gained, hadst thou made her thy leman, and taken her to thy bed?  Plentiful lack of comfort hadst thou got thereby, for in Hell would thy soul have lain while the world endures, and into Paradise wouldst thou have entered never.”

Aucassin: “In Paradise what have I to win?  Therein I seek not to enter, but only to have Nicolete, my sweet lady that I love so well.  For into Paradise go none but such folk as I shall tell thee now: Thither go these same old priests, and halt old men and maimed, who all day and night cower continually before the altars, and in the crypts; and such folk as wear old amices and old clouted frocks, and naked folk and shoeless, and covered with sores, perishing of hunger and thirst, and of cold, and of little ease.  These be they that go into Paradise, with them have I naught to make.  But into Hell would I fain go; for into Hell fare the goodly clerks, and goodly knights that fall in tourneys and great wars, and stout men at arms, and all men noble.  With these would I liefly go. And thither pass the sweet ladies and courteous that have two lovers, or three, and their lords also thereto.  Thither goes the gold, and the silver, and cloth of vair, and cloth of gris, and harpers, and makers, and the prince of this world.  With these I would gladly go, let me but have with me, Nicolete, my sweetest lady.”

From ‘Aucassin and Nicolette’, translated by Andrew Lang

Week 432: Stare’s Nest At My Window, by W.B.Yeats

I think this is one of Yeats’s greatest poems, and that rare thing, an entirely successful political poem. It forms part of a sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, referring to the Irish civil war in 1922, the effects of which Yeats saw at first hand as it swirled around his tower at Thoor Ballylee. But I am not at all sure I am reading it with a perfect understanding of its symbolism. What, you may ask, have bees building in a wall and a starling’s nest outside his window (‘stare’ is a dialect word for starling) got to do with anything? My reading would be that Yeats, disillusioned with political ideology, is turning to the natural world as a refuge, invoking its uninvolved continuities and consoling himself that these will go on whatever human beings make of the world. The fantasies of the fifth stanza I take to be the fantasies of Irish nationalism, of the heroic and romantic past embodied in such figures as Cuchulain, and of the glorious slaughters of Irish epic that contrast so strongly with the real violence of ‘that dead young soldier in his blood’. The phrase ‘My wall is loosening’ would be an image of the poet’s sense that the certainties he once had are now crumbling, with now ‘no clear fact to be discerned’. That much seems clear, yet I still feel that there is a level of specificity about the imagery here, of bees, grubs, flies and empty house, that may be eluding me. Well, it is the mark of a good poem that it not only makes us think, but keeps us thinking.

Stare’s Nest At My Window

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

W.B.Yeats

Week 431: From ‘The Island’, by Francis Brett Young

My recent offering of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Merlin’ prompted me to dig out this one, on a similar theme but in a very different vein. It is from a long epic poem called ‘The Island’, chronicling the history of Britain from the Bronze Age to modern times. Published in 1944, it was very successful in its time and sold out its sizeable first edition very quickly, clearly having tapped something in the national psyche. I don’t imagine that many people read or remember it now, but when I came across a copy while browsing in a secondhand bookshop and lighted on this particular passage I thought, OK, so in form and style this might be about as unfashionable as you can get, but as a distillation of the historical truth that might or might not underlie the vast Arthurian legendarium it’s really quite potent, especially these last seven stanzas.

Hic Jacet Arthurus Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus

…. And all that coloured tale a tapestry
Woven by poets. As the spider’s skeins
Are spun of its own substance, so have they
Embroidered empty legend – What remains?

This: That when Rome fell, like a writhen oak
That age had sapped and cankered at the root,
Resistant, from her topmost bough there broke
The miracle of one unwithering shoot.

Which was the spirit of Britain – that certain men
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood

And charged into the storm’s black heart, with sword
Lifted, or lance in rest, and rode there, helmed
With a strange majesty that the heathen horde
Remembered when all were overwhelmed;

And made of them a legend, to their chief,
Arthur, Ambrosius – no man knows his name –
Granting a gallantry beyond belief,
And to his knights imperishable fame.

They were so few . . . We know not in what manner
Or where they fell – whether they went
Riding into the dark under Christ’s banner
Or died beneath the blood-red dragon of Gwent.

But this we know; that when the Saxon rout
Swept over them, the sun no longer shone
On Britain, and the last lights flickered out;
And men in darkness muttered: Arthur is gone . . .

Francis Brett Young

Notes: Roman rule in Britain came to an end around 410 C.E. Gwent was a post-Roman Welsh kingdom. The Welsh flag features a red dragon. Arthur, of course, is conceived of as a leader of the Celtic resistance against the incoming tide of Saxon invaders who arrived in increasing numbers during the fifth century. The Celts at that time were Christians, the Saxons still pagan. The great battle that Arthur is said to have fought, which stemmed that tide for a while, was at Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, some time around the end of the fifth century.

The Latin title translates as ‘Here lies Arthur, the once and future king’. In actual fact the grave of Arthur, if indeed he ever existed, is unknown, though it has been claimed by many places. As it says in the ‘Englynion y Beddau’ (Stanzas of the Graves) in the Black Book of Carmarthen: ‘A grave for March, a grave for Gwythur/a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword/a wonder to the world is the grave of Arthur’.

Week 430: Glanmore Sonnets, VII, by Seamus Heaney

I have been thinking about exactly why this poem gives me such a frisson of pleasure every time I read it. Partly, I think, it is that it evokes for me that curious feeling of comfort I had as a child, lying snug in bed on a winter night listening to the wolf wind outside huffing and puffing round our house on the hill. Also because it conjures for me the words of that 9th century Irish monk whose ghost haunts the poem, who liked winter nights, and the wilder the better, because it meant that the seas would be too rough even for the hardy Vikings who were terrorising the coasts of Ireland at that time: ‘Bitter is the wind tonight/It tosses the ocean’s white hair./Tonight I do not fear the fierce warriors of Norway/Coursing on the Irish sea’. Then there is the nod to these same Norsemen in the skaldic kennings, the compound names that it uses for the sea: ‘eel-road, seal-road, keel-road’.

But perhaps most of all I like it because, like so many of Heaney’s poems, it is part of his program to recognise and celebrate the ‘marvellous and actual’, being what I call a primary poem, one that faces outwards to life as much as it faces inwards to literature, matching the resonances of the past with the music of a unique present.

Glanmore Sonnets, VII

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Étoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven’,
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Seamus Heaney

Week 429: Merlin, by Geoffrey Hill

Geoffrey Hill (1932-2016) enjoys a high reputation in academic circles and as a ‘poets’ poet’, an accolade which has always seemed to me a bit suspect: certainly it is good to have the approval of one’s fellow poets, but a better trick, it seems to me, is to combine that with an equal gift for giving satisfaction to the general intelligent reader with no professional axe to grind, and Geoffrey Hill does not appear to have achieved that in the same way as such contemporaries as Heaney, Larkin, Hughes and R.S.Thomas. It is not hard to see why: his poems are uncompromisingly difficult, and concessions to the reader who may be less informed or have less arcane preoccupations are few or non-existent, meaning that he seems to me likely to remain popular mainly among those who have most reason to be grateful for the exegetic possibilities that he offers them.

For example, in his well-known sequence ‘An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England’, I find the language intriguing, but the meaning a little elusive (oh, come on, let’s be honest here: I haven’t the faintest idea what the guy is on about). So it is that in the end I have filed this poet under ‘Come back to when I’m a bit cleverer’. Sadly time is running out for any sudden access of increased mental powers on my part. It’s a pity, because now and then, as in this short piece, I get a glimmer of what I might be missing.

Merlin

“I will consider the outnumbering dead,
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locust’s covering tide.

“Arthur, Elaine, Mordred – they are all gone
Beneath the raftered galleries of bone.
Under the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.”

Geoffrey Hill

Week 428: The Ballet of the Fifth Year, by Delmore Schwartz

I was reminded of this poem when I caught the end of a TV documentary last week about the ice-dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, that showed the pair skating on a frozen lake in Alaska. ‘Such grace, so self-contained’ indeed. The poem is by the American poet Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966). I think that unlike our ice-skating pair it stumbles a bit early on but does weave its way towards a beautiful conclusion. The meaning of the poem is a little hard to unravel, but I think it turns on the contrast between the angst-ridden intensity of the metropolitan intellectual, whose life is full of problems that must be solved by an effort of thought and will, and the effortless unthinking grace of the gulls, who inhabit ‘a place of different traffic’, a place that was known to the child the poet once was, but is now lost to him.

The Ballet of the Fifth Year

Where the sea gulls sleep or indeed where they fly
Is a place of different traffic. Although I
Consider the fishing bay (where I see them dip and curve
And purely glide) a place that weakens the nerve
Of will, and closes my eyes, as they should not be
(They should burn like the street-light all night quietly,
So that whatever is present will be known to me),
Nevertheless the gulls and the imagination
Of where they sleep, which comes to creation
In strict shape and color, from their dallying
Their wings slowly, and suddenly rallying
Over, up, down the arabesque of descent,
Is an old act enacted, my fabulous intent
When I skated, afraid of policemen, five years old,
In the winter sunset, sorrowful and cold,
Hardly attained to thought, but old enough to know
Such grace, so self-contained, was the best escape to know.

Delmore Schwartz

Week 427: From ‘Reynard The Fox’, by John Masefield

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.

John Masefield


Week 426: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy

I’m posting a day early this week, and if it’s Christmas Eve it has to be that perennial Hardy favourite, ‘The Oxen’, and even though I imagine few of my readers will need reminding of it, for me its wistful poignancy still works every time. I do wonder, though, about the line ‘So fair a fancy few would weave/In these years!’. I would have thought that in Hardy’s day the weaving of fair fancies was still going strong. True, it was already some years since Darwin had presented his challenge to religious orthodoxy, and since Matthew Arnold had stood on Dover beach and heard the sea of faith receding, but had these intellectual currents really impinged that much as yet on popular belief?

Not that fair fancy is entirely dead even now. A year or two back, one frosty Christmas Eve with a moon rising, I met a neighbour’s small child who informed very earnestly that if I waited and watched the sky with her I might see Father Christmas and his reindeer flying across the face of the moon on their way to making their deliveries. What could I do but stand with her and look up, hoping it might be so…

The Oxen

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock,
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel

‘In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,’
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Thomas Hardy