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

Week 122: If You Should Go To Caistor Town, by Charles Causley

Time for another poem from the excellent Charles Causley, this time showing his almost unique gift for inhabiting the ballad/folksong form and making it his own while retaining all the qualities of the tradition.

If You Should Go To Caistor Town

If you should go to Caistor town,
Where my true love has gone,
Ask her why she went away
And left me here alone.

She said the Caistor sky was blue,
The wind was never cold,
The pavements were all made of pearl,
The young were never old.

Never a word she told me more
But when the year was fled
Upon a bed of brightest earth
She laid her gentle head.

When I went up to Caistor
My suit was made of black,
And all her words like summer birds
Upon the air came back.

O when I went to Caistor
With ice the sky was sown,
And all the streets were chill and grey
And they were made of stone.

Charles Causley

Week 22: Eden Rock, by Charles Causley

Eden Rock

They are waiting for me somewhere beyond Eden Rock:
My father, twenty-five, in the same suit
Of Genuine Irish Tweed, his terrier Jack
Still two years old and trembling at his feet.

My mother, twenty-three, in a sprigged dress
Drawn at the waist, ribbon in her straw hat,
Has spread the stiff white cloth over the grass.
Her hair, the colour of wheat, takes on the light.

She pours tea from a Thermos, the milk straight
From an old H.P. sauce-bottle, a screw
Of paper for a cork; slowly sets out
The same three plates, the tin cups painted blue.

The sky whitens as if lit by three suns.
My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,

They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’

I had not thought that it would be like this.

Charles Causley

The last poem in Charles Causley’s ‘Collected Poems’: a beautiful acceptance of ending in which an ancient symbolism is underpinned by homely detail: the stream may have flowed out of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ but that sauce-bottle is Causley’s own.