Week 421: The Queen’s Marie, by Anon

This ballad, also entitled ‘Mary Hamilton’ or ‘The Four Marys’, is Child 173 and is thought to date from the sixteenth century. If it has a historical basis, this has proved difficult to pin down: various Stuart kings have been proposed as the guilty parties, and a Russian connection has also been suggested. Needless to say it exists in many versions: this one, as part recited and part sung by the great Scots ballad-singer Jean Redpath, is my favourite, and the only regret I have is that in some other versions Mary knows quite well that she is going not to a wedding but to her execution, but nonetheless puts on her best clothes, her gown of white, as an act of defiance to the queen. In this version, she is apparently oblivious of her journey’s end. Or is she, given her weariness and reluctance? It is a little unclear, which could be a device to add to the pathos, or it could just be a result of the patchwork way ballad-singers tended to operate, stitching together favourite stanzas from here and there in a way that resulted in the occasional inconsistency.

In any event, one of the things I admire most about the old ballads is their sheer narrative drive, how nothing is wasted as they plunge you straight into the action and then never let up on it. You see it in the border ballads: ‘Now Liddesdale has ridden a raid/And I wot they had better stayed at hame/For Michael o’Winfield he is dead/And Jock o’ the Side is a prisoner taen’. And you see the same drive here: the King’s head turned by the pretty young serving-maid, pregnancy, a failed attempt at abortion, infanticide, gossip making its way to the queen, all in a handful of stanzas.

A note on the Abbey tree: I don’t know what kind of tree this was, but it was traditionally believed that certain abortifacient plants, notably birthwort (Aristolochia) were planted close to religious buildings for the convenience of nuns who had inadvertently become pregnant. See Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’. But birthwort of course is a flower; my guess for the tree would be juniper.

The Queen’s Marie

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ ribbons in her hair;
The king thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than ony that were there.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane
   Wi’ ribbons on her breast;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than he listen’d to the priest.

Marie Hamilton’s to the kirk gane,
   Wi’ gloves upon her hands;
The King thought mair o’ Marie Hamilton
   Than the Queen and a’ her lands.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely one,
Till she was beloved by a’ the King’s court
   And the King the only man.

She hadna been about the King’s court
   A month, but barely three,
Till frae the King’s court Marie Hamilton,
   Marie Hamilton durstna be.

The King is to the Abbey gane,
   To pu’ the Abbey tree,
To scale the babe frae Marie’s heart;
   But the thing it wadna be.

O she has row’d it in her apron,
   And set it on the sea—
‘Gae sink ye or swim ye, bonny babe,
   Ye’se get nae mair o’ me.’

Word is to the kitchen gane,
   And word is to the ha’,
And word is to the noble room
   Amang the ladies a’,
That Marie Hamilton’s brought to bed,
   And the bonny babe’s miss’d and awa’.

Scarcely had she lain down again,
   And scarcely fa’en asleep,
When up and started our gude Queen
   Just at her bed-feet;
Saying—‘Marie Hamilton, where’s your babe?
   For I am sure I heard it greet.’

‘O no, O no, my noble Queen!
   Think no sic thing to be;
’Twas but a stitch into my side,
   And sair it troubles me!’

‘Get up, get up, Marie Hamilton:
   Get up and follow me;
For I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding for to see.’

O slowly, slowly rase she up,
   And slowly put she on;
And slowly rade she out the way
   Wi’ mony a weary groan.

The Queen was clad in scarlet,
   Her merry maids all in green;
And every town that they cam to,
   They took Marie for the Queen.

‘Ride hooly, hooly, gentlemen,
   Ride hooly now wi’ me!
For never, I am sure, a wearier burd
   Rade in your companie.’—

But little wist Marie Hamilton,
   When she rade on the brown,
That she was gaen to Edinburgh,
   And a’ to be put down.

‘Why weep ye so, ye burgess wives,
   Why look ye so on me?
O I am going to Edinburgh town,
   A rich wedding to see.’

When she gaed up the Tolbooth stairs,
   The corks frae her heels did flee;
And lang or e’er she cam down again,
   She was condemn’d to die.

When she cam to the Netherbow port,
   She laugh’d loud laughters three;
But when she cam to the gallows foot
   The tears blinded her e’e.

‘Yestreen the Queen had four Maries,
   The night she’ll hae but three;
There was Marie Seaton, and Marie Beaton,
   And Marie Carmichael, and me.

‘O often have I dress’d my Queen
   And put gowd upon her hair;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows to be my share.

‘Often have I dress’d my Queen
   And often made her bed;
But now I’ve gotten for my reward
   The gallows tree to tread.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   When ye sail owre the faem,
Let neither my father nor mother get wit
   But that I’m coming hame.

‘I charge ye all, ye mariners,
   That sail upon the sea,
That neither my father nor mother get wit
   But I this death did dee.

Anon

Week 420: Photograph of Haymaker, 1890, by Molly Holden

I realise that I have already featured several poems by the excellent Molly Holden over the years, but as Auden says, when poets die they become their admirers, and it is then up to those admirers to do what they can to keep the memory alive of those they have shaken hands with in their hearts. This, then, was the opening poem of Molly’s fine first collection, ‘To Make Me Grieve’, published in 1968, characteristically combining her elegiac feeling for the passage of time with an acutely sensuous perception of the natural world.

Photograph of Haymaker, 1890

It is not so much the image of the man
that’s moving — he pausing from his work
to whet his scythe, trousers tied
below the knee, white shirt lit by
another summer’s sun, another century’s —

as the sight of the grasses beyond
his last laid swathe, so living yet
upon the moment previous to death;
for as the man stooping straightened up
and bent again they died before his blade.

Sweet hay and gone some seventy years ago
and yet they stand before me in the sun,
stems damp still where their neighbours’ fall
uncovered them, succulent and straight,
immediate with moon-daisies.

Molly Holden

Week 419: From ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, by John Bunyan

Back in the early fifties, when I was at primary school, our headmistress, who was pretty old, at least thirty, used to take the top class once a week for a special lesson known as Literature. This was proper stuff too, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Dickens, all from the original texts, not the kind of pap the kids get served nowadays, and one of the things I remember her reading was long extracts from John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. Now there was an awful lot of religion in schools back then, and generally I didn’t much take to it: even then I had a dimly formulated preference for objective language, for words that were alive with meaning in their own right rather than words that required some complicity of belief on the reader’s part to animate them. Yet it couldn’t be denied that some religious texts had considerable power whether or not you were a believer, and I remember being much moved by this account of the death of Mr Valiant-for-truth.

‘After this it was noised abroad that Mr. Valiant-for-truth was taken with a summons, by the same post as the other; and had this for a token that the summons was true, “That his pitcher was broken at the fountain.” When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then, said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not repent me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?” And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?” So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.’

Week 418: From ‘L’Enfant de la Haute Mer’, by Jules Supervielle

This is the concluding paragraph of a very strange, visionary short story by the French poet Jules Supervielle, about a sailor who one night, by the intensity of his longing to see his dead daughter again, conjures her into a kind of being, out on the ocean. The idea itself is not entirely original – in Tibetan Buddhism, for example, we find the concept of the tulpa, a being created by the exercise of spiritual or mental powers, capable of feeling and some autonomy of action. What is original is Supervielle’s imaginative empathy for such a creature. Generally I am not a great fan of literary work that can be characterised as fey, or, less kindly, as a bit daft, but I do find that there is something haunting about this particular story. Supervielle suffered for much of his life from poor health and a consequent fear of death – this was someone who speaks of holding his hand over a candle flame to reassure himself that he was still alive – so it may be that he projected some of his own state on to this creature poised between life and death, and it is this, along with the hypnotic cadences of its prose, that gives the story its power.

The translation that follows is my own.

‘Marins qui rêvez en haute mer, les coudes appuyés sur la lisse, craignez de penser longtemps dans le noir de la nuit à un visage aimé. Vous risqueriez de donner naissance, dans des lieux essentiellement désertiques, à un être doué de toute la sensibilité humaine et qui ne peut pas vivre ni mourir, ni aimer, et souffre pourtant comme s’il vivait, aimait et se trouvait toujours sur le point de mourir, un être infiniment déshérité dans les solitudes aquatiques, comme cette enfant de l’Océan, née un jour du cerveau de Charles Liévens, de Steenvoorde, matelot de pont du quatre-mâts Le Hardi, qui avait perdu sa fille âgée de douze ans, pendant un de ses voyages, et, une nuit, par 55 degrés de latitude Nord et 35 de longitude Ouest, pensa longuement à elle, avec une force terrible, pour le grand malheur de cette enfant’.

‘Sailors who dream out on the wide ocean, your elbows propped on the rail, beware of thinking too long in the dark of the night of a face beloved. You will risk giving birth, in these wholly desert places, to a being endowed with all human feeling that can neither live nor die, but suffers as if it lived, loved and found itself always on the point of death, a being infinitely disinherited in the watery solitudes, like this child of the Ocean, born one day from the brain of Charles Lievens, of Steenvorde, sailor on the bridge of the four-masted Le Hardi, who had during one of his voyages lost his daughter of twelve years old, and one night, at latitude 55 degrees north and longitude 35 degrees west, thought long of her, with a terrible strength, to this child’s great misfortune’.

Week 417: Advice to a Prophet, by Richard Wilbur

This poem was written when the dominant fear for mankind was the threat of nuclear war: that threat may have receded a little, in our consciousness if not necessarily in reality, but only to be replaced by the realisation that when it comes to inflicting irreparable harm on our natural environment, attrition in the end works just as well as Armageddon. It’s a fine poem, but the problem I have with it now is a feeling that this may be one occasion where Wilbur’s restraint, his cool elegance of diction, work against him: that the time for the courtly elegiac is past and what we need now are words of fire and rage.

Advice to a Prophet

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone’s face?

Speak of the world’s own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters. We could believe,

If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip

On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling. What should we be without
The dolphin’s arc, the dove’s return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.

Richard Wilbur

Week 416: The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck

I confess that until last week’s news that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature I had not heard of the American poet Louise Gluck (oh, come on, David, do keep up), but I soon found a good selection of her work online. Some poets possess you immediately, some you need to live with for a while: at the moment I don’t feel I’ve quite tuned in to these spare, mythic poems but I’ve made a good start with this one, the title poem from a 1992 collection.

The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried in the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

Louise Gluck

Week 415: The Persian Version, by Robert Graves

I see that in this blog so far I have rarely if ever featured the poetry of wit and humour, despite the fact that I relish a well-turned parody or satire as much as anyone, so here to make some amends is a report on the Battle of Marathon as seen from the Persian point of view. Robert Graves, though primarily a love poet, could also be very funny – as witness, for example, the poem ‘Welsh Incident’ – and here he takes aim at political/military spin, though in my experience the satire could equally apply to the desperate quest for morale-boosting positivity engaged in by corporate bodies generally.

The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer’s expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

Robert Graves

Week 414: If I Should Ever by Chance, by Edward Thomas

I find this poem a pure delight. For one thing it is, uncharacteristically for Edward Thomas, an essentially happy poem, even if the happiness is tinged with wistfulness: ‘If I should ever by chance grow rich’ – Thomas knew quite well that he was never going to grow rich, certainly not rich enough to own a tract of English countryside, having chosen the penurious life of a literary hack.

Then there are the field names: Codham, Roses, Pyrgo. Thomas loved to pore over maps finding these curious old appellations, so expressive of our ancient, many-layered, parcelled-out countryside, and letting them conjure up for him memories and visions of the landscape he was so intimate with. And there is the playful relationship in the poem with his small daughter Bronwen, the only one who could lighten his black moods, the one he would take on his spring walks, competing with her to find the first flowers of the year. So it is a light rent that he imagines asking of her first, and then really no rent at all, since it would be quite difficult not to find a blossom on furze at any time of year: hence the country saying ‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing’s out of season’.

Happy, I called it, if  a little wistful. Yet I suspect that for the Thomas family, after Edward’s death in France in 1917, there must have been a sadness beyond wistfulness about this particular poem, having to stand as it did for all the things a father might have wished to give to a daughter whose growing up he was never to see.

If I Should Ever by Chance

If I should ever by chance grow rich
I’ll buy Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo, and Lapwater,
And let them all to my elder daughter.
The rent I shall ask of her will be only
Each year’s first violets, white and lonely,
The first primroses and orchises –
She must find them before I do, that is.
But if she finds a blossom on furze
Without rent they shall all for ever be hers,
Whenever I am sufficiently rich:
Codham, Cockridden, and Childerditch,
Roses, Pyrgo and Lapwater, –
I shall give them all to my elder daughter.

Edward Thomas

Week 413: On A Return From Egypt, by Keith Douglas

This appears to have been the last poem that Keith Douglas wrote, before his death at the age of 24 during the Normandy campaign on June 1944, a loss to English poetry that was great if little recognised at the time. I do not think it is quite as perfectly realised as some others of his poems, like ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, ‘Canoe’ or ‘Aristocrats’ that I have already featured, but I do find the third stanza in particular very moving. One might speak of pathos, but really there is nothing pathetic about Douglas: this is not an invitation to sympathy but more like a great howl of frustration from a poet who knows he has so much more to give but also has a growing sense that he has little time left in which to give it. ‘Time, time is all I lacked…’. Indeed.

On A Return From Egypt

To stand here in the wings of Europe
disheartened, I have come away
from the sick land where in the sun lay
the gentle sloe-eyed murderers
of themselves, exquisites under a curse;
here to exercise my depleted fury.

For the heart is a coal, growing colder
when jewelled caerulean seas change
into grey rocks, grey water-fringe,
sea and sky altering like a cloth
till colour and sheen are gone both:
cold is an opiate of the soldier.

And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.

The next month, then, is a window
and with a crash I’ll split the glass.
Behind it stands one I must kiss,
person of love or death,
a person or a wraith,
I fear what I shall find.

Keith Douglas

Week 412: Die Spitze, by Rainer Maria Rilke

A favourite theme in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is the sacrifices that the artist must make for the sake of his/her art. In his poem ‘Der Dichter’ (‘The Poet’) he bemoans these: ‘Ich habe keine Geliebte, kein Haus,/keine Stelle auf der ich lebe’ (I have no beloved, no house, nowhere I can live’). Actually one feels he didn’t do too badly: people lent him their castles to compose in; a poet nowadays would be lucky to get the offer of a garden shed.

This poem exemplifies that theme of sacrifice: it is about a lace-maker who goes blind from all the close work involved in the practice of her craft but lives on, Rilke imagines, in one artefact. The poem is actually in two parts: this is just the first part, which I feel is self-sufficient.

The translation that follows is my own.

Die Spitze

Menschlichkeit: Namen schwankender Besitze,
noch unbestätigter Bestand von Glück:
ist das unmenschlich, daß zu dieser Spitze,
zu diesem kleinen dichten Spitzenstück
zwei Augen wurden? — Willst du sie zurück?

Du Langvergangene und schließlich Blinde,
ist deine Seligkeit in diesem Ding,
zu welcher hin, wie zwischen Stamm und Rinde,
dein großes Fühlen, kleinverwandelt, ging?

Durch einen Riß im Schicksal, eine Lücke
entzogst du deine Seele deiner Zeit;
und sie ist so in diesem lichten Stücke,
daß es mich lächeln macht vor Nützlichkeit.

The Lace

What is it to be human? To possess
Nothing for certain, no sure happiness.
Was it inhuman then, that you who made
This thing, this small close-woven piece of lace,
Gave two eyes for it? Do you rue that trade?

You, long departed one, whose end was dark,
Is this the thing wherein you left your bliss,
Great feeling, in the width of trunk to bark,
Diminished as by magic into this?

You found a rift in destiny, a space
To draw your soul out of its time, set free,
And it’s so here, in this light piece of lace,
It makes me smile at the utility.