Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Even in our scientific age we humans still tell stories, indeed it seems we need to tell stories. Stories to try to make sense of our lives and stories to try to understand our world. Rational, scientific stories will quite often suffice. Many of these are illuminating and beautiful, numinous even. We have the wonderful story of human evolution, the story of relativity and quantum physics, the stories of the diversity of life and the unfolding story of the origins of the universe. Yet sometimes we try to grasp other insights, truths even, which are not yet illuminated by science. We tell stories to ourselves and to others, in literature, in music, in art and even using legends and myths.

La Barbe Bleue – Charles Perrault

One type of story is the fairy tale. Some of these find their origin in the mists of time and some may even have been based on real events, though these are well-nye impossible to recover. At first largely orally transmitted, only later were these tales written down. In the English-speaking world we tend to think that our most famous fairy tales come from the Germanic world, from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. But many of our favourite tales were first written down by a Frenchman in the seventeenth century. His name was Charles Perrault. You might be surprised to know that it was Perrault who first brought us Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty and Puss in Boots. Another tale that Perrault first wrote down was Bluebeard. It’s a story that I have returned to on and off over the last twenty years; first in the Brothers Grimm version, later in Béla Bartók’s 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and more recently yet again in Perrault’s original. What does it mean? Of course there can never be an answer to this question; so what does it mean for me? But first Perrault’s Bluebeard itself:

Bluebeard

 There was once a man who had fine houses, both in town and country, a deal of silver and gold plate, embroidered furniture, and coaches gilded all over with gold. But this man was so unlucky as to have a blue beard, which made him so frightfully ugly that all the women and girls ran away from him.

One of his neighbors, a lady of quality, had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He desired of her one of them in marriage, leaving to her choice which of the two she would bestow on him. Neither of them would have him, and they sent him backwards and forwards from one to the other, not being able to bear the thoughts of marrying a man who had a blue beard. Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.

Bluebeard, to engage their affection, took them, with their mother and three or four ladies of their acquaintance, with other young people of the neighborhood, to one of his country houses, where they stayed a whole week.

The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other. In short, everything succeeded so well that the youngest daughter began to think that the man’s beard was not so very blue after all, and that he was a mighty civil gentleman.

As soon as they returned home, the marriage was concluded. About a month afterwards, Bluebeard told his wife that he was obliged to take a country journey for six weeks at least, about affairs of very great consequence. He desired her to divert herself in his absence, to send for her friends and acquaintances, to take them into the country, if she pleased, and to make good cheer wherever she was.

“Here,” said he,” are the keys to the two great wardrobes, wherein I have my best furniture. These are to my silver and gold plate, which is not everyday in use. These open my strongboxes, which hold my money, both gold and silver; these my caskets of jewels. And this is the master key to all my apartments. But as for this little one here, it is the key to the closet at the end of the great hall on the ground floor. Open them all; go into each and every one of them, except that little closet, which I forbid you, and forbid it in such a manner that, if you happen to open it, you may expect my just anger and resentment.”

She promised to observe, very exactly, whatever he had ordered. Then he, after having embraced her, got into his coach and proceeded on his journey.

Her neighbors and good friends did not wait to be sent for by the newly married lady. They were impatient to see all the rich furniture of her house, and had not dared to come while her husband was there, because of his blue beard, which frightened them. They ran through all the rooms, closets, and wardrobes, which were all so fine and rich that they seemed to surpass one another.

After that, they went up into the two great rooms, which contained the best and richest furniture. They could not sufficiently admire the number and beauty of the tapestry, beds, couches, cabinets, stands, tables, and looking glasses, in which you might see yourself from head to foot; some of them were framed with glass, others with silver, plain and gilded, the finest and most magnificent that they had ever seen.

They ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend, who in the meantime in no way diverted herself in looking upon all these rich things, because of the impatience she had to go and open the closet on the ground floor. She was so much pressed by her curiosity that, without considering that it was very uncivil for her to leave her company, she went down a little back staircase, and with such excessive haste that she nearly fell and broke her neck.

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

After having somewhat recovered her surprise, she picked up the key, locked the door, and went upstairs into her chamber to recover; but she could not, so much was she frightened. Having observed that the key to the closet was stained with blood, she tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come out; in vain did she wash it, and even rub it with soap and sand. The blood still remained, for the key was magical and she could never make it quite clean; when the blood was gone off from one side, it came again on the other.

Bluebeard returned from his journey the same evening, saying that he had received letters upon the road, informing him that the affair he went about had concluded to his advantage. His wife did all she could to convince him that she was extremely happy about his speedy return.

The next morning he asked her for the keys, which she gave him, but with such a trembling hand that he easily guessed what had happened.

“What!” said he, “is not the key of my closet among the rest?”

“I must,” said she, “have left it upstairs upon the table.”

“Fail not,” said Bluebeard, “to bring it to me at once.”

After several goings backwards and forwards, she was forced to bring him the key. Bluebeard, having very attentively considered it, said to his wife, “Why is there blood on the key?”

“I do not know,” cried the poor woman, paler than death.

“You do not know!” replied Bluebeard. “I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.”

Upon this she threw herself at her husband’s feet, and begged his pardon with all the signs of a true repentance, vowing that she would never more be disobedient. She would have melted a rock, so beautiful and sorrowful was she; but Bluebeard had a heart harder than any rock!

“You must die, madam,” said he, “at once.”

“Since I must die,” answered she (looking upon him with her eyes all bathed in tears), “give me some little time to say my prayers.”

“I give you,” replied Bluebeard, “half a quarter of an hour, but not one moment more.”

When she was alone she called out to her sister, and said to her, “Sister Anne” (for that was her name), “go up, I beg you, to the top of the tower, and look if my brothers are not coming. They promised me that they would come today, and if you see them, give them a sign to make haste.”

Her sister Anne went up to the top of the tower, and the poor afflicted wife cried out from time to time, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”

And sister Anne said, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

In the meanwhile Bluebeard, holding a great saber in his hand, cried out as loud as he could bawl to his wife, “Come down instantly, or I shall come up to you.”

“One moment longer, if you please,” said his wife; and then she cried out very softly, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?”

And sister Anne answered, “I see nothing but a cloud of dust in the sun, and the green grass.”

“Come down quickly,” cried Bluebeard, “or I will come up to you.”

“I am coming,” answered his wife; and then she cried, “Anne, sister Anne, do you not see anyone coming?”

“I see,” replied sister Anne, “a great cloud of dust approaching us.”

“Are they my brothers?”

“Alas, no my dear sister, I see a flock of sheep.”

“Will you not come down?” cried Bluebeard.

“One moment longer,” said his wife, and then she cried out, “Anne, sister Anne, do you see nobody coming?”

“I see,” said she, “two horsemen, but they are still a great way off.”

“God be praised,” replied the poor wife joyfully. “They are my brothers. I will make them a sign, as well as I can for them to make haste.”

Then Bluebeard bawled out so loud that he made the whole house tremble. The distressed wife came down, and threw herself at his feet, all in tears, with her hair about her shoulders.

“This means nothing,” said Bluebeard. “You must die!” Then, taking hold of her hair with one hand, and lifting up the sword with the other, he prepared to strike off her head. The poor lady, turning about to him, and looking at him with dying eyes, desired him to afford her one little moment to recollect herself.

“No, no,” said he, “commend yourself to God,” and was just ready to strike.

At this very instant there was such a loud knocking at the gate that Bluebeard made a sudden stop. The gate was opened, and two horsemen entered. Drawing their swords, they ran directly to Bluebeard. He knew them to be his wife’s brothers, one a dragoon, the other a musketeer; so that he ran away immediately to save himself; but the two brothers pursued and overtook him before he could get to the steps of the porch. Then they ran their swords through his body and left him dead. The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband, and had not strength enough to rise and welcome her brothers.

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

There are myriad later versions of Bluebeard, many with a darker ending as we shall see. Interpretations abound. Perrault himself liked to add little moral tags to his tales. At the end of Bluebeard he wrote two:

                  Moral

Ladies, you should never pry,—
You’ll repent it by and by!
‘Tis the silliest of sins;
Trouble in a trice begins.
There are, surely—more’s the woe
Lots of things you need not know.
Come, forswear it now and here—
Joy so brief that costs so dear!

                  Another Moral

You can tell this tale is old
By the very way it’s told.
Those were days of derring-do;
Man was lord, and master too.
Then the husband ruled as king.
Now it’s quite a different thing;
Be his beard what hue it may—
Madam has a word to say!

Later Freudian and Jungian psycho-analysts couldn’t resist the tale. As you might imagine their interpretations all centred around keys and locks (read penises and vaginas) and around the blood on the closet key that couldn’t be wiped off (read defloration). But let’s not bother ourselves further with such bunkum.

In more recent times, Bluebeard has become a favourite story for feminists. Dozens of retellings have appeared – from Angela Carter and Margaret Attwood for example – and hundreds of interpretations offered. I wouldn’t dream of stepping on their turf.

Such stories can be interpreted in many ways and no one is right. In fact the word interpretation is probably not very helpful. I prefer to see them as parables or allegories which for us somehow mirror or illuminate a perhaps obscure, but nonetheless real, facet of our own life and our own world. It is in this way that I offer this short muse on Bluebeard.

Bluebeard’s new wife is not named by Perrault, so I will use the name given to her by Bartók in his opera – Judith.

Judith said to them, “Listen to me. I am about to do a thing which will go down through all generations of our descendants”. Book of Judith 8.32

What had become of Bluebeard’s wives?

Judith and her sister were at first repulsed by Bluebeard’s ugliness. ‘Adding to their disgust and aversion was the fact that he already had been married to several wives, and nobody knew what had become of them.’ They felt that something was wrong, what had become of his wives? But Bluebeard was, after all, rich and he entertained Judith, her relatives and many young people in the neighbourhood for a week in just ‘one of his country houses’. ‘The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, mirth, and feasting. Nobody went to bed, but all passed the night in rallying and joking with each other.’Judith was seduced by all this splendor and fun. His beard became less blue and even though she had sensed an evil she persuaded herself that ‘he was a mighty civil gentleman’.

When we are children we have an innate sense of right and wrong, it is biological. For sure our parents, our schools and our communities will ‘socialize’ us with more morality – sometimes for the good, often not. Just like Judith we can sense evil and we shy away. But then we are shown all the things we might have if we can just overcome our repulsion. All the cars, the houses, the clothes, the food and the holidays we can have. Judith must agree to marry Bluebeard, which she does despite her misgivings. We agree to join the great capitalist, consumerist frenzy despite an inkling that there’s something darker hidden just out of view. For both Judith and us, if we comply and obey then we are promised we will receive the precious keys to the cupboards in the castle, and all they contain. We can have it all so long as we submit and obey.

When Bluebeard goes away on a trip he ‘desires her to divert herself and make good cheer’. He gives her all the keys, keys to wardrobes, strongboxes and rooms where all his fortune and luxuries can be found. There is only one small catch, he forbids her to enter ‘the little closet’. If she does, he says, ‘you may expect my just anger and resentment’. Judith promises to obey. We know, of course, that hidden behind the closet door a horror lurks. Judith doesn’t know this yet.

Once Bluebeard is gone all her friends arrive to enjoy the castle. ‘They had not dared to come while her husband was there.’ They marveled at all the luxury and ‘they ceased not to extol and envy the happiness of their friend’. She really did seem to have been given the keys to happiness and everything one could desire in the world. But Judith had made a Faustian pact with Bluebeard, even if she was only dimly aware that she had. The price of the keys was to obey and not to question what lay hidden below the glittering surface.

Many of us do this in our own lives. We obey and we don’t question, and in return we (or some of us) can luxuriate in the good things of life. Yet we still feel something is not quite right, we know there is some type of knowledge, some type of insight that is being kept from us. Who really is Bluebeard? What really is the nature of the society we live in?

Judith is ‘curious’ and ‘impatient’. Although she knows she will be punished, she just must use the key to the little closet to see what’s inside. What is Bluebeard’s secret? We too are curious to find out what is hidden from our view. What are the hidden secrets of our society?

Having come to the closet door, she made a stop for some time, thinking about her husband’s orders, and considering what unhappiness might attend her if she was disobedient; but the temptation was so strong that she could not overcome it. She then took the little key, and opened it, trembling. At first she could not see anything plainly, because the windows were shut. After some moments she began to perceive that the floor was all covered over with clotted blood, on which lay the bodies of several dead women, ranged against the walls. (These were all the wives whom Bluebeard had married and murdered, one after another.) She thought she should have died for fear, and the key, which she, pulled out of the lock, fell out of her hand.

Bluebeard’s wife opens the little closet

This was the secret. Bluebeard’s Heart of Darkness. His life, her life and the castle were all built on the blood of others. As Mr. Kurtz said while dying: ‘The Horror! The Horror!’

In our own lives too we might one day find that the life we lead, the jobs we do, and the luxuries we enjoy are all based on violence and death. Violence towards other humans, violence to other living beings and violence towards the earth. Once we are aware, once we are conscious of the horror, we want to put the genie back. Yet, no matter how frightened we are, we can’t

Judith was scared. What would happen to her if Bluebeard found out she had been disobedient? She notices that the closet key she had dropped was ‘stained with blood’. Desperately she tries to put the genie back in the bottle. ‘She tried two or three times to wipe it off; but the blood would not come off.’

Out, damned spot! out, I say!…. Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.   Lady Macbeth in Macbeth by William Shakespeare

The brothers kill Bluebeard

At first we want to deny what we have seen. When Bluebeard comes back Judith returns all the keys except the one for the little closet, which she tells him she’s left upstairs. Bluebeard is not deceived, he knows she has discovered his secret and disobeyed his orders – his orders to refrain from looking into the heart of darkness. When he sees the blood on the key Judith says she doesn’t know how it got there, but Bluebeard replies: ‘I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there.’ Judith knows she must pay the price for her Faustian pact with the devil. She too must join his other victims. When her pleading and her feminine wiles have no effect on Bluebeard’s determination that she ‘must die’, she begs for a little time because she knows her brothers should be arriving and may save her. They come just in the nick of time and run Bluebeard through with their swords. Perrault ends his tale:

Bluebeard had no heirs, and so his wife became mistress of all his estate. She made use of one part of it to marry her sister Anne to a young gentleman who had loved her a long while; another part to buy captains’ commissions for her brothers, and the rest to marry herself to a very worthy gentleman, who made her forget the ill time she had passed with Bluebeard.

Or in the usual phrase: they all lived happily ever after.

Judith dies in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeards Castle

Béla Bartók’s rather misogynist opera ends more darkly. Rescue doesn’t come and despite Judith’s pleas for mercy Bluebeard kills her. Bluebeard: ‘Thou art lovely, passing lovely. Thou art the queen of all my women. My best and fairest. (‘Judith goes the way of the other women’) Henceforth all shall be darkness, darkness.’

So what are we to do once we have seen into the heart of darkness? Whether this is our own personal darkness or that of the society in which we live. In Joseph Conrad’s novel, Mr. Kurtz’s dying cry of ‘The Horror!’ was both a cry for what he had become and for the society that had made him so. Is there no hope of rescue because we have sinned, as in Bartok, or if we use all our wit and guiles can we delay the end until help arrives? Or should we like an existential philosopher despair and withdraw? The answers must be personal.

Perhaps for each of us the most important question is: ‘Who is Bluebeard?’, or even, ‘What is Bluebeard’. If we don’t see the enemy as the evil it is our fate will probably be sealed… unless we have some brothers to rescue us.

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Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And he marched them down again.

And when they were up, they were up,
And when they were down, they were down,
And when they were only half-way up,
They were neither up nor down.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York

I learnt this nursery rhyme as a child. Maybe you did too? I had no idea what it meant, just as I had no idea of who the heck Mother Hubbard was. The funny thing is that nobody else knows either. If the rhyme has any basis in reality it’s probably connected with the Duke of York, Prince Frederick, and his defeat by the French at the Battle of Tourcoing in Flanders in 1794. Certainly it’s got nothing to do with Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, who contested King Henry VI’s right to the throne in the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, although this has at times been claimed.

Actually it doesn’t much matter which of the many Dukes of York, if any of them, provided the historical seeds of the rhyme. If we want to be more realistic we could write:

Oh, The grand old Duke of York,
He had ten thousand men;
He marched them up to the top of the hill,
And they never came down again.

This is what nobles do. The Duke of This or the Baron of That, the King of France or the Holy Roman Emperor, they called themselves warriors but actually they were just armed and heavily armoured thugs. If they weren’t leading their men up the hill to their death, they were leading them in the slaughter of the enemy. Sometimes in these battles the nobles died too. But in the middle-ages, in the so-called Age of Chivalry, while they expected the common soldiers, their ‘men’, to be slaughtered without mercy, they expected that if they themselves were facing defeat they would be able to ‘yield’, to be taken prisoner, to be treated honourably while awaiting the collection of a huge ransom paid for their release. The ransom money of course had to be ground out of their ever-suffering tenants and serfs back at home. That is what the common people were for. They only entered the nobles’ consciousness for two reasons: As a resource to be exploited and taxed to maintain their extravagant life-styles and to supply the soldiers to help them fight their never ending squabbles and wars.

Armed Banditti - 1066

Armed Banditti – 1066

Since the development and agriculture and the rise of Civilization this has been so. In 1776 the English radical Thomas Paine, strangely still so loved by the Americans (who without a moment’s thought would call him a ‘Commie’ if he were around today), and less strangely by the French, aptly called the Norman conquerors of England ‘armed banditti’. The ‘French bastard’ William was ‘the principal ruffian of some restless gang’.

These thugs quickly ejected the vast bulk of English aldermen and thegns from their land and divvied up the spoils between themselves. They built castles to protect themselves from a cowed, though still resentful and seething, English population. More importantly the castles also served to ratchet up the level of fear and intimidation. In the long years and centuries that followed they systematically set about reducing the English to de facto or de jure serfdom. All this required periodic doses of repression and violence, a thing these brutal, (though when they really had to fight, not very chivalrous), armed and armoured knights, on their huge war-horses, loved to do.

England was a conquered and occupied country. To use the language of the seventeenth century Levellers, it had fallen under the “Norman Yoke”, where it would remain for centuries.

In the fifteenth century there was a lord in Cumberland called Lancelot Threlkeld who was pretty honest about what the common English people were for.

The principal residence of the Threlkeld family was at Threlkeld in Cumberland; but they had large possessions at Crosby long previous to this time, for in 1304 and 1320 Henry Threlkeld had a grant of free warren in Yanwath, Crosby, Tibbay, &c., and in 1404 occurs the name of William Threlkeld, Knight, of Crosby. Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, Knight, was the son of Sir Lancelot Threlkeld, by Margaret, daughter and heiress of Henry Bromflatt, Lord Vescy, and widow of John de Clifford. He was wont to say he had three noble houses; one at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

The Battle of Wakefield, 1460

This Lancelot Threlkeld, who ‘stocked’ tenants ‘to go with him to the wars’, was the son of another Lancelot who had married Margaret Clifford, the widow of Sir John Clifford, known variously as ‘the Butcher’, ‘Bloody Clifford’ and ‘Black-faced Clifford’. In  Henry VI, Shakespeare has him killing Richard, the third Duke of York, and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, at the Battle of Wakefield in December 1460, during the Wars of the Roses.  John Clifford was soon killed by the Yorkists on 28 March 1461 at Ferrybridge in Yorkshire, on the eve of the Battle of Towton, a brutal affair which brought Edward IV (Richard of York’s son) to the throne. He left a son called Henry who went into hiding and lived as a ‘shepherd’ for 28 years. I wrote about Henry ‘the Shepherd lord’ recently.

It is some of these fifteenth-century goings-on that will be the subject of my next article. For now I’d like to end on a lighter note. Did you ever learn the mnemonic ROYGBIV for the colours of the rainbow? I was also once taught a rhyme to help remember this: ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’. The Richard here being the one Shakespeare has killed by John Clifford ‘the Butcher’ at Wakefield.

Rainbow- - ROYGBIV

‘The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,
Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;
Bands of armed robbers divide the land
And make of the Freeman a slave.’

For my taste there is only one thing that can match, and sometimes surpass, English poetry, and that is German poetry. In the best hands the way the German language can combine sensitivity with earthly power and grittiness is unrivalled. My own favourite German poet is the ‘Romantic’ Heinrich Heine. While rereading some of his poems, a thing I haven’t done for many a long year, I was delighted to find his 1851 poem Schlachtfeld bei Hastings – Battlefield at Hastings. The sad conquest of England in 1066 is a subject close to my heart, and Heine’s poem is the most evocative poetic telling of that sad day I have ever read.

I wanted to share this poem, but how best could I do so for those who don’t understand German? All literature loses something in translation, with poetry this is even more so. I first found an English translation by Margaret Armour, but although it was a valiant effort it did quite often miss the punch of the original, becoming at times anodyne. Armour, for example, translates Heine’s “Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie” as “The veriest rascals from Normandy”, which not only misses the singular nature of Heine’s original – he was referring to William himself – but makes the Normans sound like naughty children at a birthday party rather than the bunch of brutal thugs they were. As the great Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense in 1776, “The French bastard” was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine

And then I found a translation which appeared in Vienna in 1854, only slightly after the original. It was the work of Julian Fane. Whoever Julian was his translation is sublime. I reproduce Fane’s translation below, followed, for those who understand German, by Heine’s even more sublime original.

Just a couple of words by way of context. In 1066 King Harold and his English army of housecarls and warriors had just defeated another Norwegian invasion at Stamford Bridge in the north of England, when they heard that Norman duke William had landed with his army on the south coast, intent on seizing the country. Harold’s army, mauled, weakened and tired, immediately marched two hundred miles south. When they arrived, probably unwisely, Harold decided to immediately fight again, near to Hastings. We all know the outcome: after much mutual slaughter the English lost and Harold was killed – though not in all likelihood by an arrow in the eye.

The Normans had horribly mutilated Harold’s body along with the bodies of many other English dead. Harold’s mother, so the story goes, pleaded with William to surrender her son’s body for burial. William refused, even though Harold’s mother had offered her son’s weight in gold. The local monks of Waltham Abbey wanted to bury Harold in a decent Christian way, but given the piles of dead and mutilated fallen on the battlefield, they couldn’t identify Harold’s body. They went to find Harold’s long-term mistress, the mother of most of his children, Edith the Fair, also known as Edith Swan-neck. Edith walked through the carnage of the battle so that she might identify Harold by the markings on his body known only to her. It was because of Edith the Fair’s identification of Harold’s body that he was finally given a Christian burial.

This is the story that Heinrich Heine tells in his poem.

The battle-field at Hastings

Translated by Julian Fane, 1854, Vienna

Deep sighed the Abbot when the news
Reached Waltham’s courts that day,
That piteously on Hastings’ field
King Harold lifeless lay.

Two Monks, Asgod and Ailric named,
Dispatched he to the plain,
That they might seek king Harold’s corpse,
At Hastings ‘mongst the slain.

The Monks they issued sadly forth ,
And sad their steps retrace:
„Father, loathesome to us is the World,”
„Fortune forsakes our race.”

„The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,”
„Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;”
„Bands of armed robbers divide the land”
„And make of the Freeman a slave.”

„The raggedest Boor from Normandy”
„Now lords it o’er Britain’s Isle;”
„A tailor from Bayeux, gold bespurred,”
„I saw one ride and smile.”

„Woe now to every Saxon born!”
„Ye Saxon Saints beware,”
„Lest, Heaven itself unsafe, the scourge”
„Pursue and spurn you there.”

„Now know we what disastrous doom”
„That comet should forebode,”
„Which erst, blood-red, through blackest Heaven”
„On fiery besom rode.”

„At Hastings hath that evil star”
„Its evil portent wrought!”
„Thither we went, to the battle-field,”
„And ‘mongst the slain we sought.”

„We sought to left, we sought to right,”
„Till, every hope resigned,”
„We left the field, and Harold the king,”
„His corpse we did not find.”

Asgdd and Ailric so they spake;
His hands the Abbot clasped,
Down sat, despairing, sunk in thought,
Then sighed and said at last:

„At Grendelfield, near Bardenstone,”
„In the wood’s deepest dell,”
„Lone in a lonely pauper-cot”
„Doth swan-necked Edith dwell.”

„ ‘Swan-necked’, men named her — for that erst”
„Her neck, of smoothest pearl,”
„Was swan-like arched — and Harold the king”
„He loved the comely girl.”

„Her hath he loved and cherished and kissed,”
„And, lastly, abandoned, forgot;”
„The years roll by — full sixteen years”
„Have watched her widowed lot.”

„Brothers, to her betake yourselves,”
„And with her back return”
„To Hasting’s field; this woman’s glance”
„Will there the king discern.”

„Hither then to the Abbey-church”
„Do ye the body bring,”
„That we may yield it Christian rite,”
„And for the soul may sing.”

The Monks at midnight reached the cot
Deep in the dark wood’s hollow;
„Wake, swan-necked Edith, and forthwith”
„Prepare our steps to follow!”

„Fate willed the Duke of Normandy”
„The fatal day should gain,”
„And on the field at Hastings lies”
„King Harold ‘mongst the slain.”

„Come with us now to Hastings — there”
„We’ll seek the corpse of the king,”
„And bring it back to the Abbey-church,”
„As the Abbot bade us bring.”

No word the swan-necked Edith spake;
Her cloak about her cast,
She followed the Monks; her grizzly hair
It fluttered wild in the blast.

Barefooted, poor wretch, she followed o’er marsh,
Through brushwood and briar she flew:
Hastings at day-break already they reached,
With its white chalk-cliff’s in view.

The fog that folded the battle-field,
As t’were in a snow-white shroud,
Rose slowly, the ravens flapped their wings
And horribly croaked and loud.

Some thousand corpses there lay strewn.
In heaps on the red earth grounded,
Stripped-stark, beplundered, mangled and maimed,
With carrion-horse confounded.

The swan-necked Edith waded on
Through blood with unsandalled foot;
Meanwhile like darts from her staring eye
The searchful glances shoot.

She searched to left, she searched to right,
And oft she turned undaunted
To scare the famished ravens off;
The monks behind her panted.

The whole drear Day had watched her search,
The stars still see her seek;
Suddenly from the woman’s lips
Breaks shrill a terrible shriek:

Discovered hath Edith the corpse of the king!
No longer need she seek;
No word she spake, she wept no tear,
She kissed the pale, pale cheek.

She kissed the brow, she kissed the lips,
Her arms about him pressed,
She kissed the deep wound blood-besmeared
Upon her monarch’s breast.

And at the shoulder looked she too —
And them she kissed contented —
Three little scars, joy-wounds her love In
Passion’s hour indented.

Meanwhile the Monks from out the wood
Some twisted branches bring;
This was the leafy bier whereon
They laid their slaughtered king.

They bore him towards the Abbey-church
Whose aisles his bones should cover;
The swan-necked Edith followed close
The pale corpse of her lover.

She sang the Burial-psalm in notes
Of meek and childlike woe;
Dismal it sounded through the night —
The muttering monks prayed low

Schlachtfeld bei Hastings

Der Abt von Waltham seufzte tief,
Als er die Kunde vernommen,
Daß König Harold elendiglich
Bei Hastings umgekommen.

Zwei Mönche, Asgod und Ailrik genannt,
Die schickt’ er aus als Boten,
Sie sollten suchen die Leiche Harolds
Bei Hastings unter den Toten.

Die Mönche gingen traurig fort
Und kehrten traurig zurücke:
»Hochwürdiger Vater, die Welt ist uns gram,
Wir sind verlassen vom Glücke.

Gefallen ist der beßre Mann,
Es siegte der Bankert, der schlechte,
Gewappnete Diebe verteilen das Land
Und machen den Freiling zum Knechte.

Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie
Wird Lord auf der Insel der Briten;
Ich sah einen Schneider aus Bayeux, er kam
Mit goldnen Sporen geritten.

Weh dem, der jetzt ein Sachse ist!
Ihr Sachsenheilige droben
Im Himmelreich, nehmt euch in acht,
Ihr seid der Schmach nicht enthoben.

Jetzt wissen wir, was bedeutet hat
Der große Komet, der heuer
Blutrot am nächtlichen Himmel ritt
Auf einem Besen von Feuer.

Bei Hastings in Erfüllung ging
Des Unsterns böses Zeichen,
Wir waren auf dem Schlachtfeld dort
Und suchten unter den Leichen.

Wir suchten hin, wir suchten her,
Bis alle Hoffnung verschwunden –
Den Leichnam des toten Königs Harold,
Wir haben ihn nicht gefunden.«

Asgod und Ailrik sprachen also;
Der Abt rang jammernd die Hände,
Versank in tiefe Nachdenklichkeit
Und sprach mit Seufzen am Ende:

»Zu Grendelfield am Bardenstein,
Just in des Waldes Mitte,
Da wohnet Edith Schwanenhals
In einer dürft’gen Hütte.

Man hieß sie Edith Schwanenhals,
Weil wie der Hals der Schwäne
Ihr Nacken war; der König Harold,
Er liebte die junge Schöne.

Er hat sie geliebt, geküßt und geherzt,
Und endlich verlassen, vergessen.
Die Zeit verfließt; wohl sechzehn Jahr’
Verflossen unterdessen.

Begebt euch, Brüder, zu diesem Weib
Und laßt sie mit euch gehen
Zurück nach Hastings, der Blick des Weibs
Wird dort den König erspähen.

Nach Waltham-Abtei hierher alsdann
Sollt ihr die Leiche bringen,
Damit wir christlich bestatten den Leib
Und für die Seele singen.«

Um Mitternacht gelangten schon
Die Boten zur Hütte im Walde:
»Erwache, Edith Schwanenhals,
Und folge uns alsbalde.

Der Herzog der Normannen hat
Den Sieg davongetragen,
Und auf dem Feld bei Hastings liegt
Der König Harold erschlagen.

Komm mit nach Hastings, wir suchen dort
Den Leichnam unter den Toten,
Und bringen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Wie uns der Abt geboten.«

Kein Wort sprach Edith Schwanenhals,
Sie schürzte sich geschwinde
Und folgte den Mönchen; ihr greisendes Haar,
Das flatterte wild im Winde.

Es folgte barfuß das arme Weib
Durch Sümpfe und Baumgestrüppe.
Bei Tagesanbruch gewahrten sie schon
Zu Hastings die kreidige Klippe.

Der Nebel, der das Schlachtfeld bedeckt
Als wie ein weißes Leilich,
Zerfloß allmählich; es flatterten auf
Die Dohlen und krächzten abscheulich.

Viel tausend Leichen lagen dort
Erbärmlich auf blutiger Erde,
Nackt ausgeplündert, verstümmelt, zerfleischt,
Daneben die Äser der Pferde.

Es wadete Edith Schwanenhals
Im Blute mit nackten Füßen;
Wie Pfeile aus ihrem stieren Aug’
Die forschenden Blicke schießen.

Sie suchte hin, sie suchte her,
Oft mußte sie mühsam verscheuchen
Die fraßbegierige Rabenschar;
Die Mönche hinter ihr keuchen.

Sie suchte schon den ganzen Tag,
Es ward schon Abend – plötzlich
Bricht aus der Brust des armen Weibs
Ein geller Schrei, entsetzlich.

Gefunden hat Edith Schwanenhals
Des toten Königs Leiche.
Sie sprach kein Wort, sie weinte nicht,
Sie küßte das Antlitz, das bleiche.

Sie küßte die Stirne, sie küßte den Mund,
Sie hielt ihn fest umschlossen;
Sie küßte auf des Königs Brust
Die Wunde blutumflossen.

Auf seiner Schulter erblickt sie auch –
Und sie bedeckt sie mit Küssen –
Drei kleine Narben, Denkmäler der Lust,
Die sie einst hineingebissen.

Die Mönche konnten mittlerweil’
Baumstämme zusammenfugen;
Das war die Bahre, worauf sie alsdann
Den toten König trugen.

Sie trugen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Daß man ihn dort begrübe;
Es folgte Edith Schwanenhals
Der Leiche ihrer Liebe.

Sie sang die Totenlitanei’n
In kindisch frommer Weise;
Das klang so schauerlich in der Nacht –
Die Mönche beteten leise. –

Edith discovering the body of Harold

Edith discovering the body of Harold

‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’

I want to write a little about one of my favourite poems: Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Like all poetry this should be heard rather than read. The Northern Irish actor Kenneth Branagh has recorded most of Owen’s poetry and you can listen to his rendition here if you wish. But for me at least, Branagh’s readings of Owen’s poetry, beautiful diction though they have, leave me cold. There is real anger and real sadness in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, anger and sadness that Branagh’s reading totally misses. I prefer the very simple reading at the end of the magnificent 1997 film Regeneration (here). If you watch the whole film, the poem, when it comes, will have you in tears. It’s still not angry enough for me, but very moving nonetheless.

I first read this poem at school more than forty years ago. Our English teacher was, I think, a bit of a closet radical. Coming back to it now I thought the poem’s meaning was so obvious that no one would ever need to spend more than a minute or two on interpretation. Yet actually that’s probably not correct. The reason why the ‘meaning’ of the poem is so obvious to me is because I was brought up at a time and in a society where knowledge of the Bible and of the First World War was just there. Every day we had Bible readings in school. Our grandparents had experienced the war and many of our teachers had lived through it. In much of the western world this is no longer the case. In many, many ways this is a good thing. Thank God (oops!) children don’t have to have horrendous biblical bunkum pushed down their throats. Thank God most western children no longer have to hear about the massacre of whole generations. But when it comes to canonical poetry or literature there’s a bit of a gap.

This became clear to me when I wrote a couple of short pieces on poetry, in particular one about A. E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills. I soon realised that this poem must be on the curriculum of quite a few American schools or colleges. At least every few weeks a school teacher in the US sets his or her students a task of writing a critique or interpretation of Blue Remembered Hills. And, lo and behold, it seems that the students don’t read the poem and think about what it means to them or even try to figure out for themselves what the poet might have meant. No, what they do is go straight onto the internet looking for someone else’s ready-made interpretation which they can then, at best, use or, at worst, plagiarize.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Now for every ten students who cut and paste or simply plagiarize there will be one who is really moved and wants to offer their own penny worth. Perhaps it was ever thus.

We might even want to question (I hope not) the relevance of old canonical novels, plays and poetry. After all for school and college students today the Boer War which Housman alludes to and the First World War which is the immediate subject of Owen’s poetry are ancient history. Be that as it may.

Let’s return to The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is of course an anti-war poem, but it is so much more than that. It’s also a denunciation of imperialistic capitalism and a searing indictment of the warped morality of sacrifice. Whose sacrifice and for whom?

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is an allegory based on the Old Testament story (or parable if you like) found in Genesis 22 and usually called The Binding of Isaac. This story is, like most in the Old Testament, a pretty evil story, completely lacking in anything that we would regard as moral today:

The Binding of Isaac

Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac

God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham didn’t even hesitate. He started straight away to prepare the sacrificial altar: ‘Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife… Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.’ Isaac in his innocence didn’t get what his father was doing: ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham avoided the question and lied: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

No hesitation, no compassion. Abraham just had to obey God’s word. ‘Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.’ Then and only then do we get one of the original Deus ex machina. Just as he was about to slay his son God stops him:

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

Because Abraham had been more than ready to obey, God let him off the hook. He could sacrifice ‘a ram caught by its horns’ instead. God was very pleased with the result of his little charade and rewarded Abraham:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

A more pitiless, immoral tale it would be hard to find. What on earth can this ‘lovely’ story or parable teach us except unthinking obedience to a remote and all powerful God? But at least Isaac had been spared, even though this seems to have mattered not one iota to his father.

In Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Isaac, who represents the millions of young men slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War, is not spared. Abram (an earlier form of Abraham) is the heartless omnipotent power; he is the ‘old’ power of the imperialistic, militaristic states. The power of money, position and pride. This power, just like God, demands obedience and sacrifice, the sacrifice not of their power but of ‘the young’. As in the Old Testament the young ask an obvious innocent question:

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

‘Fire and iron’ to make the weapons of war are being prepared, but who will be the sacrificial ‘lamb’? Like the Biblical Isaac they got no answer:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

The young were kitted out in ‘belts and straps’. Parapets and trenches were dug ready for the knife to fall, ready for the sacrifice of a whole generation. God’s angel tries to offer a helping hand and a way out:

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

There was no reason for this war, no fight of good against evil. It was just the useless pride of the rulers that prevented them from seeing reason. If they had been willing to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ instead of their own people, the slaughter could have been avoided. But no, the rulers were more pitiless than God:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In the heartless Bible Abraham’s people (the later Jews) were rewarded: ‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ In our time there is no redemption, not even an offer of future glory. The power must be obeyed, the people are sacrificed.

‘Her Aethelstan cyning laedde fyrde to Brunanbyrig’ – 937 Anglo Saxon Chronicle ‘E’

Most historians of England maintain that the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was a decisive event in the creation of England. The battle pitted Æthelstan, the English king of Wessex and Mercia, supported by some Norse mercenaries, against a temporary coalition of Scandinavians, Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British) and Scots. The victory that the English achieved ‘led to‘ the  England we know today, at least geographically, and hence Æthelstan is often called the first ‘King of England’.

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

I don’t want to go into the context of the battle, its course or its location here. Suffice it to say that most of the evidence, place names, topography and the political and military context, points to it being fought near to Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula, in what is now Cheshire.

Embedded within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937 is an Old English poem usually known not surprisingly as ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’. I reproduce this wonderful poem below, followed by two modern translations: one by Alfred Lord Tennyson (he of ‘into the valley of death… ‘), plus another rather free (but good) rendition of more recent date.

But first like all poems it should be heard. Click here (or see below) to hear the original Old English poem, with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words as subtitles. Please note this is only part of the poem. Please note too that the commentary of the inimitable Brian Blessed hosts an horrendous hoard of heinous historical howlers.

Or try this version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfaEGU45lKA

Even though it helps that I understand German as well as English, if any native English speaker listens to this poem a few times I think they will find much of it becomes clear.

Much as I love our modern English language – its wonderful variety, its mixture of Germanic roots, Norse words, French imports and much more – when I listen to this poem I can’t help wishing we English still spoke like this. No highfalutin French frippery, no repressive legal mumbo jumbo, just earthy, no-nonsense speech and poetry.

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

If the Battle of Brunanburh in some way helped to ‘make England’, it was unmade little more than a hundred years later at another battle: Hastings in 1066. Some rather benighted historians used to portray the Norman conquest of England as an ultimately positive event for England and even the rest of Britain once the ‘initial’ horrors were over. It was of course nothing of the sort. The Norman French destroyed much of what was England, its language, its culture, and replaced it with a brutal centuries-long feudalism under which the people of England became serfs in the service of French masters. It’s a heritage we still live with today.

If King Harold Godwinson hadn’t rather rashly immediately engaged the Norman duke William the Bastard when tired and depleted after seeing off the Norse of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, or if the English had won at Hastings (it was a close-run thing), then just maybe we’d still talk like the poem.

I am of Welsh, English and Norse ancestry, but one can but dream. It’s enough to make me want to go and live in Scandinavia.

bruneburg 

The Battle of Brunanburh – in Old English/Anglo-Saxon

Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,

Eadmund aetheling, ealdor-langetir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum

ymbe Brunanburh. Bord-weall clufon,

heowon heathu-linde hamora lafum

eaforan Eadweardes, swa him ge-aethele waes

fram cneo-magum thaet hie aet campe oft

with lathra gehwone land ealgodon,

hord and hamas. Hettend crungon,

Scotta leode and scip-flotan,

faege feollon. Feld dennode

secga swate siththan sunne upp

on morgen-tid, maere tungol,

glad ofer grundas, Godes candel beorht,

eces Dryhtnes, oth seo aethele gesceaft

sag to setle. Thaer laeg secg manig

garum agieted, guma Northerna

ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,

werig, wiges saed.

 

West-Seaxe forth

andlange daeg eorod-cystum

on last legdon lathum theodum,

heowon here-flieman hindan thearle

mecum mylen-scearpum. Mierce ne wierndon

heardes hand-plegan haeletha nanum

thara-the mid Anlafe ofer ear-gebland

on lides bosme land gesohton,

faege to gefeohte. Fife lagon

on tham camp-stede cyningas geonge,

sweordum answefede, swelce seofone eac

eorlas Anlafes, unrim herges,

flotena and Scotta. Thaere gefliemed wearth

North-manna brego, niede gebaeded,

to lides stefne lytle weorode;

cread cnear on flot, cyning ut gewat

on fealone flod, feorh generede.

Swelce thaere eac se froda mid fleame com

on his cyththe north, Constantinus,

har hilde-rinc. Hreman ne thorfte

meca gemanan; he waes his maga sceard,

freonda gefielled on folc-stede,

beslaegen aet saecce, and his sunu forlet

on wael-stowe wundum forgrunden,

geongne aet guthe. Gielpan ne thorfte

beorn blanden-feax bill-gesliehtes,

eald inwitta, ne Anlaf thy ma;

mid hira here-lafum hliehhan ne thorfton

thaet hie beadu-weorca beteran wurdon

on camp-stede cumbol-gehnastes,

gar-mittunge, gumena gemotes,

waepen-gewrixles, thaes hie on wael-felda

with Eadweardes eaforan plegodon.

 

Gewiton him tha North-menn naegled-cnearrum,

dreorig darotha laf, on Dinges mere

ofer deop waeter Dyflin secan,

eft Ira lang aewisc-mode.

Swelce tha gebrothor begen aetsamne,

cyning and aetheling, cyththe sohton,

West Seaxna lang, wiges hremge.

Leton him behindan hraew bryttian

sealwig-padan, thone sweartan hraefn

hyrned-nebban, and thone hasu-padan,

earn aeftan hwit, aeses brucan,–

graedigne guth-hafoc, and thaet graege deor,

wulf on wealda.

 

Ne wearth wael mare

on thys ig-lande aefre gieta

folces gefielled beforan thissum

sweordes ecgum, thaes-the us secgath bec,

eald uthwitan, siththan eastan hider

Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,

ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,

wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,

eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.

 

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh

ATHELSTAN King,
Lord among Earls,
Bracelet-bestower and
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Edmund Atheling,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.

Theirs was a greatness
Got from their Grandsires—
Theirs that so often in
Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

Bow’d the spoiler,
Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews
Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow’d, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God
Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.

There lay many a man
Marr’d by the javelin,
Men of the Northland
Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman
Weary of war.

We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight
Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.

Mighty the Mercian,
Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of
Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the
Weltering waters
Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
Drew to this island:
Doom’d to the death.

Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

Then the Norse leader.
Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following,
Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

Also the crafty one,
Constantinus,
Crept to his North again,
Hoar-headed hero!

Slender warrant had
He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives—
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had
Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too
Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels,
A youngster in war!

Slender reason had
He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive—
Traitor and trickster
And spurner of treaties—
He nor had Anlaf
With armies so broken
A reason for bragging
That they had the better
In perils of battle
On places of slaughter—
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,
The wielding of weapons—
The play that they play’d with
The children of Edward.

Then with their nail’d prows
Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden’d relic of
Javelins over
The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen again,
Shamed in their souls.

Also the brethren,
King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.

Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.

 

The Battle of Brunanburh – translated by John Osbourne

Then Aethelstan, king, Thane of eorls,

ring-bestower to men, and his brother also,

the atheling Edmund, lifelong honour

struck in battle with sword’s edge

at Brunanburh. Broke the shieldwall,

split shields with swords.

Edward’s sons, the issue of princes

from kingly kin, oft on campaign

their fatherland from foes defended,

hoard and home. Crushed the hated ones,

Scots-folk and ship-men

fated fell. The field flowed with blood,

I have heard said, from sun-rise

in morningtime, as mighty star

glided up overground, God’s bright candle,

– the eternal Lord’s – till that noble work

sank to its setting. There lay scores of men

destroyed by darts, Danish warrior

shot over shield. So Scots also

wearied of war. West-Saxons went forth

from morn till night the mounted warriors

pursued enemy people,

the fleeing forces were felled from behind

with swords new-sharpened. The Mercians spurned not

hard hand-play with heroes

that accompanied Anlaf over sea’s surge,

in ship’s shelter sought land,

came fated to fight. Five lay dead

on the killing field, young kings

put to sleep with the sword; so also seven

of Anlaf’s eorls, and unnumbered slain

among sea-men and Scots. So was routed

the Northmen’s lord, by need forced

to take ship with few troops.

compelled to sea , the king set out

on fallow flood, saved his life.

So also the wise one fled away

to his northern country, Constantine,

hoary battle-man; he need not boast

of that meeting of swords. He was severed from kin,

forfeiting friends on that field,

slain at war, and his son left

on the death-ground, destroyed by his wounds,

young warrior. He need not brag,

the white-haired warrior, about sword-wielding,

the artful one, nor Anlaf either;

With their army smashed they need not sneer

that their battle-work was better

on the battlefield where banners crashed

and spears clashed in that meeting of men,

that weapon-wrestle, when on the death-field

they played with Edward’s offspring.

The Northmen went off in nail-bound ships,

sad survivors of spears, on Ding’s mere,

over deep water seeking Dublin,

Ireland again, ashamed in their hearts.

So both brothers together,

king and atheling, their country sought,

the land of Wessex, in war exulting.

They left behind them sharing the lifeless

the dusk-dressed one, the dark raven,

with hard beak of horn, and the hoar-coated one,

white-tailed eagle, enjoying the carrion,

greedy war-hawk, and that grey beast,

the wolf of the wood. Nor was more slaughter

on this isle ever yet,

so many folk felled, before this

sword battle, as say the books,

the old wise men, since from the east

Angle and Saxon arrived together

over broad briny seeking Britain,

proud warriors who worsted the Welsh,

eager for glory, and gained a land.

‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’

I want to write a little about one of my favourite poems: Wilfred Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Like all poetry this should be heard rather than read. The Northern Irish actor Kenneth Branagh has recorded most of Owen’s poetry and you can listen to his rendition here if you wish. But for me at least, Branagh’s readings of Owen’s poetry, beautiful diction though they have, leave me cold. There is real anger and real sadness in The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, anger and sadness that Branagh’s reading totally misses. I prefer the very simple reading at the end of the magnificent 1997 film Regeneration (here). If you watch the whole film, the poem, when it comes, will have you in tears. It’s still not angry enough for me, but very moving nonetheless.

I first read this poem at school more than forty years ago. Our English teacher was, I think, a bit of a closet radical. Coming back to it now I thought the poem’s meaning was so obvious that no one would ever need to spend more than a minute or two on interpretation. Yet actually that’s probably not correct. The reason why the ‘meaning’ of the poem is so obvious to me is because I was brought up at a time and in a society where knowledge of the Bible and of the First World War was just there. Every day we had Bible readings in school. Our grandparents had experienced the war and many of our teachers had lived through it. In much of the western world this is no longer the case. In many, many ways this is a good thing. Thank God (oops!) children don’t have to have horrendous biblical bunkum pushed down their throats. Thank God most western children no longer have to hear about the massacre of whole generations. But when it comes to canonical poetry or literature there’s a bit of a gap.

This became clear to me when I wrote a couple of short pieces on poetry, in particular one about A. E. Housman’s Blue Remembered Hills. I soon realised that this poem must be on the curriculum of quite a few American schools or colleges. At least every few weeks a school teacher in the US sets his or her students a task of writing a critique or interpretation of Blue Remembered Hills. And, lo and behold, it seems that the students don’t read the poem and think about what it means to them or even try to figure out for themselves what the poet might have meant. No, what they do is go straight onto the internet looking for someone else’s ready-made interpretation which they can then, at best, use or, at worst, plagiarize.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Now for every ten students who cut and paste or simply plagiarize there will be one who is really moved and wants to offer their own penny worth. Perhaps it was ever thus.

We might even want to question (I hope not) the relevance of old canonical novels, plays and poetry. After all for school and college students today the Boer War which Housman alludes to and the First World War which is the immediate subject of Owen’s poetry are ancient history. Be that as it may.

Let’s return to The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is of course an anti-war poem, but it is so much more than that. It’s also a denunciation of imperialistic capitalism and a searing indictment of the warped morality of sacrifice. Whose sacrifice and for whom?

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is an allegory based on the Old Testament story (or parable if you like) found in Genesis 22 and usually called The Binding of Isaac. This story is, like most in the Old Testament, a pretty evil story, completely lacking in anything that we would regard as moral today:

The Binding of Isaac

Sometime later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.  On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

 The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

Caravaggio's Sacrifice of Isaac

Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac

God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham didn’t even hesitate. He started straight away to prepare the sacrificial altar: ‘Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife… Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it.’ Isaac in his innocence didn’t get what his father was doing: ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham avoided the question and lied: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’

No hesitation, no compassion. Abraham just had to obey God’s word. ‘Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.’ Then and only then do we get one of the original Deus ex machina. Just as he was about to slay his son God stops him:

Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.

Because Abraham had been more than ready to obey, God let him off the hook. He could sacrifice ‘a ram caught by its horns’ instead. God was very pleased with the result of his little charade and rewarded Abraham:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.

A more pitiless, immoral tale it would be hard to find. What on earth can this ‘lovely’ story or parable teach us except unthinking obedience to a remote and all powerful God? But at least Isaac had been spared, even though this seems to have mattered not one iota to his father.

In Owen’s The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, Isaac, who represents the millions of young men slaughtered in the trenches of the First World War, is not spared. Abram (an earlier form of Abraham) is the heartless omnipotent power; he is the ‘old’ power of the imperialistic, militaristic states. The power of money, position and pride. This power, just like God, demands obedience and sacrifice, the sacrifice not of their power but of ‘the young’. As in the Old Testament the young ask an obvious innocent question:

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

‘Fire and iron’ to make the weapons of war are being prepared, but who will be the sacrificial ‘lamb’? Like the Biblical Isaac they got no answer:

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

The young were kitted out in ‘belts and straps’. Parapets and trenches were dug ready for the knife to fall, ready for the sacrifice of a whole generation. God’s angel tries to offer a helping hand and a way out:

When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

There was no reason for this war, no fight of good against evil. It was just the useless pride of the rulers that prevented them from seeing reason. If they had been willing to sacrifice the ‘Ram of Pride’ instead of their own people, the slaughter could have been avoided. But no, the rulers were more pitiless than God:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

In the heartless Bible Abraham’s people (the later Jews) were rewarded: ‘Through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’ In our time there is no redemption, not even an offer of future glory. The power must be obeyed, the people are sacrificed.

‘Several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.’

Percy Bysshe SAhelley

Percy Bysshe SAhelley

Just a few months ago the actress Maxine Peake gave what Paul Vallely in The Independent referred to as a ‘bravura performance of The Masque of Anarchy, the long poem which Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in indignation against the Peterloo Massacre of 1819’. This was part of this year’s Manchester International Festival. Vallely continued: ‘Dressed in a plain white shift, her blonde-hair neatly bobbed as if to be free of catching in the furious looms of the mill, Maxine Peake, in a prodigious act of memory, delivered a 50-minute rendition of Shelley’s rhetorical rhapsody with such pace and passion that it felt not like a performance so much as being present at a piece of history. Yet with the beauty and ire of an avenging angel she was not recalling the past so much as speaking to a present in which her words would have echoed as aptly now in Tahrir Square.’  The Masque has been called ‘the greatest political poem ever written in English’. I wish I had been there.

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo

I have long wanted to write about the Peterloo massacre. It was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions, and also resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper, all good things.  According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Salford, ‘Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy today. It was critical to our freedoms.’

The problem was that so much has been written about the massacre, scholarly and otherwise, that what more was left to be said? Perhaps not much; so as is often the case I’ll find my way in via poetry. What was ‘The Masque of Anarchy’?

A little history is perhaps in order. Here I will simply quote from The Peterloo Massacre (www.peterloomassacre.org). It tells the basic story simply but well:

‘On the 16th of August 1819 the huge open area around what’s now St Peters Square, Manchester, played host to an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters; an event which became known as the Peterloo Massacre. An estimated 18 people, including a woman and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Over 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. All in the name of liberty and freedom from poverty.

The Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger was rife with the disastrous Corn Laws making bread unaffordable.

The Peterloo MassacreOn the morning of 16th August the crowd began to gather, conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority dressed in their Sunday best. The key speaker was to be famed orator Henry Hunt, the platform consisted of a simple cart… the space was filled with banners – REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and, touchingly, LOVE. Many of the banner poles where topped with the red cap of liberty – a powerful symbol at the time.

Local magistrates watching from a window near the field panicked at the sight of the crowd, and read the riot act, effectively ordering what little of the crowd could hear them to disperse.

As 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve, the local Yeomanry were given the task of arresting the speakers. The Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford, were essentially a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners.

On horseback, armed with cutlasses and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance, spotting a reporter from the radical Manchester Observer, a Yeomanry officer called out “There’s Saxton, damn him, run him through.”)

Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests, and proceeded to strike down banners and people with their swords. Rumours from the period have persistently stated the Yeomanry were drunk.

The panic was interpreted as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and the Hussars (Led by Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange) were ordered in…

The term ‘Peterloo’, was intended to mock the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing the term ‘Waterloo’ – the soldiers from that battle being seen by many as genuine heroes.

By 2pm the carnage was over, and the field left full of abandoned banners and dead bodies. Journalists present at the event were arrested; others who went on to report the event were subsequently jailed. The businessman John Edwards Taylor went on to help set up the Guardian newspaper as a reaction to what he’d seen. The speakers and organizers were put on trial, at first under the charge of High treason – a charge that was reluctantly dropped by the persecution. The Hussars and Magistrates received a message of congratulations from the Prince Regent, and were cleared of any wrong-doing by the official inquiry.’

Samuel Bamford.

Samuel Bamford.

There are several eye-witness accounts of the massacre. One was written by Samuel Bamford (1788 – 1872):

In about half an hour after our arrival the sounds of music and reiterated shouts proclaimed the near approach of Mr Hunt and his party; and in a minute or two they were seen coming from Deansgate, preceded by a band of music and several flags.

Their approach was hailed by one universal shout from probably 80,000 persons. They threaded their way slowly past us and through the crowd, which Hunt eyed, I thought, with almost as much of astonishment as satisfaction. This spectacle could not be otherwise in his view than solemnly impressive.

Such a mass of human beings he had not beheld till then. His responsibility must weigh on his mind. The task was great, and not without its peril. The meeting was indeed a tremendous one.

Mr Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hat, and addressed the people.

We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said it was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.

“The soldiers are here,” I said; “we must go back and see what this means.” “Oh,” someone made reply, “they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting.” “Well, let us go back,” I said, and we forced our way towards the colours.

On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…”

“Stand fast,” I said, “they are riding upon us; stand fast”.

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.

Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heart-rending, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain.

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed.

The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.

Several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more.

All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.

Passages in the Life of a Radical, 1864

Hunt's arrest at Peterloo

Hunt’s arrest at Peterloo

As mentioned, the event was called Peterloo in mock echo of Waterloo where the hussars of the British Army had just scored a great victory over the forces of Napoleon. ‘Only this time the sabre-wielding cavalry were sent not upon a foreign foe but on 60,000 unarmed working men, women and children who had gathered on Peter’s field in Manchester to protest against wage cuts in the cotton mills which belched such smoke into the air above the city that horrified visitors reported the sky was permanently black.’

Shelley was in Italy when he heard of the massacre. It ‘so shocked the poet that he was compelled to pen his protest’. Dr Alison Morgan of Salford University has said that Peterloo was ‘important to him because he opposed repression of the people’. ‘He loathed the government and was himself under investigation before he left for the continent… Peterloo epitomised the brutality of the government but also provided some hope that a revolution or at least some form of mass protest would occur.’

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

Shelley completed the 91 stanza The Masque of Anarchy in just a few days. It is a long and complex poem, I have reproduced it in full at the end, but, like all poetry, it is meant to be heard not read. I wish I had a recording of Albert Hall performance to share with you, alas I do not. However, one Manchester lady, whose name I don’t know, has made available her fine reading. It is in two parts, I would highly recommend you listen to these before reading further: here and here.

The Guardian’s critic John Mullan wrote, ‘the poem is a prophetic dream, an apocalyptic vision of Regency Britain and the shaky legitimacy of its ruling class. In the first part, the nation’s leading politicians parade like monsters, leading the figure of Anarchy around on a white horse to trample the multitudes. In this vision, the true anarchists are Britain’s rulers, who delight in fear and disorder. Anarchy’s followers, who include lawyers and priests, take possession of palace and parliament’.

This is absolutely true but we must beware an anachronistic use of the term ‘anarchy’. Today the word has so many negative connotations in everyday usage that its various earlier meanings are lost. Webster’s dictionary gives the principle meaning of anarchy as: ‘A situation of confusion and wild behaviour, in which the people in a country, group, organization, etc., are not controlled by rules or laws.’ Subsidiary definitions include that anarchy is the ‘absence of government’, ‘a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority’, ‘a utopian society of individuals who enjoy complete freedom without government’, or even the ‘absence or denial of any authority or established order’.

In the later part of the nineteenth century ‘anarchy’ never meant this at all. It certainly never meant ‘a state of lawlessness’ or ‘freedom without government’. No, what anarchy meant was simply that any exercise of authority and power, whether by the government or otherwise, had to justify itself before the people. Even earlier, around the time Shelley wrote his poem, anarchy was pretty much synonymous with tyranny, with, if you like, the lack of any observance of ‘natural law’. In The Masque of Anarchy Shelley is quite explicit: Anarchy is the king.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

Then all cried with one accord,
‘Thou art King, and God, and Lord ;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!’

And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castelreagh, 'Murder'

Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, ‘Murder’

The king was Shelley’s last of ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ who were oppressing the people of Britain. The other three were Murder (Viscount Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary), Fraud (Baron Eldon, the Lord Chancellor) and Hypocrisy (Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth, Britain’s Home Secretary).

And with a mighty troop around
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.

And with glorious triumph they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.

O’er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down ;
Till they came to London town.

They are challenged only by a “maniac maid” called Hope, though “she looked more like Despair”.

Anarchy leads armed forces through England, scaring the population. Soon, the “seven bloodhounds” get to England, where they massacre the innocent public. They continue to butcher the innocent as they travel through the land, eventually reaching London, where the “dwellers,” who are by this time aware of the havoc these masked tyrants are running, are “panic-stricken” and attempt to run away.

Anarchy claims to be God, King, and Law, rejecting all traditional sources of authority and power. Some are duped and choose to follow him. The ‘adoring multitude’ is fooled by the disguises worn by state establishments. ‘Shelley is pointing out that the institutions in which people are encouraged to place their trust and faith are the very ones that are out to ‘trample’ them. While the people of England continue to worship their King, they are unable to see the anarchist behind the mask.’

This is the ‘Mask of Anarchy’.

As Anarchy’s forces proceed with their destruction, even Hope cries out in despair. ‘Finally, however, a mist of hope emerges, carrying thoughts. This revives Hope and kills Anarchy. The land of England seems to speak to the English, asking them to rise and retake true freedom, since they really have been oppressed and should fight back. Instead of trading ‘blood for blood’ and ‘wrong for wrong,’ the people should finally turn back to justice, wisdom, peace, and love in order to achieve liberty. They should be guided by ‘Science, Poetry, and Thought’ and quiet virtues. The true revolution should be ‘measured’ and use words instead of swords, drawing on the ‘old laws of England’ instead of the new laws of the oppressors. When the tyrants fight back, the people should let their anger show itself until the tyrants fall back in shame. The people will then ‘Rise like Lions after slumber in ‘unvanquishable number’ to reform England.’

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

I’ll leave the last words to Paul Fitzgerald, who chairs a campaign to have a permanent Peterloo memorial erected in Manchester. He writes that the poem’s modern relevance lies in the fact it ‘reminds us of the sacrifices that people went through to push for the vote’:

When you consider what people did and how brave they were, walking past armed soldiers knowing that they had been declared illegal and how the state had behaved before, it begs the question as to whether we are looking after our hard-won democracy?

It’s so easy to take democracy for granted and we forget what a struggle it was to obtain it in the first place.

In the age of increasing government surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties, it is a timely reminder of how governments are not averse to attacking (their) own people.

Peterloo Massacre by Richard Carlile

Peterloo Massacre by Richard Carlile

The Mask of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

As I lay asleep in Italy
There came a voice from over the Sea,
And with great power it forth led me
To walk in the visions of Poesy.

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Lord Eldon, an ermined gown ;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

Clothed with the Bible, as with light,
And the shadows of the night,
Like Sidmouth, next, Hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.

And many more Destructions played
In this ghastly masquerade,
All disguised, even to the eyes,
Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, and spies.

Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

With a pace stately and fast,
Over English land he passed,
Trampling to a mire of blood
The adoring multitude.

And with a mighty troop around
With their trampling shook the ground,
Waving each a bloody sword,
For the service of their Lord.

And with glorious triumph they
Rode through England proud and gay,
Drunk as with intoxication
Of the wine of desolation.

O’er fields and towns, from sea to sea,
Passed the Pageant swift and free,
Tearing up, and trampling down;
Till they came to London town.

And each dweller, panic-stricken,
Felt his heart with terror sicken
Hearing the tempestuous cry
Of the triumph of Anarchy.

For from pomp to meet him came,
Clothed in arms like blood and flame,
The hired murderers, who did sing
‘Thou art God, and Law, and King.

We have waited weak and lone
For thy coming, Mighty One!
Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,
Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’

Lawyers and priests a motley crowd,
To the earth their pale brows bowed ;
Like a bad prayer not over loud,
Whispering—‘Thou art Law and God.’—

Then all cried with one accord,
‘Thou art King, and God, and Lord ;
Anarchy, to thee we bow,
Be thy name made holy now!’

And Anarchy, the Skeleton,
Bowed and grinned to every one,
As well as if his education
Had cost ten millions to the nation.

For he knew the Palaces
Of our Kings were rightly his ;
His the sceptre, crown, and globe,
And the gold-inwoven robe.

So he sent his slaves before
To seize upon the Bank and Tower,
And was proceeding with intent
To meet his pensioned Parliament

When one fled past, a maniac maid,
And her name was Hope, she said:
But she looked more like Despair,
And she cried out in the air :

My father Time is weak and gray
With waiting for a better day;
See how idiot-like he stands,
Fumbling with his palsied hands!

He has had child after child,
And the dust of death is piled
Over every one but me—
Misery, oh, Misery!’

Then she lay down in the street,
Right before the horses feet,
Expecting, with a patient eye,
Murder, Fraud, and Anarchy.

When between her and her foes
A mist, a light, an image rose.
Small at first, and weak, and frail
Like the vapour of a vale :

Till as clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast,
And glare with lightnings as they fly,
And speak in thunder to the sky.

It grew—a Shape arrayed in mail
Brighter than the viper’s scale,
And upborne on wings whose grain
Was as the light of sunny rain.

On its helm, seen far away,
A planet, like the Morning’s, lay;
And those plumes its light rained through
Like a shower of crimson dew.

With step as soft as wind it passed
O’er the heads of men—so fast
That they knew the presence there,
And looked,—but all was empty air.

As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,
As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,
As waves arise when loud winds call,
Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.

And the prostrate multitude
Looked—and ankle-deep in blood,
Hope, that maiden most serene,
Was walking with a quiet mien :

And Anarchy, the ghastly birth,
Lay dead earth upon the earth ;
The Horse of Death tameless as wind
Fled, and with his hoofs did grind
To dust the murderers thronged behind.

A rushing light of clouds and splendour,
A sense awakening and yet tender
Was heard and felt—and at its close
These words of joy and fear arose

As if their own indignant Earth
Which gave the sons of England birth
Had felt their blood upon her brow,
And shuddering with a mother’s throe

Had turned every drop of blood
By which her face had been bedewed
To an accent unwithstood,—
As if her heart cried out aloud:

Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

What is Freedom?—ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well—
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.

Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

‘Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
When the winter winds are bleak,—
They are dying whilst I speak.

‘Tis to hunger for such diet
As the rich man in his riot
Casts to the fat dogs that lie
Surfeiting beneath his eye ;

’Tis to let the Ghost of Gold
Take from Toil a thousandfold
More than e’er its substance could
In the tyrannies of old.

Paper coin—that forgery
Of the title-deeds, which ye
Hold to something from the worth
Of the inheritance of Earth.

’Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.

And at length when ye complain
With a murmur weak and vain
’Tis to see the Tyrant’s crew
Ride over your wives and you—
Blood is on the grass like dew.

Then it is to feel revenge
Fiercely thirsting to exchange
Blood for blood—and wrong for wrong—
Do not thus when ye are strong.

Birds find rest, in narrow nest
When weary of their wingèd quest;
Beasts find fare, in woody lair
When storm and snow are in the air.

Horses, oxen, have a home,
When from daily toil they come;
Household dogs, when the wind roars,
Find a home within warm doors.

Asses, swine, have litter spread
And with fitting food are fed;
All things have a home but one—
Thou, Oh, Englishman, hast none !

This is Slavery—savage men,
Or wild beasts within a den
Would endure not as ye do—
But such ills they never knew.

What art thou, Freedom? O! could slaves
Answer from their living graves
This demand—tyrants would flee
Like a dream’s imagery:

Thou are not, as impostors say,
A shadow soon to pass away,
A superstition, and a name
Echoing from the cave of Fame.

For the labourer thou art bread,
And a comely table spread
From his daily labour come
In a neat and happy home.

Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude—
No—in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.

To the rich thou art a check,
When his foot is on the neck
Of his victim, thou dost make
That he treads upon a snake.

Thou art Justice—ne’er for gold
May thy righteous laws be sold
As laws are in England—thou
Shield’st alike both high and low.

Thou art Wisdom—Freemen never
Dream that God will damn for ever
All who think those things untrue
Of which Priests make such ado.

Thou art Peace—never by thee
Would blood and treasure wasted be
As tyrants wasted them, when all
Leagued to quench thy flame in Gaul.

What if English toil and blood
Was poured forth, even as a flood ?
It availed, Oh, Liberty.
To dim, but not extinguish thee.

Thou art Love—the rich have kissed
Thy feet, and like him following Christ,
Give their substance to the free
And through the rough world follow thee,

Or turn their wealth to arms, and make
War for thy belovèd sake
On wealth, and war, and fraud—whence they
Drew the power which is their prey.

Science, Poetry, and Thought
Are thy lamps ; they make the lot
Of the dwellers in a cot
So serene, they curse it not.

Spirit, Patience, Gentleness,
All that can adorn and bless
Art thou—let deeds, not words, express
Thine exceeding loveliness.

Let a great Assembly be
Of the fearless and the free
On some spot of English ground
Where the plains stretch wide around.

Let the blue sky overhead,
The green earth on which ye tread,
All that must eternal be
Witness the solemnity.

From the corners uttermost
Of the bounds of English coast ;
From every hut, village, and town
Where those who live and suffer moan
For others’ misery or their own,

From the workhouse and the prison
Where pale as corpses newly risen,
Women, children, young and old
Groan for pain, and weep for cold—

From the haunts of daily life
Where is waged the daily strife
With common wants and common cares
Which sows the human heart with tares—

Lastly from the palaces
Where the murmur of distress
Echoes, like the distant sound
Of a wind alive around

Those prison halls of wealth and fashion.
Where some few feel such compassion
For those who groan, and toil, and wail
As must make their brethren pale—

Ye who suffer woes untold,
Or to feel, or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold—

Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free—

Be your strong and simple words
Keen to wound as sharpened swords,
And wide as targes let them be,
With their shade to cover ye.

Let the tyrants pour around
With a quick and startling sound,
Like the loosening of a sea,
Troops of armed emblazonry.

Let the charged artillery drive
Till the dead air seems alive
With the clash of clanging wheels,
And the tramp of horses’ heels.

Let the fixèd bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood
Looking keen as one for food.

Let the horsemen’s scimitars
Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars
Thirsting to eclipse their burning
In a sea of death and mourning.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

Let the laws of your own land,
Good or ill, between ye stand
Hand to hand, and foot to foot,
Arbiters of the dispute,

The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are gray,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty !

On those who first should violate
Such sacred heralds in their state
Rest the blood that must ensue,
And it will not rest on you.

And if then the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew, —
What they like, that let them do.

With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.’

Then they will return with shame
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek.

Every woman in the land
Will point at them as they stand—
They will hardly dare to greet
Their acquaintance in the street.

And the bold, true warriors
Who have hugged Danger in wars
Will turn to those who would be free,
Ashamed of such base company.

And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular ;
A volcano heard afar.

And these words shall then become
Like Oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain.
Heard again—again—again—

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’