Poetry and Art (4)

More Tennyson … Only one poem this week, as it’s a long one.  I’ve always been intrigued by the story of Godiva, and wondered how much of it was true.  Before the poem, a bit of history.

The earliest surviving source that mentions this story is the 1057 ‘ Flores Historiarum’ (‘Flowers of History’) by Roger of Wendover.  Godiva, or ‘Godfigu’ (meaning, 'God’s Gift’) was the young wife of Leofric, the ‘grim Earl’ of Mercia.  A rich landowner in her own right, one of Godiva’s most valuable properties was Coventry.  Leofric owed his allegiance to the Danish King Cnut; he supported Harold’s claim to the throne on Cnut’s death in 1035, and helped avert civil war by mediating the quarrel between Edward the Confessor and Earl Godwin in 1051.

Unlike his religious wife, Leofric had no fondness for the Midlands and its people, nor for the Church.  A tyrant, he imposed a severe tax, called the  Heregeld, on the people of Coventry; this tax was levied for the maintenance of Cnut’s army.

Roger of Wendover recounts that Leofric, exasperated over his wife’s pleading to reduce the tax, finally agreed to do so, but only if she would ride naked through the marketplace.  She being a modest, highly religious woman, he believed this would be the one thing she would never do.  He was wrong.  So stunned was he by her selfless act, he seemed to have undergone some sort of conversion – he lifted the tax, and stopped persecuting the Church.

… The countess Godiva, who was a great lover of God’s mother, longing to free the town of Coventry from the oppression of a heavy toll, often with urgent prayers besought her husband, that from regard to Jesus Christ and his mother, he would free the town from that service, and from all other heavy burdens; and when the earl sharply rebuked her for foolishly asking what was so much to his damage, and always forbade her ever more to speak to him on the subject; and while she on the other hand, with a woman's pertinacity, never ceased to exasperate her husband on that matter, he at last made her this answer, ‘Mount your horse, and ride naked, before all the people, through the market of the town, from one end to the other, and on your return you shall have your request.’ On which Godiva replied, ‘But will you give me permission, if I am willing to do it?’ ‘I will,’ said he. Whereupon the countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the market-place, without being seen, except her fair legs; and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband, and obtained of him what she had asked; for earl Leofric freed the town of Coventry and its inhabitants from the aforesaid service, and confirmed what he had done by a charter.” ~ Roger of Wendover

The 14th century chronicle by Ranulf Higden, the ‘Polychronicon’, states that Leofric did excuse the town of all taxes save those on horses.  An inquiry made in the reign of Edward I shows that this indeed was the case – no tolls at that time were paid in Coventry, except on horses.


I waited for the train at Coventry;

I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,

To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped

The city’s ancient legend into this:

Not only we, the latest seed of Time,

New men, that in the flying of a wheel

Cry down the past, not only we, that prate

Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,

And loathed to see them overtax’d; but she

Did more, and underwent, and overcame,

The woman of a thousand summers back,

Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled

In Coventry: for when he laid a tax

Upon his town, and all the mothers brought

Their children, clamoring, “If we pay, we starve!”

She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode

About the hall, among his dogs, alone,

His beard a foot before him and his hair

A yard behind.  She told him of their tears,

And pray’d him, “If they pay this tax, they starve.”

Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,

“You would not let your little finger ache

For such as these?” – “But I would die,” said she.

He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;

Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;

“Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!” – “Alas!” she said,

“But prove me what it is I would not do.”

And from a heart as rough as Esau’s hand,

He answer’d, “Ride you naked thro’ the town,

And I repeal it;” and nodding, as in scorn,

He parted, with great strides among his dogs.

So left alone, the passions of her mind,

As winds from all the compass shift and blow,

Made war upon each other for an hour,

Till pity won.  She sent a herald forth,

And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all

The hard condition; but that she would loose

The people: therefore, as they loved her well,

From then till noon no foot should pace the street,

No eye look down, she passing; but that all

Should keep within, door shut, and window barr’d.

Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there

Unclasp’d the wedded eagles of her belt,

The grim Earl’s gift; but ever at a breath

She linger’d, looking like a summer moon

Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,

And shower’d the rippled ringlets to her knee;

Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair

Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid

From pillar unto pillar, until she reach’d

The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt

In purple blazon’d with armorial gold.

Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:

The deep air listen’d round her as she rode,

And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.

The little wide-mouth’d heads upon the spout

Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur

Made her cheek flame; her palfrey’s foot-fall shot

Light horrors thro’ her pulses; the blind walls

Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead

Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she

Not less thro’ all bore up, till, last, she saw

The white-flower’d elder-thicket from the field,

Gleam thro’ the Gothic archway in the wall.

Then she rode back, clothed on with chastity;

And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,

The fatal byword of all years to come,

Boring a little auger-hole in fear,

Peep’d – but his eyes, before they had their will,

Were shrivell’d into darkness in his head,

And dropt before him.  So the Powers, who wait

On noble deeds, cancell’d a sense misused;

And she, that knew not, pass’d: and all at once,

With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon

Was clash’d and hammer’d from a hundred towers,

One after one: but even then she gain’d

Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown’d,

To meet her lord, she took the tax away

And built herself an everlasting name.

Art - 'Head of a Nymph' ~ Sophie Anderson

'Lady Godiva' ~ Edmund Blair Leighton

'Lady Godiva' ~ John Collier

Poetry and Art (3)

Alfred Lord Tennyson – he features heavily in this poetry book; he’s the poet whose work I learned the most of when I was in school, one of the first being ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ then ‘The Beggar Maid’.  Here are a few from the book, my personal favourites being ‘Fatima’, and ‘The Lady of Shalott’, which will feature in a later post.

‘Love and Sorrow’

O Maiden, fresher than the first green leaf

With which the fearful springtide flecks the lea,

Weep not, Almeida, that I said to thee

That thou hast half my heart, for bitter grief

Doth hold the other half in sovranty.

Thou art my heart’s sun in love’s crystalline.

Yet on both sides at once thou canst not shine.

Thine is the bright side of my heart, and thine

My heart’s day, but the shadow of my heart,

Issue of its own substance, my heart’s night

Thou canst not lighten even with thy light,

All powerful in beauty as thou art.

Almeida, if my heart were substanceless,

Then might thy rays pass through to the other side,

So swiftly, that they nowhere would abide,

But lose themselves in utter emptiness.

Half-light, half-shadow, let my spirit sleep;

They never learned to love who never knew to weep.

 ‘The Beggar Maid’

Her arms across her breast she laid;

            She was more fair than words can say:

Bare-footed came the beggar maid

            Before the king Cophetua.

In robe and crown the king stept down,

            To meet and greet her on her way;

‘It is no wonder,’ said the lords,

            ‘She is more beautiful than day.’

As shines the moon in clouded skies,

            She in her poor attire was seen:

One praised her ankles, one her eyes,

            One her dark hair and lovesome mien.

So sweet a face, such angel grace,

            In all that land had never been:

Cophetua sware a royal oath:

            ‘This beggar maid shall be my queen!’

Art - 'A Necklace of Wild Flowers' ~ Emma Sandys

If I'd had a copy of this painting when I was putting the book together, I'd have included it with the poem ...

'King Copetua and the Beggar Maid' - Edmund Blair Leighton


O Love, Love, Love! O withering might!

O sun, that from thy noonday height

Shudderest when I strain my sight,

Throbbing thro’ all thy heat and light,

Lo, falling from my constant mind,

Lo, parch’d and wither’d, deaf and blind,

I whirl like leaves in roaring wind.

Last night I wasted hateful hours

Below the city’s eastern towers:

I thirsted for the brooks, the showers:

I roll’d among the tender flowers:

I crush’d them on my breast, my mouth:

I look’d athwart the burning drouth

Of that long desert to the south.

Last night, when some one spoke his name,

From my swift blood that went and came

A thousand little shafts of flame

Were shiver’d in my narrow frame.

O Love, o fire! once he drew

With one long kiss my whole soul thro’

My lips, as sunlight drinketh dew.

Before he mounts the hill, I know

He cometh quickly: from below

Sweet gales, as from deep gardens, blow

Before him, striking on my brow.

In my dry brain my spirit soon,

Down-deepening from swoon to swoon,

Faints like a dazzled morning moon.

The wind sounds like a silver wire,

And from beyond the noon a fire

Is pour’d upon the hills, and nigher

The skies stoop down in their desire;

And, isled in sudden seas of light,

My heart, pierced thro’ with fierce delight,

Bursts into blossom in his sight.

My whole soul waiting silently,

All naked in a sultry sky,

Droops blinded with his shining eye:

I will possess him or will die.

I will grow round him in his place,

Grow, live, die looking on his face,

Die, dying clasp’d in his embrace.

Art - 'Gwain Departs from Landine' ~ FC Robinson

Poetry and Art (2)

Two poems today, one by Emily Dickinson – short yet full of meaning; and the other by Dora Sigerson Shorter.  Like the ‘Solitude’ poem of last week, I knew parts of Ms Shorter's poem but only discovered the whole when I was putting this book together.  I particularly like the imagery this presents of the fairies, gliding in their dance without a care, not realising that death, in the form of the spider, is luring them in with his exquisite web – the dichotomy of beauty and danger.

‘I Stepped From Plank to Plank’ ~ Emily Dickinson

I stepped from Plank to Plank

A slow and cautious way

The Stars about my Head I felt

About my Feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next

Would be my final inch –

This gave me that precarious Gait

Some call Experience.

Art - 'Hope in the Prison of Despair' ~ Evelyn de Morgan

‘The Watcher in the Wood’ ~ Dora Sigerson Shorter

Deep in the wood’s recesses cool

I see the fairy dancers glide,

In cloth of gold, in gown of green,

My lord and lady side by side.

   But who has hung from leaf to leaf,

   From flower to flower, a silken twine –

   A cloud of grey that holds the dew

   In globes of clear enchanted wine?

Or stretches far from branch to branch,

From thorn to thorn, in diamond rain,

Who caught the cup of crystal pure

And hung so fair the shining chain?

   Tis death, the spider, in his net,

   Who lures the dancers as they glide,

   In cloth of gold, in gown of green,

   My lord and lady side by side.

Art - 'The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania' ~ Sir Joseph N. Paton

Poetry and Art

Going to deviate from actual stories for a while, and focus on poetry.

I don’t tend to read much poetry, but there are some that have stayed with me from the first time I read them.  I realised the other day, back when I posted about my altered books and craft stuff, I never posted about this – a blank, spiral-bound book, which I filled with some of my favourite poetry and art.  Instead of simply posting it as ‘craft’, I’ve decided to highlight some of the poetry …

But first, the front and back covers …

Art - part of Alma-Tadema's 'Coign of Vantage' (top), and Alfonse Mucha's 'Monaco Monte Carlo'

'A Coign of Vantage' - Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The first page ... I adore the art of Briton Riviere, and struggle to pick a favourite … this one, like the goddess herself, is too beautiful to find the words that would fittingly describe it.

‘Solitude’ ~ Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;

  Weep, and you weep alone

For the sad old earth must borrow its mirth,

  But has trouble enough of its own.

Sing, and the hills will answer;

  Sigh, it is lost on the air;

The echoes bound to a joyful sound,

  But shrink from voicing care.

Rejoice, and men will seek you;

  Grieve, and they turn and go;

They want full measure of all your pleasure,

  But they do not need your woe.

Be glad, and your friends are many;

  Be sad, and you lose them all –

There are none to decline your nectared wine,

  But alone you must drink life’s gall.

Feast, and your halls are crowded;

  Fast, and the world goes by.

Succeed and give, and it helps you live,

  But no man can help you die.

There is room in the halls of pleasure

  For a large and lordly train,

But one by one we must all file on

  Through the narrow aisles of pain.

Art - 'The Prisoner' ~ Evelyn de Morgan