Poetry and Art (7)

I’ll finish this section of 'Tuesday's Tales' with 2 poems by American poets – Walt Whitman and Helen Jackson, both of whom lived through the American Civil War.  I don’t know a great deal about them, and barely know any of their poems.

Walt Whitman was born in 1819, and lived to the grand old age of 73.  This poem is his tribute to Abraham Lincoln, whom he greatly admired, as a man and as a president.  The ‘captain’ in the poem is Lincoln; the ‘fearful trip’ is the Civil War; the ship is the United States; and the prize, the preservation of the union.

‘O Captain!  My Captain!’

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

       O the bleeding drops of red,

                   Where on the deck my Captain lies,

                               Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells:

Rise up – for you the flag is flung – for you the bugle trills,

For you the bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths – for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning:

            Here Captain! dear father!

                        The arm beneath your head!

                                    It is some dream that on the deck.

                                                You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won:

            Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

                        But I with mournful tread,

                                    Walk the deck my Captain lies,

                                                Fallen cold and dead.

Helen Jackson was born in 1830 … there’s something about this poem that I instantly liked the first time I read it.  It was read at her simple funeral in 1885 … This may sound morbid, but I’ve already decided I would like this to be read at mine. 

‘Last Words’

Dear hearts, whose love has been so sweet to know,

That I am looking backward as I go,

Am lingering while I haste, and in this rain

Of tears of joy am mingling tears of pain;

Do not adorn with costly shrub, or tree,

Or flower, the little grave which shelters me.

Let the wild wind-sown seeds grow up unharmed,

And back and forth all summer, unalarmed,

Let all the tiny, busy creatures creep;

Let the sweet grass its last year’s tangles keep;

And when, remembering me, you come some day

And stand there, speak no praise, but only say,

‘How she loved us! ‘T was that which made her dear!’

Those are the words that I shall joy to hear.

A few more layouts …

The poem, ‘Hero to Leander’ by Tennyson, is in the card.

Art - 'Britomart and Amoret' ~ Mary Raphael

Double page spread for ‘Song of Four Fairies’ by John Keats.  The poem is behind the four cards of art by Alfons Mucha, depicting Poetry, Dance, Music and Painting.

‘The Accolade’, one of my favourite paintings by Edmund Blair Leighton, and because I mentioned before that it usually brings to mind Guinevere and Lancelot, I included text from Malory’s ‘Le Morte D’Arthur’. 

What I find appealing about this painting, the queen’s femininity shines through despite the fact she’s holding a sword, and performing a task that’s normally associated with men, even though it wasn’t unheard of for queens to bestow knighthood.  The sword appears light and graceful, as if mirroring its handler; the detail on her gown, from the embroidery to the way it folds and drapes – if I look at it for long enough, I feel it might be possible to reach in and actually touch it … I would love a gown like that; in fact I would quite happily dress in that fashion everyday … though with more practical sleeves ;)

I decided to see if I could dig up some information on Mr Blair Leighton’s inspiration, and found this from an early 1900s’ article …

Having decided on his arrangement, Mr Blair Leighton’s next care is to choose some incident or theme which will demonstrate it.  Often this is obtained by reading, and it has long been his habit to keep a notebook in which he enters ideas and incidents which come to him from reading or observation as lending themselves to pictorial treatment.  Thus his well-known picture, ‘The Accolade’, derived its inspiration from a French work on chivalry, which mentioned that even ladies occasionally conferred the order of knighthood on worthy men.

So, not inspired by Arthurian legend then …

This is the inside back cover; I love this material, reminiscent of a starry night.

Art - 'Night and Her Train of Stars' ~ Edward R. Hughes

Poetry and Art (6)

‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ by John Keats

I didn’t read any Keats till I was well into my 20s; he wasn’t a poet who featured in my schooling years.  Shame, really, as I do like his poetry.  I rediscovered Keats when I watched the film, 'Bright Star', a couple of years ago, which has since become one of my favourite films.

John Keats was born in Moorgate, London, on 31st October 1795.  It was only in the last six years of his tragically short life, from 1814, did he write poetry seriously; he only published in the last four years.  Tuberculosis was the spectre that haunted him through his life – his mother died of it when he was 14; and then it claimed his brother, Tom.  Keats nursed Tom through his illness until his death in 1818.  By that time, Keats himself was already showing signs of the disease.

1818 was also the year he met and fell in love with Fanny Brawne; the following year, he began work on ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, and completed it the same year.  It is possible, if one so desires, to read Keats’ love for Fanny, and the knowledge of his impending death into the situation of the doomed knight of the poem … In one of his letters to Fanny, Keats wrote, “I have two luxuries to brood over in my walks … your loveliness, and the hour of my death.”  His letters and poems reveal that even as he experienced the pleasures of love, there was also pain, which he resented, most especially the loss of freedom that comes with falling in love.

In 1820, as Keats condition worsened, he was advised by doctors to move to warmer climes, and he left for Italy, with the probable realisation that he would never see Fanny again.  After he left, he could not bring himself to read her letters or write to her, though he did write to her mother.  He died in Rome on 23rd February 1821, aged 25.  It took a month for the news of his death to reach London.  When she was told, Fanny remained in mourning for six years, eventually marrying 12 years after Keats’ death.

O What can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

          Alone and palely loitering?

The sedge has wither’d from the lake,

          And no birds sing.

O What can ail thee, knight-at-arms,

          So haggard and so woe-begone?

The squirrel’s granary is full,

          And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow

          With anguish moist and fever dew.

And on thy cheeks a fading rose

          Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,

          Full beautiful – a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

           And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,

           And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;

She look’d at me as she did love,

          And made sweet moan.

I set her on my pacing steed,

          And nothing else saw all day long,

For sidelong would she bend, and sing

          A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,

          And honey wild, and manna dew,

And sure in language strange she said –

          “I love thee true.”

She took me to her elfin grot,

          And there she wept, and sigh’d full sore,

And there I shut her wild wild eyes

          With kisses four.

And there she lulled me asleep,

          And there I dream’d – Ah! Woe betide

The latest dream I ever dream’d

          On the cold hill’s side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

          Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried – “La Belle Dame sans Merci

          Hath thee in thrall!”

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

          With horrid warning gaped wide,

And I awoke and found me here,

          On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,

          Alone and palely loitering,

Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,

          And no birds sing.                 

Art - 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' ~ Sir Frank Dicksee, the original in Bristol Art Gallery and Museum

Poetry and Art (5)

‘The Lady of Shalott’

Tennyson wrote two versions of this poem, the original in 1833, which had 20 stanzas, and the revised version in 1842 with 19.  Based on the Arthurian legend, ‘Elaine of Astolat’, this has always been one of my favourites, and I love the artwork that it inspired.

In the poem, the Lady suffers from a curse, but she does not know, neither are we told, the details.  All that is known is, she must continuously weave images on her loom, and must not look directly out at the world.  The only way she knows what is happening outside is by looking into a mirror, which reflects the road and the people, including those of Camelot, travelling back and forth.  Tennyson makes it clear how watching reflections is a poor substitute indeed for looking at events directly; in the 6th stanza, he describes the images in the mirror as ‘ 'shadows of the world’.


On either side the river lie

Long fields of barley and of rye,

That clothe the wold and meet the sky;

And thro’ the field the road runs by

To many-tower’d Camelot;

And up and down the people go,

Gazing where the lilies blow

Round an island there below,

The island of Shalott.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,

Little breezes dusk and shiver

Thro’ the wave that runs for ever

By the island in the river

Flowing down to Camelot.

Four grey walls, and four grey towers,

Overlook a space of flowers,

And the silent isle imbowers

The Lady of Shalott.

By the margin, willow-veil’d

Slide the heavy barges trail’d

By slow horses; and unhail’d

The shallop flitteth silken-sail’d

Skimming down to Camelot:

But who hath seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?

Or is she known in all the land,

The Lady of Shalott?

Only reapers, reaping early

In among the bearded barley,

Hear a song that echoes cheerly

From the river winding clearly,

Down to tower’d Camelot:

And by the moon the reaper weary,

Piling sheaves in uplands airy,

Listening, whispers “‘Tis the fairy

Lady of Shalott”.


There she weaves by night and day

A magic web with colours gay.

She has heard a whisper say,

A curse is on her if she stay

To look down to Camelot.

She knows not what the curse may be,

And so she weaveth steadily,

And little other care hath she,

The Lady of Shalott.

And moving thro’ a mirror clear

That hangs before her all the year,

Shadows of the world appear.

There she sees the highway near

Winding down to Camelot:

There the river eddy whirls,

And there the surly village-churls,

And the red cloaks of market girls,

Pass onward from Shalott.

Sometimes a troop of damsels glad,

An abbot on an ambling pad,

Sometimes a curly shepherd-lad,

Or long-hair’d page in crimson clad,

Goes by to tower’d Camelot;

And sometimes thro’ the mirror blue

The knights come riding two and two:

She hath no loyal knight and true,

The Lady of Shalott.

But in her web she still delights

To weave the mirror’s magic sights,

For often thro’ the silent nights

A funeral, with plumes and lights,

And music, went to Camelot:

Or when the moon was overhead,

Came two young lovers lately wed:

“I am half-sick of shadows,” said

The Lady of Shalott.


A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,

He rode between the barley sheaves,

The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves,

And flamed upon the brazen greaves

Of bold Sir Lancelot.

A redcross knight for ever kneel’d

To a lady in his shield,

That sparkled on the yellow field,

Beside remote Shalott.

The gemmy bridle glitter’d free,

Like to some branch of stars we see

Hung in the golden Galaxy.

The bridle bells rang merrily

As he rode down to Camelot:

And from his blazon’d baldric slung

A mighty silver bugle hung,

And as he rode his armour rung,

Beside remote Shalott.

All in the blue unclouded weather

Thick-jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,

The helmet and the helmet-feather

Burn’d like one burning flame together,

As he rode down to Camelot.

As often thro’ the purple night,

Below the starry clusters bright,

Some bearded meteor, trailing light,

Moves over still Shalott.

His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;

On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;

From underneath his helmet flow’d

His coal-black curls as on he rode,

As he rode down to Camelot.

From the bank and from the river

He flashed into the crystal mirror,

“Tirra lirra,” by the river

Sang Sir Lancelot.

She left the web, she left the loom;

She made three paces thro’ the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look’d down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack’d from side to side;

“The curse is come upon me,” cried

The Lady of Shalott.


In the stormy east-wind straining,

The pale yellow woods were waning,

The broad stream in his banks complaining,

Heavily the low sky raining

Over tower’d Camelot;

Down she came and found a boat

Beneath a willow left afloat,

And round about the prow she wrote

The Lady of Shalott.

And down the river’s dim expanse –

Like some bold seer in a trance,

Seeing all his own mischance –

With a glassy countenance

Did she look to Camelot.

And at the closing of the day

She loosed the chain, and down she lay;

The broad stream bore her far away,

The Lady of Shalott.

Lying, robed in snowy white

That loosely flew to left and right –

The leaves upon her falling light –

Thro’ the noises of the night

She floated down to Camelot;

And as the boat-head wound along

The willowy hills and fields among,

They heard her singing her last song,

The Lady of Shalott.

Heard a carol, mournful, holy,

Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,

Till her blood was frozen slowly,

And her eyes were darken’d wholly,

Turn’d to tower’d Camelot;

For ere she reach’d upon the tide

The first house by the water-side,

Singing in her song she died,

The Lady of Shalott.

Under tower and balcony,

By garden-wall and gallery,

A gleaming shape she floated by,

Dead-pale between the houses high,

Silent into Camelot.

Out upon the wharfs they came,

Knight and burgher, lord and dame,

And round the prow they read her name,

The Lady of Shalott.

Who is this? and what is here?

And in the lighted palace near

Died the sound of royal cheer;

And they cross’d themselves for fear,

All the knights at Camelot:

But Lancelot mused a little space;

He said, “She has a lovely face;

God in his mercy lend her grace,

The Lady of Shalott”.

Art - 'The Lady of Shalott' ~ William Holman Hunt, at the moment the web flew and 'floated wide; The mirror crack'd from side to side ...'

Art - 'The Lady of Shalott' ~ John William Waterhouse

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