Friday, May 15, 2015

The Living Dead

Honouring our poetic ancestors


Hic Jacet Arthurus 
Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus*

By Francis Brett Young (1884-1954)

 Arthur is gone . . . Tristram in Careol
 Sleeps, with a broken sword - and Yseult sleeps
 Beside him, where the Westering waters roll
 Over drowned Lyonesse to the outer deeps.

 Lancelot is fallen . . . The ardent helms that shone
 So knightly and the splintered lances rust
 In the anonymous mould of Avalon:
 Gawain and Gareth and Galahad - all are dust.

 Where do the vanes and towers of Camelot
 And tall Tintagel crumble? Where do those tragic
 Lovers and their bright eyed ladies rot?
 We cannot tell, for lost is Merlin's magic.

 And Guinevere - Call her not back again
 Lest she betray the loveliness time lent
 A name that blends the rapture and the pain
 Linked in the lonely nightingale's lament.

 Nor pry too deeply, lest you should discover
 The bower of Astolat a smokey hut
 Of mud and wattle - find the knightliest lover
 A braggart, and his lilymaid a slut.

 And all that coloured tale a tapestry
 Woven by poets. As the spider's skeins
 Are spun of its own substance, so have they
 Embroidered empty legend - What remains?

 This: That when Rome fell, like a writhen oak
 That age had sapped and cankered at the root,
 Resistant, from her topmost bough there broke
 The miracle of one unwithering shoot.

 Which was the spirit of Britain - that certain men
 Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
 Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
 The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood

 And charged into the storm's black heart, with sword
 Lifted, or lance in rest, and rode there, helmed
 With a strange majesty that the heathen horde
 Remembered when all were overwhelmed;

 And made of them a legend, to their chief,
 Arthur, Ambrosius - no man knows his name -
 Granting a gallantry beyond belief,
 And to his knights imperishable fame.

 They were so few . . . We know not in what manner
 Or where they fell - whether they went
 Riding into the dark under Christ's banner
 Or died beneath the blood-red dragon of Gwent.

 But this we know; that when the Saxon rout
 Swept over them, the sun no longer shone
 On Britain, and the last lights flickered out;
 And men in darkness muttered: Arthur is gone . . .

*Here Lies Arthur, the Once and Future King





I confess — I'm a romantic, to the point of soppiness. I was still a teenager when I copied this into a notebook of poems I loved. (I came across it used as a sort of preface to an Arthurian novel by Rosemary Sutcliffe, Sword At Sunset.) Reading it again just now, I was moved to tears anew by the last five verses. This despite the fact that I hate war and am not British! You may allege that Aussies are sort of British too, but only tenuously these days — and anyway, I'm a Republican. But the Arthurian legend, in which I have been steeped since childhood, transcends such considerations for the very reasons Brett Young asserts.

In a way we are honouring two ancestors this time. Although the story of Arthur may be based on a real British chieftan who resisted invaders, we can't even be sure of that. We do know that most of the story, as it has come down to us, is a mish-mash of fictions from different sources. Nevertheless, it continues to inspire. Arthur, for all his failures — and failings — remains a hero figure. Each age reinvents him according to its own needs. He is an ancestor of our imaginations, father to all that is noble in our own characters — and he has always been a great inspirer of poets.

I am currently reading The Betrayal of Arthur by the late Australian fantasy novelist and academic Sara Douglass, which caused me to remember this old favourite poem. The book is an examination of the way the Arthurian story developed into the one we're familiar with today. (Douglass said she didn't want to make it dry and scholarly; she didn't.)

My favourite modern re-telling of the Arthur story will always be T. H. White's five-volume The Once and Future King, though Marion Zimmer Bradley's very different The Mists of Avalon comes close. And my favourite movie version is still Excalibur.

I love Brett Young's poem not only for its poetic and romantic qualities, but also because it manages to undermine the legend in a way that totally reasserts it. Quite a feat!

The link on the poet's name, above, leads you as usual to the Wikipedia article about him. I am indebted to a blog called The Wondering Minstrels (sic) for the text of the poem, saving me from having to transcribe it laboriously from my old notebook. There you will also find a more succinct biography, which nevertheless covers the details of his life and career.

He was best known as a popular novelist. Here is a link to his Amazon page.  He was quite the prolific poet too, and you can download a free ebook of his 1916-1918 poems from Gutenberg.com (many of the poems in it are to do with the First World War). Some of his poems can also be found at AllPoetry.

Wikipedia tells us: 'During the First World War he saw service in German East Africa in the Medical Corps, but was invalided out in 1918, and no longer able to practise medicine.'  I guess he got a close look at heroism in battle against daunting odds.

Unable to practise medicine, he decided to write full-time, which worked out well for him and his readers. Not only was he a successful novelist, some of whose books were made into movies, he achieved unusual commercial success as a poet.

Wikipedia also tells us: 'In 1944, near to the war's end, he published his epic poem The Island, recounting in verse the whole history of Britain from the Bronze Age to the Battle of Britain. The entire first edition of 23,500 sold out immediately, even in wartime conditions, and was then reprinted.' (Imagine!)

There is even an active Francis Brett Young Society in the UK, holding annual readings and outings; you can check the website.

Much of his poetry reads old-fashioned and sentimental to me now, but I think the piece I've chosen holds up very well. I don't expect I'll ever stop loving it.

9 comments:

  1. Wow! The poem is a veritable feast, and your informed research truly a delight to read. I love the Arthurian legends, as I am a romantic too.........I think what stands out for me the most in this article is that the poet wrote the entire history of Britain in an epic poem. What an undertaking! Thanks for this informative and interesting post, Rosemary. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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  2. This was an amazing poem, Rosemary. And I found it especially interesting that you had enjoyed this as a teen and are still moved by it!

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  3. Beautiful poem and I love all the information connected to the myth and "reality" :)

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  4. I have always been moved by this legend--and this poem is a feast! Thank you for brightening my day Rosemary!

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  5. This is an enjoyable read Rosemary.....nice to know so much creative writing being triggered from the Arthurian legends.......love the poem mentioning the his knights and his queen and I was also looking for Excalibur that isn't there....

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  6. Thanks for the poem - I don't remember ever reading it and it is a treat. I haven't read about Arthur in years, maybe I need to revisit that. I do remember the movie Camelot and enjoyed that as well as I remember.

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    1. Yes, Camelot was another good version of the tale!

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  7. i'm torn between 'Camelot' and 'Excaliber' for my favorite movie version, but who doesn't love the tale of Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table? such romance and heroics, but the honor represented in the foundation of the Knights resonates as an ideal still desired in the twenty-first century.

    wonderful post, Rosemary! thank you.

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  8. I too follow these Arthurian myths and legends in all their retellings, but this is my first time seeing this poem. It's amazing, as you say, that he both mocks and uplifts the legend. I especially like this:

    "Nor pry too deeply, lest you should discover
    The bower of Astolat a smokey hut
    Of mud and wattle - find the knightliest lover
    A braggart, and his lilymaid a slut."

    There must be a don Quixote, something to make us dream of honor and chivalry and a way that leads warriors into love and peace and fairness. And don Quixote is a storyteller, always has been.

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