Faith and formalism

Ezekiel’s vision

The True Gods Attend You

Clarence Caddell, Bonfire Books, 2022, 71 pages, £11.80

MICHAEL YOST finds a collection of original religiously-inspired verse rather forced

There are two major traditions pertinent to verse literature that are seldom engaged in, but for all that are the more interesting when an artist does make use of them: the theological and imaginative Christian tradition of faith, and the much more practical tradition of formal verse craft.

In most people’s minds, the two probably go together; one thinks of the Anglican John Keble’s Christian Year, the Roman Catholic James Matthew Wilson, or the American Protestant Longfellow, all of whom reward the interest of their readers. However, the major religious tradition of the West is less often engaged today, and many Christian poets take the outward and visible signs of form as Luther and Zwingli took the outward and visible signs of the Eucharist: conventional, and unessential.

T.S. Eliot suggested in his essay Religion and Literature that what was needed was not religous literature in the obvious, propagandizing manner of a Keble or Chesterton, but rather the unconsciously religious literature of a Dante or a Joyce. As I have suggested in another essay, Eliot’s idea of the relation between religion and literature also is true of any set of first principles, or overarching metaphysics; the reason Eliot sought for an unconsciously religious literature was because he wished religion to inform the bones and marrow, the form and substance of literature, not merely decorate it with the furniture of, say early-mid-twentieth century Anglo-Catholicism. In brief, the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.

This is not to say that formal verse is always the work of deists. But it is per se the work of people who have some stake in things as ordered, even if the order is conventional, or merely conservative in character. Here we come to Clarence Caddell’s The True Gods Attend You, a chapbook published by Bonfire Books, the Australian press. What makes Caddell interesting is that his poems do often address religious themes; but in each case they are pitched with a deep and seemingly impenetrable irony. In reading them, I cannot help but place them in the category of consciously religious.

This is largely because the primary concern of the poems is, as in a devotional poem, religion and religious experience. The difference is that the religious poems are counter-propaganda; they are devotional poems in reverse. Not much to their credit, the poems’ engagement with religion largely draws from the fragmentary and derivative gnostic texts of the Church’s early period, as well as two books that each propose a conspiracy-theorist’s account of the origins of Christianity. There are poems of some formal merit, such as Initiations, The Golem, Passover Feasts of the New Covenant, Elegy With an Omen, and A Mobius Wedding Band; as well as a long blank verse narrative poem, The Candidate. These I would single out among the collection as poems whose ideas are engaging, but more importantly, solidly executed. In many of the other poems, there is a distinct lack of metrical control. Cadell’s hand is often shaky as he tries to unpack complex situations, parallels, and resonances within a brief space. Trochees, eye rhymes, weak rhymes, (such as the anachronistically signaled elision “o’er” that exists in order to rhyme with “floor”) and awkward syntax abound, marring an energetic idea, crippling a final stanza, and perhaps most difficult, undermining the authority of Cadell, the poet and speaker. On one or two occasions the concrete situation of the poem is nearly impossible to discern.

There is also a distinct difference between the poems that rely on history, the re-formulated symbolism of the Gnostics, or the tendentious and ludicrous thesis that Christianity was a political invention of the Flavian dynasty, and the poems that seem to draw from Caddell’s own experiences of life, love, and loss. The aforementioned poems can be by turn, difficult, energetic, and reliant upon an imaginative world inherited by Caddell. When they succeed, they succeed because Caddell unlocks their complexity, which pours out in a torrential fashion reminiscent of the metaphysical poems of John Donne. This is the case in the Blakean Initiations. But where they fail, it is because that complexity has failed to materialize in an ordered way. Caddell’s more intimate poems, by contrast, work precisely because that same intricacy is in play, but in a context that is both familiar, tender, and surprising, such as A Mobius Wedding Band. But even here the shield of irony is raised. I wish to turn to that particular poem as a success: an English sonnet that treats of married love; a love that is painful and yet inseparable, desired and feared. It plays with the same themes of distance, suffering, betrayal and desire that another of his poems, Vicar of Christ, engages; but with a more perfect union between form and content, a clearer direction and drive moving through the entire poem, and a perfect complication of the symbolic ring of marriage. Here, the symbol seems to truly mean something, even in its reversal.
The Candidate, the longest poem in the collection, details the conversion and reversion of a family man to and from the Roman Catholic Church, or at least, a parodic vision of that church. Throughout the poem, the sincerity of his spiritual search is pushed back against, and ultimately revealed as an expression of his own narcissistic quest for “religious experience.” The heavy-handed moral is that the candidate should avaunt church-shopping and return from its distractions to his wife and family. It is singular insofar as it depicts an often undepicted subculture within Catholicism. But it does not ascend above the level of caricature.

Earlier in the review, I suggested that “the law of craft is the law of belief, or philosophical conviction, or more often, the lack of those things.” How does this apply in Caddell’s case? The True Gods Attend You stands half within the world of traditional religious expression (if ironically so), and half out of it. Likewise, Caddell has difficulty fully achieving coherence and rigor of poetic expression. His poems are indeed “formalist” as the blurb of the chapbook declares. But often the poems are (it seems unintentionally) rumpled. In both cases, it is hard for a Christian reader not to suggest that both constitute a falling away – an imperfect or misunderstood discipline. In sum, there is something to commend the originality and force, as well as the wit behind The True Gods Attend You. Caddell has skill, and an idiosyncratic vision. What remains to be seen is whether both, in time, develop.

The passing of traditions

Photo: Ben Kirby. Courtesy of Pexels

Whatever Happened To Tradition?

History, Belonging and the Future of the West

Tim Stanley, Bloomsbury Continuum, October 2021, 272 pages, £20

KEN BELL finds that banished traditions can come back in new ways

The central theme of Tim Stanley’s Whatever Happened to Tradition is that tradition in the West has been demolished by its great enemies of liberalism and enlightenment. That is not to say that enlightened men cannot also be conservative and traditionalist – and Stanley doesn’t claim that – rather that liberal, enlightened values are so dominant that they have taken over for the present their conservative opponents. Thus, writes Stanley, “Conservatives, most already economically liberal, have become more socially liberal; the left, most already socially liberal have become more economically liberal.”

So what we have in the West is not a debate between liberals and conservatives, but rather a managerial dispute as to which faction can increase the size of the state to better meet the demands of the populace. This is made worse by the fact that the elites “keep cocking things up,” which they do time and time again as we may be reminded in the winter of 2023 when we undergo power cuts.

Time was when the growing and increasingly authoritarian state would have been opposed by Tories who drew their inspiration from the ideals of the ‘freeborn Englishman’, with his pot of beer and his plate of roast beef. However, today’s Tories are just as much opposed to those notions of responsible individualism in an ordered society as any liberal New-Labourite. One can make a good, Tory position out of support for the miners during the Great Strike of 1984/85. Stanley reminds us that the miners were men who were not fighting to overthrow the established order. Instead what they wanted was to defend their position within that order; a position that involved decent pay and conditions backed up by a strong union. An old-style Conservative could hardly argue against the mines on the basis of economics, especially when the foundations of his beliefs are the monarchy, the Anglican Church, and the legitimacy of the established order. Few of those will bear close scrutiny from an accountant with a balance sheet.

Yet, the Tories are a pragmatic bunch as evidenced by their wholehearted acceptance of what used to be called the Gay Liberation Movement. When I was a young man, the homosexualists allied themselves with the broader Labour movement. We tolerated their predilections, and they took on board our view of how the economy should be run. It was the perfect alliance, with both sides getting something out of the deal. But by the end of the last century, the radical gay pride events had run their course and were attracting fewer and fewer supporters each year. This was especially true in London where the Pride Festival organisers found themselves at the door to the poorhouse. Corporate capitalism came to the rescue and transformed “a protest into a party endorsed by Tesco and Lloyds Bank… nowadays there are probably more middle-class heterosexuals at Pride than gays or lesbians.” Given that the Tories were only recently the party that introduced legislation that banned the promotion of homosexuality in schools, their transformation is a sight to behold.

It is also a very traditional Tory path to take. The party’s aim is the maintenance of the socio-economic status quo: everything else is just tactics. So, the Tories can ditch the anti-homosexualism and a few voters amongst the lower-middle-class in places like Nuneaton, and become pro-homosexual and get votes in Putney. Furthermore, a liberal line on gays does not cost money, unlike, say, levelling-up.

Tim Stanley does give traditionalists some glimmers of hope for a radical future, one coming from a very unexpected quarter. Fox hunting was a pastime of the old established order and was on its deathbed until New Labour gave it a boost by banning it. Hunts began to set their hounds to chase scents laid on the ground, which sounds rather desperate at first glance. However, the hunts became a focus of rural opposition to everything that rural people felt was wrong with the society at large. So thousands began to turn out to support their local hunt, with numbers increasing as urban people decided to go and support this traditional event.

The end result was the metamorphosis of the hunt from a minority interest to a mass event with an overtly political character. Hunt masters became the staunchest of Brexiteers and often provided the leadership for the Brexit campaign in their areas. Tim Stanley is surely correct when he speculates that all traditional values need is a little bit of state repression to give them a new lease on life.

Our Republic by the Sea, and two translations from German

PETER LILLIOS is an auditor and poet based in Sound Beach, New York. He writes: ‘I believe that poetry — and particularly formal verse — shows its strengths most readily when presented as an auditory experience. When spoken or sung expertly, the inherent musicality of well-crafted verse comes to the fore, creating a powerfully synergistic effect: delivery of meaning at an intellectual level is paired with a much more primal experience of truth as revealed through the rhythm and flow of speech itself. To this end, I’ve enlisted professional voice actors and singers to vocalise my poetry — both original works and English interpretations of existing works.’

Our Republic by the Sea

I know a little plot of land

That’s one part grass and one part sand;

Though twice a day it’s one-third sea,

There’s room enough for you and me.

No one’s staked as yet a claim;

None have stayed, though many came.

It hasn’t lustre or acclaim,

But let us take it, all the same.

We’ll build ourselves a cabin there

With driftwood bound and stacked four-square,

In order that we fell no tree

To craft our lodging by the sea.

We’ll pay no tithes, demand no tolls

From passersby who simply stroll

Through our surf, along our shore,

And leave things as they were before.

We’ll have no children of our own—

None to reap what we have sown;

And when our time has come and gone,

No monuments to gaze upon.

Yet if a child should someday sift

Through our ruins near the cliffs,

She’ll find our charter there below,

Untouched by water’s ebb and flow.

It shall not state our reasons why,

Nor seek to boast or codify.

Its form shall be a simple list

Of lessons learnt and lessons missed;

The ways we lived, the stands we took,

The rules we did and did not brook;

The things we gave and we forgave

Six metres from the lapping waves.

Our ode to life and love austere

Will linger well beyond our years.

Its title, set in bold, shall be,

‘Our Republic by the Sea.’

Music, vocals and instrumentals by Joseph DeNatale

Two Translations

The Midnight Watch

The Argonnerwaldlied (‘Song of the Argonne Forest’) was composed by Hermann Albert Gordon in 1914/1915.

The Western Front, six hours ’fore dawn.

A watchman gazes over yon:

Above the trench, beyond the wire,

At one small star, to which his thoughts aspire.

His love, he knows, beholds it too.

She’d sworn an oath, her word was true:

At midnight, till their eyes could meet,

She’d send the little star her beau to greet.

And with his gaze still fixed on high,

A flash of red illumes the sky.

The cannons’ thunder shakes the ground;

Shells burst and shrapnel splinters all around.

His comrades rally to his side:

A dozen left, the rest have died.

They fell by fate or happenstance—

Just twelve remain to halt the foe’s advance.

The watchman bids them hold the line.

Above the fray, his star still shines.

The guns resound, the rifles crack—

Until the foe is turned and beaten back.

He asks not ‘why?’ nor ‘what’s the sense?’

Seeks neither fame nor recompense;

Knows precious little of grand plans,

Yet at the fore the watchman firmly stands.


Argonnerwald, um Mitternacht,

Ein Pionier steht auf der Wacht.

Ein Sternlein hoch am Himmel stand;

Bringt ihm ’nen Gruß aus fernem Heimatland.

Und mit dem Spaten in der Hand

Er vorne in der Sappe stand.

Mit Sehnsucht denkt er an sein Lieb:

Ob er sie wohl noch einmal wiedersieht?

Und donnernd dröhnt die Artill’rie.

Wir stehen vor der Infantrie.

Granaten schlagen bei uns ein,

Der Franzmann will in unsere Stellung ’rein.

Der Sturm bricht los, die Mine kracht,

Der Pionier gleich vorwärts macht.

Bis an den Feind macht er sich ran

Und zündet dann die Handgranate an.

Die Infantrie steht auf der Wacht,

Bis daß die Handgranate kracht,

Geht dann mit Sturm bis an den Feind,

Mit Hurra nimmt sie dann die Stellung ein.

Er frug nicht warum und nicht wie,

Tat seine Pflicht wie alle sie.

In keinem Liede ward’s gehört,

Ob er geblieben oder heimgekehrt.

Vocals: Chloe Edgecombe. Producer: Luks Rivera

Thoughts Unrestrained

Die Gedanken sind frei (‘Thoughts are Free’) is an ode to freedom of thought whose original lyricist and composer are unknown. The most well-known version was composed by Hoffmann von Fallersleben in 1842.

Unrestrained are our thoughts, no man can divine them;

They cannot be caught, nor jailer confine them.

No seer can know them, oppression won’t slow them,

So let it be taught: unrestrained are our thoughts!

I think as I will and as brings me gladness,

And do so until it drives away sadness.

This joy and contentment spurns censor’s resentment;

It remains as it ought: unrestrained are our thoughts!

And should I be thrown into a dark prison,

My captors shall bemoan my thoughts having risen—

Because my own thinking will set the bars clinking

And bring them to naught: unrestrained are our thoughts!

So I shall have ever this simplest of pleasure,

And bandits shall never steal from me this treasure.

No mob can demolish, no law can abolish

What Nature hath wrought: unrestrained are our thoughts!

Die Gedanken sind frei

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliehen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger sie schießen
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch und Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke;
denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: die Gedanken sind frei.

Drum will ich auf immer den Sorgen entsagen
und will mich auch nimmer mit Grillen mehr plagen.
Man kann ja im Herzen stets lachen und scherzen
und denken dabei: die Gedanken sind frei.

Vocals and production: Caroline and Darren Clarke

Last flowers of Bloom

Harold Bloom
STODDARD MARTIN remembers a dedicated litterateur’s late works

One can hardly think but with affection of Harold Bloom, addict of the Word, historic lover of literature, and coiner of the phrase “anxiety of influence” among other more recondite tags.

It would be invidious not to feel that affection when considering his final books, compendious and repetitive though they may be, composed or compiled as they were during bouts of convalescence between the illnesses that led to his corporeal silence in 2019, aged eighty-nine. It is likely that more words from the indefatigable commentator may be stored up yet to come, editing angels and publishing deities willing. The prospect is daunting, to some perhaps dismaying, for after seven decades of pronouncements, more Bloom may seem less.

Of the supreme enunciator of literary rankings in recent times – “probably the most famous literary critic in the English-speaking world” of his day – posterity might require for a tidy canon. But tidy Bloom is not. In his 2019 book Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, the idealiser of Falstaff and his perceived form of “heroic vitalism”[1] tacitly put faith in excess. Bloom’s object, insofar as it ever went beyond an exuberant autodidact’s self-revelations, was to provoke more than to instruct (Possessed, p12 – all subsequent page numbers refer to this book). “I am a Nietzschean,” he declares in the last of his provisional last words (p79) after a lifetime of enthusiasm for the philosopher’s kindred spirits, such as W. B. Yeats. Thus at the end, like the author of Ecce Homo when approaching fatal dispersion into madness, Bloom eerily claims: “Something in me speaks for multitudes around the globe.” (p11)

“Oh my brothers!” is Zarathustra’s refrain, and Bloom never tired of projecting that he was carrying on a dialogue with colleagues and students, whether at Cornell, Yale or Cambridge where a boy from a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family earned degrees, or at the same or similarly distinguished institutions where a publicity-loving adult would ultimately profess. First person plural is the mode. Bloom’s method as critic was conversational, sometimes ingratiating, especially in books where he might indulge in a lifetime’s penchant for having the last word. Why argue with him? Listen. Admire. Reflect. Then, perhaps, carry on a silent conversation of one’s own in the watches of night – those insomniac hours in which, as he tells us, Bloom had his most fertile ideas and, when not idealizing, lay awake reciting favourite works to the shades – incanting, as if a religious at prayer.

This is the milieu. And it determines content. Bloom’s canon finally includes, from the beginning, what he considers to be the great literary passages of “the Hebrew Bible” (Old Testament), for as he says, beyond having become Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, etc., he is “a literary and religious critic” (emphasis mine), whose “tradition is dying” and whose dying wish is “to rally a saving remnant”(p11). Again, a note of Nietzschean messianism, if perhaps with a hint of the disingenuous tendency of that other heroic vitalist (“the Fat Knight”) to humour and guff, “nimble believing and disbelieving”.

The lifelong lover of Shakespeare ascribes these qualities to Hamlet, whom he sees as “his own Falstaff… a consciousness so enormous that it contains all of human self-otherseeing” (p112). It might be a description of what Bloom aspired to be himself; it is also what he finds lacking in the Hebrew God – Yahweh, a dislikable presence for him at almost every turn, despite his Jewish roots. Here the old Bloom, whose early literary critical self started with Shelley, returns to youthful insurgency. Something is wrong in the heavens, as it was for the renegade Romantic: Prometheus punished by Jupiter is dealing with a false God or at least a faulty one – there is better beyond, in the pleroma. Gnosticism is in the air, and Bloom inhales it, lauding the work of his late “mentor” Gershom Scholem and concentrating passing attention on Scholem’s special study, the Kabbalah. “I have spent part of a lifetime,” Bloom states, “trying to work out a pragmatic relationship between Kabbalah and literary criticism” (p20). The provisionality implied here is matched by an achievement that is opaque and fragmentary. Bloom links Kabbalah and poetry both to “heretical subversions of orthodoxy”, “salvation by transgression”, “the frontier between the sacred and the profane” and no requirement to complete the Great Work but no freedom to desist in the attempt (pps23-5).

A Christian attempt to unravel Kabbalism, by the 16th/17th century thinker Heinrich Khunrath

From here it is small distance to Blake, Whitman and others of Bloom’s un-Leavisite “great tradition”, grounded in English literature fundamentally not only on Shakespeare but more portentously on Milton’s Satan. However – and here is an essential, perhaps under-recognised element in Bloom – heresy is only a pretext for a new/old orthodoxy and God. For Bloom’s ultimate standard is breadth and depth of vision, a vastness of sensibility and inclusion, reminding one perhaps of what a critic once complained of in the French symboliste Mallarmé: a sense that anything less than the all-embracing might be presumptuous[2].

Bloom, in short, disliking the Yahweh of tradition, sets out in effect to descry a truer God – humane, non-vindictive, invisible but glimpsed beyond Demogorgon up in starrier heavens. Like Shelley’s Prometheus being liberated from his bonds, the tireless yet mortally ill individual must rely on a bevy of maidens to help him complete the job – seven female assistants are named at the start of Possessed by Memory. This could be interpreted as Kabbalistic in the sense of Bloom’s contention that the proper mystical Yahweh can only function with aid from the Moon Queen or female spirit that resides in Malkuth, foundational pod of the Sefiroth [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sefiroth are ten attributes of emotion, intellect or will in Kabbalistic esotericism]; it might also bring to mind accusations of “inappropriate” attention to female students that marked the professor’s later years.

Be that as it may, the inclusions in his excursion towards a summatory roundup of values betray composition by many hands: sketches, bits of lectures, notes from seminars are the basis, even in one case a funeral address. The authorial scholar gives way to the genial teacher, whose mission is foremost to enthuse. Possessed is designed to tell us why a dying man has recalled this passage or that poem and what is outstanding about it. It is a trawl, a last judgement on the canonical, as per a decent God’s instincts. And why not? Many an ailing scholar would love to engage in such a pastime, and Bloom’s range is such that he is almost always engaging at it – almost being the lively interlocutor’s operative word. In difference lies interest, in qualifications glided over or simply not made, in enthusiasms too grandly stated.

The Fat Knight Falstaff, for Bloom an exemplar of ‘heroic vitalism’

Falstaff, for instance, is not for this reader the exemplar that he is for Bloom, nor do the plays in which he appears seem the Bard’s best. Bloom has little time for the Marlovian in Shakespeare, speaks dismissively of Hotspur, and ignores the coruscating soliloquies of that supreme Machiavel, Richard. He is intriguing about the bastard Faulconbridge in the oft-neglected King John, but says little of comedies which now may strike the ear as warm-ups for Blackadder. As to Milton, he admits with Dr Johnson that few read him with pleasure (p176); re Johnson himself, he forgives eccentric pomposities. Bloom is of a generation of American Jewish scholars who began in awe of English literary tradition. He does not rate the deviations of Pound and Eliot towards Europe, attention to Dante excepted. The superior art of Baudelaire earns from him no more than an aside in a discussion of Swinburne (p301).

Walt Whitman, whom Bloom considered the greatest American poet

Much else is missing. Where for instance is Wilde, save in apt citation of a quote from ‘The Critic as Artist’ as the book’s epigraph? As for Wilde’s countryman Yeats: is he quite understood? In these summatory pages, how much space does old Bloom accord to a signal figure of his youth? His trajectory now, whatever it was in journeyman days and however much he may remain haunted by Shakespeare and Shelley, is towards fellow Americans – those who, unlike Eliot and Pound, did not “beat out [their] exile” but stayed home to “make [their] pact”, to borrow from the latter, Whitman-as-internationalist, as Bloom resolutely won’t. The god who stands at the head of American poetic tradition is for Bloom the seminal incantor – psalmic “transumptor” – of Leaves of Grass. Whitman the untidy, the vastly inclusive proto-Zarathustran – in him the professor finds a lodestone more congenial than in an Irishman whose attention to craft moved George Moore to depict him coming down to lunch at Coole Park to report to Lady Gregory that his morning’s work had consisted of removing a comma which he later restored[3]. Whitman’s incontinence, like Falstaff’s, if wilder, exposes another facet of “heroic vitalist” genius chez dying Bloom. Might we conclude that, in the light of his disintegration, a coherence strained for in youth seems no longer essential – analogous to how for the late Turner a glimmer of sun through vague clouds became preferable as subject to the detail of ship and sail? One suspects it to be partly the case. Bloom alludes en passant to Yeats’ “Byzantium poems”, but the exactitude of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” is hardly seen as a destiny. Bloom may live on as critic or at least enthuser: penning fifty-odd books suggests aspiration to transcendence beyond mere bodily existence. But if he lives on, Bloom is liable to do so as the critic permissive rather than the critic precise.

Again, why not? The third of four parts of Possessed by Memory begins to judder and creak as it extends Anglo tradition to snippets from the canonical Browning and Meredith; but the fourth part, commencing with its long devotion to Whitman, moves to some eye-opening appreciations, not only of the predictable Stevens, Williams and Crane, but more appealingly of the less obvious Edward Arlington Robinson and Conrad Aiken among others. With Aiken, comparison to his Harvard classmate Eliot leads to a fuller understanding of why Bloom felt antipathy for the most celebrated Anglo-American voice of the past century. That said, Bloom’s account of Aiken’s work falls short of full praise, and his explanation for why Aikens failed to reach “the eminence” of “Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Thomas Stearns Eliot and Hart Crane” seems partly to tell against itself – “Associative rhetoric was both Aiken’s mode and, sadly, his weakness. He did not try to make it new but to augment the foundations by relying upon the major poets of the Romantic tradition.” (p393)

Might this not be a description of Bloom’s own approach as critic? Might one even go so far as to see it as either a veil drawn over a latent, counter-canonical preference for poets of Aikens’ pitch or a subconscious admission of Bloom’s own less than supreme rank as critic? These are not idle questions. Somerset Maugham once famously quipped that his status as writer was in the first rank of the second rate. The false modesty hardly strained to disguise a popular novelist’s healthy antipathy for experimental modernists whom a cognoscenti lionized, but the common reader found unreadable: Woolf, Joyce and so on. Bloom, when set alongside the Derrida-ists, Deconstructionists, Structuralists and such fashionable ‘critics’ of his epoch, might strike one analogously as among the first rank of the middle-brow.

John Ashbery, by David Shankbone. Wikimedia Commons

Like Maugham in The Summing Up, Bloom laces his learned observations with recollection. His remarks on one of two women included in a 500-page book, May Swenson, pivot on their meetings at a café in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. His discussion of the original and vitalist ex-soldier Richard Eberhardt stems from a lecture tour at the University of Florida, where Eberhardt frightened him with the campus alligator. Bloom’s account of the master of negation, Weldon Kees, begins with an encounter at a jazz club in Harlem. Longer pieces on lesser-knowns such as Archie Randolph Ammons or Alvin Feinman are founded on yet closer association, as is the inclusion on John Ashbery, with whom Bloom’s “friendship has been continuous these sixty years… I have just phoned him at the Whittier Rehabilitation Center where he is recovering rather slowly from double pneumonia” (p431). Illness and age are constant companions in these last works, not notably cheerful ones, rather ones with whom Bloom struggles manfully to come to terms, never quite achieving reconciliation with, let alone joy in, observation of their processes – intrinsic to life, after all, thus a subset of the “heroic vital”. Bloom resists falling back into angry, non-accepting “rage, rage against the dying of the light”; rather he strives to win from these ultimate confrontations a revitalised urgency and heightened appreciation. He can still read, or be read to, and hear. He can still idealize and recite in the watches of night. Most of all he can remember. Which brings us to the ‘coda’ of the book, Proustianly entitled “In Search of Lost Time”.

Before one arrives there, one must be reconciled with Bloom’s subjectivity. One has to accept that his judgments have often to do with where he could most comfortably locate himself; that his “we” posits a community both transitory and presumptuous; that his lordly opinions, such as that Hart Crane is the great American poet after Whitman and Dickinson, may pass as gospel without being convincingly preached; that he gives himself grace to make errors and to speculate beyond what accords with known facts; that he settles scores on occasion – against Saul Bellow,  for instance (p416) – and will not always refrain from resorting to guff.

What, say, is the sense of a sentence such as “His consciousness was a plenum that could have created a heterocosm, where space and sun might have made another world” (p430)? From here it is not far to complain of Bloom’s cherished inventions such as “self-othering” or “transumptive”. But let it pass. Bloom is a character in his literary universe. He is too Shakespearean not to put a high, perhaps excessive, value on personality. That he has a big one has been part of his “body of fate”, to use a Yeats term; Bloom has embraced and cultivated it, and created a space for it to exist in and flourish and suffer. Irritating this may be, but one can also be glad for it. Bloom himself becomes a standard, not just what he says: a brand, an embodiment of forces to reckon with, if not revere – something of a god. Apotheosis may not be a fate he has worked for entirely nakedly, but he has certainly flirted with it often, notwithstanding the trademark baggy garb of being “human, all-too-human”.

God incarnate in Bloom? Will He live on as Holy Ghost? Close to his physical end, Bloom muses: “When we die, our own survival will be the extent to which we have changed the lives of those who come after us… I have to consider how little I know of time to come. Doubtless it is better that way. Foretelling can be destructive.” (p507) His coda to Possessed begins in this way to evince a becoming humility. Before sojourning with Proust, he recalls Saint Augustine’s conversations with his mother about God’s eternal light. The aptness is to what Bloom characterises as Proust’s “sublime lucidity”, which transcends Jewish and Christian roots to be “closer to Hindu philosophy”. While admitting that Proust probably never read the Bhagavad-Gita, Bloom invokes it.

Marcel Proust, for Bloom a kind of Gnostic seeker

Shortly afterwards, he qualifies a roving meditation by confessing, “I have the realisation or fantasy that simultaneously I know everything and nothing” (p481). This precedes recollection of moments of “sudden radiance” in early childhood, which “seem now to be heretical intimations of a lost gnosis” (p487). Proust’s similar epiphanies, Bloom muses, may stem from “worship of an unknown God who is yet knowable” (p492); in any case, the novelist’s truth “is compounded of perception, involuntary memory, impressionism, a search for spiritual meaning, and a kind of aesthetic mysticism” (p497). Is this not Bloom’s “truth” in a mirror? The presiding return of “childlike vision” is for him, as for Proust, “allied to phantasmagoria and to the world of dreams… modified delirium” (p501). Here one might end, or with association of “the survival of the inner self with a world founded upon benignity” (p503), or with a largeness that “could be at once atheist and mystic” (p505). But Bloom actually concludes by reverting to Dr Johnson, whose wisdom allows for ebb as well as a flow that chez Proust is continuous. Bloom has indeed already undercut his paean to In Search of Lost Time by stating that he would choose Richardson’s Clarissa in preference to it. Why? Because the heroine and her rapist lover are “more vital”.

One trusts this no more than one might accept Mozart’s sympathy to be with the survivors rather than with the deposed libertine at the end of Don Giovanni. Bloom’s coda, brave as it is in conveying what remains at the approach of his earthly dissolution, conveys one back towards his penultimate book, which occupies a more preliminary stage in the process and thus may constitute a more reliable summing-up of a career of concentrated literary contemplation.

W B Years in 1908

The book is less given to reminiscence and enthusiasm, though some is ever present. There are no chapters devoted to lesser talents such as John Wheelwright, James Merrill, Jay Macpherson or Amy Clampit, with whom Bloom ends his pre-coda trawl in Possessed. Among those, notably Merrill, Bloom remains ready to deviate back to consideration of his traditional greats: he cites phone calls “in which we explored W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, the Gnostic religion, and the relation of Yeats to Shelley and to Blake” (p449). Reader, take note. Bloom subsumes the Irish poet here to two English Romantics whom he has consistently ranked as the foremost. He glides from A Vision to Scholem’s topic as if Yeats’s mystico-historic text were self-evidently Gnostic. He considers the matter no further except to say “I suspect that Yeats would not have taken to James Merrill’s poetry” (p453), then somewhat conversely he postulates that in Merrrill’s poetry “the Byzantium of William Butler Yeats hovers and is deftly evaded” (p456). Deftly seems a loaded adverb, not least in a context where the Irish poet’s full name is iterated, as it is in most other scattered allusions to him throughout this book. Why? Shelley almost never requires “Percy Bysshe”. Is there some other Yeats that Bloom fears we may think of, or is there some more telling nuance at play??

Looking at this penultimate work, so boldly entitled Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: the Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death, and among chapters Bloom devotes to the usual titans – Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Crane, Freud (eccentrically) and Dante (again, lone continental) – we find “William Butler Yeats and D. H. Lawrence: Start with the Shadow”. The title seems tricksy – it matters little: tags chez Bloom and others of his generation of academics often do. What does matter is the shadow of doubt that pervades. Bloom invokes an American favourite to contrast “three modes of mastery. In Lawrence it is chthonic. In Yeats it is occult. In Stevens it is massive acceptance of things as they are.” (p474) Proceeding to quote from one of the American’s poems, Bloom wonders if it is not “a critique by Stevens of the endless series of questing wanderers in Yeats” (p476). Endless series? “William Butler Yeats,” we are told (entire name again) “had the good fortune and the vital temperament to refuse any despair of his own quest” (p479). Are we to infer that a less “occult” sensibility should have despaired? Later, in parsing “All Souls” Night”, Bloom informs us that “the magnificence of gesture, metric, diction overcomes what could be judged sheer silliness” (p483); later still, in relation to Yeats’s alleged “pagan purpose”, we are told that “The force of his diction and metric brushes argument aside” (p485). “Devoted readers of Yeats learn that for him God and Death are one,” Bloom states, “a Gnostic formulation” (p486). This is of course arguable and reflects what Bloom is finally obliged to confess: “More than ever I have a mixed response.” (p490). He lauds “Adam’s Curse” in part to question the quality of what comes after; and when he reaches “Under Ben Bulben”, he decries a “farrago… much of it of a badness not to believed” (p497).

Old Bloom clearly had a problem with old Yeats. From a concluding phrase one might take it that he continued to rate or anyway grapple with the Irish master mainly out of an older loyalty: “The daemon in Yeats, as he acknowledged, was Shelley” (p499). This is arguable too and, at best, partial. But then, as I have indicated, partiality is characteristic of critic Bloom, in age as in youth. He is, to repeat his claim, a Nietzschean, as he fancies it: a “provoker”. A windbag like his beloved “Fat Knight”, he is more than a touch averse to fine concision. He is also no dedicated traveller in realms of magic and dream, however insomniac his nights may have been. Baudelaire comments somewhere that it would be impossible for a poet not to contain a critic but it would be prodigious for a critic to contain a poet. Harold Bloom adored poetry: of that there is no doubt. What may be lacking in him – one leaves it to weigh up – is a thoroughgoing sense of the poetic.

Harold Bloom bibliography (partial)

  • Shelley’s Mythmaking, 1959
  • The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, 1961
  • Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, 1963
  • Yeats, 1970
  • The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition, 1971
  • The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry 1997
  • A Map of Misreading, 1975
  • Kabbalah and Criticism. 1975
  • Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, 1976
  • Figures of Capable Imagination, 1976
  • Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate, 1977
  • Deconstruction and Criticism, 1980
  • The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, 1980
  • Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 1982
  • The Breaking of the Vessels, 1982
  • The Poetics of Influence: New and Selected Criticism, 1988
  • Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, 1989
  • The Book of J: Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg; Interpreted by Harold Bloom, 1990
  • The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, 1992
  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994
  • Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
  • Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1998
  • How to Read and Why, 2000
  • Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, 2001
  • El futur de la imaginació (The Future of the Imagination), 2002
  • Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 2003
  • Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, 2003
  • The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, 2004
  • Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, 2004
  • Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, 2005
  • American Religious Poems: An Anthology By Harold Bloom, 2006
  • Fallen Angels, 2007
  • Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, 2010
  • The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, 2011
  • The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of The King James Bible, 2011
  • The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, 2015
  • Falstaff: Give Me Life, 2017
  • Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air, 2017
  • Lear: The Great Image of Authority, 2018
  • Iago: The Strategies of Evil, 2018
  • Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind, 2019
  • Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, 2019 
  • Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The Power of the Reader’s Mind Over a Universe of Death, 2020
  • The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Re-read, 2020

[1] Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism (Vintage, 2019), p. 101. Further references by page number.

[2] See my Wagner to the Waste Land (Macmillan, 1982), 122.

[3] Moore notoriously settled a number of old scores in his memoir, Hail and Farewell.

A journey into Britain’s recent past

Image: Clem Onojeghuo. Courtesy of Pexels

About Britain: A Journey of Seventy Years and 1,345 Miles

Tim Cole, Bloomsbury Continuum, June 2021, 384 pages, £18.99

KEN BELL drives down a northwestern Memory Lane

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was intended to show that the war was over and Great Britain was back on her feet. As an ancillary to the Festival, a series of motorists’ guidebooks were written which covered all the regions of Britain. Each one of the thirteen guides contained several motoring tours that allowed the visitor to explore the country’s highways, gave advice on where to stop for food and drink, and contained plenty of photographs to keep the non-motoring public happy. Tim Cole, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, collected these guides and decided to follow a dozen of the routes. The book he wrote is a lyrical, yet sadly depressing, account of British decline since 1951.

It is interesting that none of the journeys include much information about the great cities that often start and end a journey. Newcastle is dealt with in a sentence or two about the football ground and the barracks, with the road out of the city being one of ‘unimaginative industrialism’, according to the 1950 author. It is unlikely that any modern guides would so dismiss the cities, but in 1951 the bourgeois motorist probably only saw them as starting points on his journey into the real land that was rural to his mind.

The chapter dealing with the Northwest interested me the most, mainly because as a Mancunian I am from that region. The original guide took the visitor through Preston and the mill towns, and was obviously intended to show Britain’s industrial might as well as offering nice views and decent eating houses. Some of those roadside hostelries are still in operation, by the way, but now they offer Indian and Italian foods rather than the meat and two veg of 1950. Preston in 1951 was a major port for the export of cotton and the mill towns of Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson form a string of towns on the guide that the visitor would have driven though on his way to the Pennines and the wool towns beyond.

This is where the depression sinks in, as the Preston docks closed not long after the guide was written, just as Accrington and Blackburn lost their role of makers of cheap, thin cloth for the peasants of India and Africa to wear. Burnley no longer made ‘narrow cloths for printing’ and Nelson ceased to make patterned fabrics.

As Tim Cole points out, the 1950 author really did believe that the wartime boom would remain, and he then goes on to trace the sad decline from that optimistic year. He looks at the increasingly desperate attempts to introduce manmade fibres into the Lancashire spinning process, often using fibres that had been invented in Britain. Those new processes did not need an army of skilled or even semi-skilled workers: what they needed were a few unskilled machine minders, but even so, tariffs and competition from abroad quickly rendered the mill towns uneconomic. Each mill town brought over cheap labour from Pakistan to reduce the wage bill as a final throw of the dice, and when that failed, one by one the companies that had brought them to Lancashire shut up shop and left the towns to sink.

Tim Cole takes the reader out of Burnley, along the road to Colne, via Nelson and then up to the Pennine Hills and on into Yorkshire and the relics of its woollen past. I have made that journey myself many times and Cole’s sympathetic portrayal of the region shines through. Sadly, it is a journey from prosperity to aching poverty in a few short miles that took seven decades to complete.

Dispatches from 1643

The following is an extract from Book II of William G Carpenter’s epic poem about the English Civil Wars.

The poet is Philip Meadowe, assistant to John Milton in his role as Foreign Language Secretary for the Council of State under the Protectorate.  Meadowe reads his lines to Milton at Milton’s house in Petty France, Westminster. 

1643: a tough year for the Parliamentarian armies, with defeats in every quarter of England, and ever and always short of money and provisions.  Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (herein “Dev-Ex”), Captain-General of the Parliamentary Army, is Meadowe’s protagonist in the early sections; this excerpt presents the successful conclusion of Dev-Ex’ siege of Reading in April 1643.

An excerpt from Book I, The Sword of Gideon, may be found at Expansive Poetry Online Spring 2022 ( 

WILLIAM G. CARPENTER is the author of Eþandun (Beavers Pond Press,2020), which depicts King Alfred’s struggle with the pagan Danes in 878 AD.  Available from Amazon, Itasca Books Distribution and

The Loss of the West

Dev-Ex’ men were dying by the score: 

“to death, by troops, the soldiers went,” says Chapman,

men spotted, burning, writhing, raving, bruised,

the life of men ebbing in stinking rills,

yet Dev-Ex knew no crime against Apollo,

no priest’s daughter seized, no ritual stinted,

that merited infernal punishment

of his half-frozen, always hungry men –

unless, as seemed unlikely, He preferred

east-facing altars and communion rails

and a Book of Common Prayer for the godly Scots –

unless He favored base servility

towards every courtier that caught Charles’ ear,

including Laud, Charles’ encroacher-in-chief. 

Or was it our indifference to His Word,

maiming and murdering maugre Majesty? 

Rupert had stormed Birmingham on Good Friday,

then, on the very feast of the Resurrection,

Sir William Waller occupied Welsh Chepstow –

perhaps no insult to the Prince of Peace

unless pursued without humility,

which was, Dev-Ex conjectured, Waller’s way. 

Our guns knocked down the tower of St. Giles,

but only when the Rs set a cannon on it. 

As to maimed rites, Parliament starved his army,

though willing enough to grant him compensation

for R despoilment of his lands in Staffs

out of the lands of Arthur Capel, Charles’s

lord-lieutenant of Salop, Chesh, and North Wales –

who loyally had bought a barony

when Charles, hungry for money, slashed the fee. 

(A bargain at three hundred fifty pounds;

Sir Richard Newport later paid six thousand.) 

The “generals” in the Houses, knowing famine

and filthiness would breed disease in soldiers

who could afford nor daily bread nor clothing

whenever their promised daily eight pence failed,

nevertheless dared not incur the blame

of taxing men enough to fund the war –

pretending to themselves that Charles’s false

and dilatory treaty for a peace

would obviate the need to pay the army. 

Wherefore the Houses tottered along on loans,

first voluntary, then by threat of law,

and now sought to shift the hugeous cost

of war onto the Rs by sequestrations,

a measure certain to inflame their hatred. 

Only Pym, the true, the brave, foresaw

the Ps must needs dig deeper for the Cause

and dared to introduce an excise bill,

which naturally would kindle popular ire. 

As Dev-Ex lay in Daniel Blagrave’s bed,

his mind floating up through depths of sleep,

Sir John Meyrick breathing next to him

in darkness, with Sir John’s siege-guns rumbling

all day, all night, now going on nine days,

from west, north, east, and south of the worn town,

the birds a-chattering in the intervals,

he knew the siege of Reading verged on failure. 

Most of his regiments were undermanned,

primarily from this devilish camp fever

that wantoned through his army’s camps and billets. 

Provisions, powder, shot grew ever scarcer. 

And today, Charles’ host would arrive in force. 

At least the dead and dying could be shipped

down the Thames, which the Ps controlled downstream. 

An army is a perishable thing: 

maybe he ought to have rolled the dice at Oxford,

leaving Aston’s garrison in his rear. 

War was martyrdom, whoever triumphed. 

Pudsley dressed him.  Dev-Ex breakfasted

with Carey-Rochford, Robartes, Grey, and Hampden,

Constable, Goodwin, Skippon, and Du Boys. 

Meyrick, of course.  Cold capon, bread, and wine. 

They then progressed from Blagrave’s house in Southcote

to Caversham, where they met with Colonels Holborne,

Barclay, Meldrum, and Middleton, who’d slept

close to their regiments across the Thames. 

Dev-Ex had brought his secretary, Baldwin. 

Dawn lightened the rainy air.  No sun shone,

though fresh buds glowed on the tips of branches. 

“This Council of War shall now come to order.” 

Thus President Meyrick.  A dim chill tavern. 

“To recapitulate,” Dev-Ex began,

“why we’re here instead of Charles’s capital: 

leaving Aston’s regiments in our rear,

seven of foot and several troops of horse,

whilst charging Charles’s ring of garrisons –

not wise.  Whilst our more greener regiments

further dissuaded us from undertaking

the more hazardous task.  For which cause, too,

we thus far have elected not to storm

the governor’s forbidding palisadoes. 

Also our bargemen crave this reach of Thames. 

To boot, this matter weighed as much as any,

the welfare of the godly Reading people

groaning under Sir Arthur’s popish cruelty,

beaten, robbed, enslaved – their homes their prison. 

Rupert’s troopers roar like a sudden squall,

but Aston’s swarming plunderers have settled

like locusts on the folk, consuming them. 

“We’ve held off from mortaring their houses

and burning the unhappy town to the ground. 

Our guns play on their works, not on their churches. 

And so we find ourselves:  the walls unbreached,

their garrison intact, and our men scourged

by fever – with Charles and Rupert and young Maurice

and ten or twelve regiments, horse and foot,

arriving from Wallingford at any hour. 

In which light, the sole course, best to preserve

what yet survives of our afflicted force –

you know not how it gnaws at me to say it –

the only certain means to preserve our army,

is penitently to march back to Windsor,

relinquishing this siege for better days.” 

They sat in silence, stunned.  Constable bridled: 

“My lord, you mock our faith and fortitude. 

Think of the vast mercy shown at Kineton

and other fields too numerous to name. 

Crawling back to Windsor, where our men

had starved, but for killing of Charles’s deer –

with Charles and Rupert snapping at our flanks –

it behooves us, rather, to quick-march to Oxford

and storm it, having lured the popish wolf,

the wolf and the wolf’s cubs, from their popish den.” 

Du Boys added, not to be thought timid,

in his tongue-tied Netherlandish accent,

“When we have Oxford, they must sue for peace.” 

Meyrick had replaced him on the ordnance. 

The president studied faces, but said nothing –

betraying no dismay or disagreement,

unclear whether he was for or against retreat,

as Dev-Ex’ oldest, closest comrade present. 

Anticipating, Skippon answered thus: 

“Respected sirs, our horse may reach the town,

but our lame foot would quickly be devoured

by Cavaliers raging along Thames-side. 

And it will take some days to ship our sick

downriver, lest Sir Arthur murder them.” 

The small coal fire began to warm the room,

“divine tobacco” (Spenser) scenting the air. 

Said Hampden with a smile:  “My lord but tempts us. 

Not so, Lord General?  You would try our courage? 

The mercies Colonel Constable refers to,

they follow us today.  My Lord Grey (nodding)

has swelled our host.  Our trenches indefeasibly

advance on Aston’s works.  This man Flower –

we’ve now cut off Charles’ traffic with his people.” 

“A malignant messenger,” commented Meyrick. 

“A drummer of ours fished him out of the river.” 

Goodwin spoke up eagerly, “And look

at the feats of our fierce Caledonian friends,

Barclay and Holborne foiling the Earl of Forth;

Meldrum and Middleton, at Dorchester,

routing Charles’ life guard and snatching a cornet.” 

Dev-Ex exhaled a puff of smoke, content

to hear his councillors debate the motion. 

An old Parliament man, the General knew

that deference must be pricked to foster counsel. 

Grey added that the Eastern Association,

having assumed the risk and the expense

of sending several regiments abroad

(minus the Norfolk troop that mutinied

rather than fight for foreign counties’ safety)

with Cavendishes criss-crossing their northern borders,

if the Houses’ host rearward marched to Windsor

never again would join in such campaigns. 

The Parliament itself might reconsider

commissions should this mountain sire a mouse. 

The colonels knew that Lord Grey’s eastern levies

were the worst-equipped, -disciplined, and -paid

of any mustered for the present siege. 

They studiously refrained from knowing glances. 

Dev-Ex nodded.  Grey could contribute nothing. 

“I see that none here favors our withdrawal,”

said Dev-Ex, releasing peaceable smoke,

“which therefore, for lack of a second, dies. 

Yet such would not impair our army’s principal

purpose, which of course is guarding London. 

Nor do all favor a sudden lunge at Oxford. 

And so, a bear at stake, we abide Charles’ dogs. 

War is martyrdom, whoever triumphs.” 

They sat a moment, till Dev-Ex suggested

the Council briefly adjourn to Caversham Hill,

whence they might gain celestial instruction

as to their dispositions for the day. 

With Meyrick leading, following the thunder

that broke at intervals from the thick cloud

and smoke that hid the battery up the hill,

recalling Sinai to those godly captains,

they left behind the houses of the village

and left their horses at the barricade

that guarded Aston’s knowledgeable works. 

They found themselves exposed to wind and rain,

and earthquake when the greater pieces roared,

then huddled in the lee of a makeshift shed

erected on the south perimeter

to guard the match and powder from foul weather. 

Stepping into the wind, the General peered

across the river towards the battered town,

once prosperous, once occupied by Danes

as hostile as Sir Arthur Aston’s Rs. 

He scarcely could discern its walls and ditches

through the slanting rain and low blowing clouds. 

Nor could he find his other batteries,

whose smoke the rain and gale bore away. 

Beckoning, he led the shivering colonels

across the hill’s crown to its northmost fence. 

From there they could make out their furthest outworks,

but beyond those, nothing.  Where was Charles? 

He scanned the plain with his perspective trunk,

then absently passed the device to Meyrick. 

He eyed the dripping faces of his fellows. 

“Here we are,” said Dev-Ex.  “At the stake. 

Four good if weary regiments we have

facing Charles’ most probable approach. 

Can four withstand his ten?  And what if Rupert

swoops in from west or south, and Aston sallies,

an anvil to the German prince’s hammer? 

The Houses’ army could be smashed to bits,

the London road left practically unguarded,

and us to face whatever punishments

befall men who squander the Lord God’s host.” 

A wet gust licked Dev-Ex’s fringe from his brow. 

Meyrick ushered the Council back to the shed,

where Dev-Ex dabbed his eyes.  Continuing: 

“Yet I concur, I must, with your advice,

Lord Grey, that to scurry back to Windsor

would be at least as costly to our Cause,

worse than defeat, in weakening the spirit

of those who do, and those who might, support us.” 

Unwilling to infect them with his dread,

and wishing, further, to lift up their hearts

despite the wind and rain, despite their prospects,

Dev-Ex glanced from face to face.  How he missed

Greville – his faith, his quiet joy in those he loved,

his portion of Our Savior’s kindliness,

his lucency in speech, his unrestrained

audacity in countering the foe. 

At least he still had Meyrick, Hampden, Robartes –

unlike Achilles, who went mad with grief

when his Patroclus fell to Hector’s spear. 

He caught the expectant glint in Hampden’s eye,

Hampden’s lips as if prompting his next words: 

“Let us rejoice, dear friends,” concluded Dev-Ex,

“in how Our Lord has favored this our leaguer. 

His mercies you know well, and his afflictions. 

It is our privilege to fight His battles.” 

Still Hampden looked at him expectantly. 

“Meyrick,” Dev-Ex said.  “Turn these great guns

to north-northwest.  Charles will be here soon.” 

Hampden, yet again, now Goodwin too. 

His two MPs, with Constable a third. 

Meyrick was a fourth, but “grappled to him

with hoops of steel and worn at his heart’s core.” 

“Robartes,” Dev-Ex added, to the baron,

“your foot, men know, stood firm at Kineton. 

Go quickly, now, and march them over the bridge. 

Meldrum will dispose them in his lines. 

We’ll meet Charles with five regiments at Caversham.” 

Robartes paled, pursed his lips, and nodded,

the slow action more a submissive bow. 

“Questions?  Meyrick, you may adjourn the Council.” 

They silently recrossed the battery,

the south wind spitting rudely in their faces. 

Dev-Ex felt as though his mask had cracked,

allowing chill tears for the coming slaughter

to drench his shaven cheeks in rivulets. 

The slender works he’d raised against his dread

gave way, and fear suddenly swarmed his trenches. 

“Dear Lord.  Dear Lord,” he muttered to himself. 

“Only you.  Only you, my Lord.  My God.” 

And the Lord God of Hosts heard his appeal. 

He stopped and looked across the river, where

the drifting cloud concealed and revealed Reading. 

A whitish thing appeared and disappeared,

wavering on the corner of the wall,

the northwest corner, facing Caversham Bridge. 

He looked, and the others followed his gaze,

as the white cloud opened and closed the vision. 

He took back his perspective-trunk from Meyrick. 

It was.  Yes.  A white flag of parley. 

“Praise God,” said Dev-Ex.  “Aston wants to talk.” 

But Aston did not want to talk.  Bedridden,

speechless from an injury to the head

inflicted by a falling chimney tile,

thanks to Meyrick’s diligent cannoneering,

Sir Arthur had laid down his tyranny. 

Command devolved on Colonel Richard Feilding,

a kinsman of William Feilding, Earl of Denbigh,

an R, and of P Colonel Basil Feilding. 

Dev-Ex hurried back across the river

and sent a trumpeter with Carey-Rochford,

whose father, Dover, served in Charles’s horse guards,

to make a truce, if offered, and give terms,

God willing, for surrender of the town. 

The Rs sent Colonel Bolle and LC Thelwell

and Sergeant-Major Gilby out to treat,

while Carey-Rochford stayed behind, a hostage,

joined by LC Russell and SM King. 

Meyrick’s guns fell silent, as did Feilding’s. 

When Dev-Ex summoned Aston, he’d refused

to let him march away with all his men. 

“I came not,” Dev-Ex said, “for the town only,

but for the men” – the whole three thousand of them,

a formidable access of strength for Oxford. 

But now, with Charles and Rupert on his doorstep,

his regiments consuming with the fever,

Dev-Ex willingly approved that trade

(excepting renegadoes from his army),

but capped removal of R guns and plunder. 

“Do we lack faith?” asked Hampden, privately,

once the trumpeter was on his way. 

They stood a few steps off from Dev-Ex’ tent,

where the R envoys sat.  The rain had paused. 

“Where is the sword of Gideon and the Lord?” 

Hampden continued.  “We outnumber Charles. 

Relief from Oxford was expected, which

is why we came with such a populous host.” 

“I’ll bear whatever blame accrues,” said Dev-Ex,

“without undue concern for martial glory. 

We cannot risk leaving London naked. 

Better a living dog, than a dead lion. 

Their ‘full honors of war’ will cost us nothing.” 

A distant cannon fired, well beyond Caversham. 

Charles was coming.  They went inside the tent,

Dev-Ex quietly ordering the guards

to keep the Rs from running back to Reading. 

“We’re under a truce,” he said to Colonel Bolle. 

The rain resumed.  Cannon- and musket-fire. 

The Rs were agitated, caught between

their truce and their obedience to Charles. 

A messenger from Colonel Meldrum came: 

Barclay’s and Robartes’ men were holding firm

against the whole brunt of Charles’ attack. 

Hampden left the tent to order dinner

and fetch a few more guards to watch the Rs. 

Colonel Bolle hailed from Louth in Lincolnshire,

but his foot regiment was raised in Staffs. 

Dev-Ex, the latter county’s lord-lieutenant,

knew Bolle’s officers and knew their families. 

Gilby, a papist, served under papist Belasyse. 

They dined.  There was no sally out of Reading,

which, Dev-Ex said, was good news for their treaty. 

Good news, he meant, for the R negotiators,

now Dev-Ex’ hostages in all but name. 

He ordered Hampden to the nearest battery,

with orders to let fly with one great gun

to mind Colonel Feilding of his position. 

The cannonfire dwindled and fell silent. 

Feilding asked for leave to seek Charles’ blessing

on the terms he and Dev-Ex had agreed. 

A messenger was sent and Charles was found

encamped amid his host near Wallingford. 

He seemed to give assent to Dev-Ex’ terms,

whereupon Colonel John Belasyse MP,

Lieutenant Colonel Edward Villiers, Bolle,

Gilby, Thelwell, and George Bond joined Feilding

and cosigned the articles of surrender. 

The following morning, Aston’s garrison

(including Henry Mordaunt in disguise,

soon to inherit his poor father’s earldom)

marched from Reading out Grey Friar’s gate,

led by Sir Arthur on his horse-drawn litter,

drums rattling, colors hanging, trumpets bleating,

the foot with ball in mouth and smoking match,

with four pieces of ordnance in their train

and fifty wagonloads of bag and baggage.  

The enigmas of Erskine Childers

Image: Gary Woods
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a gifted novelist and nationalist contrarian

The era either side of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. Perhaps there’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global shock to get the creative juices flowing. In July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes aside long enough to publish a story with the unambiguous title of ‘Danger!’, a cautionary tale of the British Isles being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade – and in at least some accounts one that proved spectacularly counter-productive, in that it spurred the Kaiser and his naval chiefs to do exactly what Doyle had warned of. The following year, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps mixed jingoism and Germanophobia in a topical yarn involving a sinister anarchist gang, a man with part of his finger missing, and an extended chase scene through the Scottish highlands.  Somerset Maugham went one further and actually became a wartime spy, an experience he later put to good use in his celebrated Ashenden series.

But perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, politician and latterly radical nationalist Erskine Childers. It had the lot. If some destructive process were to mysteriously eliminate the world’s entire spy-thriller library, only The Riddle remaining, we could surely reconstruct from it every outline of the basic formula, every essential character and flavour contributing to the genre. In essence, the novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system (at least a generation ahead of its time in that respect alone) with a lively seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the decrepit state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries, and The Times to call the author ‘a hero’ as a result; an ironic and perhaps poignant tribute in the light of what ultimately happened. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it ‘the first modern thriller.’ If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the sort of mass of technical description and verifiable detail later found in the James Bond series, The Riddle is for you.

Jenny Agutter in the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands

Curiously enough, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself, something of an odd bird, by all accounts, even by literary standards. Aged 33 at the time of The Riddle’s publication, he never wrote another novel, instead concentrating on dry military manuals and increasingly strident political tracts. To call Childers a man of humanising contradictions is an understatement. On the one hand, he served the Crown as a wartime intelligence and aerial reconnaissance officer, greatly distinguishing himself in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. On the other, he was busy on the side smuggling German-bought guns to supply the Home Rule nationalists in Ireland, running the weapons onto a moonlit beach north of Dublin on his racing yacht Asgard, accompanied by his wife Molly and a small crew. It was almost like a scene out of The Riddle, with the critical distinction that instead of sounding the alarm about German ambitions, Childers was in the curious position of serving the King while transporting arms from the Kaiser intended for a revolution behind the lines.

The 1916 Easter Rising that saw the deaths of 485 men, women and children, among them a number of swiftly enacted judicial executions, in a week of rioting around Dublin seems to have finally clarified any remaining questions of allegiance in Childers’s mind. ‘I am daily witness to the prostitution of the British Army I served to fulfill the many aims I loathed and combated,’ he wrote. ‘I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland.’

Having cemented his establishment credentials by winning the Distinguished Service Cross for his work at Gallipoli, Childers settled down to live as a sort of proto-hippy on a farm in County Wicklow, extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, enjoying an occasional toot of cocaine and, it’s said, a degree of freedom from the traditional monogamous ideal, while sending his three young sons to a progressive school where they would be taught nothing about religion until they were old enough to decide for themselves.

The war over, Childers was a victim of the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, and barely survived. This was apparently another significant, or decisive, turning-point in his evolution from popular middlebrow author to radical activist. At least one of his biographers has speculated that he suffered a psychological breakdown during the winter of 1919-20 as a result, with a subsequent ‘addiction to danger that amounted almost to a death-wish.’ The following May, Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a stinging attack on British policy, and followed it by a series of articles in the weekly Irish Bulletin tearing the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George to shreds. Childers was secretary to the delegation that negotiated a treaty with Westminster in December 1921, providing for effective Home Rule a year later. Following that, the proposal went, the Dublin government would act as a self-sufficient dominion of the British Empire, much like Canada or Australia. Lloyd George wrote in his diary of a ‘sullen’ Childers, seething with ‘compressed wrath’ that his attempts to bring about total and immediate Irish independence had failed. Winston Churchill went one further, calling him a ‘murderous renegade’, and a ‘strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.’

The Anglo-Irish Treaty spurred Childers, and others of his persuasion, to take direct action in the face of what they saw as a sellout to London. After a further series of articles in the perhaps provocatively titled War News, one morning in early November 1922 the now middle-aged and frail Childers set off by bicycle from his current home in County Kerry on the 200-mile journey to confer with Eamon De Valera and his fellow rebels in Dublin. There might almost be a certain wry comedy to the scene, which you could imagine, say, Alec Guinness later portraying on film, but for its consequences. Childers was soon arrested by British troops along the way, and found to be in possession of a small .32 calibre pistol, which may or may not have been in working order, in violation of the recently passed Emergency Powers Resolution.

The subsequent judicial proceedings were swift. Childers was indeed taken to Dublin, if under radically different circumstances than he would have wished, where he was put on trial a week later. The proceedings ended on 18 November 1922, after the defendant had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the British Military Tribunal convened for the event. The possession of the pistol was enough to condemn him to death. Childers lodged an appeal against the sentence, and this was heard the next day by a civil magistrate who said he lacked jurisdiction because of the ongoing paramilitary disturbances in the area. ‘The prisoner disputes the authority of the Tribunal and comes to this Court for protection,’ the judge wrote, ‘but its answer must be that its jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war that he himself has helped to produce.’

Early on the morning of 24 November 1922, Childers, now a stooped, gaunt-looking man of 52, was led into a tin-roofed shed used as a firing range on the Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin, where a row of twelve soldiers was waiting for him in front of an open coffin. Perhaps nothing in the life of this brilliant, troubled and sometimes perverse figure became him like the leaving it. After shaking the hand of each member of the firing squad, his final words were: ‘Take a step or two forwards, lads, it will be easier that way.’ A few hours earlier, Childers’s 16-year-old son – also named Erskine, and a future President of Ireland – had been allowed to briefly visit his father in his cell. The condemned man made him promise two things: that he would forgive every minister in the provisional government who was responsible for his death, and that if he ever went into politics he was never to seek to capitalise on his execution. The younger Childers did as he was asked, and in later years sometimes produced a scrap of paper on which his father had written his last testament: ‘I die loving England, and passionately pray that she may change completely and passionately towards Ireland.’

The hunt for Merlin

The story so far (Chapters 2-8 inclusive have all previously been published on this site, starting here). The complete poem has just been published as A Man of Heart, by Shearsman.

Mid 5th century Britain. After the legions have withdrawn, the island is facing civil war, a growing number of external enemies and a steady tide of pagan migrants looking for land.

Vortigern has been appointed to protect what’s left of Roman Britain. The precarious balance of power he had established has been destroyed by a British revolt, led by his son. He retreats towards the hills with his wife and the remainder of the Field army.

At this point, the late 12th century narrative I’m following slides into a different version of the past, and any connection with History as understood in the 21st century is lost.  

LIAM GUILAR‘s continues his epic of post-Roman Britain

The Hunt for Merlin

Vortigern, his wife and retinue

have retreated to the green hills

with the grey mountains at their back.

The wizards tell him where to build.

Each day the workmen sweat to raise a wall;

during the night the walls collapse.

(Seven times, not three as you’d expect).

The wise-men mumble together then announce

they need the blood of a fatherless boy.[i]

Find him, they thunder, sprinkle his blood

and your fortress will be impregnable.

Rowena, astonished by stone buildings,

seeing magic in the masons’ every move,

understands the fact of sorcery.

Vortigern, patient, muses:

four centuries of Roman stone

and now we cannot build a wall?

He sends men hunting down the hill

into the wooded valleys.

In the unmeasured space between

an end and a beginning, along a ridge,

scraped drop on either side, to the summit.

Looked down at broken clouds, across to distant,

unknown, crumpled peaks. The valley;

inept geometry of distant fields,

a path falling off the ridge towards the track

that followed the scrawl of infant river.

Companions wearing mail,

thick woollen cloaks, dark red,

held at the shoulder with an ornate brooch,

only their eyes visible in the helmet’s gilded face,

reading the boundaries, a line of trees,

a stream, a standing stone.

Saw the rustler’s pathway peeling off the ridge

to meet the hammered track

leading to the cluster of round huts,

pointed roofs and sagging thatch,

fenced space, the drift of smoke.

The perfectly ordinary settlement.

Entering the village, they walk into a silence

abrupt as the chill slap of a breaking wave.

No child is playing. No woman singing at her work.

Painted figures, fading on the grey wall of the cloud.

No one runs away, or screams, or sounds alarum.

No one is reaching for an axe. They stop.

They watch. They follow, herding the strangers towards

the largest hut, white walls blotched

beneath the inept cone of sagging thatch.

The chieftain waits to greet them,

wrapped in a bear skin, the skull as hood.

The messengers stop to admire the skin,

trying to frame a compliment.

The old man nodded. ‘Old ways.

My dad took me down into the trees.

Gave me a spear, said, good luck son.

Come back with a bear skin or don’t come back.’

They step into the hut.

‘You have come for the child.

He says you will take him to his woman.’

Behind the fire, in the gloom,

a dark stain, small and indistinct.

Something catching the light flicks,

golden. ‘Do not deny your mission.

He knows what happened, what will happen’

-The shape moved, seemed larger-

‘could happen.’

This man, who as a child

went after bear, alone,

armed only with a spear,

is terrified.

A girl came to the entrance.

The boy stood up and left with her.

‘I have sent word to his mother.

She will travel to the King.

We have sheltered the abomination

and in return, he has shown us what we are.

True, he has given us dominion

over the peoples of the valley.

He has kept our cattle healthy,

our crops abundant. Terrified,

our neighbours pay us tribute,

sacrifice their daughters to his lust,

give us gold and precious things

from places far beyond

the eastern limit of the Empire.

Glass bowls, jewelled cups,

silk filigreed with gold.

At first we gloated over our success,

and wallowed in the excess of desire.

But then we realised the price we paid.

We have done foul things at his bidding.

But we have seen him part the clouds,

make running water turn to ice in summer.

He has raised a hand and brought down hail,

fist sized, to smash our enemies

and ten feet from them not one of us was touched.

We have done too much to keep him happy.’

Outside someone was sobbing.

‘You are the King’s men.

That makes you loyal and brave.

You stayed when all the others ran.

Take the boy to Vortigern the King

He rarely speaks, he seldom asks…’

The old man’s voice was melting.

‘I would rather face a bear again,

with only these old hands,

than risk the anger of that child.

But warn your King, tell him: take care.

The child will give him anything he wants

but his price will be beyond imagining.

When news spreads that he is gone

our enemies will devastate this village,

take not one slave, touch not one woman.

They will kill everyone and then

erase this stinking cess pit from the landscape.

When they arrive, we shall not fight.

Death will bring a fine forgetting.’ 


The villagers gathered in the fog,

the women clutching their children,

like failed approximations of the living.

The men stranded in poses of dejection.

The chieftain led them along the path

towards the rising hills. As the ground

sloped steeply upwards he left them.

‘You will need a week to reach your King.

By then, if your mind is still intact,

you will believe everything I’ve said.’

On the first day,

they followed the track upstream to the ridge

in fog so thick they never saw the sun.

The boy did not speak.

He didn’t greet them in the morning,

nor wish them well at night.

On the second day they picked their way downstream,

the slopes of scree like broken shards of fog,

scattered in shining fields that clattered away downhill.

On the third day he said;

‘We will go no further in this valley.

My enemies are waiting. 

We must climb that ridge.

On the other side is a village,

where there are horses.

You will kill their owners,

then you will take me to my woman.’

Vortigern had trained them well.

Their plan was clear and simple.

Entering the settlement, first

they would ask for horses

in the King’s name. Then

they would offer to pay.

If this was refused, then,

and only then, the killing would begin.

The boy had other plans.

Eyes closed, swaying, lips mumble,

hands move, an unexpected squall

drives rain against the window

and blurs a clear view. Or on high ground

the clouds move in so fast the outlines disappear

and there’s only vagueness and sudden dark.

Swinging axe and stabbing spear,

cutting through to the surprise

of scattered bodies, bloodied edge.

They were saddling the horses.

‘Where is the boy?’

‘With the women.’
‘I thought we killed them all?’

‘We did.’

There was the rain

and somewhere was the night.

Each man huddled in his own cloak

and endured the darkness

until the boy made a pile of sticks.

A movement of his hands, a black flame,

tinged silver at the edges,

sprang upward like an army

leaping from its place of ambush.

They huddled closer. No light,

but their sodden cloaks began to steam,

their frozen hands unclenched.

The wood was not consumed.

The escort saw the landscape

as passage, difficult or easy;

shelter, safety, risk. The boy?

Scree was the outrider of his enemies,

the scattered boulders sentries for his army,

waiting for the signal to advance.

Only the water was patron and friend,

escorting him towards his woman.

In the woods their passage slowed.

He must greet every tree he passed,

laying his palms flat on each trunk,

lips moving to shape words no one recognized.

If no blossom sprang beneath his hands

that was worse than the making of fire.

3. Merlin’s Mother

Care has worn her face into perfected sorrow.

But even in the habit of a nun,[ii]

she is sensuality incarnate,

a delirious possibility of carnal bliss.

‘Tell me lady, who is the father of this child?’

‘I am a King’s daughter, Conan was his name,

before the Saxon’s came, before they killed him.

I do not know the father of this child.’

‘You were raped? No? So tell me, lady,

tell me, how did you get this child?’

Rowena wraps her cloak around the sobbing woman,

leads her away from the armoured men,

settles down to listen, seeing images.

…summer flies in clouds above the shattered brightness of the pool.

Girl children playing: armoured guards like dirty statues in the shade

along the rocky shore.

‘Beneath my father’s palace a stream snaked between the trees

and upstream of where it cut the path leading from the fort

our childish secret place, a spring running from a carved grey stone,

with swirling snakes coiling around an open mouth

and a broken headless statue.

(We blushed the first time that we saw it, erect, enormous.

Imagine that? And other silly chatter).

My slave girl trying to be important,

told us pagans worshipped this forest god, this half-man, half-goat,

and if a maiden, toying with herself, close to this place of power,

spoke his name three times, he would appear and pleasure her.

No one believed her rubbish.

We were children,

girls in their white shifts splashing in a pool,

drifting through the summer heat.

A long hot summer.

Maybe five years after we had found the stone.

The river shrivelled to a chain of stagnant ponds.

 Unmarried, un-promised

with maids to the river bank.

Tents in the shade of the trees.

Guards? Of course.

On the hottest night,

aware of sweat beading and running

like grazing insects,

aware of my own body,

humming its lust.

 Images of a future husband,

a constriction in the throat,

the heat became intense.

I murmured the god’s name,

opened my eyes to the golden man,

the carving of Priapus come to life.

His eyes blazed golden in the shade.

The frost burn of pleasure.

All night delirium, the rhythms of flesh,

exhausted, weeping with delight, I fell asleep.

In the morning, in the river, trails of blood,

signs of the night’s excesses

but no signs anyone had slipped into my tent.

That afternoon I dreamt

church doors were shut against me.

I saw the priest and congregations

stone a woman in the field

and knew that she was me.

But until the Golden Man returned,

my body crooned for him.

 My mind a swamp of images of what we’d done.

3 nights the Golden Man appeared and played with me.

3 nights of ecstasy I’ll never know again.

Then no more.

I prayed for him. I prayed to him, but the nights were a rack

and I despised the sunrise confirming that he had not come.

I sickened. After three days, my clothes were tight

and food was hateful to me.

In three weeks I gave birth:

 a child with golden eyes.

As they laid it on my breast,

he smiled at me and said:

‘Daddy sends you greetings

You will not meet again.’

And that lady is how I got my child.

Must I stay ‘til it arrives?’

‘You fear your own son?’

‘Speaking his crimes would rot my mouth.

Remembering them is penance enough.’

Rowena let her go.

Vortigern asks: ‘Is it believable?

She wouldn’t be the first maid

who snuck away to meet her lover

and then made up such a story

when she found out she was pregnant.’

‘No. Her fear is genuine.

Whatever he did is so foul she won’t speak it.’ 

4. A Fatherless Boy

The messengers, staggering, 

bring the boy before the King.

Like a dead bird on a wire

animated by the breeze,

a stain gaining definition

as it strikes, the boy,

brushing aside the soothsayers,

swooping towards Rowena.

‘Blessed is the well below the valley.’

He strokes her breast. She recoils,

hands tying invisible knots, speaking

words that no one present understands.

The boy stumbles, recovers, laughs,

brushing flies from his face.

Reluctantly, he turns to Vortigern.

An old man’s voice,

with rust at its edges

and rot at its core.

‘I have loosed the bands of Orion.

I can summon leviathan.

He will make a covenant with me.

I have gone down to hell

and freed the rider in the clouds.

When he’s enthroned upon his mountain

he will bow before me as my slave.

I can harness the unicorn to the plough.

I can make you Emperor.’

‘Of what?

The Empire’s gone.’

‘It can be rebuilt.

For you.

For a price.’

‘And you want my soul?’

‘I wouldn’t wipe my arse on it.

I want your wife.’

Vortigern hears Rowena hiss,

senses she has stepped back,

holding seax in a steady hand.

‘She doesn’t want you.’

‘Look fool!’ Vortigern sees his province,

refined to a detailed map.

To the south, the shrinking stain

of Vortimer’s rabble and across the Channel,

the scum filled puddle of The Boys’ growing horde.

The black plague of uncountable ships,

swarm the coast, or burrow up river

like maggots attacking a corpse.

‘Give me your wife.

I will annihilate your enemies.

I will be a tempest in a field of corn.

The plans that they have nurtured,

their dreams and ambitions, I will ruin

as they watch, like patient farmers

as hail destroys their crops,

announcing their starvation.

Give me your wife.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Time thickens like a river freezing.

There is only the voice;

a wind from nowhere,

and the images of burning homes,

pestilence, atrocities, famine.

Vortigern sees his kingdom.

The dead lie where they fell,

crops rotting in the fields,

the starving cattle wander free.

He could see misery,

surging over the land and drowning it.

‘I can put an end to this.

That’s what you want;

peace, order, stability.

Give me your wife.’

He sees himself in gold embroidered silk,

seated on a marble throne,

in a many columned hall.

The cities flourishing again,

merchants on the roads,

ships safe in the harbour. He hears

the grateful people speak his name.

No enemies, assassins

outrage or complaints?

This time, he laughs.

The ice breaks.

The river moves.

‘Child, this is not yours to give.

There will always be wars. Always

people who starve while others feast.’

‘You will die alone.

The sky will rain fire.

You will be vilified

for eternity unless

you give me your wife.

They will debate your name

and your existence.

Your life will be obscure,

your death will be unknown

unless you give me your wife.

She is blessed amongst women.

The fruit of her womb will be the Messiah:

a Warrior King to end the Saxon threat,

reconquer Rome and found a Reich

to last a thousand years.

His name will never be forgotten.

Nor will mine.’

‘Child, she is not mine to give.’

Vortigern dwarves the chubby boy;

a foul vagueness slithered from a cave,

shrivelling in the unaccustomed light.

‘Go your way.

Take this gold,

my thanks

for the lesson.’

‘We will not meet again,

Vortigern Dead King.

I could have saved you.’

‘No,’ he says,

with the conviction of a rock.

‘No, you could not.’

5. The end of the province of Britannia

Morning, and the mist filling the valley below,

clouds streaking the sky like smoke plumes

streaming from the distant peaks. The sun

cold, bright and ruthlessly indifferent.

His officers accumulate around the wagon.

A baffled Rowena stands beside him,

leaning into whatever happens next.

The remnants of Britannia’s last Field Army.

Faces he remembers from the day they left for Lincoln[iii].

He knows them all; their families, their stories,

which one can improvise, who imitates a wall,

who plays it safe, who takes a chance. 

‘Some of you are angry. Some feel betrayed.

You think you would have danced

to your crucifixion if a comrade could be saved.

We have all lost friends who gave their lives

so we could live. You think I’m selfish

because I wouldn’t trade this woman to a child

to save the province.’ He heaved a sack towards them.

‘There is all the coin that’s left.’ He threw a second,

two malignant lumps shifting as they settled.

‘And there’s the plunder; gold rings, armbands, torques…’

the list is endless and irrelevant, dismissively

he waves his hand towards the chests beside him.

‘The royal treasury. The province. Britannia.

That’s all that’s left of what we swore to serve.

But what we swore to serve

meant so much more than that.

I will not sacrifice another life

for two bags full of shiny trash.

Divide it now amongst yourselves.

See that no man feels aggrieved.

Those who wish to leave: go home.

Or you can take an oath to follow me.

I will not ask you to do anything

I have not asked before,

but I will make you rich,

and give you lands for your old age.’

The sound of swords being drawn,

the rustle of kneeling men.

Later she finds him, on a fallen trunk.

The twisted branches of the stubborn trees

behind him like a web the boy had spun

to trap a king.

‘You are a strange man, Vortigern Cyning.

Locrin locked a woman up and lost his kingdom.

You risked the loss of yours to set one free.

The two sacks are untouched in the grass

and not one man has left.’

‘We’ve clung to the old titles;

adepts of a failed dispensation,

whose rites and formulas

belong to history, repeating

an incantation that’s familiar,

habitual, comforting,

when it’s obvious the gods

have long since left the temple

and the words no longer work.

It’s a strange new world

we’re stepping into;

clean, cruel and honest.

At least until we discover

new reasons for hypocrisy.’

[i] Laȝamon describes this advice as ‘leasing’ (lies.)  The shift from bishops and priests to wise men and soothsayers is in his text.

[ii] Another one of Laȝamon’s anachronisms. The story of Merlin’s birth and conception follows his version.

[iii] See chapter 4

More information about Laȝamon’s world and work, as well as the two published volumes in this project can be found at