Alan Morrison on
The Battle of Heptonstall
By The Word Divided
Yorkshire poet Michael Crowley was funded by Sky Arts to produce a drama of poem-monologues set in and immediately after a significant skirmish of the English Civil War in and around the town of Heptonstall in West Riding partly as an historical comment on the UK’s Brexit divisions of the present day. Certainly the historically minded will have already drawn the parallels even if Brexit has turned out a very different and regressive result: this time round the Roundheads (Remainers) lost to the Cavaliers (Brexiteers). But then these are the parallels drawn by this writer who is an ardent Remainer, whereas Lexiteers (left-wing Brexiteers), for instance, might see the parallels oppositely, even if the term ‘Brexiteer’ chimes more than just coincidentally, in the minds of many, with ‘Cavalier’ (or, perhaps moreso, Musketeer).
What first struck me about Crowley’s The Battle of Heptonstall was the very deliberate black and seagreen colours of the title, these having been the colours of the feathers worn by the Levellers, a radical egalitarian group on the fringes of the Parliamentarian side in the war, though later, under Cromwell’s Commonwealth, proscribed and suppressed. The image of the front cover, also in sea-green, is a period woodcut illustrating with folkloric symbolism the ‘World turn’d upside down’ that the Civil War brought about – a contemporary trope which is also featured in the image itself (and which formed the title of Christopher Hill’s grounbreaking The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (Pelican, 1975), and even of a morality play set at the Nativity by Tasmanian poet Clive Sansom (Frederick Muller, 1948)).
As with the narrative poem-monologues of Crowley’s First Fleet, previously reviewed on The Recusant, those of The Battle of Heptonstall exude an uncanny sense of authenticity which speak of the atmosphere and sense of place of the period depicted. Crowley evokes the historical scene through a rich application of imagery and sense-impression, particularly tactile, as in ‘Weaver’, spoken by one John Cockroft, which might also be read as a metaphor for the Civil War itself:
All else depends on warp and weft,
that the tension be right and be even,
or the coat unravels from the back.
Crowley’s deploys some deft use of alliteration and assonance that adds a musicality to the singing lines:
I make a cloth of simple tabby weave
the shafts and shuttles like it well,
all day tying to the heddles until my eyes fail.
The poem closes on ominous propinquities of conflict: 'Soldiers on the hills: the arc of their helmets,/
rumps of their horses, cloth torn by blade and shot….' Crowley’s speakers are apparently peasant folk caught in the midst of civil conflict, presumably conscientious objectors, though conceivably not members of the little known third party of the Civil War who fought both sides in defence of their land, properties and families, and were termed Clubmen for often wielding clubs and cudgels, and who wore white ribbands to distinguish themselves. ‘Spinner’ spoken by Alice Cockroft has a Blakean feel in its bucolic and almost Biblical imagery: ‘Thread bleeds from my palm/ spindle hungry as a lamb’, and 'I wear her smock ripe with rosemary/ singing, Although I am a country lass/ a lusty mind I bear-a…'. The mention of rosemary might be significant here since Leveller wives often wore sprigs of rosemary. Crowley’s use of free-falling rhyme (i.e. not only end-of-line rhymes) is particularly effective as in ‘Nothing but Labour’ spoken by Joseph Cockroft:
…Crow’s feet for fingers,
crooked when he stands, his eyes weakening
and I, kneeling upon the stone
carding grey strands, softer than his beard
when he could lift me with his hands.
And what a wonderful juxtaposition of imagery with the ‘grey strands’ of wool and a father’s woolly beard. This Joseph Cockroft is a ‘clothier’s son’ who only sees ‘wild roses on a Sunday’, his ‘brother gone to clerk in Leeds/ no one left but me to weave’ – a nice half-rhyme. The Sisyphun paradox and sense of futility of hard rural artisan labour undercut by profiteering merchants is beautifully framed by Crowley in a kind of Marxian epigram:
Father curses the merchants at the cloth hall
thumbing each piece, playing doubtful.
When the cloth is sold, he only buys more wool.
The soft chimes of ‘hall’, ‘-ful’ and ‘wool’ are also beautifully judged. ‘Promise’, spoken by Rose, ‘orphaned by the plague’, is soothed in her distress by a pilgrim:
Sweet lipped, so gentle tongued he, his eyes
see through the years to my children,
he can hear what isn’t yet spoken. We the despised
are not for church, the statues and the kneeling.
Princes will fall, the world shall be made anew.
I card the fleece, bathe his feet, brush his pilgrim shoes.
‘Pike-man’ is a gritty and visceral depiction of pitched battle:
…We are bent low,
a rocking head brings me eyes like eggs.
My pike trembles in its acorn breast,
blood bursts back at me, soaks my head,
the beast screams, falls like an oak.
But it’s with ‘Seeker’, spoken by evangelist preacher -or hedge-priest?- William Saltmarsh, that the collection starts to tackle the tortuous but fundamental religious specifics and tensions of the time which primarily triggered the Civil War itself – Saltmarsh seems to preach a kind of Nature-rooted Puritanism, one of legion newly-sprung theological offshoots from Protestantism of this period fecund with radical reinterpretations of the Christian message. It is clear Saltmarsh is mainly railing against the Anglican reforms under Archbishop Laud which imposed some symbols, furnishings and effigies associated with Catholicism in Protestant -inclusive of Puritan- churches nationwide that ultimately fomented civil conflict -I excerpt the poem in full:
The clergy lead the people like horses,
ride them at their pleasure. They are holy
imbeciles who believe imagery forces
people to Christ. Spirit is all. It knows
all things, was before sin’s invention,
the preaching of perfection. I saw a man
standing inside a tree, he clapped his hands
upon his breasts saying “heaven is within me,
within me.” We meet at the foot of the rocks
under the blackthorn crest, we hold hands
in the silences, the scuffle of frogs,
a warming from a jackdaw. My child Evelyn scans
the skyline for glove puppets of cavalry.
Tongues are bored, ears sawn off in the pillory.
Colonel Robert Bradshaw, speaker of ‘Reason’, is undoubtedly a Roundhead colonel judging by his contemptuous description of a -presumably Puritan- church draped with Catholic iconography:
What does it mean to fight a kind, treason?
A king that hath sent his parliament away
like a lord discharging his servants, believing
saints will cook his supper for him. He lays
with a papist plotting, with rebels turning
church into a place of coloured dolls, painted
walls and altar rails, where me kneeling
upon their own minds recite some scroll
by the Archbishop Laud. Kings are not God…
Indeed, and ‘Christ, Not Man, Is King’, as was Oliver Cromwell’s credo and tomb epithet. ‘Heresy’, spoken by Squire Thornfield, seems to be from a Royalist perspective, criticising the Puritanism of much of the Parliamentarian side for its nascent mercantilism, since as Max Weber argued in his seminal The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), capitalism -its English guise at least- was essentially a product of 17th century Protestant individualism given free reign in the denominational diaspora post-Commonwealth (and socialism, arguably, was more rooted in the communalism of Roman Catholicism):
Parliament worshipping trade, exalts treason,
heresy the liturgy, soldiering its creed
observed by clothiers huddling in caves
spinning hair, ferreting each farthing…
They do not toil under heavenly skies,
their eyes famished of God’s firmament.
Ploughing earth at the mercy of the sun
reminds man of his position: a worm
on the ground. They are peacock proud,
forgetting all fealty but to money that grows
upon a waddling back.
The roots of the levelling:
leaving children without sacrament
so they might scratch an animal’s back,
feed their souls into a spinning wheel.
Here even the honest toil which marks the fundament of the burgeoning Protestant work ethic is mocked as somehow ungodly, even savage, a kind of occupational paganism –not only the speculative exploitation of the clothiers by the merchants, but also the toil of the clothiers themselves, are depicted as in thrall to Mammon. What’s disconcerting here for Marxian readers is the irrefutable truth that mercantilism which sprung from Puritanism and the ‘progressive’ triumphant Parliamentarian side, did indeed augur the age of materialism and unfettered free trade and entrepreneurialism which eventually reduced most modern human relations to mere commercial transactions, something rued by Marx himself, ‘poet of commodities’ (Edmund Wilson, To The Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940)), and later reiterated by Marxist critics such as Christopher Caudwell (Illusion & Reality, 1937). This said, just as socialist ideas had some origins in Catholicism, so too did they have roots in the variegations of English Protestant-sprung radical groups as the Levellers, Diggers, Quakers, Annabaptists and other communitarian sects; indeed, John Lilburne of the Levellers and Gerard Winstanley of the Diggers were the first explicit English socialist and communist respectively.
‘Babylon’, spoken by the besieged Anglican priest Robert Gilbodie, describes the desecration and outright vandalism of a Laudian-refurbished church by Roundheads – I excerpt this beautifully composed poem in full:
This day a man brandished a catechism
he held it in the air like a sword
saying we should abhor all superstition
tear down the crosses, burn the book of prayer.
Parliament’s men broke my font with hammers
elsewhere they baptised their horses with urine,
their fathers having lime-washed the walls
damming unlettered men to blindness. I shall remain
but not as a martyr. I think this nation
shall become slavish and cruel to all it touches,
a callus on the palms of Christendom.
The vicarage is cold, the candle light crouches.
Of wood once left at my door, I have none.
Their campfires burn, I walk the streets alone.
The intriguingly titled ‘Execution of a Ghost’ is spoken by one Edmund Reeve, presumably a Catholic -and possibly a recusant: ‘I am a man of fealty/ of the old religion/ from an old family/ come from the corners of the north’. In ‘Lodger’ Anne Cockroft imagines she can eavesdrop on the thoughts of a soldierly guest, Sergeant Leach, the pike-man of a few poems earlier:
Blood swims in his eyes, slaughter he thinks upon,
the mother’s son he has cut open,
he sees as he chews the mutton.
His skin turned grey
the look of a wolf, the smell of a hound
coming off him…
In ‘Billet’ pike-man Leach reflects on his surroundings as the weaver’s daughter reflects on him:
The weaver’s life is small, his God a tailor,
he does not look up from his loom to the war
but speaks in corners with his wife,
I am a ghost upon a stool.
In ‘Cockroft’s Soldier’ Joseph Cockroft contemplates Leach who is clearly a Roundhead pike-man:
all day he polishes his silver sword
like a dog licking at its paws.
He wears the roundhead hair of a boy
a smell from him I think is oil
he likes to sing to a tapping foot
songs he learned in Holland.
I’m not altogether sure if a pike-man would have a sword but I might be wrong – perhaps pike Seargeants did. Holland is another clue to the affiliation of the pike-man, it being a firmly Protestant country. Crowley applies himself a delicate touch to his lines:
He makes light of driving a pike
into the breast of horses
some moments he stops his cloth
his thoughts inside past battles.
Leach is clearly of the fanatical Puritan faith:
He talks each night inside his sleep
The first shall be last and the last the first
I wake to find his face above me
We must free the king from popish company
‘Wind of Doubt’ is a dialogue poem in which the spy Edward Reeve is interrogated by his conscience perhaps. The poems become more narrative based and interlinked from here. In ‘Sinful’ where ‘Joseph and Rose meet by the beck’, there is a romantic sojourn, songs and hummed melodies are exchanged, ‘Lavender’s green, lavender’s blue’; some deft use of m-alliteration:
She hums the melody but speaks or armies,
a martyr and a pilgrim called Edmund
come to join Bradshaw’s men.
I speak of Christmas, of feasting and joy,
she says she must fast for the sins of mankind.
In ‘Fretful’ we once again witness Leach’s devout religiousness:
Soldier Leach polishes polishes his sword ever more.
I see him in prayer, muttering hard
by the middle of the day.
In ‘Night March’ the enemy, from the Royalist point of view, is depicted contemptuously: ‘We must empty the nest of roundheads, of heretics who defecate in churches’. It’s impressive how Crowley is able to wring poetry out of battle, or at least its anticipation, as in the lyrical close to this poem: ‘God lights a fuse, the heavens ignite, firing/ at the moon’s blank face. Stars are born and dying.’ There’s a sense that Crowley’s increased concentration on narrative inescapably leads to slightly more prosaic language than in the earlier more meditative and descriptive poems, but yet he still delivers, if perhaps less occasionally, some striking images and sublime lines – as in ‘God’s Work’, spoken by Alice Cockroft:
She spoke to Joseph of God,
sent him running at swords and horses
under rocks pitched like bales of hay.
To know God you must have a child of God
then see them killed whilst still a child.
Grief spins into yarn that has no end.
‘Forsaken’ is an accomplished villanelle in which, crucially, the refrain is memorable: ‘where Christ’s words are not heard or spoken/ all its magic, all its flowers taken.’ The following poem ‘Did I Plant Anew?’ is also a villanelle spoken by Colonel Bradshaw as he dies on the Heptonstall battlefield rueing everything he has had to do in the war: ‘I fought faithful peasants and plough boys who/ scratch the earth and pray on bended knees’ – his refrain is: ‘I went to war against my king for you,/ did I stain the earth, did I plant anew?’
‘Ballad of the Battle of Heptonstall’ is more a straightforward ballad and the only poem in the collection to start its lines with capital letters, it seems a little perfunctory but contains one quite lyrical quatrain:
Cries of war swept the hills
The trees did shake and sigh
Death disturbed the very air
I heard a kestrel cry
But this historical section of the book closes with the more lyrical and lingering ‘Visitor’ spoken by the Wool Master as he returns to his home and tools -here are four of its five tercets:
The cloth hall has closed
merchants fled like larks
the village an empty loft, a lonely maypole.
Pious men at arms spewed fever
into houses, into the school house,
spread sword play and wounds.
A horse comes snorting from the mist
dragging its reins in search of a rider
its hooves I cannot hear upon the ground.
It might have been an owl I heard last night
it might have been a weaver crying.
Not a soul speaks as I pass.
Something of The Battle of Heptonstall section of the book seeps into the beginning of the second shorter section which is titled Aftermath. ‘Cursed’ has the ghost of Leveller Thomas Rainsborough contemplating the parlous state of Parliament in 2019 in comparison to that of his own time (he was killed in a Royalist ambush in 1648):
These houses are more adrift from England
than I was at Providence Island.
I walk the corridors of my dream
Members talk as masters of the kingdom
when they were sent here as its servants,
they crave the peoples’ love yet think them imbeciles.
Shouldn’t ‘houses’ be in upper case, as ‘Members’ is? The revenant Rainsborough reflects on the footnote-stature of his posterity compared to that of Cromwell:
These sleep the Lords among whom I search
for the descendants of those that killed me.
Did they come from here or were they sent by Oliver?
They have a plaque about me in Doncaster
upon the wall of the House of Fraser,
while Oliver has a statue outside Westminster.
King Jesus is still yet to come
all brethren of the free spirit gone.
The following poem, ‘Sealed Knot’, appears to find Crowley partaking in a Civil War reenactment, and he proudly declares: ‘But where are men without battle, without a field to be won?/ I am a true Leveller and a Lilburne man’.
The remainder of the poems in Aftermath are on a mixture of themes from childhood memories to the military-related – ‘Veteran in Recovery’ is perhaps the standout:
In the dictionary between shit and suicide
is sympathy. That’s where it belongs.
I learned to drink in the tank regiment.
outlandish games in the mess each night,
no one dared to stay on their bunk
with headphones on, a book, a pen and paper.
The regiment colours are,
green for the grass we conquer,
brown for the mud we leave behind,
red for the blood we spill.
But I draw my review to a close at this point since it is on the main Battle of Heptonstall part of the book that drew my interest to this collection in the first place, the English Civil War having long been a favourite period of mine and one which I have also previously explored in several poems. Personally I would have relished a few more poems focusing on the ideas of the Levellers and, indeed, the Diggers, but clearly Crowley’s main aim with this scattered verse-narrative is to present a compendious and fairly comprehensive community-piece which can both entertain and educate at the same time but without being weighted with too much scholarship of the period. Crowley manages to strike a balance between didacticism and accessibility, and the overrall impression is something of a combination of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976) and John Hawkesworth’s By The Sword Divided (1983-5).
Crowley does an admirable job incorporating sufficient nuances of the thoughts, actions, motives ansd beliefs of various players in the Civil War from peasant artisans to Puritan pike-men, priests to spies, and his interlocking of the monologues so that most characters encounter one another at various points is cleverly done and gives the element of interaction and tension required for a dramatic work. In many respects has much in common with another Smokestack take on the English Civil War, Bob Beagrie’s Civil Insolencies (2019), which I review below.
There are many fine poems in The Battle of Heptonstall which makes the book a very worthy follow up to First Fleet, and Crowley has produced an authentic-feeling poetic depiction of the most tumultuous and brutal episode in English history which he appositely juxtaposes with the rhetorically fractious Brexit schisms of ‘the present’ being that period of Parliamentary impasse in 2019 during which Crowley composed these poems. A recommended read, especially for poetry readers who are also lovers of the period.
Published by Smokestack during that parliamentary impasse was Bob Beagrie’s Civil Insolencies – it too is a kind of fractured verse-narrative throughout which the poems are spoken (or thought) by various characters -historical and fictitious- of the Civil War period, and it also revolves around a battle, that of Guisborough. Both this and Crowley’s subsequent Battle of Heptonstall (though it might well have been written around the same time as Beagrie’s) seem to mark something of an emerging genre.
Beagrie’s take on the period starts off with ‘The Golden Age’, the opening lines announce themselves with popular culture reference to Doctor Who, which has over the decades taken on an almost folkloric aura alongside Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood: ‘a choice poised on the nib of a pen/ or the turn of a dial in the Tardis.’ There’s reference to the ‘wapentake’, an Anglo-Saxon concept of structures of counties which I don’t completely understand, but it’s an evocative archaism. This taps into the nostalgia-myth of the so-called Anglo-Saxon Golden Age which many Puritans and Roundheads of the Civil War period held in mind as a distant past, pre-feudal egalitarian society:
…take us back to the wapentake
to the time of tolerance; to the salmon run
to the days before nostalgia turned us bitter
do you recall Cornucopia?
take us all the way back to Arcadia
Then the incantation projects forwards:
or else spin us forward to Gullaldr, not otherwise
or elsewhere, when all the feuds are settled,
without neglect nor contempt and endeavours
are governed by the just cause of commonality
take me there and I’ll not doff my hat
nor tug upon a forelock, if I have one.
The next short piece, ‘The Historian’s Reply’, seems to this writer rather artless, essentially just a prose sentence chopped up to look like a poem, and even more perplexingly its second part has the words displaced on the page for no readily discernable purpose:
it would be
to be able
to travel back
Maybe I’ve missed something here, but to me this small piece seems throwaway in its casual phrasing. It’s not altogether clear what exaclty ‘Real Remnants of Fictive Wars’ is actually about but it appears to be do with the portent of an ominous gathering cloud which presumably symbolises the oncoming Civil War. It’s an accomplished poem, nicely phrased, and the forming cloud is a quite haunting image, particularly as it appears to be being politely ignored:
No one spoke of the cloud,
though Maria played delightfully on the virginal
and sang, and somebody complented her voice…
but no one spoke of the cloud.
The poem has an eloquence faintly reminiscent of Eliot:
It was a foggy, damp old day to begin with.
Mist hung heavily in the grounds
but the cloud on the lawn was whiter…
…spreading quite disturbingly beneath
the conversation which acknowledged
the flock wallpaper, Lady Dampier’s ball gown
Phillip’s new pure bred and how all the children grow.
The image of the line ‘the cloud unfurled like a pallid octopus in tissue paper’ borders on the surreal. The poem ends enigmatically as it begins:
toward the damp trees and the ornamental lake,
and, fortunately, no one thought it necessary
nor reasonable to mention it.
‘Caveliero’, which depicts the transformation of a horseman or stable-hand into a dragoon at the onset of ‘the Bishop’s War’, contains an arresting image almost reminiscent of Peter Shaffer’s Equus (1973), and evocative of centaurs: ‘he rode them, read them, dreamed, sometimes,/ he was one, tailed and maned, as alert as liquid/ to change’.
‘Muster’ relates the embittered reasons for a ‘King’s Man’, James Mytton, to take up arms against ‘trained bands of militia’. ‘Undertone’ includes some sublime lines: ‘in this way I watch hate’s tumours grow -/ as sade absorbing change, like moss, that/ flits away to feed it down the scuttlebutt’ – that latter term means rumour or gossip. ‘The Brewing’ is a short dialogue piece and is indicative of the dramatic nature of this scattered verse-narrative.
‘The Burnings’ appears to depict a Roundhead hunt for a suspected witch and a Catholic recusant – there is also an allusion to a Brexiteer slogan and that Beagrie appears to juxtapose Puritan strictures and moral impositions with the regressive nativism and border-tightening instincts of the Leave camp just shows how even in framing parallels with the Civil War it depends on one’s personal opinion and perception as to which side of the Brexit schism they perceive the modern day counterparts of Royalists and Roundheads to be; indeed, while the former side was undoubtedly traditionalist and establishmentarian, the latter side was a very singular and strange combination of political radicalism and moral fundamentalism in the form of its predominant Puritanism:
The monster recalls the Godly mob
ablaze with righteous indignation
at indulgences wilfully practiced
under licence of permissable leisure;
to reform the borders of acceptability,
rectify the correct codes of conduct,
to take back control, and thereby hand
it over to our duly elected legislators
deemed above all to know best
through disguised impartiality;
so, she kept her pretty head low,
held her breath in the priest hole
flinched as they tore the May Pole,
up-turned the market stalls, bellowed
for blood, she spied devils in their frenzies
‘though they claimed to do Christ’s work.
‘Forced March’ crackles with consonance as it namechecks North Yorkshire locations on the route to Guisborough where battle will commence, the poem feels like more of a gallop than a slog – this is emphatically the Roundhead side as depicted in their strong sense of godly righteousness:
…The Lord’s wind in the face,
Hugh Cholmley drives his pack of war dogs onward
with the whip of his words, On, Rogues and Rufflers.
it is the First Fruits of the Spirit that shall nourish us!
with Whitby, his home, under threat these hounds
with round heads and sheathed steel teeth
(cony-catchers, apple-squires, nips, cross-biters)
refuse to rest, each stride bringing them closer
to salvation, their own and that of a divided nation
through hallucinations of exhaustion, fear and trembling.
‘Procession’ appears to depict a pilgrim or anchorite, presumably a Puritan or other Protestant offshoot, based in part on John Bunyan (according to the Dramatis Personae at the back of this volume), though also reminiscent of Roger Crab the haberdasher, herbal doctor and pamphleteer who ended up an aesthetic, Rumex-eating recluse (later a Leveller) – I excerpt this nicely alliterative and sibilant descriptive poem in full:
Tinker John is tramping in the train of boots
through porridge spills of freezing fog
a lousy sun crawling from its make-shift cot
sick-bed, scru-basket nest up on Ravenscar;
is only aware of something groaning deep
inside himself – it tells him he is still alive.
They clomp across the underside of clouds
their pikes and helmets scrape furrows
in the fields beside the Lion’s beer garden –
you can glimpse them passing in the bull’s-
eye bevel of the remote pub’s snug window.
John remembers that one day he will beget
a daughter, blind-born meadow flower,
who shall inherit the Earth, like him,
through suering, in this topsy-turvy world
he’s learning how to live on the invisible.
This poem seems to merge into the present day with mention of a ‘beer garden’. ‘This Commotion’, which I also excerpt in full below, is another sharply descriptive and kinetic poem which makes strong use of sprung rhythm:
By the Roda Cross Sir Hugh calls a brief halt
to let the troop catch its breath, foot and horse
find respite, while gunners check the cannon
remains secure and stable on the back of a wagon,
swig a sip from a hipflask to stoke the belly’s fire,
nibble at yellow gorse flower, eye barren skylines:
Then, a drab heath-hen bursts frantick to low flight
wings awhir, beak klop-klop-kloping proclamations
over sheep droppings, It is the will of the people!
Are we not all, John thinks, grouse bred for the rifle,
heirlooms of the Land Lords’ pressed austerities?
In the discursive ‘Enemies of the People’ Beagrie brings in even more glaring comment on Brexit: ‘the lie on the campaign bus/ so much/ misdirection, away/ from an acceptance of history as gaps/ the dead albatross you wear on your back’ and there’s use of the pejorative pun ‘remoaners’ refusing blindfolds at the stake. ‘Revelation’ is sort of polemic on Puritanism and its sense of the transience of worldly things:
…that turned his mortal meat to shafts of light
his ribcage to pearly gateposts through which
the Saved shall come to gladly pour their souls,
for he hast strode through carnage unscathed
with a dreadful calmness of the spirit
while all around him screamed and fell,
and he was saturated by God’s Grace
who revealed how he be the Christ reborn –
how this world of muck, steel, blood, smoke
be naught but the flit of tallow-cast shadow;
these grunts have yet to undergo such baptism.
This blend of earthiness and sublime lyricism is something of a Beagrie signature. ‘Scarecrows’ depicts Roundhead soldiers using scarecrows for target practice. ‘The Passenger’ depicts a suspected witch ‘Hunched like a sack of black powder,/ on the horse drawn wagon that holds/ the roped-down minion’. As with many of these poems there’s a real period feel in the use of language:
John keeps an eye on the shrouded one,
spots strands of smoke beneath the veil
one wizened claw, his hackles bristle
when he senses her glare swing his way,
discounts a snatch of some incantation
like plague-soot adrift on hoar draughts.
‘The Great Commission’ gives us more insight into the devout Puritan mindset with the proclamation from one Will Coppe, a Roundhead soldier who appears in a string of poems: ‘God’s soldiers tasked/ to bed the ground for Christ’s Second Coming,/ to make ready for hys Final Dyspensation –/ we be heralds of the Rapture!’ In ‘Hidden Treasures’ two daughters are being hidden from view as soldiers take up lodgings at a farmhouse – either that or they are recusants hiding from the Roundheads:
A cellar in a farmhouse in Hutton Locras,
its doorway concealed by an oak cupboard,
Aunt Anne perched by the scullery shutter
peering for the advancement of anyone.
Underneath her feet, beneath the proggy mat
Elizabeth and Margery skulk without candle,
quiet as spiders, their softness safe as snails
in shells till the troops vacate Craven Vale.
The poem closes on a rhyming couplet: ‘Stirrups straining, five days, four nights abode,/ while iron shod hooves hammer the dirt road.’ ‘Werewolves’ relates a spot of pillaging though it’s not altogether clear whether the subject of the poem, a Royalist (who will only lay down his arms ‘once Parliament’s discourtesy to the King’s person/ is quelled’), was the victim or the perpetrator. Prosodically, it’s another compact, thickly descriptive and rhythmic poem with an alliterative crust:
Little Robert Cook, a Pennyman’s man, warms
bare feet by the campfire while cleaning his gun,
overhears the echo of his Mam’s soft scolding…
Barrel, breech oiled he checks the stock and butt
he hammered ‘gainst that cottage door last night,
him and James Mytton, just having a bit of fun
with the locals, insisting on spoils like courteous
wolves, slunk back to camp with a full saddlebag
of silver, the old cottager left with a broken nose.
‘Spoils’ is another dialogical poem continuing this narrative in which one of the pillagers articulates a very different and material form of pilgrimage to the purely spiritual Puritan variety:
JAMES: This is our pilgrimage Rob. This is gonna set me on
high and take you over the big water.
This appears to allude to the line in the previous poem: ‘he watches the stars and wonders how they appear/ in Newe Engeland where he wishes, one day, to go’. I’m not sure how common it was for those on the Royalist side, who were mostly Anglicans, to aspire to emigrating to America, as conventional historical wisdom has always suggested it was most common among the Puritans and those fundamentalist Protestants disillusioned at what they saw as Catholic corruption of their faith in England and the sense that some sort of Puritan Promised Land or New Jerusalem awaited them across the Atlantic.
The dialogue in ‘Spoils’ is written in a strange combo of period-sounding idiom and pseudo-modern language with a Northern twang. ‘Deformation’ is a deeply disturbing poem even if difficult to fully fathom, it begins by describing someone, a woman presumably, and devout Catholic, who ‘had many Popish pictures,/ icons and crucifixes’ and ‘admired Queen/ Henrietta’ (the Catholic queen and wife of Charles I), then switches to Roundheads desocrating the parish church: ‘until/ the Puritans landed in the parish tasked to demolish/ all traces of idolatry, cleanse the churches of such/ affections, breaking stained glass, burning effigies/ of the Virgin’. These Roundheads then apparently flog and deflower the woman’s daughter, hitherto referred to as a ‘monster’, who it seems has been disguised as a male (Royalist?) soldier up until this point:
who treat her coarsely though far from
uncivilly in order to open her eyes, and in their zeal,
stripped bare as a new born babe, whipped her raw,
had their way, then sliced the ears off her familiar,
the shock of which the monster’s mother did never
recover, so Corporal Alice was hatched from atrocity
although she went under the counterfeit of Henry.
But I might well have completely misinterpreted this poem. ‘His Mere Creature’ transports us to the present day, that is, possibly around 2016/17, and there seems to be something here that presages the tragic murder of Remainer Labour MP Jo Cox in Batley and Spen during the fractious Referendum campaigns, a fractiousness of course resurrected in June 2021 in the run up to that constituency’s by-election in which the former late MP’s sister stood and, deplorably, along with other Labour campaigners there, received much abuse:
Tinker John surveys the world of rime
down the matchlock’s barrel, disregarding
the herd of dairy dowagers and their calves,
the May wanderers, skeletal contraptions
the Range Rover with the UKIP sticker
on the rear bumper parked up on the verge –
phantasms of the periphery; instead rests
his whole attention on the collection of Gentlemen
bivouacked down in the dell, knows well Heaven
and Hell lie cheek to cheek between his ears –
twin sides of a sovereign held under his tongue.
Powder in the priming pan, cover closed, slowmatch
lit, ready to dip into the serpent’s jaws.
Salus Populi Suprema Lex.
In this dawn-light we’ll right the sins of devils –
his first taste of an unappealing sacrifice,
hammer poised, his finger strokes the trigger.
‘Aunt Anne’s Canticle of Calm’ is another nicely phrased, evocative piece:
Close your eyes, my dears…
to rumbles that run through the ground
an anthem of gunshot and mortuary swords
hoof beats, orders, the barking of hounds
the lengthening quiet between roars,
our doorway is sealed with a scouring
of thistles and stinging nettles. …
pay no heed as night limps from Ruthergate
to settle on a log to catch its breath…
The strangley titled ‘Justification of the Mad Crew’ bespeaks of Puritan antinomianism (that is, the belief in the moral impunity of those predestined to salvation):
there being no such thing as sin in any
outward acts so long as love’s light is held
within and the knowledge that all things
are pure to the pure, like how a battle
sings of metamorphosis, marking all
who enter, a chorus of brainsick men
prance in absurdum – a motion of the spirit,
to find where a soul resides within them.
The Roundheads certainly identified as God’s soldiers, which probably accounted not only for their courage but also ruthlessness in fighting His cause, as it were. ‘At times like this, what matters?’ is to my mind one of the most striking poems in this collection:
all the knots in the weave that brought each
combatant here, what knocks and cares
that shaped who they thought they were,
and wherever their threads might lead,
evaporates like night sweat on oak leaves
in the Rift Woods when the Sun breaks
over the cliff, moon swimming in a bowl
of broth, equine dreaming, a new mother’s
clothes burned in the fire, a baby crying
into the night as if it knew, fresh rumours
of the plague, sparks of brimstone from
the pulpit, the pull of the pilgrim: when life
is squeezed to a flash on the killing field:
a step, a glance, a thrust, a dash of luck?
The image of ‘night sweat on oak leaves’ is particularly effective, even sublime, as is the ‘moon swimming in a bowl/ of broth’. ‘Ord’nance’ is similarly lyrical with a focus on images and symbolisms:
the heart’s chambers
packed with black powder
ignited in a spasm
to live like a thunder clap
given a familiar name
and score its mark on memory
This is a slightly different approach to the more kinetic, muscular and visceral poems up until now:
the gap between projectile and bore
a hare’s breath between friend and foe
There are new holes for hiding
wide open mouths
fresh wounds to fester in.
‘The Mummers Play’ depicts a maiming in battle in graphic if terpsichorean slow-motion, like a gory ballet, Sam Peckinpah meets George Balanchine:
Clothed in fire, Guilford Slingsby hovers mid-fall
punched by a cannon’s blast right out of his form
turning in air, a murmuration of dislodged particles
catching the wind and dispersing, whatever’s left
begins to shower the frozen ground: flesh-spots
and bone-stones in parcel-wraps of skin and cloth;
but how can he mind, enraptured as he is by dancers
all about him?...
‘Visitation’ would appear to be about the first signs of plague. In ‘Shroud’ locals dread the melting of a fortuitous blanket of snow covering the terrible remains of a battlefield. ‘Clay Pipe’ is a nice lyrical vignette and has something of the sculpted style and sense of objective correlative of Keith Douglas’s war poetry:
in the old pungence of soil
in the farthest worm-wave
of the new ploughed field
as bird-bone fragments
stained pieces of pleasure:
bore, bit and a barley twist
‘Lyke Wake’ is another ricochet from the civil war forward to our similarly divided present day: ‘Their dark nativities/ bubble with ramblings to take back control/ in defence of the state as Cartemandua, Frigg/ Britannia’. Beagrie strikes another singular turn of phrase with ‘each of them a springhead of fresh anxieties’. ‘Mercurial Rusticus’ sees the badly wounded Slingsby being operated on, presumably undergoing an amputation of some sort, albeit apparently by his enemies (unless ‘bloodied foe’ refers to the wound):
laid on a table in some rustic barn,
whereupon Sir Hugh Cholmley commands
the Chyrurgeon to implement his arts
to do what he might to tend his mangled
…the bloody foe is held
down to receive the great and terrible
instrument, sharpened, well-oiled, concealed
from view until the last instance, although
Guilford is swaddled in a fleece of feints.
‘Fugitive’ finds ‘Corporal Alice’ hiding from Roundheads inside a hollowed-out tree:
Havoc stung, ears still ringing from the din,
Henry has squeezed inside the hollow trunk
of a burnt out tree to avoid the round up
and take stock, she has lost her dog lock pistol
and powder horn but has her rapier, a dagger
in her boot and a head swimming with wreckage,
torn men, spilt blood. Did she kill amidst the fray?
It’s hard to tell within the swirl of battle-time
that’s left her limbs like straw, her squirrel heart
caught in a snare, as loud as a war-drum
within the wooden womb…
‘Death Pools Each Breath’ subtitled ‘Guisborough Pastoral: 1643’ is another richly descriptive compact poem:
…icicles glisten on worn masonry,
gargoyles peer from de Brus’s priory
at souls freshly plucked from suspect bodies
to loiter in the hedgerows, snagged on thorns
like tufts of sheep wool, musket smoke, hoar frost.
Roseberry is a drab, pitted finger
raised against the sky’s God-given birth-right,
its fine white lace, its sumptuous wardrobe;
while Slingsby feints as the Physic saws
through femur, cauterises the raw stump,
starts on its twin…
In the visceral ‘Cruel Necessities’ Anne feels compelled to silence a mortally wounded soldier called Robert Cook lest the trail of blood lead the pursuing Roundheads ‘straight to her nettled door step’, so she
takes Jacob’s spade in her flour white hands,
ventures from the scullery, stands above
the earthworm squirming in the mud,
his fingers trying to dam the spill of his guts.
Anne raises the spade to quieten the blighter
to put him out of his miseries, she’ll hide
him in the woodshed and swill away his stains.
‘The Trembling Cup’ drips with sense-impressions:
Three days of slipping in and out of torpor,
due to the excess of humors, black and yellow
swaddled by the shakes and sweats of fever
ligatures strapped around the stumps, dressed
with egg yolk, oil of roses, turpentine.
Slingsby’s mother is on her way to see her babe
while his breath still pools and Sir Hugh slumps
by the hearth in Prior Pursglove sipping blood
of the vine from a cup of tremors, eyes locked
on the conflagration that repeats-repeats-repeats
In ‘Night of Temporary Stillness’ we get one of Beagrie’s striking nature descriptions: ‘She spots a flame-hare dart across a charcoal field/ of wheat; feels it’s tug tickle, that old familiar/ tingle but she’ll not bolt’. ‘Happy Hour’ brings us back with a thump into a present day pub scene:
in the glass with a good foamy head –
its substance attracts the matter of my lips,
the quiz show on the wall-mounted telly –
a hum, an Arts Nouveaux print for Absinth
by the window, the clock’s slow hand stuck
on a roman numeral, makes me ponder
what held those men in place nearly four
centuries ago without a theory of gravity
(Isaac being not a fortnight old) – fear,
fealty or fresh sense of liberty. What held
them then – what holds us now?...
Unfortunately this reflective mood comes crashing down with some highly colourful Anglo-Saxon language which, as narrative text rather than speech, seems excessive: ‘the boys’ll pile in on the piss buoyed up…/ but he’s on the verge of losing it big time,/ in fact he’ll kill the smarmy cunt if ever/ he clocks him ogling her like that again.’
By stark contrast ‘The Reaping’ is sublimely lyrical but this is Empsonian ‘covert pastoral’ (i.e. political poetry disguised as pastoral) and much in the vein of Andrew Marvell’s as per the excerpt from his ‘Upon Appleton House, 1651’: ‘Each regiment in order grows/ That of Tulip, Pink and Rose.../ But war all this doth overgrow/ We Ord’nance Plant and Powder sow.’ There’s also a scabrous quote from Theresa May announcing her utterly shameful ‘hostile environment’ back in 2012, the ramifications of which have been devastating, not least in the Windrush scandal. The poem begins: ‘Remember when you dwelt within the Garden of Ecstatic Ferocities/ where horticulture warped your frame into frills and petal folds?’ This use of floral symbolism to comment on intolerance and xenophobia is disturbingly effective:
How you let a litter-trail of new cuttings scattered upon the sward,
pollinated vacant, sticky stigma in casual acts of propagation?
How you romped in joyous abandon, spilling over deadwood,
trampled mulch, spliced and grafted unruly foreign bodies?
Do you recall the frenetic fight for light in the Garden of Exquisite
Furies where you learned the savage nature of predation?
There then comes a gorgeously image-rich trope: ‘How you conducted the rites of naming, suppressed weakness,/ buried impoverishment, harvested fungal blooms in an iron helm?’ Then, still in Marvellian vein, there come images and scenes from Greek mythology:
How, daubed in charcoal and loam, you repelled invasive pests,
how poor Priapus’s severed stalk re-seeded fallowed soil?
Where you were whetted by his semen, how you dug a trough
in earth-flesh and laid down within it to receive resurrection?
How could anyone fully suppress these exquisite ecstasies
or forget the furies and ferocities of this ever returning Eden?
‘The Things the Owls Observed’ is almost hallucinatory in its use of image, symbol and sense-impression:
the Evening jig of a lone
soil-smeared like Lazarus
from a thicket, kneeling
in a shock of moon-slurry
Beagrie, above all, revels in language, which he uses generously and imaginatively, making full use of a vast and ever-ripe vocabulary – true precepts of poetry, at least, in the Keatsian sense of the term. ‘Cairn’ appears to juxtapose blind support for Brexit with the deferential Royalism of the Civil War, making allusion to the doctrine of Divine Right of Kings which Charles I expected –ultimately to his peril– his subjects to observe:
There is a sundered man
in a snow drift gully
up on Low Moor
above Birk Brow,
where the A171 slithers
and Stranghow, crouched
in a state he cannot stomach
for he has partaken
in acts he struggles to grasp
for a thirst he could not slake,
over a cause he failed
to wholly gauge but for slogans,
promises, Lorelei’s melody
that fired his fealty toward
a pedigree of pater-familias –
The Lord’s direct line.
The armies are evocatively depicted:
On the honeyed seam
of a frigid dawn,
they bind their tails
in makeshift uniform,
to raise a copse of pikes
about a standard,
sing anthems timed
to each let stride
as on they march
into the knackers yard…
Beagrie’s congealed language is tangible and brilliantly kinetic:
While Kingsmen skitscrabble
for articles, effects,
doublet, cuirass, gloves,
helmet, boots and balls
the drummer boy cracking
as arquebus pellets
harass camp wives, whores,
dogs, cooking pots, fizz
like wound-up wasps;
and the first offering
to the turf agape
at latticed chemtrails
mouth drawn wide
enough to swallow
whole the sun’s halo.
I’m not altogether convinced by the merging of pop culture references with those of the Civil War in ‘Carrion Song for Major Tom’, and for me the juxtaposition of a sublime quote from Digger idealogue and pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley with an excerpt of the randomly associated lyrics from David Bowie’s ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, superb though that song is (at least, musically) doesn’t seem to make much sense except to somehow justify the pun of the poem’s title. The poem itself is a belated but welcome tilt into the brief experiments of the Diggers and Levellers (though John Lilburne is oddly absent from the quotes at the beginning in spite of also being a fine aphorist) and hints at their prelapsarian aspirations:
spend hours sowing suns in common ground
to grow the pillars of Eden before sin,
as before my fall,
in rhymes of dipping scythes
sacks of sweat-won grain
and scarecrow grins wide as a rolling moor…
Beagrie makes specific reference to the probable derivation of the term ‘Leveller’, a reference to the levelling of hedges during the enclosure riots of the early 1600s and the Levellers’ continuation of such symbolic acts (though Lilburne himself regarded the term as an insult and instead used the phrase ‘Levellers so-called’): ‘this remains an old battle scene,/ a place for levelling men on points of swords,/ over the fence we’ll forever tear down’. There seems to be an allusion to King Arthur, again, a kind of reference to some distant Golden Age: ‘a mythic/ sleeper dreaming under the golden hill –/ not our King, divine, with his head lopped off,/ his blue-blood-spill soaked in strips of cloth’. ‘The Weigh-In’, also preceded by a quote from Winstanley, is a nice lyrical verse for which Beagrie applies more traditional capitalised first letters for each line:
Take your share of a curl of river mist
A flat stone’s skim and its final splash
A pupa dangling from its silken path
Take your share and keep it ripe
Here the absence of commas sits better on the page as the capitalised letters announce each line as a new phrasing. In ‘The Yarm Troll’ there’s the lovely image of ‘the wind-touselled tresses of a weeping willow’. ‘Filibusting & Gerrymandering’, which begins with a quote from Thomas Rainsborough on the lack of representation of the people in Parliament, from the Putney Debates of 1647, then launches into the most directly polemical poem of the collection focusing on the smoke and mirrors of Brexit promises and the lies of the Vote Leave campaign:
...They were told, above all
that they would be able to pass
and in the interests of
the people of this country...
Except for those who find themselves:
in poverty, detained
relying on food banks
...This campaign should be about
opportunity and hope,
to be more nimble and dynamic,
a chance to do things differently...
The poem ends with a thumping image:
...The current strategy
is an absolute stinker –
The Common Rulebook
is a polished turd.
‘Hystrerics’ is an onomatopoeiac Joycean word-salad of sounds and associations:
Out of the true rue blew mist
of stea ming piss, guns m oak, B S
the cuirassiers purr sued the flea
ing Roy a lists, reck wreck les sly
and i rrespons eyebly, back two
thair scep tic art ill airy po sit
irons sever al hund red reek leas
and neg leg ible yards in the irres
poon syble r ear on the Greyne,
who climbed to heave not be halfed
in app pirate lately, grieven the deck
la reason of war, there byre futing
awl clack aims to ha ha ving pot
en shelly thunder mind the fraj isle
at tack’s found nations, in the reck
wreck reek less race to the bow tomb.
Hafter s laugh te ring the gunrrs
in red red re dredness…
‘All will dissolve instantly’ sees the past dissolve seamlessly into the present and allusions to cover ups including that surrounding the tragic Grenfell fire – I excerpt it in full:
like hope in the heavy dark of a dungeon
in the bowels of Durham Castle where
William Coppe and Captain Medley tend
to their ill treatment, nurse a lack of mercy,
like the boundaries of behaviour and belief
once the lid’s off the pan, the heat turned up,
like Queen Henrietta’s decorum as she dines
on Bridlington quay, ‘though come dawn she’ll
be sheltering from a warship in a sodden ditch,
like poverty clad in a tower-block incendiary
the panicked shredding of potential evidence
the systematic burying of guilt and culpability,
like the scent-heavy petals of summer roses
in my parents front garden come September:
the cool rationale that lies behind terror.
‘Good Will Open the Gate’ is another compact piece of poetic sculpture with some arresting images and turns-of-phrase – again I excerpt it in full:
Returned to Scar Tinker John makes a cave
of his burdens and spins a web of sleep,
has seen grief stitched into Cholmley’s face
the uncertainty of gait on the Rightwise Path
and in the dream within the blanketing mesh
John picks interpretations from each thread:
one is a man who sweeps the dusty parlour,
one a woman who swills it clean with water;
Sir Hugh is dispersed by each brush of bristles
to swirl, settle and be remade within her pail
he hovers, a candle flame, guttering in a cage
the draught sends him leaning every which way
before the manservant’s corn-broom sweeps back
the lip of the woman’s pail tips once more,
Beelzebub is trafficking swarms of black flies,
John, blinded by seas of salt water in his eyes.
My only criticism is the final line which feels a little trite. ‘The Fruits of War’ uses rhetoric to powerful effect – here it is in full:
‘Is this Hell, Captain?’ William asks the dark,
shivering upon winter’s stone floor and waits
patiently for Medley’s answer but the question
has spun the veteran back to the Rebellion,
the campaigns in Kildare, Wicklow, Limerick –
the ravishes loosened upon native rabble,
the gruesome trials to subdue the fiend
with many heads, the unchecked butchery,
wailing wastelands, the smouldering ruins,
keenings, the tightening dread of reprisals;
dawn after dripping night after each lost day.
‘Is this Hell, Captain?’ Will Coppe asks again
and hears a whisper flutter from darkness,
‘Nay Lad, this is just England’s rotten core.’
‘Pathogen’ seems to be about several things at once: the hostile environment, Brexit, and in its plague-like imagery of contagion, it even seems to uncannily presage Covid – but the point seems to be that like germs, some ideas, memes, slogans and rhetoric are contagious:
…its invisible infection from host to vulnerable host
through mounted charges, routs, panicked retreats,
infiltrating the blood, penetrating the lymph node,
concealed there, trafficking pathways of incubation
through dendritic and monocyte cells; the brain’s
blockades breached, the heart besieged, kinship ties
in tatters, trust a looted keepsake; corrupting all it
touches, draining its juices, carts piled with cadavers –
Bring out your dead, bring out your dead...
‘The Museum of Dismemberment’ seems to find the poet volunteering in a Civil War-themed museum:
I’d speak to the victims, gather testimonies
like posies, brush soil off bones for display
in the community-led and volunteer-run
museum, where all is indexed, catalogued,
slotted into a story by tenderfoot enthusiasts
to repopulate the vast wastelands of the past.
‘Feast of the Dead’ relates a grisly nightmare which in its cannablism seems a symbolism for civil strife – Beagrie’s language bristles with alliteration:
The great hearth is ablaze in another castle
shakes Sir Hugh back to being a Roxby boy,
family guests gathered at the Table of Thanks
as servants bring in the laden platters, pewter
chargers, dishes depicting Biblical scenes,
to place about the bone white tablecloth,
a storm thrashes outside, shutters rattle, yet
only he has seen what the meal consists of:
his cousin Guilford, his father Sir Richard
Charles Stuart the King; their three heads set
as a centrepiece, a broth of ancestry spiced
with nutmeg is slopped into crocks, a sliced
shoulder served with oysters, the family
A small point but I think a comma was needed after ‘Sir Richard’ – Beagrie often omits commas at line-ends, seemingly indiscriminately, and this can disorientate since it suggests enjambments but often there are none. The twist comes at the end, to some relief: ‘Sir Hugh wakes in a cold sweat in his bed/ as Scarborough seagulls wheel over battlements.’ The grisliness continues in the following poem’s title ‘Inside the Severed Head of Captain Browne Bushell’ – this poem makes poetry from lists of images effectively, scored through with capitalised first letters:
Fairfax’s blessing, Cromwell’s curse
A coat turned one way then the other
The changing tide, how best to ride it
The Celestial City locked in a snow flake
A dank, dark gaol in Hull, a bargain struck
Wit and cunning and bloody obstinance
The Kingdom set adrift in turbulence
A plan of how one might profit from it…
‘The Apostasy of Sir Hugh Cholmley’ starts with an incredulous quote from radical Edward Sexby from the Putney Debates: ‘Do you think it were a sad and miserable condition that we havefought all this time for nothing?’ The poem would seem to be a piece of invective aimed at Cromwell who was perceived to have discarded many of the more radical promises of the English Revolution (to use the term popularised by Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill) and which would have been very much a revolution, in the most fundamental senses, had the likes of Sexby or Winstanley had their way, but they were only to be suppressed by their new Lord Protector:
Would you call him a rebellious sophister,
a liver-hearted, perfidious, unfaithful wretch
for turning his coat on the rebels for a kiss
of a Lady’s hand and the modest request
Shee would endeavour the speedie settling
the peace of the Kingdome, to seek to divert
the formenting of utter ruin for all Nobility
and Gentry, and thereby quell the flames
of unrest that ran like wildfire through all
the counties of England, and by doing so
save his fair Riding from rapine and ransack?
I did not quit them then for any perticuler
ends of my own, he claimed, but he had seen
the awful liberties in the eyes of men now
loose from the shackles of Clergy and State;
for the Beast of the Battlefield had looked
upon him, and he could not shake off its grin.
The closing poem in this collection, ‘A Little Quaking’, is Beagrie’s parting humanist prayer which begins with a faintly pagan image:
The green man ganders from the wall,
terracotta oak leaves form a corona
of beard, moustache and mane
a man of many mid-summers
And amid this greenery the poet can ‘disbelieve/ in heaven and hell or any godling/ (big or small) except the ones
we fashion for ourselves and one
another from the rough clay of each
new day with bare hands and tools
pilfered from our adopted histories.
At the end of the book there is a Dramatis Personae, some compendious notes to some of the poems which include elucidations of terms and phrases of the period, and a list of sources which shows just how much Beagrie has delved into the history and themes of the Civil War. These are the exposed roots of a collection of mostly highly accomplished poems which taken together as a verse-narrative form an impressive and exhaustively researched period work. Also recommended.
Civil Insolencies and The Battle of Heptonstall are two worthy contributions to the oeuvre of Civil War reenactment in poetry.
Alan Morrison © 2021