Category Archives: Poems

How to Tell a Comet

Last night, or rather earlier this morning we saw the comet Neowise, visible in the northern sky. It made me think of this delightful Victorian poem.

How to Tell a Comet, or Astronomy Made Easy.

Though you may not know a planet
From the bird that’s called a gannet,
Nor distinguish Sagittarius from Mars;
Though the beasts in that strange zoo
May all look alike to you,
And you lump the whole caboodle just as “stars;”

Though you cannot place the lion,
Nor correctly trace Orion,
Nor discern the jewelled belt he proudly wears,
Nor the big and little hounds,
Through those happy hunting grounds,
Nightly chasing up the big and little bears;

Though you cannot tell the Dippers
From your grandpa’s old felt slippers,
And to name the constellations you would fail,
There’s one thing that you may know
And be very sure it’s so,
You can always tell a comet by its tail.
Its airy, hairy, winking, blinking, flowing, glowing tail;
Its fiery, wiry, gleaming, streaming, flaring, glaring tail.

Unfortunately I cannot lay my hands on the book where I found it, so I cannot give you any more information about the poem.


The picture comes from, ‘Comets and their General and Particular Meanings, According to Ptolomeé, Albumasar, Haly, Aliquind and other Astrologers’ of 1587.

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Filed under Poems, Scientific History, Victorian

Our Fathers of Old – An Old Poem for Our Times

One of my favourite Kipling poems, and very apt for these troubled times.

Excellent herbs had our fathers of old–
Excellent herbs to ease their pain–
Alexanders and Marigold,
Eyebright, Orris, and Elecampane–
Basil, Rocket, Valerian, Rue,
(Almost singing themselves they run)
Vervain, Dittany, Call-me-to-you–
Cowslip, Melilot, Rose of the Sun.
Anything green that grew out of the mould
Was an excellent herb to our fathers of old.

Wonderful tales had our fathers of old,
Wonderful tales of the herbs and the stars-
The Sun was Lord of the Marigold,
Basil and Rocket belonged to Mars.
Pat as a sum in division it goes–
(Every herb had a planet bespoke)–
Who but Venus should govern the Rose?
Who but Jupiter own the Oak?
Simply and gravely the facts are told
In the wonderful books of our fathers of old.

Wonderful little, when all is said,
Wonderful little our fathers knew.
Half their remedies cured you dead–
Most of their teaching was quite untrue–
“Look at the stars when a patient is ill.
(Dirt has nothing to do with disease),
Bleed and blister as much as you will,
Blister and bleed him as oft as you please.”
Whence enormous and manifold
Errors were made by our fathers of old.

Yet when the sickness was sore in the land,
And neither planets nor herbs assuaged,
They took their lives in their lancet-hand
And, oh, what a wonderful war they waged!
Yes, when the crosses were chalked on the door-
(Yes, when the terrible dead-cart rolled!)
Excellent courage our fathers bore–
None too learned, but nobly bold
Into the fight went our fathers of old.

 

If it be certain, as Galen says–
And sage Hippocrates holds as much–
“That those afflicted by doubts and dismays
Are mightily helped by a dead man’s touch,”
Then, be good to us, stars above!
Then, be good to us, herbs below!
We are afflicted by what we can prove,
We are distracted by what we know.
So-ah, so!
Down from your heaven or up from your mould
Send us the hearts of our Fathers of old!

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Filed under Kipling, plague, Poems

The Village Snowbound – The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

A little while ago my brother posted one of our father’s poems, illustrated with some recent photographs, I have decided to do something similar, as our village is snowbound like the village in the poem – there the similarity ends – I hope!

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The Marlpit Oak Gibbet

 

For many years, according to an old New Forest Legend, there stood at the crossroads, known as Marlpit Oak, on the high plain between Sway and Brockenhurst, a great double-armed gibbet. Visible for miles around, and frequently bearing a grisly load, it must have been a fearful sight, brooding over the remote and lonely countryside. It was, therefore, a matter of widespread satisfaction when, in the early part of the nineteenth century, the gibbet was at last demolished.

However, superstition was very powerful in those far-off days and strange stories soon began to circulate among the Forest people.

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When I was young and not long from school
Like all braggart youth I was brazen and brave,
And I laughed him to scorn and called him a fool
Who spoke of the dead that returned from the grave.

 

‘When they are dead, they are dead -so much mouldering day’
‘And he who says not is drunk or insane!’
And the wager seemed nought in the bright light of day
To spend that night, alone, by the knoll on the plain.

 

By the time evening came and the winter sun set
In a great blood-red glow over Wilverley Hill,
Every soul in the village had heard of the bet,
And my arrogant heart had felt the first chill.

 

For I knew the story, like all of us there,
Of the Marlpit Oak Gibbet which, many years gone,
Had stood, high and grim, in the very place where
I’d boasted I’d spend the whole night alone.

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A hillock of bare earth is all that remains
Standing just a few yards from the well-trodden way
Which, crossing the miles of gorse-covered plain,
Brings the traveller at last to the village of Sway.

 

Even in Spring, when the moorland glows gold,
And the warm-scented furze calls the foraging bees,
The ground at this place stays mortally cold
And no skylark nests here, no pony takes ease.

 

No sun-loving lizard, no close-crouching hare,
No adder, loose-coiled, seeks this chilly mound.
No beast of the Forest, no bird of the air,
No grass, gorse or heather, is here to be found.

 

And a tale was told by the old men of Sway
Of a travelling merchant who would not take heed,
Who had to reach Lyndhurst by early next day
And who swore his two pistols were all that he’d need.

 

They said he was found with his hair turned quite white,
Eyes fixed and staring, and mouth open wide,
Silently screaming at some ghastly sight,
And no mark on his body to show how he died.

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Just tales? Superstitions of foolish old men?
But my heart filled with terror that pride would not show,
And I drank deep and waited the dread moment when
Someone would say it was time now to go.

 

Too soon came the moment, and into the night
Drunken and singing we lurched through the snow,
All close round the lantern, whose pale yellow light
In the menacing darkness cast scarcely a glow.

 

And I sung the loudest of all of us there,
And shouted with laughter at each feeble jest,
And I threw out the challenge that I didn’t care
If the Devil himself came -I’d soon give him best!

 

And then we were there, and the merriment died
As, suddenly sober, we stood in the snow,
But still I obeyed my obstinate pride
And in confident tones urged the others to go.

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The sound of their voices died quickly away,
The gleam of the lantern was soon lost to Sight,
As they hurried thankfully back home to Sway,
To bolt cottage doors and to shut out the night.

 

The air, when the snow stopped, was bitterly cold,
The darkness intense, the stillness profound,
And the whole world was silent as, no longer bold,
I fearfully stood by the old Gibbet mound.

 

Trembling, I looked to the left and the right,
While the terrible cold froze me through to the bone,
Then I suddenly knew, though no soul was in sight,
That, beyond any doubt, I was not alone!

 

How can I describe that unreasoning fear,
That primitive terror no thought can prevent,
Of knowing that someone, or something, was near,
And directing at me its evil intent.

 

Filled with blind panic, I turned and I fled,
Stumbling and sobbing and cursing the night,
Until, just as my strength was beginning to ebb,
Far ahead I discerned a faint glimmer of light.

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Faltering now, and filled with despair,
Like a desperate fox hunted over the moor,
Heart beating wildly, and gasping for air,
I staggered at last to the furze-cutter’s door.

 

Exhausted, defeated, I sank to my knees,
A pitiful, tremulous, cowering wreck.
And then, with infinite horror, I felt
Long bony fingers encircling my neck.

 

I remember no more -I fainted away
With that fearful pressure unbearably tight,
And they say that I lay there, half-dead, half-alive,
Till the furze-cutter came in the grey morning light.

 

I’m told that for weeks I was kept to my bed,
Mumbling and muttering and never quite sane,
Then at last came the Spring, and with it my strength,
And I became part of the village again.

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But the fear has remained, throughout my long life,
And I sometimes awake in the depths of the night
And though it be Summer my blood turns to ice,
And I cry out in terror as reason takes flight.

 

I was only a boy but my memory stays clear
Of that dreadful night, now so far and remote.
But you don’t believe me? Then what is this scar,
This ring of dead flesh like a noose round my throat?

 

And who among you, on this black Winter night,
When the fog is so thick and the village snowbound,
Will go out from his house, leave the fire and the light,
And keep vigil, alone, by the old gibbet mound?

 

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Filed under Ghost story, New Forest, Poems

Monday’s child

Another poem illustrated by Regency pictures (and later genre pictures). A classic nursery rhyme.

 

Charles Amable Lenoir - The Pink Rose

Monday’s child is fair of face,

Eugene von Blaas — Feeding the Pigeons

Tuesday’s child is full of grace;

Frédéric Soulacroix Dissapointment

Wednesday’s child is full of woe,

Emil Brack - Planning the Grand Tour Emil Brack

Thursday’s child has far to go;

Leslie, George Dunlop, 1835-1921; The Gardener's Daughter
Friday’s child is loving and giving,

Marie-Denise Villers Self-portrait Young Woman Drawing
Saturday’s child works hard for its living;

Charles Haigh Wood - The Time of Roses

But the child that is born on the Sabbath day
Is bonny and blithe, and good and gay.

 

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Filed under Georgian, Poems, Regency, Victorian