The Lethal Queen
The lethal queen holds out her hand.
Her icy fingers grip the land,
and death for these and those
is her decree.
Her breath is rife among the trees;
its tune cuts through the brittle reeds;
she carves her name abroad
in bitter runes.
All bleak and bare is damascened
the hueless steel of her demesne –
when rime and hoar are law,
all must recede.
The hedgerow feels her frost-tipped wand,
with glassy panes she paves the pond
and under this the fish
is fast entombed;
and chrysalis and nymph must hide
and mouse and robin must abide
in secret, or in dwale
beneath the soil.
And when her legions breast the heights
to scour the valleys day and night,
white messengers lay siege
and rampage on,
and cow and calf lie in the byre
and cotters huddle by the fire –
the lethal queen rules all.
It is as planned.
The Lord of Winter
And the sigh of that Lord is the wind that roars
from the uplands in winter down to our doors
and lifts the latch and the bolt will rattle,
as though demons without prepare for battle;
that whines through the farmyard and blasts the byre
and reddens the ashes low in the fire;
that huddles the sheep on the bald hillsides;
that knocks and taps in the ancient mines…
From ‘Nature’ and ‘Otherworld’
Note: The term ‘dwale’ in The Lethal Queen is used to signify ‘darkness’. As with ‘atenux’ in the previous post The Funny Five Days, it’s among the unusual words which, for the curiosity of the reader, I like to make use of once in a while. When I wrote the poem, ‘dwale’ had for me but one meaning and one source – the source being the science of Heraldry, a lifelong interest of mine, and a subject on which I have taught classes and made extensive notes over many years for a once-projected, now very much elapsed The Elements of Heraldic Design, destined, with other company, never to see the light of day. ‘Dwale’, at that time, meant to me a ‘tincture’ (colour) used exclusively in German heraldry, signifying a dark, iron-grey; I have since found that it also has a place in one of the over-imaginative, fantastical and debasing developments of later 17th century ‘systems’ of the subject – when good Heraldry had fallen into decline and misuse – in which the names of plants were made to take the place of the tinctures. This notion is probably linked with the other, more well-known, meaning of ‘dwale’ as Belladonna, or, more commonly, ‘Deadly Nightshade’. The poisonous properties of this plant are of course well-known; in mediaeval times it was used medically as an opiate. In the same poem ‘nymph’, which elsewhere I use exclusively to denote the alluring female nature deities of Greek mythology and later European superstition, is here used with its biological meaning of an immature, larvae-type insect form.
The Lord of Winter is an excerpt from a much longer poem, lifted from the original, slightly altered and given its title only for this present post. The original poem,The Rustic Lad’s Dream, is itself taken (for a special reason) from the former Breuddwyd Bachgen Wledig, a punning title for Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig, one of the four Welsh native tales in the mediaeval Mabinogion collection. The complete poem will make its appearance here when the opportunity permits – next winter might be a good time.
The main title, Winter’s Tales, is taken from one of four marvellous collections of short stories by Baroness Karen Blixen (1885-1962), probably better known from the 1985 film Out of Africa, starring Meryl Streep as the Baroness and Robert Redford as her intended lover; the film is based on her 1937 autobiographical book. Under her pseudonym of Isak Dinesen this aristocratic Danish lady – whose father, incidentally, was a trapper and lived for a number of years among native North American ‘Indians’ – wrote her four collections between the 1930s and the 1950s, all superb stories reflecting her deep knowledge of and feeling for history. mostly in an 18th and 19th century setting. Her four collections were Winter’s Tales, Seven Gothic Tales, Anecdotes of Destiny, and Last Tales, all available in a nice set from Random House Vintage Books around the 1990s, and likely reprinted since. No-one should miss the drama of her story Sorrow-acre.
Isak Dinasen I always couple with Vernon Lee (pseudonym of Violet Paget (1856-1935), another exceptionally accomplished lady who won literary acclaim as early as 1880 (how old would she have been then?) with Studies of the 18th Century in Italy. She was, incidentally, a stern – very stern! – critic of William Morris, and comparing her fluid style when writing of the mediaeval and Renaissance periods to the very much mannered (but loveable!) style of Morris, that’s understandable. Vernon Lee and Isak Dinesen shared the same wonderful ability to encapsulate age and time in their descriptions of those earlier periods. Vernon Lee’s stories were set mostly in Italy, and if I were to recommend a couple, they would be Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady, and A Wedding Chest.
The Lethal Queen