this story was originally dedicated to eugene peterson at the time of its magazine publication and of its book publication
it is posted in eugene's honour with this addition, that it is also dedicated to his wonderful wife Jan
thank you both for 13 years of warm and sincere and enduring friendship
THE POETS OF WINDHOVER MARSH by Murray Andrew Pura
with original poetry by Rod Peter, Lyyndae &
Murray Pura, and Loren Wilkinson
this story is for eugene
THEY GATHERED EVERY SUMMER at the cottage in the marsh because they knew the only hope for the Church and for the world was poetry and plenty of it. If God gave a resurgence of prayer, that was fine, as long as there was poetry in the prayers, however simple or stilted the words. If people felt they must repent, then they must do so, but let the repentance burn with sonnets and soliloquies, however halt, however lame. Let preaching be metaphor and simlie and allegory and parable, let sermons rhyme and not rhyme, let there be sprung rhythm and running rhythm and inscape. Let Industrial Christianity come to an end. Rise, Blake! Let the Metaphysical Poets take the van! And you, Hopkins, remind us eloquently of the grandeur of God.
Too long has the Church groaned under the burden of men who spoke words that were blocks of wood. Were they true? In content, some, yes, but in spirit? Let us have women of substance now, whose words are winged, let us have the men, lit with flame, whose God is Truth, and whose sentences hurl sparks upon all the dead forests and brittle grasses of Christendom.
The Church speaks but there is no poetry, so her words fall lifeless and litter the earth. The Church cries in passion but there is no poetry, so no one knows of the heart on fire because no one can hear the voice. The Church argues and remonstrates against monstrosity and materialism but there is no poetry, so no one hears the archangel’s shout above the roar of the satanic mills. The Church may formulate and articulate as precisely as she wishes. But without poetry, there are no words for what she believes, the vocabulary is impoverished and inadequate and obscene, the word of God is impossible. Without poetry, it is as if the Church never were.
So they believed. They gathered seven times a year at the marsh. But all of this actually began a long time before the 21st century. These poets were not the first. Squire Able Henry had purchased the marsh just before the civil war and Cromwell, who captured him, had let him keep it, even though the squire was a fervent royalist, because the property had no real value. It was north of the English border in the Scottish lowlands, there was no arable land unless you drained the marsh, and, well, it was just a swamp, wasn’t it?
From the beginning it was called Galashiels Marsh, even though it was nowhere near Galashiels, then it was Moorfoot Marsh, which was a bit closer to home, then it was Pripkin’s Marsh, Wynden Marsh, and finally Macleod’s Marsh, the first time it bore a proper clan’s name. A failed poet and successful naturalist by the name of Lovegrove bought it in the 1920’s, because she loved marshes and she had a very great fear someone else would buy it, drain it, and plant brussel sprouts on it and a lot of other rubbish. There had always been a small stone cottage on the finger of land that poked into the marsh proper, a hunting cottage that went back to Culloden, at least, and she had a new slate roof put up, some sturdy black woodstoves moved into the two bedrooms, scoured boot sales in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews for furniture that could handle weight and substance (G.K. Chesterton was a close friend), and then she brought out naturalists to watch waterfowl in the marsh and talk about it, and she brought out poets to watch God in the marsh and write about it.
There was a legend that Hopkins had been there on a holiday from his teaching post at the Royal University in Dublin, the guest of a student named Macleod and his family, who at that time owned the marsh. This was never substantiated but Chesterton, who came there at Lovegrove’s invitation six or seven times, was adamant about Lovegrove’s sense of the thing and insisted the land must be held in perpetua as a poets’ muse, and renamed in honour of the young Jesuit whose poems were just then becoming better known. He did not mean to offend the Scots by exchanging the Macleod title for another but it was holy ground. He recited many of his own poems at the cottage, seated in a great oak chair by the ancient hearth, a hearth a local man told them went back much farther than Culloden, took his meals at the massive table Lovegrove had wangled out of the owner of a down-at-the-mouth castle, and slept in a four poster bed (all the furniture held).
“Fools!” he thundered once on the grassy sward between cottage and marsh, so that a flock of mallards rose in alarm, squawking, to circle the forest and return. “I also had my hour, one far fierce hour and sweet, there was a shout about my ears, and palms before my feet.” He penned a copy of the poem and began the tradition of poets leaving handwritten copies of their own poetry folded and stuffed into little niches between the stones inside the cottage walls. As this habit took hold among her guests, Lovegrove would let the poems be for a year and then unwad the papers and add them to her collection in a black book as large as a family Bible.
On Chesterton’s last visit, he scrawled his favourite Hopkins poem on a sheet of parchment and Lovegrove framed that and placed it over the hearth. So the marsh was renamed Windhover Marsh, but following Chesterton’s death in 1936 the cottage itself was forever after referred to as The Donkey. T.S. Eliot was fond of saying to friends in London, whenever he felt devoid of inspiration, “I need to journey north to visit the donkey,” or, “Let us go up and ride the donkey.” He travelled to Windhover Marsh often. A friend might join him at Lovegrove’s insistence and Eliot would sit in one of the punts and let the friend ply the quant (you had to be good, the mud was like grasping hands). He wrote the better part of The Four Quartets there and all of Burnt Norton. Chesterton and Eliot spent a night in the cottage together in the early 30’s, a time of candles and rich talk, that only ended with the dawn when both took paper and sat at the kitchen table and scribbled furiously in the white of the early light.
Many paths crossed at the marsh. Geese came and went, and grey blurred to green, while the poets made their journeys and listened to one another, and to the crickets, and ate the simple fare Lovegrove provided from the icebox and the stewing pot. Belloc finally came after Chesterton’s death and met C.S. Lewis there, and John Masefield, and wrote Courtesy, which he read aloud at a fire where sparks flew to stars, “Our Lady out of Nazareth rode, it was her month of heavy load, yet was her face both great and kind, for Courtesy was in her mind.”
Everyone loved Masefield’s sea poems. Lewis was particularly fond of Sea Fever, but Masefield preferred to recite from The Everlasting Mercy and another longer poem he set down at the marsh’s edge, “The wild duck, stringing through the sky, are south away. Their green necks glitter as they fly, the lake is grey. So still, so lone, the fowler never heeds. The wind goes rustle, rustle, through the reeds.” He often ended the poem before its proper conclusion, staring at the fire or out the window as he spoke about Christ’s crucifixion, “Darkness come down, cover a brave man’s pain.”
Charles Williams understood that sort of line. He came twice with Lewis, and once on his own for a month when he worked intensely on The Region of the Summer Stars, completing it shortly before his untimely death in 1945. He loved it when the marsh misted and he watched one long summer evening as the stars burnt white-hot holes through it. J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t care to come when Williams was there. He showed up once in Lewis’ company before their falling out and another time with his son Christopher at the height of a storm. Gollum was created there, so he confided to Lovegrove, and he confessed that a good deal of The Ring had taken shape and substance where reeds and murk met. “The bog,” he called it cheerfully, and Masefield never forgot working on Good Friday at a card table set up outside the cottage door, and glancing up to see Tolkien, pipe billowing, hunched over in a punt with a pad of paper, pounding a rhythm with one gnarled fist and jotting down one of the hobbit songs with the other, all the time the punt spinning and drifting over the entire marsh.
Dorothy came up three or four times too, on her own or with a lady friend. She stayed in her bedroom one whole day to get a good start on The Zeal of Thy House, but most remember her huddling by the hearth in a great shawl when she was being bitterly attacked for writing up a Jesus who spoke modern English in her radio play. The last broadcast was during the height of the Stalingrad battle, October 18th, 1942, and people were in a dark mood anyway, but she took some fearful stones. Lovegrove fed her copious amounts of tea and thick slices of fresh bread she had baked in a special pot, a sort of Dutch Oven, right in the fire. Dorothy would mutter something about this when she was down south and rattling through a tough go with Lord Peter Wimsey: “Bread, Lovegrove, bread, something God-wrought to sustain me.”
It was an incredible century at The Donkey, poet laureates like Masefield knotted in thought, and Robert Bridges too, clutching hardboiled eggs and a shaker of salt, with his “Whither away, fair rover, and what thy quest?”, trading sea stories and sea shanties with John, refusing to confirm or deny the legend about his friend Hopkins and the marsh, but leaving with Lovegrove as a special gift a 1918 first edition of the Hopkins poems that he had collected. There was Lewis with his ale, wading into the marsh up to his knees, pipe clenched between his teeth and reciting No Beauty We Could Desire, as if he was attempting to be heard over a street brawl in Belfast. There was even Robert Graves, cloistering himself for a week and dashing off In The Wilderness, a poem about Jesus’ forty days of temptation - “He held communion with the she-pelican” - but refusing to explain which way his spirit was leaning when he left. It all ended too soon. Belloc dead in ‘53 - “My Rhyme is written, my work is done” - Lewis in ‘63, Tolkien in ‘73, Dorothy in ‘57, Masefield in ‘67. They weren’t the only ones of course, just some of the principal players.
A chap at Peebles finally told Lovegrove on her own deathbed that his grandad had seen Robert and Elizabeth Browning at the marsh in the 1850’s, when the old man had been hunched over in a blind waiting for a shot at some ducks. The Brownings had never seen him, but they stayed at the cottage the entire morning and not a mallard landed for grandad, even with the fine decoys he’d carved and painted the winter before. Elizabeth fished one out of the water and walked away with it, and the old chap didn’t have the nerve to step out of his camouflage and ask for it back. He met them in a tavern a week later and that’s how he found out who they were.
It was as splendid as a deathbed can be for Lovegrove. A white-haired gentleman dropped by and related how, as a young boy catching tadpoles and frogs at the marsh, he’d met George MacDonald on a sunny afternoon in 1902. MacDonald sat down with him and told him a bit of whimsey, a story of a princess and a grand dragonfly, which no one has ever seen in print, and explained that he came down to the cottage to rewrite his poems and fantasies, since they always turned out better the second time if he took a stab at them by Macleod’s Marsh. Lovegroved died contented. She was buried in what she called holy ground, just off from The Donkey in a grove of willows, flashing a sun’s bright gold when they put up her stone: LOVEGROVE. Give me but these, and though the darkness close even the night will blossom as the rose. A line from Masefield, already gone.
After her came the quiet years, though there’s no denying poets made their way to the cottage. The locals knew. They clipped the grass and put a block of ice in the icebox along with some victuals once a week, and they left cookies and pies they’d baked, and fresh cream. A poet might starve for words but not for shortbread and biscuits at Windhover Marsh. Still and all, the years were lean compared with the holy foam and ferment of the decades before.
It wasn’t until early in the next century that a crowd began to gather again, in God’s time, they said, and these explained some thirty years dearth on a world smothering God and God’s poetry, and a Church that went along with it, preferring the God of the limited vocabulary and the trite slogan, rather than the great God of smoke and blood, the fine shining God of the singing liturgies and the deep-running creeds. Though the whole lot of them disliked agendas, they had one just the same. “God created the world by imagination!” they cried, echoing Nicholas Berdyaev, the Russian religious philosopher and emigre, whom many swore had made the trek from Paris to Windhover Marsh sometime in the 1930’s.
They felt the earth would never turn on conventional apologetic, not in two-double oh-two, and they shared a heartsfire to infuse the Church and her spirituality and her theology with the earth, wind, and fire of a poet laureate. They were much more of an association than the poets had been in the 20th century, calling upon everyone to meet at The Donkey seven times a year, and they even had a motto, non verba sed tonitrua, not words but thunderclaps. Women and men came in from all over the world for The Seven, not hundreds, but no gathering lacked a quorum of twelve. Poets came at other times, of course, back and forth every season of the year, but no one wanted to miss The Seven, it did your soul such good and crammed your notebooks with shooting stars.
Who replaced Lovegrove? Partridge did. God knows where he came from (none of the poets did), but he was splendid at chopping wood, repairing punts, brewing tea and baking scones, and he delighted in proffering mince pies on any Sunday between All Saints Day and Lent. He knew Lovegrove’s traditions and the folded poetry in the cracks whitened the interior walls. If a poet was discouraged, Partridge was there with tea and good cheer. If a poet needed words, Partridge offered to ply the quant and slip them between the lilypads and the blackbirds. Did they lack faith? Partridge opened the Family Bible, as the ancient collection of poems was called. Did they need prayer, Partridge knelt. Did one desire a homily from the Good Book, Partridge did that, quietly but with a tethered fire. If there was hunger, how did he do it, Partridge carved roast fowl and rotisseried duck, but he never harmed the feather of any bird that called the marsh home for a night or for a lifetime.
There were five poets that were particularly important at Windhover Marsh in the first half of the 21st century, Malcolm St. Michaels, Roman Greene, Andrew Becket-Burns, Rowena Cove, and Heather Mary Cameron. Becket-Burns and Cameron were the most intense of them all when it came to expostulation - “We must have a rolling ripe theology!” - but all five could gutter a candle when it came to night writing or what Greene called “star scribble”. In other generations the poets had merely plied their trade to the glory of God and had no plans to innundate the earth. But the new breed wanted theologians to write like MacDonald or Lewis and preachers to preach like John Donne or Lancelot Andrewes, or at least exhibit the eloquent pithiness of Bunyan. Their own poems hung like ruby pendants with God’s weight or darted like starlings with his spirit, so that there rose the expression in Christendom of Roman, Rowena, and Heather contra mundi.
They swayed some, they could not sway all, yet there is no question that as Athanasius preserved the Trinity, the poets preserved linguistic beauty and reinstated theology as the Queen of the Sciences. They dusted her off and burnished her and made her shine like Victoria of old. She was quicksilver through the West again, a queen of all the peoples of the earth, no more an academic’s plaything. For many years, certainly until 2060 or later, it was impossible to stand up at Oxford or Cambridge or St. Andrews or King’s and speak like a block of wood. If you wished to be obfuscatory, you had better be a jolly Shakespeare at it, for truth became so wrapped up in the precise and crystalline language of the poet, it was impossible to get a posting at any school that made a fig of a difference on earth without a laureate’s panache and a filigreen turn of phrase.
It was not simply about eloquence alone, about stringing pretty words together. Truth and significance had to entwine your prose and your passion. Nor was complexity an honour. If it all went somewhere and did so splendidly, well and good. But labyrinthine casuistry that lit lanterns to nowhere made no lasting impression. A man might write with the simplicity of Aesop, but if he had Aesop’s wisdom and Aesop’s spare eloquence, why then, he stood alongside not only Christ’s plain parables but Augustine’s City of God.
One journal called it the resurrection and revolt of the Metaphysical Poets and perhaps it was that. At the height of the furor, from 2013 to 2027, when all the marsh poets, not just The Five, needed to hear from an angel of God to sustain them, Partridge was planting a border of rosebushes and flowering herbs right around the cottage. At the front and back door he wished to place fresh flagstones, since the old ones had cracked so often they were like chunks of gravel. As his spade pried the pieces out and he dug past them to loosen the soil at the front door, there was a ringing as iron struck iron. Partridge bent over, saw it was a strongbox, and swiftly unearthed it. St. Michaels and Greene came from around the back where they had been setting up hoops for croquet when they heard Partridge shout.
“It’s locked,” noted Greene.
“I’ve got a hacksaw,” panted Partridge, and he went to the small stone toolshed Lovegrove and Belloc had mortared in 1948.
“Perhaps we don’t want to open it,” cautioned Greene.
“Whyever not?” Partridge was incredulous.
“You know. Pandora’s box.”
St. Michaels snorted and gripped the bowl of his pipe, a bowl as big as a small ham. “For heaven’s sake, Roman, what do you think, the curse of the mummy will come against us? This is Scotland, man.”
Roman crossed his arms. “Scotland is a queer bird.”
St. Michaels waved his pipe. “Welcome to your gory bed or to victory, Roman. Open it, Partridge.”
Partridge had paid their quibbling no mind. He was groundskeeper and tender of the hearth. They just wrote things. The thick padlock came away in a few minutes, sweat popping on Partridge’s arms and face.
“Right then.” He opened the black iron lid.
“No monkey’s paw, Roman,” grunted St. Michaels as he bent to look. Partridge had pulled back a frayed and yellowed cotton cloth. “Just paper.”
Roman remained aloof. “Whose?”
Partridge was reluctant to touch the stack of papers with his dirty hands so St. Michaels lifted a sheaf of them and studied them for a few moments.
“Well, Malcolm?” demanded Partridge.
“Impossible,” St. Michaels muttered, looking at page after page. He gave six or seven of them to Greene. “What do you make of this, Roman?”
Roman took them with no desire to appear interested or impressed. But after glancing at three of the pages his blue eyes opened from indifferent slits to great orbs of astoundment.
“I don’t believe this!” he snapped. “Partridge, did you put this here? Is this some sort of prank?”
Partridge daggered his eyebrows. “I am not a trickster, sir.”
“But this is impossible.”
“What are they?” Partridge finally got to his feet. He tried to take one of the papers but Greene jerked it away.
“Wash your hands!”
Partridge had no running water to work with at the cottage but there was a freshwater stream, resplendent with mixed salmon trout, which flowed into the marsh and from which he fetched water for tea or cooking or cleaning. He rinsed his hands there now and dried them thoroughly on the long green grass at the stream bank, then hurried back. St. Michaels was kneeling and riffling through the rest of the box, his pipe jammed into a shirt pocket still smoking, while Greene stood where he was, scanning whatever St. Michaels passed up to him.
“Extraordinary,” Greene murmured.
“Give me one!” Partridge snatched a paper from Greene. It was stiff paper and heavy, and it had a bit of yellowing. There was writing and it was dark but faded in a few places, like old fountain pen ink. He attempted to decipher the scrawl.
“Therefore that he may raise the Lord throws down,” he read out loud. Greene looked at him.
“It can’t be!” protested Partridge.
“Well, then,” responded Greene, “what do you make of this one?”
More of the same scrawl. Partridge squinted. “Batter my heart, three personed God. For you as yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend. No!”
“Or this?” St. Michaels handed up several pages of the same sort of paper but the writing was completely different.
“Reversed thunder,” read Partridge, struggling, “Christ-side-piercing spear . . . church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, the land of spices, something understood. God in heaven!” This last was Partridge’s shriek.
“What do you think?” asked Greene.
“But these are originals!”
“Malcolm and I think so.”
“God in heaven! Who else is there besides Donne and Herbert?”
“Malcolm has pulled up Marvell, you’d expect that. But there’s Blake too. Spenser. And look at this.”
Greene held out a thick sheaf of papers that had been bound by a ribbon which disintegrated as soon as St. Michaels had attempted to loosen it. Yet another hand had penned this. Partridge held the first sheet up to the sunlight.
“I can’t make it out. Ah! Till one greater Man restore us, and regain the blissful seat. Do you mean to say?” He quickly brought up the last sheet and scowled at the final lines: “They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow through Eden took their solitary way. The whole poem? All of it in Milton’s hand?”
“Or someone’s. I don’t know Milton’s hand myself,” said St. Michaels getting to his feet. “Do either of you know Spanish? Or Latin?”
“Cove knows the Spaniards,” answered Partridge. “She winters near Madrid when she can. What is it?”
“Something about death, isn’t it?” suggested Greene, peering over St. Michaels’ shoulder. “Que muero porque no muero?”
“Becket-Burns knows Italian. Did a thesis on Italian poets at St. Andrews.”
“Where is he?” asked St. Michaels.
“Iona. On retreat. He’ll be up for next week’s Seven.”
“Then we will have to wait until he and Cove show up.” St. Michaels put his papers back in the iron box. “A touch from God, I think, gentlemen. Croquet, Roman?”
“It’s hardly appropriate.”
“What? God becomes man and you can’t play croquet after a visitation?”
A week later fifteen of them sat with kerosene lamps distributed among them burning hotly. Cove had just finished speaking when Partridge bustled through the door with some sticks for kindling.
“Put it down, P!” Cameron shot. “Did you hear what Cove said?”
“Of course not.”
“We don’t need a fire. Your lamps are roasting us. Que meuro porque no meuro. En mi yo no uiuo ya y sin Dios biuir no puedo.”
Partridge was peevish, he’d wasted time getting wood for a fire no one wanted. “So?”
“Dying for my dying day,” recited Cove. “Life within me? Not a spark. Without God’s a deadly dark! It’s San Juan de la Cruz.”
“It is not!”
“It is P!” This from Cameron.
“And what about that other? That great thick bit that was wrapped in leather?”
“We’re just getting to it. BB has been looking at the whole thing.”
Becket-Burns got to his feet, still staring down at the manuscript he held in both hands. He didn’t look up. “I’ve been going over it since St. Michaels gave it to me last night. Listen to this: La gloria di colui che tutto move per l’universo penetra e risplende in una parte piu e meno altrove. Nel ciel che piu della sua luce prende fu’io, e vidi cose che ridire - The glory of Him who moves all things penetrates the universe and shines in one part more and in another less. I was in the heaven that most receives his light and I saw things . . . It’s the opening cento of Paradiso.”
“Surely it’s not an original?” asked one of the poets.
“I’ve studied Dante. I can’t say I know his hand. But this is the original Italian text. The whole Comedy is here.”
The night had been overwhelming for everyone but Partridge, Greene, and St. Michaels who had already been overwhelmed and had had several days to try to get used to it.
“You mean to say you think Dante came up here and just left the Comedy in a stone hut in Scotland?” asked another poet.
“Or someone brought the manuscript up here from Italy with Dante’s blessing.” Becket-Burns shrugged.
“Or stole it?”
“No!” barked Partridge. “This is holy ground. The poets and their own words come here. No one knows about this place except an angel tells them.”
“Well, BB told me.”
They laughed but another poet broke through the merriment.
“It looks like a hoax.”
Roman Greene stood up. “Yes, Malcolm and I thought about that. But who would have perpetrated such a hoax? Would Chesterton have done this? Or Eliot? Or Masefield? Could you accuse any of them of such chicanery?”
The poet’s face soured. “Well, a local then.”
“What? A farming lad from Moffat or Tinto Hill? Using different handwriting? Using Spanish and Italian? Writing out hundreds of pages of Milton and Dante and St. John of the Cross? To what purpose? To trick us into inspiration? What is the effect of having these old poets among us? Does it enervate us? No, there is a flash flood in your blood to go further and to strike deeper with all your words.”
St. Michaels was cramming his pipe bowl with tobacco from a leather pouch. “At any rate, we were up to Edinburgh to have an expert look at the paper. All of it’s hundreds of years old. No one makes paper like that anymore. All the writing’s in old mixes of ink and done with quill. The fellow was astounded. Wanted to know how we came to have the poetry. I think he thought we’d pinched it from a museum. He said he was going in the back room to ring up a colleague but Roman and I were sure he was calling the police. So we left in a hurry.” St. Michaels snorted as the pipe gushed a pillar of fire. “Different quills too. Different birds. Different parts of Europe.”
Rowena Cove smiled. “It’s a miracle then.”
“What shall we do with them?”
“We ought to give them to Oxford or Cambridge or to the British Museum.”
“No poetry leaves the marsh,” declared Partridge.
“But they’ll deteriorate here.”
“They’ve done pretty well for a few hundred years,” St. Michaels growled around his pipe stem. “The box was pretty much airtight. I’m sure Partridge can preserve them adequately.”
“But they’re relics.”
“All the more reason they should be here.”
“Are we sure?”
Partridge began to remonstrate in the chiaroscuro of the ancient stone cottage, the sheaves of the old poetry scattered about the room in people’s laps. “This is not our decision. Its been made for us. Do you imagine I or any of us have the rights over Chesterton’s poems that he left here, or Belloc’s, or Tolkien’s? They meant for them to be here. We didn’t know about the strongbox. But hundreds of years ago those poets found this place because God intended for them to find this place, and they left their poems here because God intended for them to leave their poems here. I’ve told you, this is a holy place. This is a great cathedral, one of the wonders of the world, it took a thousand generations to build it. After we’ve gone God will continue to bring poets here so that he can inspire them, and replenish the Church with their words, and revitalize the earth. Isn’t that what we’re doing now? Isn’t that what others will be doing in a hundred years? Is there anyone here who doesn’t want to get off on their own right now and write a poem, perhaps one of the best they’ve ever written? Why? Because you know the good Lord Christ is in this, don’t you? You can read his lines, you know his hand, we all do. This is no serendipity. You were meant to find these poems and draw fresh fire from them to ignite your own verse. All of the poetry must remain at the cottage, every page of it, old and new. A woman will be drawn here at the turn of this century, a woman from Brazil who will scarcely know what she’s about, but she’ll find your poem, Heather, or one of yours Rowena, or even one of yours, BB, and she’ll take heart and clutch a pen and write with pinions and theophanies and all the scalding cascades of light. This is God’s doing and we dare not seek to undo it.”
No one stirred. Until St. Michaels stretched and climbed out of his chair. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I have work to do before the night is spent. It’s time for some star scribble. Roman?”
Greene, with his black turtleneck and tightly curling black hair and pierce-the-dark blue eyes, was staring directly into a lamp. “It’s true,” he said.
So they broke up and found their niches and began to write. Partridge scurried about brewing coffee and tea and baking fresh scones. It was summer but he fashioned some mince pies anyway. Once dawn pelted them with bright stones and the writers grew weary and sore, Partridge had everything ready for bed.
To begin with, he had altered both the bedrooms months before. Now one was for men, the other for women, and each had bunk beds and linen for four. Then he had eight cots. If he had a mix of men and women, as he did for that Seven, he put up a line between the walls of the cottage and strung blankets. It didn’t take long for everyone to settle in. Heather Mary Cameron snored with ferocity.
“Heaven help us,” sniffed Partridge, moving his bed linen to the toolshed. “The pipes.”
Partridge had closed up the privy he had dug ten years before and reopened the one Lovegrove and Lewis and Tolkien had built up with field stone and mortared together in 1954. Lovegrove had penned a note about it in the Family Bible: “A very hot day. The loo almost done. Jack and Ronny mucking about, quaffing ale and guffawing, did me good to see it. They got into a mock sword fight with their trowels, both of them shouting out rubbish in Latin, dotty old men, spotted their faces and clothing with mortar, then sat and had a pipe and went on about King Arthur till sunset, when they asked me to spear portions of fresh Angus on green sticks so they could cook them over a fire. A lad from Motherwell had brought the beef by that morning. Ronny quite proud of them building the fire up from scratch. They were on about the Old Norse language and archangels and what sort of steel was in the swords the apostles wore at the crucifixion. Went to bed and they were singing lustily in West Saxon, beating the rhythm on the ground with great sticks that showered the sward with orange sparks. Woke at dawn and they were still up. They had caught some fish in the stream, which they named Oxblood, and were at grilling them over their precious fire. Wondered how our Lord had cooked his fish on the beach at the resurrection. Swore to me in Latin that they would finish up the loo after breakfast and then fell asleep under the willow. Used the old plaid blankets with the MacDonald tartan. Expect they’ll rise from the dead with the moon. Midsummer’s Day.”
The privy was in the round and you could see CSL stroked in the mortar between two stones and the trace of a lion’s head, while nearby a finger had poked JRR with a lot of runic characters. There were two separate compartments. It had been used through the last half of the 20th century, the pits were deep, much had decomposed, and once Partridge had cleared off twenty-five years of blackberry thorn the poets used it gladly. By common consent they nicknamed the two compartments Gollum and Marsh-wiggle.
No one who was there for that Seven ever forgot it. They wrote some of their finest poems and returned to their churches and academies to inspire others, so that a kind of divine prose flared over Christendom that scorched the heart of the earth. It became a season of Eucharist and Redemption. It exhilarated. Of a certainty, there were stepping stones between earth and heaven, between wind and fire, between Christ and marsh.
Each of the Five wrote a poem and folded it away into the venerable grey walls that week. In time, of course, Partridge plucked them free and smoothed them down into the Family Bible. He placed them one after the other, beginning with Becket-Burns. BB had called his The Eucharist of the Fall.
a season now
a thousand pietas
losing all and lost
and aging, greying
and barren, bereft
losing all and lost
but the losing in the losing
twice gold, thrice gold
sun, tree, and spotted grass
all diving, rising
a ripe orchard
a ripe orchard’s harvest
bright apple round peach
lights and lights and lights
whether owl or kingfisher or wren
or leaf or branch or root
upon the green water lying
till all dying
is light, is flight
till knowing this brightwork
is right, is God’s right
Rowena Cove wrote Twelfthtide.
harvest moon honey moon
hunter’s moon devil moon
and december moon christ’s moon
the sands the wood
the two walk etched in chalk
each ocean drop beneath the fire
holds high its singing candle
the processional to the shore
Heather Mary Cameron made noise when she wrote, as if each syllable was wrested or pried violently out of her soul, and she wrote with both fists clenched, for the whole process of putting her poetry on paper was a battle and a hammering, and her eyes glinted and her cheeks filled with blood, and she crumpled paper and she stabbed with her pen, and sometimes roared. The poem she left behind she sealed with tape, a seal that only Partridge broke. She called it Lament. Only two stanzas of it were legible.
play with stones
stained with ancestral blood
they dance in streets
paved with judgement.
O Israel, child of holy promise
your destitute ways
your tattered soul
at the heart of a grieving God.
Roman Greene gave no title to his. He put it down in fountain pen ink, folded the ivory paper neatly, slipped it into a hole by the front door, and quietly went on his way.
I would to speak a thousand times
the words I hold so dear,
but thousands times a thousands times
their message seems unclear.
Tis not the words themselves be rough
though kinder could they be,
it be the form that seeks their depth
that hides their sympathy.
A man like any man is he
who bends those pretty words,
to straggled heaps of shapeless dreams
and deeds of lesser worth.
But yet to speak those dear dear words
is what my being cries,
to live their fate and breath their flame
tis here my heart’s hope flies.
So thus to say I love you dear
does set this heart at ease,
and should I live till earth dies old
these words I’ll try to please.
Malcolm St. Michaels found a stump in the woods over beyond the marsh and wrote there, wreathed in Scotch mist, cinders from his ubiquitous pipe burning fine black holes through his verse.
February, and time to burn the Christmas tree
(Dropping needles in its desolate corner).
In December, already dying, it hinted still
Of green wilderness, and we hung our family’s past
On its resinous bounty.
(Noriko’s origami stars; Judy’s sheep;
From Whidbey Island, Andy’s painted pins;
Crocheted snowflakes from Lola on the Greensprings,
And Bruce and Robin’s lion and lamb,
Still peaceful in their play-dough wreath.)
But now not even the coloured lights
Can hide the spiderwebs, the brown.
So put the relics all back in their boxes
And with a hatchet lop the limbs
Till the trunk stands naked in its bucket.
Burn them all night long in the orange roar,
The flaming sword, of long-gone Eden:
Burn them like straw in the flame that burns
At the heart of things with the unsung names
Of the one who is,
Burn the pine like frankincense:
That baby too grew up to be consumed.
You and I will sleep
On this warm hearth’s holy ground
And in the morning mark our heads with ash.
He called it Burning the Christmas Tree. In due time, Partridge laid it in the great book with the others, with Lewis and Bridges and Williams and Greene, neat and white and dark-spotted.
So they changed the world. Or rather, God shaped a new world out of the words, out of their words and his words, out of the poetry of cross and resurrection and epiphany, out of blood and clay and light, and they all died except St. Michaels, who buried Partridge by Lovegrove and took his place, brewing tea and stirring soup and pruning rosebushes for another generation who made their way in fits and starts to Windhover Marsh. St. Michaels puttered about the cottage and grounds, showed the new poets the Family Bible and the Strongbox, and blew storms of spark and thunder from his pipe as they wept and slept and rose and wrote and fashioned streams of streaming sunlight and told of a dying and rising God who was beyond all words, beyond creation, beyond fashioning, and beyond them. And sometimes St. Michaels would open an old and dark Bible, Blake’s it had been, and read out loud, usually by the hearth, whether lit or cold, and St. Michaels dearly loved St. John and the Christ in reeds and rushes there. And post sometimes came to Windhover Marsh from Peebles and if poets asked how to find the cottage, St. Michaels would write, Come down by way of Holy Island, by way of the Lammermuir Hills and the Moorfoot Hills and the Tweedsmuir Hills, come down by way of County Lothian and County Borders, by way of Peebles and Galashiels, come down by way of Lough St. Mary’s and you will make out all right.
St. Michaels was at home at the marsh. It is true that there were days and even weeks when it was just he and the waterfowl and butterflies fuller than your spread hand and the cooling Scotch mist and bright heaven’s sun. These were fine times to pray and to worship and to wander. His mind would tumble and turn with the words of all the poets who had ever come to Windhover Marsh and he jotted down a bit of doggerel about it.
a thousand poems he had read
a hundred of the thousand stormed daily through his head
Blake and Donne and Thomas Stearns
Masefield and Dante and Becket-Burns
up and up and over the ark
to hear the song of the Hopkins lark
in crisps of curl off wild winch whirl
look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
o look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
the bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
in what distant deeps or skies
burnt the fire of thine own eyes?
on what wings dare he aspire?
what the hand dare seize the fire?
for I, except you enthrall me
never shall be free
nor ever chaste
except you ravish me
what? is it all one?
is he, the three, truly one?
and his poets
whether Hopkins, Blake, or Donne
all one, truly one?
and we and all we write
the wit of his Son?
St. Michaels would take out a punt or tug on his wellies and circumnavigate Tolkien’s “bog” and Spenser’s “reeking swamp”. There was much to see and the angle of light over the far hills was always not as it had been and he prised from the muck and rushes what he never knew. A shoe, whose? A pen that wrote, what? A cup and saucer, Royal Doulton, a pattern not known. One day, a long-necked brown bottle. Black lettering had been painted on it and was legible. TO BYZANTIUM BY WAY OF SEA AND MARSH ON HIS MAJESTY’S SERVICE. The bottle was stoppered with a rubber cork and papers were rolled tightly within. St. Michaels had to lay aside his pipe and completely destroy the cork before he could get at them. They turned out to be poems. A bit of water had trickled in and smeared some ink but for the most part the poetry was sharp and readable.
Chesterton was writing: So we commit these to the deep until the sea shall give up what needs be read.
The first poem was Hopkins, but not in Chesterton’s hand, Inversnaid, This darksome burn, horseback brown, his rollock highroad roaring down, in coop and in comb the fleece of his foam flutes and low to the lake falls home, degged with dew, dappled with dew are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through, wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern, and the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.
The next was MacDonald, in MacDonald’s own hand and signed, Thy fishes breathe but where thy waters roll, thy birds fly but within thy airy sea, my soul breathes only in thy infinite soul, I breathe, I think, I live but thee, oh, breathe, oh, sink - O Love, live into me, unworthy is my life till all divine, till thou see in me only what is thine.
The final sheet was more of Chesterton’s scrawl, which he titled A Prayer in God’s Good Light, but which has come down to us under a different name. St. Michaels framed all three fragments, what had not been obliterated or damaged by marsh water, and placed them on the walls of The Donkey, The Windhover already hanging over the fire.
So it came to be that when a poet picked his way over briar and unmortared wall, when she came down by way of Lothian and Borders and Peebles and Galashiels, when he opened the stout door the Tinker himself had nailed sturdy and true, betwixt and between the writing of a pearl that “may in a toad’s head dwell”, when she ate and drank and slept, and there was Hopkins on the two long walls, and when he went out to the back door to write, all flicker and faint, there was MacDonald on his way for courage, and then, in due time, the turning time, time to leave the valley and the stones and the marsh and the fire-folk sitting there, back out the Tinker’s door to heaven and hell and all angels, she would pause, and see perhaps for the first time the small frame of willow branch and the bit of Chesterton scribble there and she, in her pause, could read and not forget, and in this the poetry of her spirit should live and those that chose, on the turning earth, live and live and live, even if upon a dark is layered a dark and another dark. And they would turn when they read it, to look back at St. Michaels, to look back at the open door, open on the marsh, and then go on down the road in the gloaming to Peebles and Galashiels and the Moorfoot Hills and the Holy Island and the great seas and somewhere, to a quiet garden by a humming water, to sit and write beautiful truths beautifully, and give it back, oh give it back, give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver, and think of Chesterton thumping along by the shore, swishing rushes with his cane in the dark falling world, tempted perhaps to never write again, to never try again, and then standing still in the evening damp of wonder, for men say the sun was darkened, yet I had thoughts it beat brightly, even on Calvary, and he that hung upon the torturing Tree heard all the crickets singing, and was glad. Christ’s last word to parting poets.
And so tired, I am tired, my God but I am tired, but I am glad, so very glad, I am glad I was here when and when and when. And then St. Michaels went through the reeds and the trees round by the marsh and up past the marsh to the sward of thick green grass and so to the cottage, old, old, to write a word and drink a cup of tea and to see God sitting at the hearth and the stones and their poems ringing and an earth coming free and a liberty steeped in burnished mists a-day-a-day’s walk from Long Forties and the North Sea and Devil’s Hole and a Lindisfarne Mystery, a Farne Deep and a love to sing, and closed round by these great grey stones, I see, I see, and from out of the earth and these Scottish mists the poets and Lewis come to me.
All this, indeed, I do not remember.
I remember the remembering, when first walking
I heard the golden gates behind me
Fall to, shut fast. On the flinty road,
Black-frosty, blown on with an eastern wind,
I found my feet. Forth on journey,
Gathering this garment over aching bones,
I went. I wander still.
But the world is round.