Puck and the Roman Centurion's Song

It is Kipling Poetry Day. Well, not officially, but who ever cared about officially? Liz on Awake and Abigail on Scribbles and Inkstains both posted on Kipling's poems "If" and "The Thousandth Man" respectively, both poems I highly recommend. Kipling himself remains one of the bright lights among British writers, coupling a frank and clairvoyant perception with an almost mystical imagination. (There is a list here at Squeaky Clean Reviews of a number of his prose works, some of which I reviewed myself.) As for my favourite of his poems, I could not say. But I will here transcribe the two poems which, I think, best explain my own fascination with Britain and, I hope, prove that I am not the only one to be so magically drawn in by the White Isle.

the roman centurion's song

Legate, I had the news last night - my cohort ordered home
by ship to Portus Itius and thence by road to Rome.
I've marched the companies aboard, the arms are stowed below:
now let another take my sword. Command me not to go!

I've served in Britain forty years, from Vectis to the Wall.
I have none other home than this, nor any life at all.
Last night I did not understand, but, now the hour draws near
that calls me to my native land, I feel that land is here.

Here where men say my name was made, here where my work was done;
here where my dearest dead are laid - my wife - my wife and son;
here where time, custom, grief and toil, age, memory, service, love,
have rooted me in British soil. Ah, how can I remove?

For me this land, that sea, these airs, those folk and fields suffice.
What purple Southern pomp can match our changeful Northern skies,
black with December snows unshed or pearled with August haze -
the clanging arch of steel-grey March, or June's long-lighted days?

You'll follow widening Rhodanus till vine and olive lean
aslant before the sunny breeze that sweeps Nemausus clean
to Arelate's triple gate; but let me linger on,
here where our stiff-necked British oaks confront Euroclydon!

You'll take the old Aurelian Road through shore-descending pines
where, blue as any peacock's neck, the Tyrrhene Ocean shines.
You'll go where laurel crowns are won, but - will you e're forget
the scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracket in the wet?

Let me work here for Britain's sake - at any task you will -
a marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.

Legate, I come to you in tears - my cohort ordered home!
I've served in Britain forty years. What should I do in Rome?
Here is my heart, my soul, my mind - the only life I know.
I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!

A fan of Sutcliff (I know there are several out there, at the very least) will easily pick out the influence for several of her novels in this single poem. The Anglo-Indian poet is the voice of people translated to Britain over the years, whether physically or merely in literature. There is something compelling, something wildly magical beneath the hum-drum of daily life (which is the same the whole world over) that makes Britain unique.

puck's song

See you the dimpled track that runs,
all hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns
that smote King Philip's fleet.

See you our little mill that clacks,
so busy by the brook?
She has ground her corn and paid her tax
ever since Domesday Book.

See you our stilly woods of oak,
and the dread ditch beside?
O that was where the Saxons broke,
on the day that Harold died.

See you the windy levels spread
about the gates of Rye?
O that was where the Northman fled
when Alfred's ships came by.

See you our pastures wide and lone,
where the red oxen browse?
O there was a City thronged and known
ere London boasted a house.

And see you, after rain, the trace
of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion's camping-place,
when Caesar sailed from Gaul.

And see you marks that show and fade,
like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made,
to guard their wondrous towns.

Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn;
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
and so was England born!

She is not any common Earth,
water or wood or air,
but Merlin's Isle of Gramarye,
where you and I will fare.

Whether you like poetry or not, I highly recommend this bit o' the classics. Pick up Kipling! You will be glad you did.

4 ripostes:

  1. Are these both by Kipling too?
    I love Puck's Song! It has such a great rhythm to the words... And yes,I share your fascination with Britain too! My dream is to live there for a while someday. It has such fantastic history and folklore and myths.

    Thanks for sharing these, Jenny!

    Signed with a smile =)
    ~ Liz

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  2. Yes, both of these are by Kipling and can be found in his "Puck" stories: "Puck of Pook's Hill" and "Rewards and Fairies." Both stories I highly recommend.

    I hope you get your wish someday, Liz. While I'm happy to live here with my family in the States, I would like to at least be able to visit Britain one day, if possible. But only God knows, and I'll be content meanwhile.

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  3. I love The Roman Centurion's Song: always have. It's so very Sutcliff. I like Kipling's "Song of the Men's Side," too.

    "Room for his shadow on the grass - let it pass!
    To left and right - stand clear!
    This is the Buyer of the Blade - be afraid!
    This is the great god Tyr!"

    I like the rhythm of it. ^.^

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  4. I didn't read puck yet, but "the roman centurion's song" tugged at my heart. "Legate, I come to you in tears - my cohort ordered home! . . .I cannot leave it all behind. Command me not to go!" And awesome banner by the way! Very Penslay-y. *patptas her newly made up word.* The horse? pendant reminded me of "Guttersnipe."

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