Oak and Ash and Thorn

I first heard this while sitting in a car outside the Bagel Bin, the Jewish/Christian* deli in Omaha where MomRed would get bagels on occasion. A grey mist sort of drizzled down halfheartedly, and MomRed had left the engine running and the radio tuned to the NPR station. It played eclectic music on Saturdays, and this came on, followed by “Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod.” I didn’t know it was a Kipling poem. All I knew was it was really neat. I was seven or eight years old.

A Tree Song from Puck of Pook’s Hill

(A. D. 1200)
Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old England to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak, and Ash, and Thorn.
Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs,
(All of a Midsummer morn!)
Surely we sing no little thing,
In Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Oak of the Clay lived many a day,
Or ever AEneas began.
Ash of the Loam was a lady at home,
When Brut was an outlaw man.
Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town
(From which was London born);
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Yew that is old in churchyard-mould,
He breedeth a mighty bow.
Alder for shoes do wise men choose,
And beech for cups also.
But when ye have killed, and your bowl is spilled,
And your shoes are clean outworn,
Back ye must speed for all that ye need,
To Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Ellum she hateth mankind, and waiteth
Till every gust be laid,
To drop a limb on the head of him
That anyway trusts her shade:
But whether a lad be sober or sad,
Or mellow with ale from the horn,
He will take no wrong when he lieth along
‘Neath Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But–we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
And we bring you news by word of mouth-
Good news for cattle and corn–
Now is the Sun come up from the South,
With Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

Sing Oak, and Ash, and Thorn, good sirs
(All of a Midsummer morn):
England shall bide till Judgment Tide,
By Oak, and Ash, and Thorn!

“A Tree Song”

It turns out that the tune was done by Robert Bellamy, and has been recorded by several people. Here’s one of the better ones. I recall it done by a small group, but this is close to the tune I half-recall. It haunted me for years.

*It was kosher, as I recall, and the Christian partner worked on Saturday mornings, the Jewish partner worked on Mondays, and they were closed on Sundays.

Speaking of Frontiers and Poems . . .

Since I’m in an odd mood today, here’s a poem I first encountered as the title of a fun history/fiction/who knows book. “The Coming American.”

Bring me men to match my mountains;
Bring me men to match my plains, —
Men with empires in their purpose,
And new eras in their brains.
Bring me men to match my praries,
Men to match my inland seas,
Men whose thought shall pave a highway
Up to ampler destinies;
Pioneers to clear Thought’s marshlands,
And to cleanse old Error’s fen;
Bring me men to match my mountains —
Bring me men!


Bring me men to match my forests,
Strong to fight the storm and blast,
Branching toward the skyey future,
Rooted in the fertile past.
Bring me men to match my valleys,
Tolerant of sun and snow,
Men within whose fruitful purpose
Time’s consummate blooms shall grow.
Men to tame the tigerish instincts
Of the lair and cave and den,
Cleans the dragon slime of Nature —
Bring me men!


Bring me men to match my rivers,
Continent cleavers, flowing free,
Drawn by the eternal madness
To be mingled with the sea;
Men of oceanic impulse,
Men whose moral currents sweep
Toward the wide-enfolding ocean
Of an undiscovered deep;
Men who feel the strong pulsation
Of the Central Sea, and then
Time their currents to its earth throb —
Bring me men!

Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911) is another Victorian poet, popular in his time and now pretty much forgotten. Some of his pieces sound a bit like Robert Service, others like early Robert Frost, James Whitcomb Riley, and similar poets. The book (by Irving Stone) that took its title from the above poem is about the opening up of Nevada and the Sierras, about scandal and triumph, engineering, and Populism, and all sorts of Wild West stuff. The book caused a flurry of unhappiness among people who didn’t care to recall that their ancestors had not been as pure as the driven snow. Today, history buffs of the American West take that for granted, but in 1956? Oh, the pearl clutching. The book ranks up there with De Voto’s Across the Wide Missouri and Stanley Vestal’s books, in my opinion, as far as “should be required reading for US West 101.”)

On Odd Poem for (and from) an Odd Time

The poem, which I’m only excerpting is “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.”

“Oh the longhorns from Texas,
The jay hawks from Kansas,
The plop-eyed bungaroo and giant giassicus,
The varmint, chipmunk, bugaboo,
The horn-toad, prairie-dog and ballyhoo,
From all the newborn states arow,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on,
Bidding the eagles of the west fly on.
The fawn, prodactyl, and thing-a-ma-jig,
The rackaboor, the hellangone,
The whangdoodle, batfowl and pig,
The coyote, wild-cat and grizzly in a glow,
In a miracle of health and speed, the whole breed abreast,
The leaped the Mississippi, blue border of the West,
From the Gulf to Canada, two thousand miles long:-
Against the towns of Tubal Cain,
Ah,– sharp was their song.
Against the ways of Tubal Cain, too cunning for the young,
The longhorn calf, the buffalo and wampus gave tongue.”

[SNIP]

“And these children and their sons
At last rode through the cactus,
A cliff of mighty cowboys
On the lope,
With gun and rope.
And all the way to frightened Maine the old East heard them call,
And saw our Bryan by a mile lead the wall
Of men and whirling flowers and beasts,
The bard and prophet of them all.
Prairie avenger, mountain lion,
Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,
Gigantic troubadour, speaking like a siege gun,
Smashing Plymouth Rock with his boulders from the West,
And just a hundred miles behind, tornadoes piled across the sky,
Blotting out sun and moon,
A sign on high.”

Vachel Lindsay is probably better known, if anyone knows him these days, for “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” He’s one of the Victorian ballad poets, along with Stephen Vincent Benet, Sam Walter Foss (“The Coming American” aka “Give me Men to Match my Mountains”) and Sidney Lanier. Lindsay has a dubious reputation because of his poem “The Congo.” He encouraged African-American poets and authors, but also condescended to non-Anglos in general, and to Africans in particular (like so many in his time), and is pretty much ignored these days. However, the second excerpt appeared as a comment on The Powerline Blog, which sent me tracking down the source. G-d bless PoemHunter and other sites!

I warned you, it’s a strange poem. I suspect any ballad about US politics is going to veer into the surreal.

Lindsay’s poem is about William Jennings Bryan, the Populist (and later Democrat) who became a symbol for the ordinary people of the rural areas and US West, those shut out of machine politics. There was a growing sense in the 1870s-1890s that the East had grown corrupt, and rotten, isolated from the real people of the country. The Populists wanted to reclaim their voice in government, to stop the long deflation that so hurt farmers and miners, to clean out the machines that seemed to control national and state (and local) politics. These were the days when men really did meet in dark, smoke-filled back rooms to decide who would be president. The Republicans were resting on the laurels of the Civil War, the Democrats didn’t seem much more responsive, and the Populists, Farmers’ Alliance, and others wanted their turn.

If you’ve read Kipling, or much Old Testament, you’ll recognize Jubal and Tubal Cain. Some of the creatures Lindsay lists are imaginary, some are folk-lore, some (jay hawk) have political connotations that he ignored. The young west, the wild west, the clean, honest wilderness and the people who settle there, they are going to reclaim the East, to smash the corruption, all led by William Jennings Bryan.

The idea of the west, the frontier, as a place of moral superiority and uplift was very popular in the late 1800s. You get a hint of that in Kipling, especially “The Explorer” (“Something Lost Beyond the Ranges”.) Without a frontier, the US would grow decadent, and corrupt, and stagnant, and start to rot – like Europe. In 1892 the head of the US Census had declared that the frontier was closed. The population had settled too much of the country, and no open frontier remained. This led to much philosophizing and bewailing the lack. This was also the age of the machine politics, the Gilded Age, Mark Hanna, Boss Tweed, the Chicago Machine and “Honest Graft.”

The comment on Powerline ended with something to the effect that “Who would have thought that Lindsay was talking about truck drivers?”

The Populists didn’t win, exactly, the Progressives and the machines did (temporarily. Then the Progressives became the machine.) The Populists didn’t disappear. The Farmers’ Alliance is still around, the Farmers’ Union still has members and supporters, and the sense that the ordinary people of the Midwest and South are less corrupt than the professional politicians of the coasts, that’s still with us.

Blame Kipling

My mind went wandering during a homily recently, because of a reference to the story of the Prodigal Son.

So I started reciting Kipling instead of listening intently to the Important Spiritual Message.

Here come I to my own again,
Fed, forgiven and known again,
Claimed by bone of my bone again
And cheered by flesh of my flesh.
The fatted calf is dressed for me,
But the husks have greater zest for me,
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So I’m off to the Yards afresh.

I never was very refined, you see,
(And it weighs on my brother’s mind, you see)
But there’s no reproach among swine, d’you see,
For being a bit of a swine.
So I’m off with wallet and staff to eat
The bread that is three parts chaff to wheat,
But glory be! – there’s a laugh to it,
Which isn’t the case when we dine.

My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechises me
Till I want to go out and swear.
And, in spite of the butler’s gravity,
I know that the servants have it I
Am a monster of moral depravity,
And I’m damned if I think it’s fair!

I wasted my substance, I know I did,
On riotous living, so I did,
But there’s nothing on record to show I did
Worse than my betters have done.
They talk of the money I spent out there –
They hint at the pace that I went out there –
But they all forget I was sent out there
Alone as a rich man’s son.

So I was a mark for plunder at once,
And lost my cash (can you wonder?) at once,
But I didn’t give up and knock under at once,
I worked in the Yards, for a spell,
Where I spent my nights and my days with hogs.
And shared their milk and maize with hogs,
Till, I guess, I have learned what pays with hogs
And – I have that knowledge to sell!

So back I go to my job again,
Not so easy to rob again,
Or quite so ready to sob again
On any neck that’s around.
I’m leaving, Pater. Good-bye to you!
God bless you, Mater! I’ll write to you!
I wouldn’t be impolite to you,
But, Brother, you are a hound!

I’ve sympathized with the narrator ever since I first heard the poem, or read it. I know a few people like him, and I suspect Kipling knew a large number. “Yes, I learned the hard way. Had a lot of fun, what I remember of it, but woke up with a headache and an empty wallet. No point in moping and starving, and any strong back can find work, so . . .”

I sing this one, but I modify the tune to suit my voice a bit better.

Kipling and . . . Dante?

The textbook I use to teach history has a picture of Dante in the section about the Renaissance. This year (September 14 to be exact) is the 700th anniversary of his demise. He is most famous for a series of three epic poems detailing a soul’s journey through Hell and Purgatory into Paradise, and then back to the world.

The third chapter (Canto) of The Inferno describes souls and angels who are tormented, but are not in either Hell or Heaven, because the angels would not choose between G-d and Satan, and the people were neither good nor evil. They can’t go up because they lack virtue, but they will be lorded-over by the truly damned in Hell, which isn’t just (and would reward some of the damned, so that’s not acceptable, either.)

For some reason, this year I was skimming over bits of the Inferno to use in a lesson about education and the Renaissance, and thought of someone who was neither good enough for heaven or bad enough for the infernal realm.

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair —
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.
“Stand up, stand up now, Tomlinson, and answer loud and high
The good that ye did for the sake of men or ever ye came to die —
The good that ye did for the sake of men in little earth so lone!”
And the naked soul of Tomlinson grew white as a rain-washed bone.

“Tomlinson” by Rudyard Kipling.

The poem is much longer than the excerpt above, but Tomlinson, the newly dead, can’t get into heaven or you-know-where because he never did anything. Now, [spoiler] since Old Scratch is a lawyer at heart, he finds “the roots of sin” in the unhappy Tomlinson and sends him back to go, you know, actually commit a sin and earn his place among the damned.

Both Dante and Kipling are riffing off of Revelation 3: 14-22, the letter to the church in Laodicea. Because the Laodiceans were neither hot nor cold, they are rejected. “Go do something!” Preferably good, of course, but anything is better than nothing. Dante finds himself in trouble at the beginning of the Inferno because he is guilty of acedia (sloth). He knows what is good, what he ought to do, and . . . can’t be bothered. He’s spiritually lazy. He doesn’t do any good (” . . . those things which we have done and those which we have left undone,” as one confession puts it.) That’s Tomlinson’s sin as well. Acedia, “sloth,” not doing what should be done. In Tomlinson’s case, he hadn’t bothered to do anything but read about other people’s activities. Dante . . . spent a wee bit too much time on politics, but he claims sloth/acedia.

I’m sure that Kipling had read Dante. Everyone did, in those days. I know Kipling knew the Biblical reference. And he probably had met more than one Tomlinson, people who lived only in books, and never thought for themselves. “This I thought that another man thought of a Karl in Norway,” Tomlinson claims. But he, himself, never did.

Be either hot or cold, a saint or a sinner, choose G-d or Satan. But don’t just sit there!

Corvus Corax, the Carmina Burana, and Hip Hop?

Let’s face it, a lot of popular culture is, and has always been, about the, ahem, ars amatoria. Admiring the opposite sex, pursuing the opposite sex, enjoying the company of an enamorata (or enamorato), and on occasion insulting people by publicly declaring them to be incapable of, or less skilled in, certain recreational pursuits.

The group Corvus Corax is among a few that have no problem with celebrating the medieval popular culture, and do it with gusto. In Latin, old Low German, old High German, and a few other dialects, with a blend of period and modern instruments, and mostly modern tunes based on the surviving medieval bits that we have. Some of the songs they do in English, songs that mirror what was sung in the Middle Ages. Let’s face it, partying, drinking, flirting, are pretty much European universals (and Russian, probably lots of Asia as well.) I like their stuff, although I blushed hard the first time I really listened to the words on a few of their songs. Good thing they are not in English, or I’d be a lot warier about listening to them while at Day Job.

Those of you who have sung, or really listened to Orff’s Carmina Burana, and other settings of the poems those are drawn from, know what I mean. Every time we’ve done the Carmina locally, we had to be careful that the kids singing the boy choir part stayed unaware of what is sung around them. It’s not . . . OK, parts are, but only if you know the subtexts of the Latin. Or have heard a certain setting of one number in particular, where the baritone leaves nothing to the imagination. Joyfully leaves nothing to the imagination.

I have no problem with this music, oddly enough. I say oddly, because so many modern songs on these themes make my stomach churn, or my hackles shoot up to my ears. I don’t mind reading the Roman grafitti from places like Pompeii, or seeing pictures of Classical and Medieval erotica. They are not titilating, I guess because they are historical images and artifacts. That’s what people back them liked, or how they insulted each other, and so what? The human race would not be here today if boys hadn’t chased girls until the girls caught them, going back to . . . um, a very long time ago. I enjoy Corvus Corax and some of the other medieval rock groups. (Not the purely pagan things. Those often give me cold chills.) OK, they are singing what today would NOT get radio play. Since it doesn’t get radio play as it is, no biggie.

Modern stuff isn’t fun, or joyful, especially the hip-hop I’ve been forced to listen to. Granted, it is not a large sample, but it is what is on the internet and satellite radio. Male or female lead, there’s no play in it, no sense of mutual chasing and catching. The singers are all about controlling others, not “enjoying a light evening of mutual pleasure” as Master Saldovado phrased it. The medieval stuff I’ve heard or sung is fun. The musicians enjoy the earthiness of it, and enjoy each other’s company.

“Bring a beer here!”

The following is Corvus Corax having far too much fun with a drinking song.

“A Famous Victory:” Blenheim and Memory

Someone over at MGC posted the Robert Southley’s poem about the Battle of Blenheim, as part of a discussion about ordinary people doing hard duties while the Great and Powerful . . . do their thing. I bristled a little, but that’s because I have firm opinions about both sides of that conflict. So, first, the poem:

THE BATTLE OF BLENHEIM

by: Robert Southey (1774-1843)

T was a summer evening, Old Kaspar’s work was done,

And he before his cottage door Was sitting in the sun,

And by him sported on the green His little grandchild Wilhelmine.


She saw her brother Peterkin Roll something large and round

Which he beside the rivulet In playing there had found;

He came to ask what he had found, That was so large, and smooth, and round.


Old Kaspar took it from the boy, Who stood expectant by;

And then the old man shook his head, And with a natural sigh,

“‘Tis some poor fellow’s skull,” said he, “Who fell in the great victory.


“I find them in the garden, For there’s many here about;

And often when I go to plough, The ploughshare turns them out!

For many thousand men,” said he, “Were slain in that great victory.”


“Now tell us what ’twas all about,” Young Peterkin, he cries;

And little Wilhelmine looks up With wonder-waiting eyes;

“Now tell us all about the war, And what they fought each other for.”


“It was the English,” Kaspar cried, “Who put the French to rout;

But what they fought each other for I could not well make out;

But everybody said,” quoth he, “That ’twas a famous victory.


“My father lived at Blenheim then, Yon little stream hard by;

They burnt his dwelling to the ground, And he was forced to fly;

So with his wife and child he fled, Nor had he where to rest his head.


“With fire and sword the country round Was wasted far and wide,

And many a childing mother then, And new-born baby died;

But things like that, you know, must be At every famous victory.


“They said it was a shocking sight After the field was won;

For many thousand bodies here Lay rotting in the sun;

But things like that, you know, must be After a famous victory.


“Great praise the Duke of Marlbro’ won, And our good Prince Eugene.”

“Why, ’twas a very wicked thing!” Said little Wilhelmine.

“Nay … nay … my little girl,” quoth he, “It was a famous victory.”


“And everybody praised the Duke Who this great fight did win.”

“But what good came of it at last?” Quoth little Peterkin.

“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he, “But ’twas a famous victory.”

Blenheim, fought near the town of Blindheim* on August 12-13-14, 1704. The Franco-Bavarian army collided with the forces of the Holy Roman Empire under Prinz Eugen von Savoy, and General John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. The French goal was to break apart an alliance that opposed the merger of France and Spain, and to capture Vienna. The English and Dutch fought as one group, the Imperial forces as a second group.

Those of you who have read Elizabeth and Empire know blow-by-blow how the fighting went, because that’s the conflict I based the final battle on. For others, I recommend: https://www.forces.net/services/army/blenheim-battle-created-marlborough-legend. However, the web-site comes with the caveat that it is very English, and I personally would give Prinz Eugen more credit. Which does not take away from Marlborough’s genius, especially in logistics. He managed to move an army from the Low Countries all the way to Bavaria without the French noticing, at a pace that was not matched until the 1900s. The Imperials acted as the anvil for the Anglo-Dutch hammer. It helped that Eugen and Marlborough were personal friends, and had worked together before. They trusted each other implicitly. The result was one of the most impressive victories in all of the wars against Louis XIV.

As with almost all battles, especially ones of this size, the results were horrific. Civilians had been burned out of their homes along the English line of march, part of efforts to starve and disrupt the Bavarians enough that the Bavarian ruler would back out of the alliance with France. Wounded men burned to death in cottages in one of the villages. Men and horses died by the thousands. The results . . . are as Southey describes. The Thirty Years War would have been only three generations past, and the memories were refreshed by the War of the Spanish Succession. Early Modern armies were worse than locusts, floods, and fires combined. They carried waste, destruction, and plague with them, no matter how careful the commanders might be.

There are worse things than war. Not for the poor people caught between the armies, or those who starved because the Anglo-Dutch and Imperials burned their crops and devoured their livestock, no. But had Louis XIV captured Vienna . . . I really do not care to imagine Europe remade in Louis’ image, thank you. I give him about 90% of the blame for the messes he got into. He sent his armies into the field for his own personal glory, since that would reflect on France, and he was France, at least in his own mind. Louis is one of my least favorite historical characters and always has been.

I also have a very soft spot for Prinz Eugen von Savoy. It’s hard not to admire someone who managed to accomplish everything he pulled off, especially someone who does it on a Habsburg budget! And I can sympathize with the grudge he carried against Louis XIV. I admire Marlborough as well, for different reasons. Emperor Leopold I . . . played into Louis’ hands, and they were fighting over Spain. More precisely, which one would end up with offspring on the throne of Spain. No one asked the Spanish, of course. Leopold is also the one who bailed on Vienna in 1683 when the Ottomans came knocking on the door. Granted, he had a reason, but I’m not really a fan. He was pretty average as Habsburgs go, from what I can tell.

So, was the battle a waste and all for nothing, as Southey’s poem implies? If you were a Bavarian citizen, probably. In terms of stopping Louis XIV and blunting the Franco-Bavarian threat, it was critical. For the average trooper on any side, well, it was another battle, a chance for loot, perhaps, and one collision in a long war. The English were all volunteers, some of whom I have no doubt were “voluntold” by judges, relatives, or others that the man really needed to go fight on the Continent or Else. Others were German mercenaries, conscripts, volunteers, and who knows what.

Blenheim, looking back from a high historical vantage point, was important for a lot of people. But it didn’t make things better for anyone, aside perhaps from the people in Vienna who did not face another siege. That’s the problem with dynastic wars. You don’t really have a hero or villain, not like in WWII or Korea. I root for the Imperials just because I detest Louis XIV. Well, that and because of their commander.

Indeed, it was a famous victory.

*I had the chance to visit the battlefield, but opted not to because the people with me were not interested. I regret that a little.

Auris Vermis

So, there I was, sorting images to use for a lesson about the Roman Empire. And Kipling attacked.

Marching Song of a Roman Legion of the Later Empire

Enlarged From "Puck of Pook's Hill"

When I left Rome for Lalage's sake, By the Legions' Road to Rimini, She vowed her heart was mine to take With me and my shield to Rimini-- (Till the Eagles flew from Rimini--) And I've tramped Britain, and I've tramped Gaul And the Pontic shore where the snow-flakes fall As white as the neck of Lalage-- (As cold as the heart of Lalage!) And I've lost Britain, and I've lost Gaul, And I've lost Rome and, worst of all, I've lost Lalage! - When you go by the Via Aurelia As thousands have traveled before Remember the Luck of the Soldier Who never saw Rome any more! Oh, dear was the sweetheart that kissed him, And dear was the mother that bore; But his shield was picked up in the heather, And he never saw Rome any more! And he left Rome, etc. When you go by the Via Aurelia That runs from the City to Gaul, Remember the Luck of the Soldier Who rose to be master of all! He carried the sword and the buckler, He mounted his guard on the Wall, Till the Legions elected him Caesar, And he rose to be master of all! And he left Rome, etc. It's twenty-five marches to Narbo, It's forty-five more up the Rhone, And the end may be death in the heather Or life on an Emperor's throne. But whether the Eagles obey us, Or we go to the Ravens--alone, I'd sooner be Lalage's lover Than sit on an Emperor's throne! We've all left Rome for Lalage's sake, etc.

You see, I’ve hiked a lot of the Limes, the Roman frontier line in Germany, Austria, and a chunk of Hungary. I almost managed a detour to catch the bit in Slovakia, but the others balked at the distance off our intended path. And I’ve hummed a certain tune to Kipling’s words over a lot of those stadia et miles.

Auris vermis can translate either “worm of the ear” or “ear of the worm.” Ah, the joys of Third Declension, where context truly is everything.

Latin: a language that always is declining.

We Few, We Happy Few . . .

Today is the feast of Saint Crispin and Crispinian, patrons of cobblers, shoe-makers, and leather craftsmen, martyred during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian. it is probably better known among English-speakers for a battle that took place on this feast, and Shakespeare’s version of it. Other notable fights on this day came during Crimea (“Honor the charge they made,”) and Leyte Gulf. But it is the older battle most of us think of. Continue reading