Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BRITAIN'S DAUGHTER, by GORDON BOTTOMLEY

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

BRITAIN'S DAUGHTER, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: The rat is a sociable fellow
Last Line: Curtain


MADRON, a British peasant.
AN OLD MAN, a Briton.
A YOUNG MAN, a Briton.
PLACIDIUS, a Roman General.

NEST, a Princess of Britain.
WIDAN, her nurse.


The scene is in Britain at the period of the Roman subjugation of the country.

The scene is a sea-shore on the South-East coast of Britain at midnight. The
night is clear, with a few stars; the sea is still, except for the occasional
plash of a small wave at the water's edge and the occasional flash of a
star's reflection extended along a gathering ripple.
In the darkness the sterns of two Roman galleys make a darker mass at the
back to the left. In the right foreground rises a weedhung, salt-encrusted
mooring post.
A young woman, NEST, is tied by the wrists to a ring in the post
higher than her head: a pale, blood-bedabbled cloak hangs from her
shoulders and falls close to her body. At her feet an older
woman, WIDAN, crouches on her knees; she is covered
with a dark blue mantle that makes her almost invisible in the night; her head
is bent and her long, thick, grey hair falls forward over her face. A Roman
soldier stands on guard near the post, leaning on his spear.
The silence at the rising of the curtain is broken by a sob and a
short low cry from WINDAN.

THE SOLDIER sings in a rumbling undertone.
THE rat is a sociable fellow,
But I cannot abide his tail;
I like to hear the long bone crack
When my little dog's teeth get into his back. ...
The song is lost in a yawn. He addresses WIDAN.
Fat hen with no rump feathers,
When will you weary of squatting in your dusthole?
What will the other old women in the town
Think when they hear that, while they were in bed
Shivering lonely, or waking with cold bones
Of skinny husbands thrust against their sides,
You have been out all night with a fighting man?
Get home and leave your little princess to me.

WIDAN, raising her head and addressing NEST.
Nest, your silences stung them. Why will you brave them?
Why are you stubborn for these great-hearted ways?
What is the use? Yield, and live.
If you are lashed again you will not live.
Will you not save yourself? Then save others:
The last woes come upon us all at dawn.
Obedience is required from you in the end:
This is more bitter for you than for low beings,
Yet you must learn it. There's a hard place in life
When it is plain to everyone who is born
That something in another mind arises
Which he will need to obey, or life is checked:
Then wilfulness is only violence
Done against the indifferent nature of life.
These outland Romans will not kill us all
If you permit them to do their governing,
Which is so dear to them, over you and us.

Tall maiden, I have daughters in several places
I shall not see again, and the thought of them
Inundates me with a fatherly feeling.
The aged are all for caution, never for glory;
But they live longest: and low people know
They need one voice to utter their hearts, and one
To talk to mighty men with: women know
Submission only frees their natural force:
And soldiers do not fight unless they must.
Then yield and live in stillness here, or else
Either to Hades or to Rome you fare.
A silence follows, in which NEST thrice raises her
head wearily, as if she would address WIDAN: the third time she speaks.

What is the hour, nurse?
No, do not speak. I have no need to know,
For all that I must do is to endure.
Is it dark yet, or is the night in me?
Stars glow and pass too quickly in my eyes,
Sunsets or sudden dawns go out too soon.
All night a surf-bell tolls, yet none was there;
Or this continuing darkness is eternity
Where a great clock strikes one each hour for ever.
Is the tide rising? Am I to be drowned?
The high waves beat the earth; they shake my limbs.
Yet now they do not sound, though I still throb.

Your limbs shake? Will you fall?

I can stand for ever, unless my dim mind swoons.
But if I lose myself you must buttress me,
Or I shall tear my arm-strings that I need
While I have life and Romans tread my land.

I saved your clothes: shall I wet the linen
And lay it on your shoulders and your brow?

THE SOLDIER, pricking WIDAN with his spear as she is about to rise.
Granmam, lie down, or I shall make a hole in you
In a wrong place. Has not your tribe been told
By the centurion, by the general, and by me,
That no one is to finger this felon girl,
Or speak to her, or even step on her shadow,
Until she has been assessed and handed to fate?
I am loved and longed for in every garrison
Between here and Rome, being an easy man
Toward all sizes and patterns of petticoats;
And though you are foodless, coinless, roofless and shigged,
I am kind and have left you both without muzzle or bit
So long as you talked comfortabley to her,
Dripping good advice like a worn-out spigot
With the cask's lees behind it on her hard mind:
But humoured women are quick to go too far,
And now I see you'll loosen her ungratefully
And leave me her shoes to stand in for full pay:
So cower and hush, or go;
For when I must be strict I am always angered.

My bosom-piece, my Nestling,
Why would you light the bale-fires up again?
When, with the Queen, the hosts were overthrown
They accepted shame, they stooped i' the yoke; so now
They are being murdered after more defeat,
They are named dishonoured fighters and wordbreakers.
Call off the Western rally; tell the men
To get to their townships and to hide their arms;
Say that the beacons were raked up by witches,
That marsh-pooks bore the brand from farm to farm,
And you may be let live.
Obey, obey, and something can be saved.

Where is my mother the Queen?

WIDAN. She is dead.

Where is my elder sister, Widan?

WIDAN. Dead.

Where is my younger sister?

WIDAN. Dead. Dead. Dead.

Then I am changed; I have become a queen,
The Icenian queen, mysterious to myself.
You must not lesson or chide me, or call me child,
Or think because your pap has nourished me
That blood like yours runs in me untransformed;
For in the mixing of a queen and a king,
And doubly by the use of power, there stirs
A spark that turns the substance of the blood
To white ethereal fire most hard to thwart,
Harder to bear, and yet to be sustained.
I have no earthly kin; I stand alone,
I am not commensurate with human things.

I knew a woman once. ...

Obedience is the duty of each one,
But my obedience is a sterner passion
Than anything that others or you can know.
I have no protection, I am stripped and bared
To my own judgment with none to temper it;
The torment of clear vision is in my lot,
I must obey myself, I dare not flinch.
Am I unjust to make men fight and fail?
Injustice is the essence of discipline,
And when they are weary of failing, weary of woe,
Something will swell in them, their minds will change,
They will succeed: let them but be, with me,
Determined not to feel, and to obey:
Britain is holy: it is mine and theirs,
And we must keep the trust. The Western men
May reach us before dawn: if I could hear
The Western tidings. ...

THE SOLDIER. Once I knew a woman. ...

Midnight cannot be past: this is an hour
Of flittering ghosts and haunting. Tell me, nurse,
Are dead men free and potent on this edge,
Nor earth nor deep, where no life can take hold;
Or is't the very shore where they embark
For darkness? Tell me quickly, and get me loosed;
Then I can see my mother before dawn comes,
And hear her need and mine. Or do I hang
Upon the edge of sense, and shall I lose
The borders of being? Almost outside my eyes
I see a grey thin woman flap and sway
With skimming motions like an alighting bird's.
I cannot move my head to follow her.

No ghost walks nearer here than Maiden's Leap.
Has she white long hair?

NEST. Grey loose hair.

Mad Ellin wanders so upon this shore;
Yet she's no ghost, but only a girl gone grey.
By day she sleeps, by night she wanders so,
Looking at nothing, seeking her lost mind,
Her dead self.

NEST. It comes again: it starts,
Throws up its head like a frightened coney and checks:
Nurse, it can fly: it has gone!

THE SECOND SOLDIER, outside and at a little distance.
Tune up, you jades:
You had better not sulk when I speak pleasantly.

THE FIRST GIRL, also outside.
Kiss me quickly, my mother is coming, soldier.
A shrill unnatural laugh follows.
Two soldiers enter from the right rear, driving before them,
respectively, three and two girls with clothing and hair torn and
hands bound behind and held in long leashes of rope. THE FIRST
GIRL, in the group of three, carries herself gaily and
provocatively; the others are crying quietly.

Hoi, Brennus, what have you there?

THE SECOND SOLDIER. Forage, forage.

Whither away? Are you for ship-board now;
Or do you change the guard?

We are the ship-board guard;
We bring up reinforcements, like good soldiers.
Nights are too long; we tired of catching our fleas
And needed a nimbler hunt.

THE FIRST SOLDIER. Such soft wrappings
Are not for fighting men, who should lie roughly.
Keep one for me until my watch is past;
You do not need the nosegay.

Covetousness and envy among comrades are sins,
Greediness is a sin, and lust is a naughty sin:
Whisper to your trussed pullet there and leave our pickings to us.

Keep the red-haired one an hour or two for me—
The one with the jolly face, who leers at ill luck:
I have seen no damsel nearer my mind or size
Since last I went rat-catching on Tiber's bank.

Hearken to nuncle rambling in his mind:
He's an old man; he has a beard; he looks forty.

You are a fine woman: love me and leave me, if you like;
But do not undervalue me until you know me.

Aha, nuncle, are you there?
You are bow-legged; you are short of breath; you creak.
Go in and pull your night-cap over your ears,
Bandage your rheumatisms, and mottle your legs at the fire;
And learn your times are over.

THE SECOND SOLDIER, twitching her by her wristrope.
Animal, you speak to a Roman fighting man;
Be humble and obliging. And save your breath;
You may be short of it later.

Who is the woman, Widan?

Birgit's daughter Megg.

Megg, daughter of Birgit, I have heard.
Britain is bleeding, Britain is dying to-night,
And waiting for worse things than death at dawn:
The young men of our land, my land and yours,
Lie out on frozen mire, dying to-night:
Does one of them stare up at unseen stars
And think death would be well if you were saved?
Or were you always light and free with yourself,
Yielding yourself to a fancy or a bribe?
Then there are many men beneath this sky,
Whose blood runs out to enrich the soil they tilled,
Thinking kindly and gently of you, and how
Your body can multiply such bodies as theirs,
Renewing Britain's sap to fight again.
But you are japing with their murderers,
And too much love spills from your roving heart;
You love your enemies and anyone.
Our sacred uplands, this old reverend tide,
And young men's agonies thought of now and now
Should have a voice in you:
Though trapped and fangless you can find sharp stones.
To push between your ribs, and then to-night
Lie down unconquered as your lovers lie.

What have you to do with me, to command me,
To speak to me, child of the evil race?
I know when I am defeated: let me alone.
Shall I tell my enemy my heart with cries?
Shall I waste my blood as you waste others' blood?
If men must fight for Britain, women must live for Britain:
But your mother and her brood, the ruling women,
The mad fighting fools, who have poured us out
In their pride, in their high-handed magnanimity.
With noble gestures of their souls, with priceless passions,
Let them be brought to lamentation;
Let them discover they are not higher beings than women;
Let us be freed from the danger of their great vision;
Let them die, let them die, ere they ruin Britain again.
You Roman dog, snoring upon your spear,
Why do you covet my body when half the night
You have stood untroubled near this finer corpse?
We are all dead women, but still alive enough
To suffer. And she is royal: will that stir you?
At her; at her; be at her, and let her find
The need to laugh at her enemy, and the light
To tread our bitter path.

Megg, daughter of Birgit, I and you
Never spoke together before now,
And shall no more—so soon we must be stilled:
Speak to me if you wish, but spare yourself
My judgment on your quality; reject
The common, violent, ineffectual things
That no one needs to say.
Rain-drops from different heights fall side by side:
We might have sunk far down in British earth,
And turned to loveliness; but now we fall
Into a vagrant, barren, shapeless sea:
Yet even an ebbing tide preserves this land,
And when the certain flood sets in again
A greater wave shall fling our spirit up,
Our ardours reach their own, their aim, at last.
What I have done was done to serve our land
And its inheritors, not to serve you:
If your hard, helpless passion and ill will
Are for your country's griefs and not your own,
You have capacity, had you intent,
To know I have done well.
THE SECOND GIRL, one of the two and puny and
younger than all the others, bursts into more piteous
crying and stumbles forward to the length of her
rope, speaking between her sobs.

Rain-drops that fall? But we are blood-drops that fall:
Britain is bleeding, Britain is dying to-night
Because you broke the peace the Romans gave.
Or if we live we must bear Roman boys,
Bastards and serfs, to fight against our Britain;
Such evil mothers as your mother was
We must become, hatching broods to destroy it.
You have taken our youth from us, you have taken our age,
You have turned a nation into heaped refuse
To prove your foresight and your fortitude.
We lift our heads above the settling wrack
And laugh to see the ruin crush you too. ...
We laugh. ... We laugh. ...
Her words are lost in loud breath-catching sobs.

THE THIRD GIRL. Hearken, royal girl;
May your hard death sound thus in others' ears.

Hush, now she's Queen!

THE THIRD GIRL. Deliver us, Queen!

THE FIFTH GIRL. Shield us!

Beaten people are often eloquent,
Brennus; but there's no time for eloquence here.
Be off with your pecking cage-birds, for all this music
Will bring the captain of the guard upon us:
I see his lantern. Beside, we have learnt before
That a hen-fight never comes to anything.

True, true, O man of wisdom.

Come up, you beauties:
Good-night, old monument.

THE FIRST SOLDIER. Sleep well, my friends.
THE SECOND and THIRD SOLDIERS drive the girls forward again and ou
t to the left rear. There is a short silence.

THE SECOND GIRL, at a distance.
Mother, mother! O, no! I must not go.
Leave me: I cannot go.

Cut her down if she will not come quietly;
Or all the camp will know we left our station.

Get up, baby; stand up.
Again a silence.

Is she dead?

WIDAN, raising her head and peering into the darkness.
She is lying still.

If she is only wounded and not maimed
She could be sent into the Western hills
To fetch me tidings of the Western fight,
That is a fair hope yet. Someone must toil
To the far hills and back before the dawn,
And you are old and useless. Go to her.

She jerks all over: she is dying.

I liked the terms of her ingratitude,
Her passionate injustice and force of hate:
She loved our land too much to think of me.
She would have served: 'tis pity she is dead.
MADRON, a Briton, an elderly man, slips stealthily and swiftly from
the left front toward NEST, and begins to beat her on back and shoulders
with a belt which he carries in his hand.

If the Romans kill me to-night
I have lived as long as my hope:
The blood of the unjust Queen
Shall pay me again and again
For my discomfort of shame,
For the town's scorn pointed at me,
And the wrong and oppression done
For her country's sake.
If this were the old Queen's body
I would kill it again. ...
An involuntary low exclamation escapes from NEST at the first bl
ows, and she visibly braces herself to support MADRON'S assault in
Meanwhile WIDAN has sprung at his throat from her
crouching posture; he goes down under her, and she begins to strangle him.
Take care, you are choking me. ...
Princess. Princess, Princess,
Call off your old wild she-dog. ...
Will you let her kill me?

THE FIRST SOLDIER, who has been nodding on his spear.
Hey ... How ... Who ... Why ... What—When ... Where from. ...
He advances with his spear ready.
The old women of this nation fight better than the young:
We ought to have roped them too. If I were a marrying man
I would rather have the old cat than the kitten.
She needs no help: she's best let alone.
He retires and resumes his guard.

Let the man stand up, Widan.

WIDAN, preoccupied.
Hush, hush: leave me alone:
He will be quiet soon.

Let the man stand up, I say.
Live Britons, although rascals, are worth more
Than Britons dead by honest British hands.

Yes, deary; be patient; I am too stiff-jointed and old;
I cannot do things quickly as your thoughts do them;
But I am here because your will is mine.
I shall only bind him carefully lest he harms you.
As she speaks she kneels on MADRON'S neck and binds his hands
together with the belt he still holds. Then she rises and addresses him.
It is my lady's will you shall stand up:
And she must be obeyed ungrudgingly.
But if you hurt her again I shall hurt you more.

Now who are you, weak man who does by night
The things he plans but dare not do by day?
What is your name? And are you of my race?

MADRON, rising with difficulty.
I am called Madron the Potter.
I come from the next township.

I am a Briton too: are you my foe?
Why would you injure me? Your enemies
Already blemish me and wound my heart
In more unbearable and dreadful ways
Than you were born to dream of or to do:
May not these griefs prove that I am your friend?

What virtue, reward, or profit is there now
In being a Briton? Roman hands are heavy;
So they can truly guide, they can protect.
The Romans have unlearned your childish folly
Of fighting for pleasure, for healthfulness or pride;
They advance their battle to spread the Roman peace,
The Roman order. We shall live better as Romans,
And safe from your ungovernable kind.
You are to be forgotten in quiet years;
But bitterness is in me and must out
For your hard mother's chill injustice done
When I was beaten on three market days
Where the whole countryside could see and hear.
I have prayed that my intolerable feelings
And impotence to ignore them might renew
Their force in her and her high fatherless girls:
So now my peasant mind and hands rejoice,
Repeating ruin on your helplessness.

You mean that the just Queen once punished you
Against some limit of law, reason or truth?
Potters were not often known to her:
Tell me, how did she find that you exist?

I drove a beast in milk from her full pastures
Because her foraging fighters threatened me
And took my only cow.
Yet but an hour before I had believed
I should give more and heartily for her,
Thinking blindly that I was free to give.

Then, Madron, you were whipped for being a thief.
Have you made me a thief by whipping me?
If our protectors' needs had left you free
Would Britain now be free?
Just blows have left a sore place in your mind,
Which shews unease of thought not found in me.
You cannot make me feel your festering shame,
And if it comforts and inspirits you
To hurt me more than any Roman can
You shall cut my back again, if, when you have done,
You will this night act in one thing for me
On which Britain's recovery may turn.
Nurse, loose his arms; give him his thong again,
And let him lay on quickly.

I cannot find the fastening in this light.
He is so safe: I dare not loose him now.

Disloyal, be my hands or go from me.

You know I must not go.
As she is fumbling with MADRON'S bonds, three women swathed in
dark blue cloaks enter from the right rear.

Is this the spot?

Is that the girl?


She looks taller.

She is stretched.

THE FIRST WOMAN. But not enough.
They laugh.

We shall hear all here.

But shall we see her face?
When do they start on her again?


The cold strikes through my shoes: even on the sands
The rime is thick. The rime will settle on us,
The frost will reach our bone-pith before dawn comes.
I shall have a stiff stomach for a week.

You should have brought two cloaks.

My house is full of drunken Roman men
Who throw their arms around my empty meadvat.

At the top of the street I passed a dead woman
Wearing good clothes. I pared off her skirt and leg-cloths,
And donned them over my own.

We can keep warm if we cower close together.
They seat them selves on the earth between NEST and the back
of the scene, huddling near each other and hunching their knees under
their chins, a dark indistinct mass in which only three pale faces
are clearly visible.

Where is he? Does he fear my blood at last?
Dullard, begin; begin.

MADRON, released by WIDAN.
I have not seen such mettle in a girl.
My lasses are flinchers and wheedlers and all for themselves.
Delicate meats, soft clothing and warm fur,
The eagerness of hunting, and gold that frees
From long toil and subservience, seem to breed
A generous and daring freedom of spirit
That more might share if more were favoured so.
Maiden, the keenness of your soul can hurt,
Though not your pride or state, not your steeled mind:
Life is fair and an opening wonder in you:
I will not touch you; I will serve life in you,
Though not your state, if you will tell your need.

By Arvodun and Meirodun go forth,
Keep on by Ford of Tain and the Wood of Blaen,
By Giants' Pound and Weirstone and the Beacon;
Look for my Western men and get their news,
Find if their battle is joined and say to them
That we are ruined here and look to them.

Where will you be to-morrow?

NEST. I do not know.

I'll find a horse and come again with the dawn.
He turns to go, then returns.
Give me your pardon: I respect your passive power: I am grieved I touched you.

Do what I ask: your deed will pardon you.
MADRON goes out to the right, passing in front of THE FIRST
SOLDIER, who has for some time again been nodding on his spear.

Where will she be to-morrow?

They will leave the body here.

That man's wise thoughts will never lead to acts.
Men are so full of sentiments; a flush of feeling
Can turn them at a touch to mistrust or shirk reason,
Keen and cool reason that leads to irresistible deeds
In women who can hate. But the man was right:
We are like the bees that are so poorly bred
They are neither men nor women, and like them
We fadge us a queen out of such stuff as ourselves
By too much feeding that makes hot and hasty blood,
By warm cradling, blind respect, and make-be-lieve
That what we have raised above us is better than ourselves:
But we lack the bees' sense, who, when they hatch too many queen-grubs
Kill them all off save one. That might have spared this ruin.

Better one than many: but better none o' this kind than one.

Women, who are ye? What do ye seek from me?

What does she say?

She is asking what we seek.

I seek my two sons: would she pay me for them?
What do you seek?

THE THIRD WOMAN. I seek my sick husband:
I cannot find the house where he lay. Has she seen it?

Ye are burdened with grief alone: I am spent with fear:
Your men are only dead: I seek my daughter.
Prayers run round in my mind all night apart from me
That I may behold her fate if I watch the Queen's daughter.

WIDAN, again seated at the feet of NEST.
I know you: I know you now: henceforth you are marked.
Ah, selfish beings, it is such things as you
Who make men think that women have no souls.
What are your little losses to my lady's,
Who has lost a queen for mother and a kingdom?
Respect her silence. Get on with your laments:
A bleating cow soonest forgets its calf.

Who is it?

Widan, the old Queen's go-between.

She was once a poor man's daughter, but the great ones
Have hardened her heart with comfort, and with their leavings
Have weighed down her mind against her despised kind.

You speak too loudly. There are footsteps. Some-one comes.

THE THIRD WOMAN, turning her head toward the right rear.
Only Mad Ell n is there.

Is she out in a night like this? Then ruin impends.
My sons say she's no woman, but a sea-bird
That flies to earth and hides in an earth-born shape
From a following storm of the evil force in darkness.
ELLIN enters from the right rear: her supple and flitting
motion, slim figure, and delicate features are those of youth, but
her hair, that falls loose beyond her waist, is grey. A scanty,
grey woollen gown that reaches to her ankles, her hair, and the cold pallor of
her features and bare feet, make her seem as if a film of hoar frost covers

ELLIN, to herself and as if she thinks she is alone.
Ellin must find the little wolves
And dwell with them in the farther hills:
There are live men everywhere to-night
And she cannot hear her thoughts for their thoughts.
They have frightened the dead into vanishment
From their foothold between the earth and the sea,
Who will need no more to walk with Ellin
But will be content with the lately dead
And will dread this sounding place for ever.

Ellin, Ellin, why are you out to-night?

Angry Widan, what are you doing?
Why are you always angry with Ellin?

Why are you out to-night?
What is your sister doing?

Dilys drove Ellin out of doors:
She is left alone with an iron man.
Ellin has come to her little one
That once was a baby crumpled and warm
Before you put it into this sea
When waves sprang high. A wild wind brought it
Back to her breast like a wide-winged gull:
It seeks her here on the moony nights.
She aches to find it safe to-night.
Let Ellin go: why, why are you here?

Widan, this inhuman happy voice
Which chills me is that of a woman younger than I;
And yet she says a wicked thing of you.
What does she mean? What can you know of her?
Come here, poor girl.

ELLIN, noticing NEST.
What is a girl doing there?
Why is she reaching up into the sky?
Ah, cruel Widan, you have tied her.
Has she been naughty? What have you done?
When Ellin was naughty you tied her so.

Come here, strange girl.

No. Ellin is afraid of you.
You smell of blood. What is under your cloak?
A child's crying is heard, intermittent and approaching.

Obey, Ellin: a divine presence speaks,
A daughter of our gods speaks here to you.
This was the Princess Nest, and is now the Queen.

There is the child again: it has followed us.

You should have gathered it up and carried it
Under your two warm cloaks.

My slack arms could not hold it: I have not eaten
For a night and a day and a night.

Everyone in that house was dead but the child:
What can we do with it? Can we save ourselves?
It will die to-morrow: it had better die to-night
Easily in the frost. Do not notice it,
Or it will come to us.

She cannot be a god or queen
If she can be tied up or whipped:
And if she had ever been a queen
Bonds and defilement of her blood
Would make of her a common woman
Subject to men and feared no more.
At the beginning of this speech a very young child is seen to
pass slowly and hesitantly from right to left across the back of the
scene, close to the water's edge. As its faint, fitful crying comes
nearer it attracts ELLIN'S attention.
Ellin's little one, Ellin's daughter
Seeks her in the night of fear;
Wingless and helpless she returns,
Escaping from the jealous sea-birds,
Gently floated 'twixt darkness and tide;
Small enough to fit the bosom
Of Ellin, with tiny spread hands that are fainter
Than wing-feathers, breast-feathers, neck-feathers, down,
Yet quick and quiet and fluttering and grown,
And a creeping, tender voice of her own.
Lullaby-by, a-by;
Lùll, lùll, lùll-lullaby.
While speaking she has gone to the child with a
dainty, swift, swooping motion, and taken it into her arms.
As she finishes speaking she disappears with it quickly by the way she came.

What is this of a child? Have you done dark things?

Ellin's my sister's girl: she was born simple:
She conceived a child unknown, to an unknown sire,
Dropping it in the wildwood, nursing it there.
She fouled the scent of a wolf for the Queen's hunt;
The huntsmen found her and the Queen said
If idiots might breed idiots when they would
Her land would be over-run: the child must die.
I pleaded for it, and she bade me drown it.
My kin misjudged me for my dutifulness:
Do not misjudge me now.

Ay, what a Queen was that: the earth was hers
To idealize, judge, improve and cut to waste.
Poor folk and poor folks' brats have been to her
Like maggots in cheese, to be smeared off at her will.

Women, put by your grudges and griefs and spites:
Be all Icenian till our country is free.
The watchman sleeps: help me to loose our Queen
And get her to the shelter of a wood,
The safety of a cave, where she can gather
Spent men and hearten them again to conquest
And lead a force thence to the Western men.
Do this, and I shall pledge her word and mine
That when she has driven out the Roman pack
The nation in assize shall probe and judge
Her deeds, her aspirations, and your wrongs,
Before she shall have leave to rule again,
Dispose of lives, or quarrel in our names.

NEST, shrieking and wailing abruptly.
Aia! Aia! Aiaha! Nurse! O, nurse!
A bat is in my hair! Deliver me:
Come to me: come quickly: it is cold and creeps:
It is wet and slimes my neck: will you never come?
A shivering moan each time she breathes shews that she is shaking
all over: she swings her hanging locks, throwing her head back repeatedly,
drags at her bonds, and stamps repeatedly like a startled thoroughbred

WIDAN, starting up.
Yes, child, I will.

THE FIRST SOLDIER, having awakened at NEST'S cries. Get down:
have I not warned you?

NEST, shivering convulsively all the time she speaks.
Yes, yes, she will obey: and then, good Roman,
Will you not help me and ease me? I will entreat you.
Hasten; now, now: come, touch me without awe,
And tear the bat from under my hair. ...
ELLIN enters from the right rear during NEST'S speech, and runs
lightly to her.

ELLIN, disentangling something from NEST'S hair.
Can terror shake the smallest queen?
You are no more than a very tall child
Crying for fear of the dark and its people
Of wings and gentle presences.
Look: be ashamed of your noisy dread
Of this dear little mouse with wings who sought
To sleep all day beneath your hair
For love of your savour and company. ...
Another! Friend bat, it is time to fly.
The Roman general, PLACIDIUS, has entered behind the FIRST
SOLDIER during ELLIN'S speech: she perceives him at the last line
but one, and straightway glides out by the way she came, launching the
bat in the air with a graceful upward sweep of her arm as she goes.

What is this scuffling and wild crying, sentry?
Have you laid hands upon the prisoner,
Against the order?

THE FIRST SOLDIER, presenting arms.
I have not touched her, Sir;
Although she has encouraged me to approach her.
She seems to be a maid of a timorous strain,
Who has overgrown her strength or is shaken with handling;
She cried aloud for fear of a bat in her hair,
Till a lunatic girl, with the cunning of her kind,
Crept past my guard and took it away and soothed her.

Madwomen and bats? A trick to rescue her.
Clear this forbidden ground: drive off these mourners,
Whose still compassion saps our stern effect
Upon the pattern of dishonour here.

Great sir, I beseech you,
Let me stay with my mistress while she is here:
I will kneel apart and speechless. ...

THE FIRST SOLDIER, striking her with the butt of his spear. Be
off, old hen.
And you, mother, and you; get up, get gone.
He drives away WIDAN, who goes out to the left
front; then he attacks the other women, and drives them
toward the right rear, whence they eventually disappear.

THE FIRST WOMAN, as she goes.
Ahoo! Ahoo! Where can we go to now!

THE THIRD WOMAN, as she goes.
Magil, will you not wait for me? Will you not help me?
Magil, Magil!

THE SECOND WOMAN, approaching and cringing to PLACIDIUS.
Sir, I have lost my sons:
Grant me a little food. I have lost two sons,
And yet I cannot think of them or grieve,
Being hungry and thirsty and hungry: I can but smell
Smoked beef and apples and honey-bread all night. ...

THE FIRST SOLDIER, beating her away.
Flap away after your cletch, and cackle to them.
She follows the others out.

Sentry, you are relieved: I take your watch,
You are not trusty: go to the Queen's High House
Under arrest, and await me.


THE FIRST SOLDIER salutes and goes out to the right front.

Be just, Placidius, to a luckless man
Who did such duty as he could conceive.
No cold oppression and fierce discipline
Can put our tension and tempered quality
In slack minds and blunt nerves of base-born men.

An enemy's compassion hurts him most:
He shall be sound again for the next battle.
But what of the wild Princess and her fault?
And what shall heal her honour but her knife?
This kingdom you have won by hardihood
Is narrow, but your kingdom of to-morrow
Will be more narrow: beneath your veil of night
The frost has strung cold jewels in your mane,
But when the night's dark mercy is stripped from you
More darkness and more cold will enter you. ...

What do you wish to say?

This: with the slow, inevitable dawn
An army awakes to a thought of death for you:
It will not be an easy or swift death,
And memories of devotion bring me now
To cut your bonds and lend you a Roman sword,
If you have fortitude to fall on it
And die before your time, your appointed time,
As many have died for you ...

NEST. Or otherwise?

If love with a sharp sword and hard aspect
Seems worthier to you than love once seemed
Muffled in deference, hushed in a Queen's house,
And you will take my love, it can be strong
To arrest you wavering down the gulf of death
Like a torn leaf: you shall be sent to Rome,
To kind captivity with a trusty lady,
Until I can return to you and turn
Your bondage to a name ...

You were once envoy at my Mother's court,
And ate her bread: I would not spouse you then,
For all your sleek words and your Roman pride;
So shall I now be ready for that name
Of Roman wife, when guesthood's holiness
Is desecrated, my clear, reverend blood
Polluted with Latin thongs of gross beasts' hides,
My naked limbs soiled with ten thousand eyes?

It is not to be thought of that a slave
From a defeated and subjected race,
Whose body is blemished by the Roman justice,
Could be a Roman's wife.
I owed it to my men
That in their sight your falseness and marred faith
Should cost you much, for it has cost them much:
Yet when I heard you sing aloud for battle,
And when I saw you twisting, dumb with stripes,
Your voice had power in me, your silence hurt:
If you will but submit, and go to Rome,
You shall not lack consideration long,
Grave and honourable and sweet and sure.

Beings that can conquer and rule, I learn too late,
Are ignorant of the motions of man's mind.
When I am dead
My cromlech, or charred ash upon the site
Of the savage Roman rite of corpse-burning,
Is hallowed for the offspring of the soil;
I shall be here for ever in their minds,
The god-folk's plan of Britain will lighten there,
I shall defeat you by unborn hands in the end.

Nest, will you die for a thought?
You should be mother to a fighter's sons.
Submit, and let us wed in Britain here.
As he speaks, NEST is listening with
averted head as if to something far away; then she
begins to cry quietly and hopelessly.

NEST, in the low voice of her continuing weeping.
Nursy, do you hear it? Hush, hush and listen!
It is there again: the cubs on Morning Side
Are wakeful in the starlight, playing and whining
Before their earth, the vixen watching them. ...
I shall never, never hear them any more,
Or scent them in the down-hill Autumn wind. ...

Is exile darker to her than slow death is?
A YOUNG CENTURION enters from the right front.

Get to your station, sentinel; you misuse
Your duty; you are here to prevent speech
With this fierce, tethered woman. ...

PLACIDIUS. Whom do you seek?

Give me your pardon, Sir. I am sent to you:
I have sought you at every outpost with much news.
The Western rabble is captainless and broken,
It has melted like earth-ramparts in a flood,
There is nothing left to pursue. ...

NEST. Romans, O kill me now.

Tidings of insurrection in North Gaul
Met face to face with these upon your threshold:
You are asked for any troops that can be sent.

There is here no more to do: five hundred men
Can garrison this arrogant kingdom now:
Hasten, embark the rest with the first light.

If we must wait for daylight a tide is lost.
The shipmasters advise that in an hour
The galleys will float; in two the ebb will come.

Then fire the rest of the village for your torch.
Are any foes left there?

THE CENTURION. Not fighting men,
But grey-beards, bedridden, maimed, idiots and babes.

The old women of the tribe will think of them.
Choose all the comeliest of the younger women,
Herd them down to the ships before the troops,
And get them under hatches first: send men
To loose this queenling and ship her too to Gaul.
I will come with you: there are other orders.
together by the right front.

Britain, dear land, my land, I am not one
To mouth my passion for you in other ears:
I have not crept to you for self's mean ends,
Base use, foul warmth, like fleas in a dog's coat,
Serfs in a Queen's house: I am a child
Of your beneficent spirit, O my still earth;
I have gone up from you like a still tree,
In soaring contemplation looking down,
At one with you by sap and breath-stirred thoughts;
And when my root is cut I shall not live.
And you, O nearer Mother and my source,
Mabyn and Guenliam my sisters true,
I have failed you; if I had been more eager to die,
More willing to go from Britain as you have gone,
I might at least have slept unconquered here,
I might have conquered: a mindless, moon-marred girl
Has put me from a throne in my own mind,
Shewing me myself made common by new fear;
And then I lost my freedom's latest hope:
I cannot die for Britain now, nor be
Of your dread fellowship again; alone,
Alone I must go forth, not to death or life
But to a waste between them, not to be borne.
Mother and sisters and O land, my land,
Forgive me for my agony's sake. Farewell.
While NEST is speaking WIDAN
enters stealthily from the left front; she moves warily toward NEST, unti
l, when NEST'S speech is near its close, she is kneeling at NEST'S
feet, bowing over them and clasping them, her body heaving and shaking soundl
In the meantime a ruddy glow has appeared at the right, increasing
until it has become a deep glare which illuminates the shore, the waters
and the ships, leaving only the sky still dark.
A confused, continuous, indistinguishable clamour, in which
women's voices predominate, is heard. It grows and approaches: then straggling
women run across the stage from the right toward the ships, followed by more
and more, until the shore is almost covered with a tossing, shouting,
wailing crowd of many women, a few halt or bandaged men, and some old people; m
any are in disordered dress, many are in night-clothes, some are half dressed
with bare backs or shoulders gleaming in the fiery light. They are followed
by Roman pikemen, who drive them forward.

A YOUNG SOLDIER, urging onward ENNID, a woman with a baby in her arms.
Put down the child, or I must throw it down:
No woman needs to carry a babe to Rome.

Sir, let me take him with me; let me keep him;
He needs no food but that which my love yields him.
I will give all that you can ask, if I may keep him.

If you will lay it down, it may well live;
If I must throw it down it will die.

AN OLD MAN, stepping forward and touching
ENNID'S arm. Young mother,
War is a surging among blind elements;
It cannot hear you; you cannot strive with it.
Trust me; give me your child, and it shall live,
And I will care for it.

ENNID, in intervals of kissing the child from head to foot. His name is
Tell him my name was Ennid, that I was young,
And that I'll walk the world and come again.
What is your name?

THE OLD MAN. Cadvan.

ENNID. My heart will remember.
I will obey you, sir; let my mind halt
And veer to such an unbelievable thing.
Why must you hasten? The others are not yet shipped.
Let me give him his morning milk before I go.

If you can do it quickly you may do it.
ENNID tears her dress open to the waist with a single movement,
and, putting her baby to her breast, kneels between the OLD MAN and
the SOLDIER, and rocks backward and forward slightly.
A SOLDIER with a sword elbows his way toward NEST, and
hacks at the cords which bind her hands to the post.

WIDAN, starting to her feet.
Her hands! O, spare her hands.
The cords are servered: NEST falls to the ground like a shed garm
Ah, ah, you have hurt her; you have killed her, you.
She kneels by the side of NEST and raises her in her arms.
What has he done to you, my heart's first clothing?

THE SOLDIER, pricking NEST with his sword.
Up! Up! March to the ships. Stir, or I'll stir you.

NEST, putting WIDAN aside and rising with difficulty.
Nurse, do not touch me. I must go alone.
Follow me if you can.
She balances herself uncertainly an instant, then steps forward into
the crowd and disappears, followed by WIDAN and the SOLDIER.
As the crowd drifts out to the left, toward the ships, new comers
pour in from the right. Among them is an OLD WOMAN clawing a YOUNG
WOMAN'S shoulder, and growling like a dog. The YOUNG WOMAN breaks
away, grasping the bodice of her dress.

Why did I bear you for shamelessness and greed. ...
You have struck your mother: may you have leper's hands. ...
Give me my shoulder-brooches. Unbosom them.

What kind of a mother are you? You are done:
You muffle your withering neck, and need no adornments.
Your mother gave them to you: it is my turn,
And yet you grudge me all you can do for me now,
When I must go to exile among strange men.
She makes a derisive gesture and plunges into the crowd: the OLD WOM
AN follows her with a cry.

I can wait no more. Have done: there is no other way.

Must it be now?
She takes her child from her breast, and, averting herself, holds it
out backward to the OLD MAN, who receives it.
Take him, old father; take him and hide him from me.
She stands for a moment with empty, unmoving arms, then stumbles
away blindly into the crowd.
The YOUNG SOLDIER follows her.
ELLIN appears on the prow of the foremost ship: the veiling
pallor of her appearance is lost in the irradiating fireglow: the
unseen flames are glassed in her wide eyes.

ELLIN, extending imploring arms.
Ellin dreads this moving water,
This shifting floor; take her to shore.
The souls on the waters will cry for Ellin,
To share her body;
She wrings her hands.
And she must not go from here,
For her little one, her dear,
Has found its body again,
And she has left it here.
She has not learnt to walk upon water,
Take her with you, take her away;
Or she cannot sleep with stones again
And wait until her child is seen.
The light suddenly brightnes; she claps her hands and points.
Look; look, what flames
Leap from men's hearts
As a nation consumes;
Upward we yearn for escape
With spiritual limbs of fire,
And when they fail with the flame
Hearts' ashes will whisper to night,
Night of our earth, of our home. ...

A SAILOR, starting up behind ELLIN, throwing an arm round
her, and dragging her backward out of sight.
Come down, white owl, come down.
NEST steps on to the prow in ELLIN'S place,
gathering her cloak about her with one hand.
The general uproar takes on an angry sound, and
separate cries are heard.
There is our enemy. ... Betrayer. ... Wolf. ...
She knew how to save herself. ... she dare not stay here. ...
She has sold us to the Romans and shelters with them. ...
She has ruined us and forsakes us. ... She will escape us. ...
Night-hag. ... Traitress. ... Untrue. ...

NEST, making a gesture for silence.
Hear me.
I have not a defence left to me
Against a foe: I do not need one now:
There is no more defeat that I can feel.
Why will you spit in a dead woman's face,
Affront the unburied, sting the cold quiet heart,
Gash the unhappy dead? I go from you;
I shall not more offend you though you shew mercy.
Yet I will not belittle my intention,
Or any deeds of mine. Britain is lost,
But not my love has lost it, not my devotion:
A tide of ruin has come over us,
And I, who strung myself to stand against it
And let it spend itself on me, have gone
Down with weak foothold and wave-weighted head:
But that is not my sin. Hear me again:
Hereafter hear me in your memories:

A SAILOR, unseen.
Laggards, weigh, weigh the anchor; the flood is here.
Tune up and haul on the cable.
A sound of trampling feet follows.

NEST, continuing.
When your new servitude is heavy and old,
And you tell over its cause and speak of me,
Say that I might have slipt past misery
By delicate dishonour and loosening ease,
But that I went alone to an unknown country,
An unknown servitude, an unknown end,
And that I once was Britain's daughter: then
You will bethink you that a state of Britain
Has been unbuilt, that it had once been built
And can be built again. Remember. Britain. ...
She puts her hands to her head, reels, and
falls backward in a swoon.

A SECOND SAILOR, singing unseen.
Hannibal was a man of Carthage;
Hoi! Hoi! Does the anchor stir?

A town of towers and too much wharfage:
Hoi! Hoi! There is weed on her.
Hannibal tried to travel to Rome,
The heart of the world, where all would come;
But he never saw Rome, and he never saw home.
Hannibal! Hannibal! Hoihoihoi!
WIDAN crouches on the deck and takes NEST into her arms during th
e singing.

Her royal tricks and her royal words again
Will cheat us if we listen: shut your ears,
Britons, shut your minds until she too
Does this duty to Britain she preaches about
And rids the land and us of the last of her blood.
Young women of Britain, look on my miserableness
And all this ruined place, and learn by it
What comes to a nation when a forward daughter
Thinks she was born to mend her mother's blunders.
If the old Queen had lived we should have won;
Nothing uncomfortable would have happened to us;
We should not now be sport to our green daughters.

THE YOUNG WOMAN, in the ship and leaning over the side.
That is my mother: tie up her head in her petticoat,
To-night she has sold her daughter to save herself.
We should do well enough if we had no mothers:
The old Queen dared the Romans and dashed us down,
But her poor daughter, whose spirit has here given way,
Did what she could to save us; she is young
And has her sense in her and is not addled
By carnal subservience and chewed fireside wisdom.

A SAILOR, unseen.
She floats!

She moves! Out with the starboard sweeps;
And fend her from the other ship. Look out!

A YOUNG MAN, wounded and bandaged.
It is too true; this bleached uncouraged girl
Was yesterday a flame that could deface,
A sudden storm that could drive down our foes.
Icenians, it is hard to all of us
To stay alive to-night: it is more hard
To this unpractised Queen: she has proved herself
Within the minds of all who fought for her,
Yet she is made a subject by strange men,
And she must go alone to be despised,
Even to become unknown, and yet to live.
I say to her against your heartless cries
Farewell, queenly and lovely in my mind,
Farewell and come again before old age
Takes all your comrades and puts out the eyes
That saw you in your pride: we are your kingdom.
Daughter of Britain, farewell.

Farewell! Farewell!

NEST, raising herself in WIDAN'S arms.
What voice of kindness breaks and shortly ceases,
Like music when a door is opened and shut?
Where am I, nurse? I have been absent, I
Have come again to Britain from a place
That did not know me; for I heard but now
A British voice again at last, at last.
Yet someone said "Farewell. ..."

A GIRL, from the ship and unseen.
The ship is going! O, O, O!

Nurse, do not answer me: I do remember.
O you, unknown and nameless and my friend,
When I have reached that place where no man's speech
Means anything and sound has no more use,
I will not learn their inexpressive words,
I'll break the inmost kernels of my ears
To hold within unmixed your living voice
That joins me now to Britain and its men,
And sends me out in membership to insults
For Britain's sake, accepted and secure
On my dead throne, to be excused and loved
As weaklings are, losers and failures are
When they are dead. Farewell.

THE MEN. Farewell!

NEST. Farewell,
Dear land, my land.


NEST. Farewell!
NEST'S galley, which has been moving gradually throughout her
speech, disappears to the left during her last words: the other galley
follows it.

THE MEN AND SOME WOMEN, hurrying off to the left after the
galleys. Farewell!

Would the fools wade to Rome after the chit?

A shipful of young women is sure to draw
Men after it: but this is a welcome ship,
Relieving us of all the pushing things
Who have grown up too quickly and jostled us.
Follow the men to the Ness: when the ship has gone
And they feel lonely they will take our comfort.

Call out "Farewell, farewell"; it will please the men.

THE REMAINING WOMEN, mechanically and meaninglessly as
they run out in the wake of the men.
Farewell, farewell, farewell.
As the stage empties CADVAN is seen to
be cowering at the foot of the mooring-post with
ENNID'S baby in his arms.

There is no conqueror except the earth:
The Roman lords will stay too long in Britain,
Whose water and inbreathed air and soil-borne fruit
Shall in the darkness of their inwards change
Their secret seed into such British sparks
As those that spread a running fire in ling:
Not Rome but Britain shall be strong by them.
It will be so: but what is that to me?
To-night my sinking helpless country lies
In the cold ruins of its shrunken past,
As in the trembling arms and shrivelled breast
Of an old failing man a little child
Lies ignorantly and blindly feels for dugs
That do not nourish it.
The little child, restless within my breast,
I cannot nourish yet or much protect;
I am a houseless wifeless aged man;
When men must save themselves I can do little;
I can but sit, although the child may die,
And wait for pity and help, and if it weeps
Whimper with it amid this night of woe
For Britain that is like a friendless child.
He bows himself over the child and sob in a high quavering voice li
ke an old woman's.


Other Poems of Interest...

Home: PoetryExplorer.net