Because of a project I’m working on right now, I looked up Ezra Pound’s “Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” which I had accused him, in December 2016’s post, of employing “the kind of fake folk style that John Mason Neale abused in his carol Good King Wenceslas” in its writing. I still think there’s a fakeness to the poem, in that I find it nearly impossible to read aloud while honoring all of Pound’s elisions and abbreviations — which I should be able to do in a poem from the oral tradition. But it’s such a fine poem. Here — give it a try, aloud:
Ballad of the Goodly Fere
Simon Zelotes speaketh it somewhile after the Crucifixion.[i]
Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.
When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.
Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.
Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.
I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.
They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.
If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”
“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”
A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.
He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,
Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.
A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.
I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.[ii]
This ballad stanza features a four-stress line, followed by a three-stress line, with a rhyme on the short lines. It uses archaic diction, such as “twey” for “two,” or “fere,” which means “mate” in the sense of spouse, or “companion” in the sense of fellow traveler. Merriam-Webster gives it this etymology: “Middle English, from Old English gefēra; akin to Old English faran to go, travel — more at fare.”[iii] So this is an old form, though not as old as that word, and one easily adapted. In fact, Pound seems to me to be using a special case of ballad, the ballad about the hanged criminal, more popular in the 17th century in the form of the broadside, somewhat like the contemporary narcocorrido. The Goodly Fere was, after all, a criminal in Roman law.
I wondered whether Frost or Eliot had written any such ballads. You may recall that I closed the December post with a short poem by Emily Dickinson. Hers is in common meter, of which this ballad meter is a subset. So this is no innovation by Pound. In fact, as Wikipedia defines it, “Ballad metre is ‘less regular and more conversational’ than common metre,” citing the Britannica Online Encyclopedia[iv]. So this is a common enough meter, but I found no equivalent folk ballads in Frost and Eliot.
Not that Frost did not use the ballad stanza. He used it all the time, but rarely for what you would call a ballad. Here’s an example (and note that this is only loosely iambic):
A Record Stride
In a Vermont bedroom closet
With a door of two broad boards
And for back wall a crumbling old chimney
(And that’s what their toes are towards),
I have a pair of shoes standing,
Old rivals of sagging leather,
Who once kept surpassing each other,
But now live even together.
They listen for me in the bedroom
To ask me a thing or two
About who is too old to go walking,
With too much stress on the who.
I wet one last year at Montauk
For a hat I had to save.
The other I wet at the Cliff House
In an extra-vagant wave.
Two entirely different grandchildren
Got me into my double adventure.
But when they grow up and can read this
I hope they won’t take it for censure.
I touch my tongue to the shoes now
And unless my sense is at fault,
On one I can taste Atlantic,
On the other Pacific, salt.
One foot in each great ocean
Is a record stride or stretch.
The authentic shoes it was made in
I should sell for what they would fetch.
But instead I proudly devote them
To my museum and muse;
So the thick-skins needn’t act thin-skinned
About being past-active shoes.
And I ask all to try to forgive me
For being as over-elated
As if I had measured the country
And got the United States stated.[v]
Cliff House is a restaurant in San Francisco[vi], Frost’s birthplace. I like this poem because it is whimsical, clever and commonplace — a perfect fit for common meter. It is, moreover, from the collection A further range, published in 1936 when Frost was 62, for which he won his third Pulitzer Prize in 1937[vii].
Eliot’s contribution to this balladry drill, even more whimsical, is in another variant of Common Meter, the fourteener, a loosely iambic rhymed couplet of fourteen syllables — essentially the common meter with the 2nd line added to the 1st, and the 4th to the 3rd. Here is Eliot’s entry:
Macavity: The Mystery Cat
Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw—
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!
***Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
He’s broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime—Macavity’s not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air—
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity’s not there!
***Macavity’s a ginger cat, he’s very tall and thin;
You would know him if you saw him, for his eyes are sunken in.
His brow is deeply lined with thought, his head is highly domed;
His coat is dusty from neglect, his whiskers are uncombed.
He sways his head from side to side, with movements like a snake;
And when you think he’s half asleep, he’s always wide awake.
***Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
For he’s a fiend in feline shape, a monster of depravity.
You may meet him in a by-street, you may see him in the square—
But when a crime’s discovered, then Macavity’s not there!
***He’s outwardly respectable. (They say he cheats at cards.)
And his footprints are not found in any file of Scotland Yard’s.
And when the larder’s looted, or the jewel-case is rifled,
Or when the milk is missing, or another Peke’s been stifled,
Or the greenhouse glass is broken, and the trellis past repair—
Ay, there’s the wonder of the thing! Macavity’s not there!
***And when the Foreign Office finds a Treaty’s gone astray,
Or the Admiralty lose some plans and drawings by the way,
There may be a scrap of paper in the hall or on the stair—
But it’s useless of investigate—Macavity’s not there!
And when the loss has been disclosed, the Secret Service say:
“It must have been Macavity!” —but he’s a mile away.
You’ll be sure to find him resting, or a-licking of his thumbs,
Or engaged in doing complicated long division sums.
***Macavity, Macavity, there’s no one like Macavity,
There never was a Cat of such deceitfulness and suavity.
He always has an alibi, and one or two to spare:
And whatever time the deed took place—MACAVITY WASN’T THERE!
And they say that all the Cats whose wicked deeds are widely known
(I might mention Mungojerrie, I might mention Griddlebone)
Are nothing more than agents for the Cat who all the time
Just controls their operations: the Napoleon of Crime!
Now some of you may feel cheated by having a children’s poem thrust upon you. For you, I include a different poem from Eliot. It is not in common meter, but it has in common with “Ballad of the Goodly Fere” an attitude towards the establishment that fits right in with the latter’s thumbing of its nose.
Similiter et omnes revereantur Diaconos, ut mandatum Jesu Christi; et Episcopum, ut Jesum Christum, existentem filium Patris; Presbyteros autem, ut concilium Dei et conjunctionem Apostolorum. Sine his Ecclesia non vocatur; de quibus suadeo vos sic habeo. S. Ignatii Ad Trallianos.
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.
The broad-backed hippopotamus
Rests on his belly in the mud;
Although he seems so firm to us
He is merely flesh and blood.
***Flesh and blood is weak and frail,
Susceptible to nervous shock;
While the True Church can never fail
For it is based upon a rock.
***The hippo’s feeble steps may err
In compassing material ends,
While the True Church need never stir
To gather in its dividends.
***The ’potamus can never reach
The mango on the mango-tree;
But fruits of pomegranate and peach
Refresh the Church from over sea.
***At mating time the hippo’s voice
Betrays inflexions hoarse and odd,
But every week we hear rejoice
The Church, at being one with God.
***The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way—
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
***I saw the ’potamus take wing
Ascending from the damp savannas,
And quiring angels round him sing
The praise of God, in loud hosannas.
***Blood of the Lamb shall wash him clean
And him shall heavenly arms enfold,
Among the saints he shall be seen
Performing on a harp of gold.
***He shall be washed as white as snow,
By all the martyr’d virgins kist,
While the True Church remains below
Wrapt in the old miasmal mist.[viii]
There. You should by now recognize the tone of the poem, if not the form. Eliot may not have published any children’s poems before Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, but he was never as sober as you may have believed.
But hold on, I hear you say: Nothing from the modernist women in ballad form?
[i] The following footnote appears in Poems and translations / Ezra Pound. —New York : Library of America, ©2003, p.109: “Fere=Mate, Companion.” This also appears in the headnote, following a different form of the attribution, in https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/ballad-goodly-fere, accessed 26 October 2016, reading thus: Simon Zelotes speaking after the Crucifixion. Fere=Mate, Companion. I don’t know who is responsible for that version beyond the Academy of American Poets, who sponsor that website. “Richard Sieburth selected the contents and wrote the chronology and notes for this volume” in the Library of America.
[ii] Ibid., 109-111. This is the version published in The New Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Harriet Monroe in 1917, according to http://www.bartleby.com/265/295.html, accessed 4 September 2017.
[iii] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fere, accessed 4 September 2017.
[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_metre; they retrieved that definition on 2008-07-30.
[v] Collected poems, prose, & plays / Robert Frost. – New York : Library of America, c1995, pp. 267-268; originally published in book form in A further range, 1936.
[vi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cliff_House,_San_Francisco, accessed 4 September 2017.
[vii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Frost, accessed 5 September 2017.
[viii] The complete poems and plays. 1909-1950 / T. S. Eliot. – New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, c1962, pp. 30-31; originally published in book form in Poems, 1920.