A black ballad
Half-dead he was found near the meadow stream
by Marsh-Dame from the moor – and her son he became
and he ate of her meagre coarse bread,
a thrall and workhand his lot was to be,
the meadow was known as the Foundling’s Lea
and Marsh-Dame she tired and was dead.
As a serflike thrall he bore resigned
the yoke of his toil, and in body and mind
though still young grew old and less spry.
A helpless ache in his eye I once spied
to escape earth’s constraints that were tightly tied
and a thirst to first tire and then die.
No laughter came from him, to speak he was slow,
and like falling stones were his yes and no
if spoken to – always the same.
He dug the earth, carried sand and stones
and never rested his aching bones
until, sunless and cool, evening came.
He would huddle then on his tattered old bed
and hide from the dark in mortal dread
and bathed in a smothering fear.
He often woke up in a beady sweat
and quaked at something he only had met
like an asp though no wind is near.
So day after day and year after year
so bloodless, so cold, with no joy nor tear
I saw how he lived out his life.
And if he thought something, then nobody knows
within reach of his heart no one came close
with prayers, cunning or knife.
One evening then as it grew late
a stone from a rockface fell on his pate
and his evening turned into night.
Since when confused and red was his eye,
he dragged his feet, his mind was awry
and his speech in a sorry plight.
No more did he toil among earth and carts
but roamed along roads that no one charts
night and day, in shadow and light.
And one evening when rainclouds filled the sky
I’ve heard to his childhood home he came nigh
and his mother’s house sought for the night.
And he found it – deserted, empty and locked,
its window with rags and with planks quite blocked,
its garden with weeds everywhere.
And he smashed the planks until all was bared,
then through the window panes wildly stared
and saw his own face there.
’Is it mother? Dear mother, please let me in!
Can you hear the thunder making that din,
see the lightning in the north sky?
Aren’t you there – where are you then today?
It’s not you, it’s me who’s been away –
mother’s ill, she is weak and may die!
She’s unable to walk – she is old and blind,
maybe in the cold attic I her can find –
come – Marsh-John, smash these glass panes!’
And with bloody hands he battered apace,
and a terrible draught swept in through the space
past the window’s shattered remains.
He stormed up the stairs to the loft so bleak
now crimson with fever and blood on his cheek
and eagerly searched straight away.
But nothing he found, only paper and junk
and heard only the western wind’s crashes and thumps
among planks and old things in decay.
And he then rushed downstairs amid shouts and tears
and wet ash had lain in the stove for years
that was swirled by the storm wind’s play.
Through the wide-open hole the rain now swept:
‘Why did you leave your home?’ he wept,
‘Did you stray out on Foundling’s Lea?
The Lord is my father – you, mother, are earth,
and your son’s crowned in blood, of little worth
at your bed as empty can be.’
His brain spun round as if in a sling
with ghosts and trolls in a howling ring,
till he gave out, both tired and ill.
In a rag-strewn corner he made a bed
with sacks as blankets and mumbling said:
‘Now, mother, let’s sleep our fill.’
By a wooden church under distant skies
the Marsh-Dame’s son in a poor man’s grave lies
and wild flowers spread without cease.
Deep under the grass is his quiet berth,
he is now at rest with mother and earth
in a lightless and endless peace.
To see the original ballad, go to here