Vexilla Regis / Sir Bedivere's Horse

Vexilla Regis (pencil & watercolour)
by David Jones

While on the subject of Arthurian deposits ... One thing leads to another and so here is a delightfully eccentric way of 'interpreting' the painting above.The poet Jean Earle wrote this poem in her eighties with all the willed mischievousness of a young tyro.

Sir Bedivere's Horse

David Jones, dreaming ‘Vexilla Regis’.
Painted the souls of trees
On lumpish hills, such as spiral
My birthplace. Beyond the foremost,
Tallest and roughest Tree,
Run the wild horses.

Dreamer myself,
I know one is Sir Bedivere’s horse.
I was once Sir Bedivere’s squire.

How we sagged, after we lost Arthur!
Wandering purposeless –
The forest stiff in a winter
Like glass fur. So scarce the forage ….
Sir, at his blackest hour,
Poorly with fever,

Hardly spoke, grieving. The horse thin,
Carrying both of us. “At last”, I said,
“We are coming
To World’s Edge. My brother lives near,
In a fortified house.
You could lie down?”

So we had shelter. But Sir, brooding,
Rode his dear creature out,
Returned alone. “I have freed him,
To your hills”. “But where’s the bridle?”
Bed, not at all himself,
Had left it hanging.

“Sir, he’ll starve! Caught in some coppice,
Like the ram sacrifice
In holy writ”. Sir refolded
His great hurt as he did his long legs,
Closed off his mind from me,
Covered his face.

People there thought it a shame, to live
Stuck with a darkened knight
Who licked his wound while cursing
Lost battles. The pain Sir Bedivere
Nursed was as everywhere
As the King’s grave ….

Life will go on. I was young, afire –
Finding the horse, I’d go
Adventuring. Try my mettle
Some new road. Sir Bed would not miss
All my uncourtly ways.
Scarce a brilliant squire ….

Where the Honddu, in a rushy foaming
Hurries its little fishes,
I found the horse – fast in a tangle
Of witchwood, that might have killed him,
Strangled him with the reins,
Had I not come.

Ripe for love, sniffing his sweat and steam,
Gathered the wild mares,
Enticing him. It needed
My utmost muscle and finesse –
Muddied and almost thrown –
Till I unwound him.

Crazed for freedom; and the whinnying, hot
Mares – oh, the animal
Was as myself, was a brother
In prison. I slashed the brute loose.
Whatever might curb his life
Now – I would not.

With the soft act, Sir Bedivere’s
Quixotic chivalry
Came home to me. It was oddly
Endearing. Return to him, then –
Muddy; but maybe not
Quite a bad squire?

Such whiffs of mediaeval spice
David Jones loved: yet his fey brush
Deft with running shapes,
May not have known –
Through the layered myth –
Which was Sir Bedivere’s horse.

The title of the painting comes from a Latin hymn Vexilla Regis prodeunt ... (Forth come the standards of the King) written in Gaul in the 5th century. The symbolic imagery of the painting refers, among others things, to the Crucifixion (there's a robin with a 'bloodstained' breast). But what about those horses? Jean Earle was not so eccentric in the light of this from David Jones' letters:"the rushing ponies are, more or less, the horses of the Roman cavalry, turned to grass and gone wild off to the hills. This idea, probably, in turn comes from something in Malory's Morte D'Arthur when, right at the end, after the death of Guenevere, and the break up of the round table, Lancelot and the other knights let their armed horses free to roam where they will ... and gone off to be hermits and the like." (Dai Greatcoat p.149 ...)


Caitlín Matthews said...

Your blog was virtually made to delight me! I am enthused by so many of these subjects.

Heron said...

Thanks for calling in and commenting.

I have written an appreciation of the Jean Earle poem and a comparison of her attitude to this material with that of David Jones, to be published in the forthcoming issue of the magazine Poetry Wales.

Lorna Smithers said...

Amazing painting and strange coincidence- I've just read a new poem entitled 'Vexilla Regis' and based on the painting by Penelope Shuttle in 'The Wolf Magazine' Issue 27.

'The wildwood racked,
never at rest,
strife of slender blue-silver trees'...

There is alot of inspiration to be found amongst those trees.

Greg said...

Yes it is an amazing painting Lorna, and David Jones is certainly an inspirational writer and artist. I didn't know Penelope Shuttle had written about it so thanks for the reference.

Kris said...

What a fine poem! I didn't know it, and I'd say Jean Earle knows a little of horses, too. Thanks!