Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Gaveston on Dartmoor: A Tale of Crazywell Pool

This is Crazywell Pool on Dartmoor. It was once thought by locals to be bottomless and the story goes that the bell ropes from a local church were hauled up here and lowered into the pool and no bottom found. It was also thought to be haunted and they say that if you should look into the pool at midnight on midsummer's eve you will see there the face of the next person in the parish to die: of course, it is difficult to avoid seeing your own reflection. It is a spooky place, for sure, and there are many other tales relating to this small lake whose built up sides are almost certainly the work of tin miners rather than nature and whose bottom is never more than 15 feet below its surface. One of them involves, perhaps strangely, Piers Gaveston, lover of Edward II. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@CallumJBooks) will know that I spent all of last week yomping around Dartmoor in the horizontal rain and under ever-darkening storm clouds and this was one of the places I made sure to visit because of the Gaveston connection.

The story is that Gaveston was hiding out on Dartmoor (he owned land near Crazywell Pool) during one of his exiles from the court. He was drawn to the pool one night by a dream and looking into it, he saw his own face and then the face of the Witch of Sheepstor. She made a reed write a prophecy on the surface of the lake which stayed just long enough to be read before returning to ripples. It was an ambiguous prophecy as all the best ones are, in which she said that Gaveston's head, now laid low, would again be raised high. Of course, Gaveston took this to mean that he will be restored to the glory of ths court; in fact it meant that his head would literally be lifted high, without his body, onto the walls of Warwick Castle.

It transpires that most authorities on Dartmoor don't believe this story has any more background to it than a poem written in 1823 that 'made up' the story, and the same authorities tell us that the story has no independent life locally. Tracking down the poem was a genuine piece of Internet detective work. Eventually it became clear that the poem was by a Rev'd John Johns but as you might imagine with only that name, a date and a search engine to go on it was tricky. I found a number of books of poetry by the said John Johns digitally reproduced online but in none of them was the poem about Gaveston. There was a website which had four stanzas from the poem but it was clearly a longer work than that. In the end it transpires that the poem was first published in a magazine, The New Monthly, under the editorship of a Mr Campbell. It is said that when he first received the poem he was so taken with it that Campbell spent a whole evening pacing back and forth quoting bits and pieces from it that took his fancy. Fortunately for us, eventually I was able to track down an online copy of a book called A West Country Garland from the end of the Nineteenth Century, in which the poem was anthologised.

The Rev'd John Johns himself was an interesting character. He was a Unitarian minister and author of a number of books of poetry. He was admired a little in his time and wrote the Gaveston poem whilst living in Crediton. Whilst the poem is very much of its time and takes a little work from a modern reader, it is also clear that there is a poetic voice of some potential within it. Sadly, any potential was cut short by an untimely death from cholera which he contracted whilst ministering to the poor in Liverpool.

The poem itself is not sympathetic towards Gaveston and this is no surprise. Ever since Marlowe wrote him into his play Edward II, Gaveston has been cast as the bad guy who ruined the realm by distracting the King into wantonness and dissipation. I'm not well versed enough in the history to know what Gaveston was really like but I know he's unlikely to have been the sole cause of a Kingdom's troubles. Historians seem agreed that the Barons hated him for his access to the King not for his sexual relationship per se... It's too easy, however, to say that their relationship wasn't an issue at all, it was certainly something which could be used as an easy target. It is interesting to me that in the John Johns poem, although not explicitly mentioned, there are a couple of points at which there is an undertone that nods towards homosexuality. There's a hint of it in the reference to Narcissus seeing his own reflection in the pool: and again as Gaveston flies back the 'boy bosom of his king' and then one has to wonder what evil deeds the last couplet have in mind as they send Gaveston to hell for no reason that is discernible in the narrative of the poem itself. I don't imagine for a second that there is any real history to this story or to the poem but I feel sorry for Gaveston. There is a redemptive thought bumping at the back of my mind that it would be fun one day to write a folk song of this story in a way which is somewhat more sympathetic to the exiled lover of a king.

Gaveston on Dartmoor by The Rev'd John Johns.

TWAS a stern scene that lay beneath
  The cold grey light of autumn dawn;

Along the solitary heath

  Huge ghost-like mists were drawn.


Amid that waste of loneliness

  A small tarn, black as darkness, lay,

Silent and still: you there would bless

  The wild coot's dabbling play.


But not a sound rose there — no breeze

  Stirred the dull wave or dusky sedge;

Sharp is the eye the line that sees

  'Twixt moor and water's edge.


Yet on this spot of desertness

  A human shape was seen ;

It seemed to wear a peasant's dress,

  But not with peasant's mien.


Now swift now slow the figure paced

  The margin of the moorland lake,

Yet ever turned it to the East,

  Where day began to wake.


"Where lags the witch? she willed me wait

  Beside this mere at daybreak hour,

When mingling in the distance sate

  The forms of cloud and tor.


"She comes not yet; 'tis a wild place —

  The turf is dank, the air is cold;

Sweeter, I ween, on kingly dais,

  To kiss the circling gold;


"Sweeter in courtly dance to tell

  Love tales in lovely ears;

Or hear, high placed in knightly selle,

  The crash of knightly spears.


"What would they say, who knew me then,

  Teacher of that gay school.

To see me guest of savage men

  Beside this Dartmoor pool?"


He sat him down upon a stone —

  A block of granite damp and grey —

Still to the East his eye was thrown,

  Now colouring with the day.


He saw the first chill dawn-light fade —

  The crimson flush to orange turn —

The orange take a deeper shade,

  As tints more golden burn.


He saw the clouds all seamed with light,

  The hills all ridged with fire;

He saw the moor-fogs rifted bright,

  As breaking to retire.


More near he saw the down-rush shake

  Its silvery beard in morning's air;

And clear, though amber-tinged, the lake

  Pictured its green reeds there.


He stooped him by the water's side,

  And washed his feverish brow ;

Then gazed as if with childish pride

  Upon his face below.


But while he looks, behold him start.

  His cheek is white as death!

He cannot tear his eyes apart

  From what he sees beneath.


It is the Witch of Sheepstor's face

That grows from out his own!

The eyes meet his — he knows each trace —

And yet he sits alone.


Scarce could he raise his frighted eye

  To glimpse the neighbouring ground,

When round the pool — white, dense, and high —

  A wreath of fog was wound.


Next o'er the wave a shiver ran

  Without a breath of wind;

Then smooth it lay, though blank and wan,

  Within its fleecy blind.


And o'er its face a single reed,

  Without a hand to guide it, moved;

Who saw that slender rush, had need

  More nerve than lance e'er proved.


Letters were formed as on it passed.

  Which still the lake retained;

And when the scroll you traced at last,

  The reed fell dead, the lines remained.


On them the stranger’s fixed eyes cling.

  To pierce their heart of mystery:

“Fear not, thou favourite of a king,

  That humbled head shall soon be high”


He scarce had read, a sudden breath

  Swept o'er the pool, and rased the lines;

The fog dispersed, and bright beneath

  The breezy water shakes and shines.


He looked around, but none was near —

  The sunbeams slept on moss and moor;

No living sound broke on his ear -

  All looked as lonely as before.


What had he given that hour to see

  The meanest herdsman of the hill!

For, bright as seemed the prophecy,

  A shadow dimmed his spirit still.


And well it might! the wanderer there

  Had stood too near an English throne —

Had breathed too long in princely air:

  He was the banished Gaveston.


Again he turned — again he flew

  To the boy bosom of his king —

Trod the proud halls his vain youth knew.

  Heard woman's voice and minstrel’s string.


But double was the story told

  By the dark words of evil power,

And not Plantagenet could hold

  The Fates back in their own dark hour.


Beside the block his thoughts recall

  That scene of mountain sorcery —

Too late! for high on Warwick wall

  In one brief hour his head must be


Oh, how should evil deeds end well!

Or happy fates be told from hell!

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