.

Glastonbury

A deathless tree stood witness while
The marshlands round a nearby isle
Were drained and bared a hill forlorn;
A lonesome tree, long in exile
Since Joseph sailed from the Nile—
The Glastonbury Thorn.

That staff once thrust into the earth
Had burgeoned to a blessed girth
And saw how Roman stalks of corn
Spread after news of our Lord’s birth.
It flowered midst the winter’s dearth,
The Glastonbury Thorn.

It well remembered Arthur’s brawn:
How, wounded, he was carried on
A boat to sleep, and ebbed to lore.
It heard the name of ‘Avalon’
Dissolve in mist, and then respawn
As ‘Glastonbury Tor.’

For centuries it watched kings sup.
Each praised the Lamb, but was a pup
Next to the fallen Cornish Boar.
And so a thorn sprig drifted up
To settle in an abbot’s cup
Near Glastonbury Tor.

The abbot sulked in sin and shame:
His abbey razed by time and flame,
He had no money to adorn
Its black walls or restore its fame.
He called to yonder hill the name
Of Glastonbury Thorn.

The abbot raised his cup to swig.
What’s this? He thought. A sacred sprig?
He plucked it out; it soared, wind-borne,
Into the yard beside a pig.
He ordered idle monks to dig
Beneath that infant thorn.

Five meters deep, they heard a ‘ting.’
A nameless tomb? And one more thing—
A christened cross of lead that bore:
‘Here Arthur lies, of whom all sing,
Here lies the Once and Future King.’
Here near Glastonbury Tor!

The tomb pried open, two were seen:
The first enormous, fearsome, mean—
A skeleton of iron ore.
The smaller form befit a queen,
With shapely bones of pearl, serene,
Like that Glass Isle of yore.

Her blonde bouquet of curls, well-brushed,
Smelled fresh, though Arthur’s sword was rust,
There under Glastonbury Tor.
A monk’s eyes bulged, his fingers thrust—
The tresses wilted into dust,
Now golden nevermore.

The monks all kneeled; the abbot prayed.
The pilgrims trekked in droves and paid
To see King Arthur in a drawer.
From London, Longshanks’ carriage strayed
To see the artifacts re-laid
Near Glastonbury Tor.

This legend quickened back to clay
Our deathless tree saw far away—
The lonesome Glastonbury Thorn.
For mortals efforts cast in grey,
Grand myths can always shine a ray
Where chivalry is sworn.

For centuries this sentry stood.
Now hewn by hate, its sacred wood,
Unbranched, a trunk, squats blind to warn:
The past fell down because it could.
A spiteful present saw no good
In Glastonbury’s Thorn.

Its flowers bloom no more—but there,
Is that a sprig upon the air?
There! Taking root to be reborn,
A witness to our constant prayer—
The coming of the savior pair.
The Glastonbury Thorn.

.

.

Ode to the Grail

No serving dish was ever more bejeweled
Or dull compared to heaven’s sparkling sea.
The stomachs that desired rich food you’ve fueled
With simple wafers, served on gaudy gold
Finer than any midst the earth’s debris.
Since Perceval eye-groped your precious Braille,
Your curious purpose, changing course, has rolled
Through countries great and lowly like a gale.

No stone has been a source of wider bliss
Or sustenance that tumbled from the sky.
Base alchemists have not transformed your like.
No phoenix, raising life from the abyss,
Or dove of peace can make your methods fly.
But since the Templars watched you, sacred gem,
Your mystery’s been hunted by the Reich,
And hollow costs have sprouted with your stem.

No chalice ever held such special juice—
Christ’s iron ichor, warming Joseph’s well,
Or liquor John Paul passed en masse, in a shell
Of agate red—or emerald reduced
To jaded glass, so brilliant none could tell.
The trophies won by athletes who perform
For sport all spill the virtue you compel.
Through Europe’s canopy your palmers swarm,
The errant quests of frail, benighted youths
Since Galahad set you among the stars.
No poet’s monument can praise your form
Of beauty when you model varied truths.
The curators alone know what you are—
Each wounded relic flashes Jesus’ scar.

.

.

Andrew Benson Brown was a graduate student at George Mason University before taking too many classes outside his discipline coincided with the reality of Debt. He now works as a children’s caseworker in rural Missouri. In his spare time he reads obscure classics, writes things of little market value, and exercises far more than is befitting for a modern intellectual.


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23 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Love these narrative stories, very skilfully done; also, full of fascinating information. Glastonbury is certainly an incredible place to be – there’s a kind of weird magic in the air there. The wreck of the Reformation is on full display – the ruins of the Abbey, and its last abbot – from memory, Richard Whiting, but don’t quote me on that – hanged on the Tor by the orders of Henry VIII. If ever you are in England, I’ll take you round Glastonbury – Chalice Wells where the healing and iron waters reside!

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Thanks James. Glastonbury is definitely very high on my bucket list of places to go. It is a trip I look forward to!

      Reply
  2. jd

    First of all, I love your bio which compelled me to read your poems. I was not disappointed. Though not being an intellectual so that much is left to investigation, in my humble opinion, both of your poems are masterfully done.

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Thanks for the appreciation, JD. As to the intellectualism, the second poem is admittedly little more than a catalogue of obscure allusions. The historical development of the Grail legend in medieval literature, though, as well as the archeological claims associated with it, is something I find fascinating. King Arthur is the most owned-upon character in all of Western literature, and the various legends and paraphernalia associated with him have been retold more than any other set of stories.

      Reply
  3. Michael Pietrack

    ABB—

    The pattern of A, A, B, A, A, B per stanza is very difficult! Way to pull it off. And nice job of drawing the parallels in the stories of Arthur and Christ. The Arthurian myth is kind of a secular, knightly version patterned on the Gospels, in certain ways. Interesting!

    Also, I really liked this couplet:

    Christ’s iron ichor, warming Joseph’s well,
    Or liquor John Paul passed en masse, in a shell

    (I loved iron followed by ichor, which helped bring out the long i in Christ…warming/well…passed/masse)

    Quit exercising and write us some more, will ya!?!

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Why, Michael, do you say that AABAAB is a “very difficult” rhyme scheme to manage? Why is it any more difficult than any other rhyme scheme? Would you have me believe that no one since Petrarch has been able to write a Petrarchan sonnet?

      Reply
      • James Sale

        I don’t know why CB Anderson considers it valid to launch unprovoked attacks on other readers of poetry, as well as, indirectly, on the poet himself. There seems to me some dire envy he suffers from whenever relatively new poets appear and attract other people’s praise.

        In fact, having seem CB Anderson’s comments over a long period of time, he reminds me of nothing so much as a man who is NOT asked to review an episode of Star Trek, but goes ahead anyway. He sits there impatiently as the film starts, and gets increasingly agitated as the film progresses; he huffs and puffs, he glows bright red with frustration; he exclaims, ‘G-d dammit!’; and by the end of the film is in a total fury. Then he writes his review:

        Review of Star Trek by CB Anderson
        ‘It’s wrong: to boldly go is a split infinitive, which is a misuse of language. This film is rubbish.’

        In short, CB Anderson is the master of misplaced pedantry, which masquerades as learning. Which is where we we come to his comments on rhyming, a topic – despite his previous vaunts to the contrary – he seems to know little about. It is perfectly in order for Michael Pietrack to comment admiringly on the skilful rhyming of Andrew Benson Brown’s poem because it is skilful rhyming!

        Rhyming is like speaking: we can all naturally do it, but to rhyme well, like speaking well, is an art. And this art is layered and complex. One of the reasons that Susan Jarvis Bryant won last year’s SCP competition is her ability to convincingly rhyme whilst using difficult forms like the pantoum.

        If we knew anything about rhyme at all, we’d realise that the couplet is the easiest form to rhyme – anyone can rhyme in couplets; but the particular problem here is, rhyming well and avoiding cliches. This grows in complexity as we attempt forms like the sonnet (and BTW, writing a Shakespearean sonnet is ‘easier’ than a Petrarchan precisely because of the difference in rhyme scheme), the villanelle , the pantoum, and – for me personally – the terza rima. All these are big challenges.

        Thus, when CB Anderson writes:

        ‘Why, Michael, do you say that AABAAB is a “very difficult” rhyme scheme to manage? Why is it any more difficult than any other rhyme scheme? Would you have me believe that no one since Petrarch has been able to write a Petrarchan sonnet?’

        He is talking complete nonsense: some rhymes are more difficult than others; ask any poet who has tackled this issue! Further, what is this non-sequitur about ‘Petrarch’ doing here? Michael Pietrack has not remotely suggested that no-one has written a Petrarchan sonnet since when. It is absolute fatuity to talk in this way.

        Let us, therefore, celebrate Michael Pietrack for spotting the fine rhyme scheme, and Andrew Benson Brown for writing it; and let’s ignore what Dr Johnson called the ‘petty cavils of petty minds.’

      • C.B. Anderson

        Perhaps, James, you are still smarting from the occasions when I called you out for slipshod grammar. At the time, I recall, you also characterized my comments as misplaced pedantry, as though you thought that English grammar were subject to a poet’s whim. Why do you find it so troubling that I downplay the difficulty of any rhyme scheme. Having made use of countless rhyme schemes of various complexity in my own work, I find that they are all about equally difficult — the important part, the part that requires the most attention and concentration, is keeping track of the pattern one has established. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of engaging in the proper degree of purposive playfulness. You seem to insist on absolute charity (for reasons best known to you) rather than even a glimmer of critical incisiveness.

    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Michael—

      The rhyme scheme is no ‘Dover Beach’ or anything, but it is a bit more challenging than couplets or ABAB.

      The Christological parallels with Arthur were explicitly drawn by medieval authors, who took Jesus as a model in creating a national savior—a sort of secular, bellicose alter-ego. For a long time it was thought that Geoffrey of Monmouth just made up all that stuff about Arthur in his ‘History of the Kings of Britain,’ but the scholarly consensus today (from what I understand) is that he drew on a plurality of sources which no longer survive, and was doing what he believed to be historical research.

      Skeptics have claimed that the Glastonbury discovery was a hoax created by the Abbey monks to raise funds following a fire, and it has also been suggested that Henry II was behind it, as he wanted to substantiate his claim to being descended from the bloodline of Arthur, and to draw attention away from Canterbury following the murder of Becket. We will never know for sure, of course, but there are those who think it possible that the historical war chief that we refer to as Arthur was buried there, as Glastonbury Tor was surrounded by marshlands in Roman times and could be the Isle of Avalon. For an excellent investigation of the myths that make a good case for Arthur’s historicity, see Geoffrey Ashe’s ‘The Discovery of King Arthur.’

      Exercise is essential.

      Reply
      • Michael Pietrack

        I lift weights and exercise every day, but still, I can’t pull a sword from a stone!

    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Thank you, uncle. One can always count on the support of family where wider critical appraisal is lacking. For most of my life, my only fan was my mother. This continues to sustain my ego during difficult times. It is nice to know that, if my mother abandons her appreciation, I will at least have you.

      Reply
  4. Cynthia Erlandson

    These are both really beautiful. I especially love the last two stanzas of “Glastonbury” — “The past fell down because it could….” And the imagery, and the deep meaning, in “Ode to the Grail” invite many readings. (Oh, and I like the rhyme scheme, too.) 🙂

    Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    Love the Thorn story as you tell it, Andrew. I have many SCP poems to catch up on, but this had to be the first one to read. On my second visit to Glastonbury 15 years ago, I had time to look for the Thorn throughout the area, and found that it is always “taking root to be reborn.” I trust the stories that even the men who committed the sacrilege in the 16th century took cuttings home with them. And of course everyone with the slightest opportunity to snitch a sprig did so. Today Glastonbury is chock full of thorn bushes and hedges–and they do often bloom between Christmas and Epiphany as they are supposed to. Reports and pictures show up online.
    However, it is said that only the ones lovingly tended from cuttings will bloom midwinter. New plants grown from seeds of the old will not.

    The Chalice Well garden was, to my mind, the most peaceful spot in the region. If you are as interested in Glastonbury as your poem seems to say, plan to spend more than one day there. Not only are there many places with historical and mystic associations, but the town is full of occult book shops. They could represent a day of discovery in themselves.

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Margaret, so glad you like Chalice Wells too; it is a fabulous place – the most peaceful spot in the region – and we can only hope that our poet – Andrew Benson Brown – gets there someday. As a matter of fact, I do personally know somebody who was praying by the waters of Chalice Wells and who had a visitation from the Archangel St Michael! Clearly, people can believe what they want about such a story – I believe it – but the place is replete with mystical goings-on. And I am also glad you mentioned the ‘occult bookshops’, which I would probably reframe as ‘esoteric’ so that overly sensitive Christians don’t get too offended; but these bookshops contain all sorts of obscure volumes that it is difficult to find elsewhere. My favourite was when a few years back I encountered a rare copy of Charles Williams’ Complete Arthurian poems – Charles Williams, of course, being the third Inkling with CS Lewis and Tolkien. Naturally, I snapped it up. It’s wonderful that ABB has got us all meditating on Glastonbury and these terrific legends.

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        You forgot about Owen Barfield, James. There were four Inklings. And you should learn the difference between queries and “unprovoked attacks.”

      • James Sale

        In describing Charles Williams as the ‘third Inkling’ I am correct: the recent biography (which incidentally I strongly recommend – it’s a great read about an under-appreciated writer) by Grevel Lindop of Charles Williams is entitled, The Third Inkling (Oxford University Press, 2015). CS Lewis, Tolkien and Williams were the ‘holy trinity’ (and powerhouse) of the group. And on the subject of how many Inklings there were, the official CS Lewis website numbers them at 19, not 4. Owen Barfield was a member but he was based in London; the core Inklings all lived in Oxford.

      • C.B. Anderson

        Thank you, James for that additional information about the Inklings. I might in turn refer you to another recent book on the subject: The Fellowship by Philip and Carol Zaleski, who happen to be old friends of mine from my Wesleyan University days.

  6. The Mindflayer

    These two poems embody what poetry is really all about! As it happens, I am biased, because Glastonbury is perhaps my favourite place on Earth! But Andrew Benson Brown evokes the grandeur, beauty, mysticism, and downright weirdness of the place:”The pilgrims trekked in droves and paid /
    To see King Arthur in a drawer.” But through the comedic and satirical elements which characterise Benson Brown’s work, we also seek glimpses of the divine, which is what all true poetry aims for. In his second poem, meditating on the grail, the astonishing final image embodies this ascension: “Each wounded relic flashes Jesus’ scar.” Quite sublime!

    Reply
  7. Andrew Benson Brown

    I am certainly envious of you Glastonbury travelers. I am hopeful that when I am there I will experience a mystical vision that will inject me with a delusional confidence of my purpose and future.

    Reply
    • Brandon Marcey

      read this aloud on a beach to a loved one and it felt timeless. phenomenal.

      Reply

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