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Lay of the Oak

I now recall a lay for you,
A Briton’s tale of love made new.
A humble knight rode through light morn,
Until dark clouds made blue skies mourn.
Lost he was soon in a dreadful storm,
Fair Summer turned to dark—forlorn.
Dismounted then, the knight he stood,
And glimpsed ahead a hidden wood.
Within its arches limply staggered,
Collapsed then he, faint, weak and haggard.
There loomed an oak in this dark place,
Its guardian an immortal Grace.
A nymph was she, whose tender gaze
Discerned the poor knight lying dazed.
By day she did her care provide,
By nights she rested at his side.
Till he in time rose, tall and strong,
On hearing near the maid’s sweet song.
There he came, deep in her debt,
Yet in her eyes, pure love he met.
One year they spent, the twain in bliss,
Passion warming every kiss.
Despite her wish that he not leave,
He went one eve his lands to see.
His sadness then returned once more,
When by his lord called unto war.
Within the wood, there wept his heart,
As from his love he must depart.
Then to the knight her love she spake,
“My love, I thee this promise make:
I bear a son within my womb,
Whose birth the wood shall know full soon.
Though to this oak I am ever bound,
He may walk the land around,
For his blood, of ours combined,
Shall never him to forest bind.
Though long we may be kept apart,
If no other possess your heart,
Our love our union shall restore,
Always, soon, and evermore.
Take here now my oak-leaf sash,
A sign our love will ever last.”
There to his love the knight replied:
“With this sash my love is tied,
Love nearest to my heart beside
I will hold your sash with every stride,
And our love shall never, ever die.”
He embraced the nymph once more,
Then rode off to distant war.
In battle fought he, long and hard,
His deeds famed by each courtly bard.
Though honoured at warm hearth and gold,
Most he longed for the oak of old,
Beneath which he knew his love pined,
A thought wed to his every sigh.
Though many offered him devotion,
His pledge remained his only notion.
When bid by his lord at last to wed,
Again to tears the knight was led.
His fealty weighed before all now,
Against his secret, binding vow.
Though his honour now seemed stained,
Refusal meant his love remained.
Many years, the war thus ran,
The knight became an old, old man.
Clutching close his lady’s right,
He was called once more out to fight.
Eyeing his death by years or blade,
And hope of his love beyond the grave.
The knight thus charged with all his might,
His lance setting all his foes to flight.
Victorious then, the knight collapsed,
As he had in the wood, many summers past.
His hand tightened around the sash,
Praying to see his love at last.
He then saw one drawing near,
Believing within it was his most dear.
Though not his love, there was no lie,
Within the likeness of their eyes.
A kind and strong young man was he,
Handsome and tall for all to see.
The old knight’s grip loosed from his chest,
His hands fell to a place of rest.
There lay on his breastplate the oaken sash,
Long he’d kept and embraced to the last.
The young man smiled and bore the knight
To his horse and beyond sight.
The knight awoke within the wood,
And about him nymph, man, and oak stood.
Healed of his wounds, the knight shed tears,
Each melting away his many years.
He rose young, held his love at last,
And both their beloved son did clasp.
They live in joy yet to this day,
A joy I’ve sung you in this lay.

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William Heard lives and works in Ontario, Canada. He is a graduate student at the University of Toronto.


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11 Responses

  1. Jeremiah Johnson

    Man! William, you touched my heart this morning. Keats – eat your heart out!

    Reply
    • William Heard

      Thank you very much, Jeremiah! I am touched that you found the poem moving and what a kind comparison –Keats is one of my favourite poets.

      Reply
  2. Roy E. Peterson

    This compelling poetic story held me in its grip until the very last. I love happy endings!

    Reply
    • William Heard

      Thank you, Roy. I am grateful for your encouraging compliment and pleased you found the poem enjoyable. May I mention that I found your poem “The Soldier Keeps the Wolf at Bay” powerful and moving.

      Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    A lovely lay, William. As a native of Southern live oak country, I know the tree as a symbol of long life and fidelity. My little “Language of Flowers” says the tree means hospitality, and the leaves, bravery. Those meanings apply to your story, but the plot is quite clever. You develop the oak’s healing qualities, seen first as the knight falls beneath it, into an unexpected unction of indefinite rejuvenation. Such is love, but the wondrous effects in this little poem are astonishing!

    Reply
    • William Heard

      Thank you, Margaret! Your reading of this lay inspires me to see further symbolism in nature’s design. I deeply enjoyed your beautiful poem “Plum Blossom Blessings.” I hope to visit Southern oak country one day – from pictures I have seen, its beauty is unmatched.

      Reply
  4. Yael

    What a great story and you tell it so well. I never knew that the word Lay could mean a ballad, melody or song. Learned something new again, thank you.

    Reply
    • William Heard

      Thank you very much, Yael! I appreciate your compliment. I discovered lays when I read those of Marie De France in school and became fascinated with this form.

      Reply
  5. Paul Freeman

    Nicely done, William. Chaucer would have been proud for one of his pilgrims to have told this tale.

    Thanks for the read.

    Reply
    • William Heard

      Thank you very much, Paul — I am honoured by your compliment and would like to say that your poem “Ozymandias Begins” is a fitting companion to Shelley’s sonnet.

      Reply
      • Paul Freeman

        Thanks, William. Ozymandias was a labour of love,so that means a lot to me.

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