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Music by Jeff Eardley

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Look Homeward, Sweet Afton

after Robert Burns

Look homeward, Sweet Afton, back to thy green braes,
Recalling with pride Britain’s glorious days.
Then forward flow strongly, I pray thou restore
The gallantry needed to fight one more war.

This island of Tennyson, Milton and Burns
Has weathered invasions, fierce battles, strange turns;
But thou, rolling river, stay steadfast and whole.
Though Britain be stolen thou keepest her soul.

No Churchill or Nelson steers forth from the helm
As folly erases a once British realm;
As London and Liverpool, Aberdeen, too
Are darkened by shadow from what we once knew.

Thou know’st how this island once lit up the Earth
Extending civility, order, and worth;
But strangers whose churl hopes devoured the day
Convinced thy brave people to throw all away.

Sweet Afton, soul of Britain, I pray you inspire
Her hesitant shame to flame into proud fire.
This island, once-valiant, has slumbered too long;
Flow strongly and help her face all that is wrong.

Rage forward, brave Afton, with strength from green braes
Where courage is not just some long-ago haze.
Thy roiling pure waters men’s honor restore
And help this fair isle become Britain once more.

.

.

The Ghost of Barbara Allen

after the traditional English
folk-song “Barbara Allen”

I came to Scarlet Town in May,
__For commerce there was calling;
And there it was she haunted me—
__The ghost of Barbara Allen.

My window faced the churchyard graves
__Whence I heard bitter wailing.
The vicar said “O, mark the tale
__Of heart-sore Barbara Allen.

In life she’d been both vain and cruel
__To spurn a soldier fallen;
That man had served his country well
__But wearied Barbara Allen.

His deathbed should have touched her heart
__But no tear came a’welling.
And when she left him all alone
__He whispered ‘Barbara Allen.’

The poor man died and she felt nought.
__But soon she too fell ailing,
And as she weakened no one cared
__For selfish Barbara Allen.

She died and joined him in the yard
__Where roses made a wall in
Between their graves—a lovelorn man
__And loveless Barbara Allen.

Three hundred years have come and gone
__And still her death bell’s knelling—
It speaks of love untreasured till
__Too late for Barbara Allen.”

I thanked the vicar for this tale,
__So tragic and enthralling.
That night I went off to the graves
__To seek out Barbara Allen.

I knelt upon the mossy ground
__And softly started calling.
She came to me as dead as life:
__“Who summons Barbara Allen?”

Her spirit face was beautiful,
__Her eyes with tears befallen.
I said I was a lonely man
__Who dreamt of Barbara Allen.

I told her I had learned her tale
__Of pain and woe appalling,
And that my aching heart was called
__To comfort Barbara Allen.

She did not answer for a spell
__But seemed lost in recalling
What being human once had meant
__In life to Barbara Allen.

At last she said “move on, young man,
__And dinna look crestfallen.
For all yer sighs and tenderness
__Mean nought to Barbara Allen.”

I left her there in Scarlet Town.
__They say she’s still there wailing.
For what she chose, she will always choose—
__Stone-hearted Barbara Allen.

.

.

Brian Yapko is a retired lawyer whose poetry has appeared in over fifty journals.  He is the winner of the 2023 SCP International Poetry Competition. Brian is also the author of several short stories, the science fiction novel El Nuevo Mundo and the gothic archaeological novel  Bleeding Stone.  He lives in Wimauma, Florida.

Jeff Eardley lives in the heart of England near to the Peak District National Park and is a local musician playing guitar, mandolin and piano steeped in the music of America, including the likes of Ry Cooder, Paul Simon, and particularly Hank Williams.


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31 Responses

  1. Roy Eugene Peterson

    These are two fantastic poems/songs that are amazing with their rhyme and message. What a masterful stroke to employ the River Afton to portray what once was great about Great Britain and to provide hope that once more it will come out of the doldrums of modernist leftist leadership and be restored to greatness. Britain needs men/women of character, wisdom, and leadership just as America does to restore all that once was good and righteous! Teh music is that of a troubadour of olden times and enhances the mood.

    “Barbara Allen” flows beautifully from verse to verse as the tale is told with insight into the soul of one remains stone cold to all those who pursue her favors.

    The magnificence of these two cannot be overrated.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Roy! This is an extremely generous comment which I greatly value. Great Britain is in serious trouble (certainly no less than the U.S.A.) and I thought it important and timely to remind the U.K. how important and great its magnificent history is. I recently saw the film “Darkest Hour” and was astounded at the level of grit and backbone Winston Churchill showed when dealing with the Nazis. Moxie matters. That level of leadership is desperately needed again today if Britain is not to dissolve into some dysfuncitonal world government dystopia.

      Reply
  2. James Sale

    Well done, Brian: you have now become an honorary Brit!!! If you could have avoided Burns and Aberdeen, I would have added that you are an honorary Englishman too!!! Be that as it may: you now should certainly be proposed as the next British Poet Laureate! Bravo – and Jeff too!!! Loved it.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you, James, for a comment which has me grinning from ear to ear! I am honored by your naming me an honorary Brit and I am beyond words at the thought of being the Britih Poet Laureate! I tried to make that happen in Santa Fe and got knocked down. I thought Florida might be my next attempt and that is already a longshot. Britain would be like reaching for the stars — especially since I’m not really British. But I appreciate the vote of confidence. I may not be British but I sure do love English literature, Magna Carta, Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, Gilbert & Sullivan, Earl Grey, the films of Alexander Korda, and scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream.

      Reply
  3. Cheryl Corey

    The beautiful opening couplet of “Afton” made me want to keep reading.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Cheryl! Your comment is a great credit to the beauty of Robert Burns’ original poem, “Afton Waters,” from which I deviated only slightly. “Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,/Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise…”

      Reply
  4. Phil S. Rogers

    I had not thought of the old folk song, Barbara Allen, for decades. A verse recited by a friend’s father who was stationed in England during the war.
    Brought back some memories.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      I’m so pleased to have tickled a memory, Phil! I mentioned above, my familiarity with “Barbara Allen” came from a brief fragment of it used in the old Scrooge movie and only a few years ago at that. I looked for full versions of it on YouTube and was astonished to find multiple melodies by different artists. If you or anyone else is interested in the folk song, the one that comes closest to my intent in melody and tone is this version by the American country singer, Crystal Gayle https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3uLCANPVIJg

      Reply
  5. Brian A. Yapko

    I will reply to comments here soon. But before I do, I must offer a huge “thank you” to Jeff Eardley! I was worried about my presumption in criticizing the U.K. in “Sweet Afton” and sent this poem to him (and to SJB) before submitting it to Evan. Jeff not only said that he approved of the poem and its message but that he would love to set it and perform it with his musical group. I’m thrilled and honored that he has done so and that he has shared one of his performances here.

    As for “Barbara Allen,” this is a folksong which I have loved since seeing it featured in the 1951 film of “Scrooge” starring Alastair Sim. It features in a transformative moment in the film where a spirit-changed Scrooge finally acquires humility and a repentent heart as he goes to reconcile with his nephew, Fred. My poem presents a Barbara Allen who is NOT transformed. Nevertheless, the writing of this poem was informed by one of my favorite 2 minutes in film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_FLHkHNaHI I’m a sucker for a good redemption story.

    Reply
  6. Margaret Coats

    Brian, it’s quite late on the banks of the Cam, so let me just give you a brief happy comment on your re-write of Afton Water. Don’t you dare say you depart from the original only slightly. What you do would ordinarily be called political, but from my own lengthy study of rivers in literature, they don’t speak politics. Rivers make their little noises in the local language of the land they pass through, uttering its culture. And what you are doing here is encouraging a re-awakening to the culture of a great island nation whose culture benefited many, and passed on suitable portions of its greatness and goodness throughout the world. Your choice of Afton is a good one. It may be a small stream, but local virtues unite to good effect. The attachment to land looks back to the honor of those who have worked it and defended its people, especially to leaders. And therefore you do well to point out the recent lack of leadership that seems an almost insuperable obstacle to real virtue local or national. I have had much conversation recently with taxi drivers and shopkeepers and craftsmen and even academics who are exactly the Britons whose differently pronounced language we are proud to love. And they profess our shared values while being disgusted with their leadership (the higher up, the worse). Take heart and take the waters for the soul of the whole. Enjoyed your Afton in your own mode of leading!

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, Margaret, for this detailed comment. I appreciate your noting that I did indeed diverge from Robert Burns by using his imagery as a springboard into a poem which challenges the social and political complacency of a great people. I hadn’t much thought about rivers in literature and that actually sounds like a very interesting exploration! From the Styx to the Hudson with the Nile and Jordan thrown in… this might make for a very interesting poem or essay. If I had a corollary in this specific poem (which only now comes to me after the fact) it might be the way Mark Twain’s work regards the Mississippi River as symbolic of both freedom and America.

      I’m heartened to hear of your many conversations with British locals and their concerns about UK leadership. It is awful how normal, sensible, intelligent people are being either bullied or gaslit into not trusting their own judgment. I hope people on both sides of the Pond develop the confidence and spine to trust their own eyes and ability to reason concerning mortal threats to Western Culture. I hope the British reclaim the enormous pride they have earned by virtue of Britain’s uniquely consequential and valuable gifts to the world. And I hope it’s not already too late.

      Reply
  7. Michael Vanyukov

    Masterful! One wonders, however, if Britain’s just reaping the harvest from the seeds she’s sown long – or not so long – ago.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Michael! As far as I can tell, Britain’s woes stem not from asserting it’s Britishness in history but, rather, from its suicidal decision to dilute its own culture out of existence, first by joining the EU and then by internationalizing itself. Open borders do not mean the coming together of disparate peoples in mutual respect of their unique cultures. It means the hard-nosed dominance of a few martial cultures which are aggressive and happy to dominate and then absorb — colonizing through the back-door, as it were, rather than by direct conquest. The wide-eyed hippie ideal of mutual respect of differing ethnicities does not play out well in the real world. I despise the John Lennon song “Imagine” for its bankrupt ideals of “no countries, no religions too” because what this puerile idealism actually translates into is Islamic Fundamentalism versus Chinese Communism dominating a cowering world for centuries to come.

      Reply
      • Michael Vanyukov

        Right on, Brian! One thing one can say in Lennon’s defense is that he himself hardly treated his political (or any other) poetry seriously, and would himself hardly get rid of his not-so-shabby possessions. Meanwhile, a “brotherhood of men” is pretty much Isaiah’s (and, following him, Jesus’) dream as well. “No religion”, however, massively contradicts that dream. And that is what’s transpiring right now, especially in Europe and UK, where religion is being duly replaced by the totalitarian cult of Islam.

    • Joshua C. Frank

      I suppose, if you mean something along the lines of Dostoyevsky’s quote: “The West has lost Christ, and that is why it is dying; there is no other reason.” (In case anyone’s wondering, he was not leaving Russia out of the West when he said this, and this was written in 1871.)

      Reply
  8. Yael

    Beautiful poetry and I liked listening to the musical version too, thank you!

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Yael! And I love the music Jeff wrote as well!

      Reply
  9. Alan Orsborn

    I particularly liked The Ghost of Barbara Allen. Set that one to music too! Hearing your bitter ballad of Barbara Allen sung in a pub with a pint before me, that would be a memory. Such an ending, unchanged as ever in death, but the way you told it, with her Scottish brogue. You really know how to build up to the finale.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you very much, Alan! I love your idea about getting this musicalized and especially appreciate your noticing the dialect I gave the ghost.

      Reply
  10. Jeff Eardley

    It was an enormous privilege to be a small part of “Sweet Afton.” We are certainly in the throes of an enormous downward spiral at the next election over here. Thank you Brian for your spellbinding lyricism that speaks volumes. We need you over here, when you are ready. The raspberry jam and scones are on me.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Jeff, for your incredible work on musicalizing this poem. Your performance is deeply moving. As for UK’s election, I pray for a result that makes Britain strong again. And one day I’ll take you up on those scones with jam. I hear afternoon tea is particularly good at The Savoy…

      Reply
  11. Joseph S. Salemi

    Two beautiful modern reclamations of beloved English-Scottish poetry and folksong. And notice what a slap in the face they are to left-wing identity politics. Brian isn’t British at all — and yet he can produce magnificent tributes to British culture and British achievement, regardless of his personal bloodlines. Would anyone be stupid enough to charge Brian with illegal “appropriation” of a culture not his own?

    One of the most gifted writers of ancient Greek lyric poetry was Philodemus, a Syrian without a drop of Hellenic blood.

    Yes, the cold and cruel Barbara Allen remains unchanged for eternity. As will be the case for everyone who dies unrepentant.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you very much indeed, Joe. I’m pleased that you approve my homage to British culture and am especially pleased that you find nothing to criticize in my writing British-themed pieces despite my not having a single drop of English blood in me. I have treasured English literature for most of my adult life and the idea that someone could attack me for presuming to honor that fundamental aspect of my educational, creative and spiritual heritage strikes me as outrageously petty and arrogant. And yet the cultural-purity gestapos are out there jealously guarding what we may or may not honor. Such people — the professionally offended — have way too much time on their hands.

      Reply
  12. Joshua C. Frank

    Both are impressive, and the first was a wonderful joint effort! Plus, I’d like to hear “The Ghost of Barbara Allen” set to music as well.

    I’ve always loved folk songs (in fact, they’re one of my major influences as a genre), and these two poems do justice to the tradition.

    Reply
    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Josh! I would love to hear The Ghost of Barbara Allen set to music! Someday…

      Reply
  13. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, I would like to echo James by declaring you an honorary Brit! Are you sure you don’t have any English blood? A liking for Earl Grey and Scones, clotted cream and raspberry jam is in the English DNA.

    I love both of these magnificent poems. “The Ghost of Barbara Allen” is a dark delight that simply begs to be set to music But, for me, “Look Homeward, Sweet Afton” is something very special indeed. The words say everything about Britain then and Britain now in ways that make my heart ache for my homeland’s plight. Brian, you have captured the very essence of the land I grew up in, and Jeff’s musical skills have enhanced the wonder of your words. A big THANK YOU! to both of you for singing to my still very English sensibilities.

    Reply
    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      Brian, I wasn’t going to say this, but I think I should, for the simple reason that it highlights sentiments of “Look Homeward, Sweet Afton”.

      These words screamed out at me: “Thou know’st how this island once lit up the Earth / Extending civility, order, and worth”. They reminded me of Peter, a dear 89-year-old friend and former neighbor in England told me yesterday that while boarding a bus his stick slipped from under him and he fell flat on his face. The bus was full and school children were boarding. Not one person came to his rescue. Teenagers trampled over him as he tried to drag himself from the floor. He feared for his life.

      This would never, ever have happened before I moved to Texas. Back in 2010, people were still offering their bus seats to the elderly and assisting them across the road. Now it’s too dangerous for them to venture out of their houses… “civility, order, and worth” are dead.

      Reply
      • Brian A. Yapko

        Susan, this story that you have shared breaks my heart. I am so sorry for your friend and I am so sorry that you have to watch the slow death of all that you have held dear in your homeland. Believe me I and others at SCP know the feeling as we watch our own homeland devolve into something vain, unvalorous, manipulative and ignorant. I believe your friend Peter’s bus story is well worth your writing a poem about, if for no other reason than to call for greater civility and compassion for our elders.

    • Brian A. Yapko

      Thank you so much, Susan! I loved writing both of these pieces because they allowed me to find Britain within, even though I’m not British. But one can love a place even without having family ties to it. I feel so much for your homeland’s plight — largely because it is the plight of all of us. Will unbridled leftism and indiscriminate immigration damage our homes? It’s not even a question of will or won’t. It’s a done deal. The only questions left are how badly and what to do about it?

      Reply

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