By Dan Osbaldeston
By Dan Osbaldeston
NORTHAMPTON GENERAL LUNATIC ASYLUM/THE FOREST.
ST. STEPHENS DAY, 1841
John Clare lay huddled on the floor, fighting the evidence that he was in a greenwood glade rather than in his cell in the asylum. If he was aware of the figures who stood over him, he was careful to show no sign for Dr. Prichard had made it plain that they didn’t like him to speak of such visions and dreams.
“He surely deserves better of us, Thorne”, mused King Locrinus. “He has always dreamed of the Forest and praised it in his poetry. Yet look at what we have made of him…”
“He is a poet whose lines will outlast the grey blight, my liege.”
“That, perhaps. But also a man driven to madness by the emotions we wring from him.”
Thorne shrugged as he drew forth despair, desire and nightmare, paying no attention to Clare’s moans and screams. “Poets belong to us, and those who write of nature all the more so. Inspired by the muse, touched by the divine or simply mad; theirs is an art we can harvest. I’ve been farming them for a long time.”
The poet faded from the forest glade to resume his hospital imprisonment, already forgotten by the two bird dreams as they continued their conversation.
“Yes. Still, I would prefer allies and heralds to slaves and cattle.”
“This way is more efficient.”
“’Efficient’? You speak like a factory owner, Thorne.”
Thorne stiffened with anger at the insult. “And you speak like a King who has lost his taste for battle”, he snapped in response; an easy thrust that he immediately regretted. He could have cut much deeper had he wished, but Pheasants should not be so lightly stirred to wrath.
Locrinus sighed heavily. “Perhaps I do. Perhaps I have.”
Thorne breathed again.
“I am old, Thorne. I have seen this land invaded time and again. I have seen invaders grow to love it in their turn and when in time a land became a nation, I have seen those people make war against each other. I’ll never deny the glory of battle, but I begin to question the wisdom of it.”
“How so?” Thorne kept himself to two words, but his mind chattered on. Yes. You are old. Tell me your doubts and your weaknesses, for there are others who might claim the Greenwood Crown and sit the Oak Throne…
“Haven’t you noticed? Great forests slain to build ships, good land given over to factories to manufacture cannons and rifles. That’s how they fight wars these days. There was a time when striking a blow put you within arm’s reach of your own death, but now? A peon can kill an admiral with a lucky shot from a hundred yards away and they’ll call it fate. Kismet.”
Thorne looked sidelong at his King. “You know that they’ll sing songs about Nelson for a hundred years or more? There’s a great wealth to be gained from such memories and songs. We could grow fat as geese on such.”
Locrinus nodded, toying with his torc. “But those songs will be about pride and battle, not about love for the land. They’ll be songs about making wars rather than the reasons for fighting them. They’ll be about Nation rather than Land.”
Thorne frowned, beginning to see Locrinus’ point and where it might lead, but not yet ready to abandon his hobby of tortured poets. “I’ve shaped poets for hundreds of years. Taillefer, de Ventadorn, Chaucer, Mallory, Spenser, all the others. Have we not profited?”
Locrinus smiled. “I don’t deny it, for we have feasted on the emotion you’ve milked from your poets and from every dreamer who has heard their words. But now I’m asking you for something more. Thorne, this is my charge to you - shape me a poet whose lines will inspire an awe of nature; whose poems will make people love the Land at least as much as the Nation. I want verses that will inspire people to look at lakes, at hills, at forests, at flowers and value them as highly as their own kin, as highly as their own king. Make me a bard who lauds the Green and turns phrases so well that love of the Land will take root in every soul. Make me a poet who knows what every word is worth.”
Thorne paused, weighing the effort he was being asked to expend versus the likely result and the level of personal satisfaction he might gain, and the likely result of refusing. Eventually, he bowed before the pheasant. “As you command, my liege.” He hesitated for a moment longer before adding, daringly, “It’s not going to stop humans using guns, you know. The ‘Glorious Twelfth’ will come around every year and the slaughter will continue. This won’t bring the Bustards back.”
For a few dangerous seconds Locrinus went very still, his knuckles white around his spear. Mastering his wrath, he managed to answer calmly. “No. But now we have the Capercaillie in their place. Woe betide the Coterie who I learn was responsible…”