What I tell you three times is true

Ellis Sharp, whose Marxist surrealist fiction deserves better than lazy tags like ‘Marxist surrealist’, has a fascinating post here about Robert Lowell’s poem “The Fens”. It’s a short poem, so I’ll include it here:

The Fens
(After Cobbett)

From Crowland to St. Edmund’s to Ipswich
The fens are level as a drawing board:
Great bowling greens divided by a ditch –
The grass as thick as grows on ground. The Lord
High Sheriff settles here, as on a sea,
When the parochial calm of sunset chills
The world to its four corners. And the hills
Are green with hops and harvest, and a bitch
Spuddles about a vineyard on a tree;

Here everything grows well. Here the fat land
Has no stone bigger than a ladybug,
No milkweed or wild onion can withstand
The sheriff’s men, and sunlight sweats the slug.
Here the rack-renting system has its say:
At nightfall sheep as fat as hogs shall lie
Heaped on the mast and corncobs of the sty
And they will rise and take the landlord’s hand;
The bailiff bears the Bell, the Bell, away.

From Robert Lowell’s second collection ‘Lord Weary’s Castle’ (1946)

There’s nothing much I can add to Ellis’s discussion of the poem’s language, its politics, its roots in Cobbett’s writing and his politics. But I can throw some light on that mysterious last line, which – with its onomatopoeic repetition of “the Bell” and that weird, mythic capitalisation – seems to evoke everything from the Bells of Aberdovey to Lewis Carroll’s Bellman. Ellis:

The landowners rule the Fens through their complete social control and their lackeys. The bailiff is the sheriff’s agent. To bear the bell means to take the prize. (The notes to the ‘Collected Poems’ say of this line: “See the anonymous ballad ‘The Baily Beareth the Bell Away’”, but what you see when you do isn’t explained. This is irritating since none of the ballad collections I’ve consulted contain it.)

In an online nursery rhyme collection, I’ve found a piece titled “The Bailiff Beareth”:

The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay,
The silver is white, red is the gold,
The robes they lay in fold;
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay;
And through the glass window
Shines the sun.
How should I love and I so young?
The bailiff beareth the bell away,
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

And so it ends. I don’t know if it’s a fragment of a longer piece; I certainly don’t know what it’s ‘about’. It is an extraordinary piece of writing: a kind of verbal stained-glass window pieced together out of luminous, resonant images, and written almost entirely in the kind of poetically heightened language which has always seemed archaic but never actually been in common use (“pass us my robes, love, it’s time I was off to lay the lily and the rose”). Perhaps it’s about a girl being given in marriage and seeing herself as property being confiscated from her family home. Or perhaps that’s an over-intellectual reading, and it’s simply ‘about’ the lily and the rose, silver and gold, the window and the sun – and the sad alliterative fall of the bailiff bearing the bell away.

It’s beautiful, either way. And it’s another way in to what Lowell was trying to do with that poem, it seems to me: to write something that could carry both types of workload, functioning as a constellation of luminous images and at the same time as a critique of rural property relations. An exercise, as Ellis said, but an interesting one – and a reminder of how political good writing can be (and vice versa).

(Incidentally, I’ve never knowingly read a damn thing by Lowell before this poem. Thanks, Ellis.)

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3 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted 10 May 2005 at 01:09 | Permalink | Reply

    An Ipswich man writes:

    I second the emotion and love the poem. But the Fens stop 40 miles from Ipswich, and that int flat in between, bor – there’s flat and hills!

  2. Phil
    Posted 10 May 2005 at 07:30 | Permalink | Reply

    Yes, Ellis commented on that. Apparently when Lowell quoted Cobbett he replaced ‘Wisbech’ with ‘Ipswich’ for reasons of his own.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted 4 February 2007 at 21:13 | Permalink | Reply

    I recommand you to listen to a song by Louisa John-Krol, called “The Lily And The Rose”. I guess you will recognize something… ;)

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