Cross Coves

Cross Coves

29 May 2020: Poet’s Day 9

Friday already? I’ve been on holiday this week and hadn’t marked the days passing.

This week’s poems are a stark contrast to the bravery and courage expressed in the poems of last week—they are tales of the cross cove, the criminal who takes advantage of others by theft, fraud or murder.

The first is “Villon’s Straight Tip to all Cross Coves,” William Ernest Henley’s rendering of a 15th Century poet’s French verse in the cant of the Victorian Underworld.

The second is “A Smuggler’s Song,” Kipling’s tale of a nurse warning her young charge not to be too curious about the odd happenings around her home.

The last is “He Fell Among Thieves,” which isn’t really about the thieves, but the subject of their robbery—an English Irish explorer who bravely (perhaps foolhardily) explored the Asian wilderness during the period when Great Britain and Russia played “The Great Game” against each other, and who paid a high price.

Next week, I will choose three poems about love and loss.

Poem 25. Villon’s Straight Tip to all Cross Coves

“Booze and the blowens cop the lot.”

Francois Villon (1431—c. 1463)
Translated by William Ernest Henley (1849—1903)

‘Tout aux tavernes et aux filles’

I

Suppose you screeve, or go cheap-jack?
Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
Or get the straight, and land your pot?
How do you melt the multy swag?
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

II

Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
Rattle the tats, or mark the spot
You cannot bank a single stag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

III

Suppose you try a different tack,
And on the square you flash your flag?
At penny-a-lining make your whack,
Or with the mummers mug and gag?
For nix, for nix the dibs you bag
At any graft, no matter what!
Your merry goblins soon stravag:
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

The Moral

It’s up-the-spout and Charley-Wag
With wipes and tickers and what not!
Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
Booze and the blowens cop the lot.

This is a long way from Henley’s best-known poem “Invictus” which was in last week’s collection. It is Henley’s English version of a French poem by the 15th Century poet and criminal Francois Villon. Henley kept the metre of the original poem but substituted slang used by the Victorian underworld instead—he had compiled a “Dictionary of Slang and its Analogues” and evidently consulted it frequently when writing this poem. There are so many cant words that it almost seems like a different language—I was going to provide a glossary, but there are fifteen phrases needing explanation in the first stanza alone, and 45 overall!

The poem bewails the fate of all the ill-gotten gains of the criminal: regardless of how they are gotten: theft, counterfeiting, or any of the other dishonest practices hinted at, the “merry goblins” quickly “stravag” (wander off): they’re squandered on booze and blowens—prostitutes.

Villon lived in poverty as a child but was fostered by a chaplain whose surname he adopted as his own. He became a student at University of Paris, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1449 and becoming a Master of Arts three years later. He is thought to have been 26 when his criminal career began in 1455 with the manslaughter of another student: he was banished but then pardoned by the King of France after the king received two petitions claiming that the dead man had forgiven Villon on his death-bed. Villon was subsequently implicated in the theft of 500 gold crowns from a chapel and after that, was next heard of in the summer of 1461 as an inmate of the bishop’s prison; he was released in 1461 but was imprisoned for theft the following year; he was released on bail and was immediately embroiled in a quarrel in the street for which he was arrested, tortured and condemned to hang. His sentence was commuted to banishment in 1463 and he then disappeared permanently—perhaps ending his days in poverty or at the end of a rope—leaving “Le petit testament”, “Le grand testament” and several poems as his literary legacy. The phrase “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation of Villon’s “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?” and is widely famed as a classic of translated poetry.

I first heard this poem performed by the late Ricky Jay, the American magician, in a show available on YouTube, “Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants” which is just short of an hour of brilliant card tricks and well worth watching for the entertainment value alone. Around five minutes into the show, Jay talks about the poem briefly before performing it to the audience.

Poem 26. A Smuggler’s Song

“Watch the wall my darling, while the gentlemen go by.”

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie,
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark—
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a lady, letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don’t you shout to come and look, nor use ’em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again—and they’ll be gone next day!

If you see the stable-door setting open wide;
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore;
If the lining’s wet and warm—don’t you ask no more!

If you meet King George’s men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you ‘pretty maid,’ and chuck you ‘neath the chin.
Don’t you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one’s been!

Knocks and footsteps round the house—whistles after dark—
You’ve no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty’s here, and Pinchers here, and see how dumb they lie—
They don’t fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

If you do as you’ve been told, ‘likely there’s a chance,
You’ll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood—
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark—
Brandy for the Parson,
‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn’t told a lie—
Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!

I love this poem for its air of secrecy, the admonitions of an adult to a child they can’t be sure will be able to keep a secret, and the hints of a wider story in the descriptions of the contraband, the tired horse and torn coat with its ominously “wet and warm” lining.

The history that Kipling’s poem speaks of is that of eighteenth-century England, when taxation of imports such as brandy, tobacco and tea rose to such a level that the general populace collectively worked against the revenue men. According to one account I’ve read, 80% of the tea drunk in England had paid no duty. This is hardly surprising since tax accounted for some 70% of its cost. The poem makes it clear that even the gentry were complicit in handling the contraband: even the parson and clerk of the parish are taking their cut. As long as King George’s men (the soldiers dressed in blue and red and the revenue men) are not informed of the operations of the smugglers, all will be well and the child will receive their dainty doll. One wonders if King George’s men or a sharp-eyed revenue man might perhaps have noticed this well-dressed and beautifully made toy in the child’s grasp…

Poem 27. He Fell Among Thieves

“He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet: his murderers round him stood.”

Sir Henry Newbolt (1862—1938)

“Ye have robbed,” said he, “ye have slaughtered and made an end,
Take your ill-got plunder, and bury the dead:
What will ye more of your guest and sometime friend?”
“Blood for our blood,” they said.

He laughed: “If one may settle the score for five,
I am ready; but let the reckoning stand ‘til day:
I have loved the sunlight as dearly as any alive.”
“You shall die at dawn,” said they.

He flung his empty revolver down the slope,
He climbed alone to the Eastward edge of the trees;
All night long in a dream untroubled of hope
He brooded, clasping his knees.

He did not hear the monotonous roar that fills
The ravine where the Yassin river sullenly flows;
He did not see the starlight on the Laspur hills,
Or the far Afghan snows.

He saw the April noon on his books aglow,
The wistaria trailing in at the window wide;
He heard his father’s voice from the terrace below
Calling him down to ride.

He saw the gray little church across the park,
The mounds that hid the loved and honoured dead;
The Norman arch, the chancel softly dark,
The brasses black and red.

He saw the School Close, sunny and green,
The runner beside him, the stand by the parapet wall,
The distant tape, and the crowd roaring between,
His own name over all.

He saw the dark wainscot and timbered roof,
The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;
The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,
The Dons on the daïs serene.

He watched the liner’s stem ploughing the foam,
He felt her trembling speed and the thrash of her screw;
He heard the passengers’ voices talking of home,
He saw the flag she flew.

And now it was dawn. He rose strong on his feet,
And strode to his ruined camp below the wood;
He drank the breath of the morning cool and sweet:
His murderers round him stood.

Light on the Laspur hills was broadening fast,
The blood-red snow-peaks chilled to dazzling white:
He turned, and saw the golden circle at last,
Cut by the Eastern height.

“O glorious Life, Who dwellest in earth and sun,
I have lived, I praise and adore Thee.”
 A sword swept.
Over the pass the voices one by one
Faded, and the hill slept.

I found this poem while I was looking for a third to complete the set of cross coves—the subject of this isn’t a criminal, although he is captured and finally murdered by them.

The poem describes the death of George W. Hayward, of whom I had never heard before I chose this poem and researched its background. According to his biography on Wikipedia, Hayward was an eminent English explorer of the wildernesses of central Asia and the western Himalayas, and was the only explorer funded by the Royal Geographical Society during the mid 1800s. In 1870 he was travelling in what is now Pakistan when he was attacked and murdered, possibly on the orders of his supposed friend Mir Wali, or perhaps at the behest of the Maharaja of Kashmir who had been offended by a letter Hayward had written to a newspaper in Calcutta about atrocities committed by the Kashmiris.

Newbolt’s poem is inaccurate in its portrayal of Hayward’s last stand and the events of his life and obviously parrots the dogma of white supremacy over the native that was common to many westerners of the time and still seems to inform many opinions in the modern age. Nonetheless, I like the image of the man whose life is forfeit lost in reminiscences of home, the church, school races, university and lastly the wake of the steamer carrying him to the lands of central Asia—I seem to see him sitting at the edge of the treeline, knees drawn up with his arms clasped around them, apparently brooding on the glories of the landscape before him but in reality lost in remembrance of events dear to him. When the sun rises, he does also and descends to meet his fate which is swift and stark: “A sword swept” is the sole acknowledgement that his life has ended.