Merlin’s Isle

Merlin’s Isle

This week’s poem marries history with geography as Rudyard Kipling takes picturesque places and matches them with historical events.

She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin’s Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.

Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936)

Poem 162. Puck’s Song

SEE you the ferny ride that steals
Into the oak-woods far?
Oh that was whence they hewed the keels
That rolled to Trafalgar.
And mark you where the ivy clings
To Bayham's mouldering walls?
Oh there we cast the stout railings
That stand around St. Paul's.
See you the dimpled track that runs
All hollow through the wheat?
Oh that was where they hauled the guns
That smote King Philip's fleet.
(Out of the Weald, the secret Weald,
Men sent in ancient years,
The horse-shoes red at Flodden Field,
The arrows at Poitiers!)
See you our little mill that clacks,
So busy by the brook?
She has ground her corn and paid her tax
Ever since Domesday Book.
See you our stilly woods of oak,
And the dread ditch beside?
Oh that was where the Saxons broke
On the day that Harold died.
See you the windy levels spread
About the gates of Rye?
Oh that was where the Northmen fled,
When Alfred's ships came by.
See you our pastures wide and lone,
Where the red oxen browse?
Oh there was a City thronged and known,
Ere London boasted a house.
And see you, after rain, the trace
Of mound and ditch and wall?
Oh that was a Legion's camping-place,
When Caesar sailed from Gaul.
And see you marks that show and fade,
Like shadows on the Downs?
Oh they are the lines the Flint Men made,
To guard their wondrous towns.
Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn-
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born.
She is not any common Earth,
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye,
Where you and I will fare.

This poem is written with the same feeling for Britain that Kipling expressed in “The Roman Centurion’s Song” which I covered in Poet’s Day 19 (August last year).

In this poem, we see England through the eyes of Shakespeare’s Puck whose supernatural sight identifies in each stanza an apparently bucolic place and the great historical event connected to it, from the camp of Roman legionaries through the last stand on Senlac Hill in 1066 to the keels of the ships at Trafalgar.

Kipling (as Puck) concludes that England is no common realm of mundane elements but the magical island home of Merlin. I think that regardless of nationality we all feel that there are places in our home country where we feel magic—call it what you will: an atmosphere, a feeling, an aura. We all have special places we hold close to our hearts, and I think that Kipling’s verse captures that sensation.

For me, the special place I hold dear is my home village with its pubs, the Green, the canal and the churchyard.