Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham

A poem by Alfred Tennyson

My friend should meet me somewhere hereabout
To take me to that hiding in the hills.

I have broke their cage, no gilded one, I trow—
I read no more the prisoner’s mute wail
Scribbled or carved upon the pitiless stone;
I find hard rocks, hard life, hard cheer, or none,
For I am emptier than a friar’s brains;
But God is with me in this wilderness,
These wet black passes and foam-churning chasms—
And God’s free air, and hope of better things.

I would I knew their speech; not now to glean,
Not now—I hope to do it—some scatter’d ears,
Some ears for Christ in this wild field of Wales—
But, bread, merely for bread. This tongue that wagg’d
They said with such heretical arrogance
Against the proud archbishop Arundel—
So much God’s cause was fluent in it—is here
But as a Latin Bible to the crowd;
‘Bara!’—what use? The Shepherd, when I speak,
Vailing a sudden eyelid with his hard
‘Dim Saesneg’ passes, wroth at things of old—
No fault of mine. Had he God’s word in Welsh
He might be kindlier: happily come the day!

Not least art thou, thou little Bethlehem
In Judah, for in thee the Lord was born;
Nor thou in Britain, little Lutterworth,
Least, for in thee the word was born again.

Heaven-sweet Evangel, ever-living word,
Who whilome spakest to the South in Greek
About the soft Mediterranean shores,
And then in Latin to the Latin crowd,
As good need was—thou hast come to talk our isle.
Hereafter thou, fulfilling Pentecost,
Must learn to use the tongues of all the world.
Yet art thou thine own witness that thou bringest
Not peace, a sword, a fire.
What did he say,
My frighted Wiclif-preacher whom I crost
In flying hither? that one night a crowd
Throng’d the waste field about the city gates:
The king was on them suddenly with a host.
Why there? they came to hear their preacher. Then
Some cried on Cobham, on the good Lord Cobham;
Ay, for they love me! but the king—nor voice
Nor finger raised against him—took and hang’d,
Took, hang’d and burnt—how many—thirty-nine—
Call’d it rebellion—hang’d, poor friends, as rebels
And burn’d alive as heretics! for your Priest
Labels—to take the king along with him—
All heresy, treason: but to call men traitors
May make men traitors.
Rose of Lancaster,
Red in thy birth, redder with household war,
Now reddest with the blood of holy men,
Redder to be, red rose of Lancaster—
If somewhere in the North, as Rumour sang
Fluttering the hawks of this crown-lusting line—
By firth and loch thy silver sister grow,*
That were my rose, there my allegiance due.
Self-starved, they say—nay, murder’d, doubtless dead.
So to this king I cleaved: my friend was he,
Once my fast friend: I would have given my life
To help his own from scathe, a thousand lives
To save his soul. He might have come to learn
Our Wiclif’s learning: but the worldly Priests
Who fear the king’s hard common-sense should find
What rotten piles uphold their mason-work,
Urge him to foreign war. O had he will’d
I might have stricken a lusty stroke for him,
But he would not; far liever led my friend
Back to the pure and universal church,
But he would not: whether that heirless flaw
In his throne’s title make him feel so frail,
He leans on Antichrist; or that his mind,
So quick, so capable in soldiership,
In matters of the faith, alas the while!
More worth than all the kingdoms of this world,
Runs in the rut, a coward to the Priest.

Burnt—good Sir Roger Acton, my dear friend!
Burnt too, my faithful preacher, Beverley!
Lord give thou power to thy two witnesses!
Lest the false faith make merry over them
Two—nay but thirty-nine have risen and stand,
Dark with the smoke of human sacrifice,
Before thy light, and cry continually—
Cry—against whom?

Him, who should bear the sword
Of Justice—what! the kingly, kindly boy;
Who took the world so easily heretofore,
My boon companion, tavern-fellow—him
Who gibed and japed—in many a merry tale
That shook our sides—at Pardoners, Summoners,
Friars, absolution-sellers, monkeries
And nunneries, when the wild hour and the wine
Had set the wits aflame.
Harry of Monmouth,
Or Amurath of the East?
Better to sink
Thy fleurs-de-lys in slime again, and fling
Thy royalty back into the riotous fits
Of wine and harlotry—thy shame, and mine,
Thy comrade—than to persecute the Lord,
And play the Saul that never will be Paul.

Burnt, burnt! and while this mitred Arundel
Dooms our unlicensed preacher to the flame,
The mitre-sanction’d harlot draws his clerks
Into the suburb—their hard celibacy,
Sworn to be veriest ice of pureness, molten
Into adulterous living, or such crimes
As holy Paul—a shame to speak of them—
Among the heathen—
Sanctuary granted
To bandit, thief, assassin—yea to him
Who hacks his mother’s throat—denied to him,
Who finds the Saviour in his mother tongue.
The Gospel, the Priest’s pearl, flung down to swine—
The swine, lay-men, lay-women, who will come,
God willing, to outlearn the filthy friar.
Ah rather, Lord, than that thy Gospel, meant
To course and range thro’ all the world, should be
Tether’d to these dead pillars of the Church—
Rather than so, if thou wilt have it so,
Burst vein, snap sinew, and crack heart, and life
Pass in the fire of Babylon! but how long,
O Lord, how long!
My friend should meet me here.
Here is the copse, the fountain and—a Cross!
To thee, dead wood, I bow not head nor knees.
Rather to thee, green boscage, work of God,
Black holly, and white-flower’d wayfaring-tree!
Rather to thee, thou living water, drawn
By this good Wiclif mountain down from heaven,
And speaking clearly in thy native tongue—
No Latin—He that thirsteth, come and drink!

Eh! how I anger’d Arundel asking me,
To worship Holy Cross! I spread mine arms,
God’s work, I said, a cross of flesh and blood
And holier. That was heresy. (My good friend
By this time should be with me.) ‘Images?’
Bury them as God’s truer images
Are daily buried.’ ‘ Heresy.—Penance?’ ‘Fast,
Hairshirt and scourge-nay, let a man repent,
Do penance in his heart, God hears him.’ ‘Heresy—
Not shriven, not saved?’ ‘What profits an ill Priest
Between me and my God? I would not spurn
Good counsel of good friends, but shrive myself
No, not to an Apostle.’ ‘Heresy.’
(My friend is long in coming.) ‘Pilgrimages?’
‘Drink, bagpipes, revelling, devil’s-dances, vice.
The poor man’s money gone to fat the friar.
Who reads of begging saints in Scripture?’—‘Heresy ‘—
(Hath he been here—not found me—gone again?
Have I mislearnt our place of meeting?) ‘Bread—
Bread left after the blessing?’ how they stared,
That was their main test-question—glared at me!
‘He veil’d Himself in flesh, and now He veils
His flesh in bread, body and bread together.’
Then rose the howl of all the cassock’d wolves,
‘No bread, no bread. God’s body!’ Archbishop, Bishop,
Priors, Canons, Friars, bellringers, Parish-clerks—
‘No bread, no bread!’—‘Authority of the Church,
Power of the keys!’—Then I, God help me, I
So mock’d, so spum’d, so baited two whole days—
I lost myself and fell from evenness,
And rail’d at all the Popes, that ever since
Sylvester shed the venom of world-wealth
Into the church, had only prov’n themselves
Poisoners, murderers. Well—God pardon all—
Me, them, and all the world—yea, that proud Priest,
That mock-meek mouth of utter Antichrist,
That traitor to King Richard and the truth,
Who rose and doom’d me to the fire.
Nay, I can burn, so that the Lord of life
Be by me in my death.
Those three! the fourth
Was like the Son of God! Not burnt were they.
On them the smell of burning had not past.
That was a miracle to convert the king.
These Pharisees, this Caiaphas-Arundel
What miracle could turn? He here again,
He thwarting their traditions of Himself,
He would be found a heretic to Himself,
And doom’d to burn alive.
So, caught, I burn.
Burn? heathen men have borne as much as this,
For freedom, or the sake of those they loved,
Or some less cause, some cause far less than mine;
For every other cause is less than mine.
The moth will singe her wings, and singed return,
Her love of light quenching her fear of pain—
How now, my soul, we do not heed the fire?
Faint-hearted? tut!—faint-stomach’d! faint as I am,
God willing, I will burn for Him.
Who comes?
A thousand marks are set upon my head.
Friend?—foe perhaps—a tussle for it then!
Nay, but my friend. Thou art so well disguised,
I knew thee not. Hast thou brought bread with thee?
I have not broken bread for fifty hours.
None? I am damn’d already by the Priest
For holding there was bread where bread was none—
No bread. My friends await me yonder? Yes.
Lead on then. Up the mountain? Is it far?
Not far. Climb first and reach me down thy hand.
I am not like to die for lack of bread
For I must live to testify by fire.**

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