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Ackerley - Poem - Micheldever

Ackerley - Poem - Micheldever



J.R. Ackerley

'The fate of Henry Cook excites no commiseration....'

The Times: January 3, 1831


At first I could not find you. Up and down

I searched in vain. This was the place, I knew,

The village church, and there beyond the turn

Your way from Winchester: but where were you?

Had Nature with your enemies combined

To hush you up? This dumb, frustrated stone –

Was it your name the fidget-fingered wind

Had smudged away, the rinsing rain undone?

Or this that when Earth shivered in the dews

Sank forward on its face- who lay below?

'Is this his place? Is this?' I asked. 'Whose? Whose?'

'The boy who died a hundred years ago.'

Here by the field you tilled, beneath these limes

That sprouted with your life, no stone records

Your death although it figured in The Times;

You were buried that bleak evening without words.

No solemn prayer entreated that dark pit,

No epitaph your mortal memory furthered,

Though there was thought enough and words to fit:

They said in Micheldever you were murdered.


I know the pattern, here the pieces lie;

I fit them in, yet still the picture wants –

Some light, now shuttered in the country eye,

A confident, proud manliness of glance,

For you'd been free beyond our now conceiving,

Who signed upon this soil your common will;

The web of law that nets us now was weaving;

You struggled in its meshes; we lie still.

And then it wasn't much, the thing you fought for,

You and your fellows all the country over;

You didn't rise as rose the men of Otmoor

Your ancient rights and heritage to recover -

The land, the people's land, by Domesday given,

By lord and lawyer lately filched away,

And with it all your uses from you riven;

You only claimed sufficiency of pay

To keep your souls and bodies still consorted

While lord and lawyer in your pastures thrived

And had you hanged, imprisoned or transported

For taking hare or bird to save your lives.

Who sauntered then at evening in this lane

With ease and independence in his soul?

By each new law degraded, nipped, restrained;

Reduced at last to charity's grudged dole,

Who danced upon the green? That year at Fawley

They yoked an idiot to the parish cart

For begging for relief. It was a story

You must have heard. And was it in this part

That harvest time, beneath a hedge, were found

Four labourers starved to death? None would have known

They'd laid their cheeks but lately to the ground,

So shrunk the flesh on their poor thrusting bones.

And all the while before your famished view

The sacred pheasant flashed his jewelled ruff,

The rich the richer and the grander grew,

And parson licked their arse. You’d had enough!


The wandering, armed and uninvited bee

Scarce begs or steals the sweeetness that he licks,

But levies tribute on prosperity;

And thus the labourers called upon the rich.

Hedgerow and field their arsenal supplied;

Old scores were paid; rejected in his cart

Each parish launched its tyrant; far and wide

The burning ricks like rosebuds burst apart,

And Headley workhouse fell; the falling stones

Their martial music made: across the slain,

Usurping threshers' bright, newfangled bones

They came into their kingdom once again.

But what most moves me, like that Indian-tree

Upon whose leafless, stricken-seeming boughs

Bloom sudden flowers, despite their miseries

They showed such moderation; then as now

They taught the wealthy manners; overhead

The gathering clouds as little mischief meant;

With dignity and wit and no blood shed

The paupers did the work of Parliament -

And almost won: adornment of the hour,

I gather from the shabby page this love,

This brittle, pressed, incalculable flower,

That local help against them would not move.

But that was only how the business started,

And you were dead before its course was run;

Six hundred of your fellows were transported,

And nine were hanged - from Micheldever one.


They say you shed some tears to hear your doom,

But put up no defence: at plough-tail bred

You could not read nor write, but in that room

The predetermined verdict plainly read.

No legal aid for you, nor might you plead

Your poverty for pity; come to that,

What judge would pause to pity one whose deed

Was knocking off the local J.P.'s hat?

They had you cold; you could not even bring

Your comrades to bear witness, for at once

Acknowledged sharers in your rioting

They shared your lot. Let's honour Harry Bunce!

The lovely fellow for his friend attested

Though cautioned of the fate that would betide him,

And when the judges ordered him arrested

Sprang into the dock and stood beside him.

They exiled him for ever. But a few

More rigorous examples would be wise.

Stolid and oxlike, unattractive, you

Were naturally cast for sacrifice.

Some handicaps the press you could not read

Obligingly adjusted to your fate.

To hang a man's a more inspiring deed

Than hang a hungry boy. At any rate

It seemed as though they wanted to deprive

You now of next to nothing; work and pay

They lavished both and added to your life

Ten years before they took it all away.

And as a final warning not to knock

The gentry's hats or take him from him that hath,

The learnèd law decided that your smocked,

Convicted mates should see you done to death.

This was life's end, this was life's summary,

Those anguished cries, and in the yard below,

Like withered leaves cast by the gallows tree,

The pale uplifted faces, swept with woe,

Who did not know what penalties they earned,

Nor anything save that they'd lacked their due:

Once they had had a cow and a strip of land,

And then had nothing, nothing else they knew-

But held a strange, immovable conviction

That God had made the earth for all to share,

And equally for all without distinction

Had lardered there the pheasant and the hare.

They were the best of course, the chaps of mettle,

But spirit can be broke as well as necks,

If skill enough be used, though not so brittle;

Some pined away between the transport's decks;

The rest? Who know? Who cares? The distant spot

To whose deterrent worth your rulers gave

Such anxious, flogging thought is best forgot:

I fear they called you lucky in your grave.

Years later they were pardoned; few came back;

Exile was sweeter than the image in their eye

Of England's vaunted freedom and your black

And strangled body strung against the sky.

But when, the suffering over and the shame,

You journeyed home at last to Micheldever,

The parish all came out, as one they came,

They came as one to meet you like a lover,

And buried you in silence. No stone stands

Above your grave; the pious place admits

No knowledge of your keeping; loving hands

That dug there dared no more; your name is writ

In dandelions and nettles. But the lie

However deep we dig it perishes not,

Nor fails the cry of hope: a stranger I

Bring you this message: you are not forgot.

Out of the dark you sprang with hammer raised -

Then vanished; your defiance came to nought;

Your desperate blow the moment scarcely grazed;

No Hampshire guidebook names you; you're not taught

In school, where inconvenient disclosures

Might be unwise, and where your tale's a small,

Dry, unobtrusive chapter called 'Enclosures',

Not flesh and blood, not tears and pain at all.

Not murder, no; not how the English gentry

Capitalized the land by fraud and force,

And when the dispossessed cried out for mercy

Choked them to death - judicially, of course.

But there's a legend lingers to this day

That when the sealing snow has shrouded over

The Hampshire hills and whited all away,

It stays not on your grave in Micheldever.


When these bright fields are dimmed, the lanes dusk-laden,

And to the last bird's warning, sharp refrain

The fading landscape falters in its fading,

Does that forgotten army march again?

It marches, yes, but stones are turned to shot;

Now uniformed, more formidable, faster,

Your army has not ceased to march, but not,

Not now, not yet again, against its masters.

For still the fight continued. That astounds

You, doesn't it? Illiterate country chaps,

No doubt you thought an extra half-a-crown

Was all the stake at issue. But the traps

Were set for more than yokels. Ruthless eyes

Looked further than your petty fields for power.

Big business had begun, and other skies

Drew blood up with the dew. The greed and fear,

The struggle still goes on. We give it names

You'd never comprehend and we defend

What you contested, but the fight's the same;

You fought at the beginning, we at the end.

And all are in it now; across the world

The dikes are down; in intricate dismay

Gainer and loser both in the flood are hurled:

Those tears you shed, we drown in them to-day.

[The history upon which this poem is based is to be found in The Village Labourer,1760-1832 by J.L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond. Longmans. 6/-]


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