“Ever ’twixt trunk and leaf”

Carol Rumens’s poem of the week in The Guardian of 2.2.15:


I am Winter that do keep

Longing safe amidst of sleep:

Who shall say if I were dead

What should be remembered?

The Woodpecker

I once a King and chief

Now am the tree-bark’s thief,

Ever ’twixt trunk and leaf

Chasing the prey.

The Lion

The Beasts that be

In wood and waste

Now sit and see

Nor ride nor haste.


I am the ancient Apple-Queen,

As once I was so am I now.

For evermore a hope unseen,

Betwixt the blossom and the bough./

Ah, where’s the river’s hidden Gold!

And where the windy grave of Troy?

Yet come I as I came of old,

From out the heart of Summer’s joy.

William Morris’s final, 1891 collection of poetry, Poems by the Way, includes a series of engaging miniature ekphrastic verses relating to paintings or tapestries. My sample of personal favourites from these Verses for Pictures begins with Winter, which comes from a six-part sequence, Day, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Night. The argument in the tiny monologue that Morris gives the personified Winter echoes the song of Orpheus in Book 12 of his once-popular epic poem, The Life and Death of Jason: “O death, that makest life so sweet … ” But, in the quatrain, it’s not simply that Winter provides the necessary contrast which, almost like a painting’s dark background, emphasises the colourful pleasures of the other seasons. Her guarantee is founded on the sense of loss. How, in her absence, she asks rhetorically, would the good things be “remembered?” The verb is extenuated over four heavy-echoing syllables. It is not emergent life, but “Longing” that Winter secures “amidst of sleep”.

The “Woodpecker” quatrain, divided into two lines of Gothic script, was woven into a tapestry designed by Morris and produced under his supervision in 1885. It illustrates the tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses concerning King Picus, changed into a woodpecker by Circe as a punishment for rejecting her overtures. In both its precise detail and its open-endedness (the fourth unrhymed line suggests a further partnering stanza), it somehow resembles a decorated curlicue in a William Morris wallpaper pattern…”

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