I caught up with the episode of the Culture Show devoted to the pub just in time via BBC iPlayer (it’s gone now, curse you, BBC) and was very glad I did, not just for the brief glimpse of the marvellous Kathryn Tickell (pity it had to be because she’s on Sting’s latest CD, still …) but for the quite brilliant poem by Carol Ann Duffy, commissioned specially for the programme.
It’s called “John Barleycorn”, it was described as “A lament for, and a celebration of, the Great British Pub”, and Duffy, the current Poet Laureate, is worth her butt of sack for this poem alone. I’ve transcribed it below, with some shots from the almost equally good little video essay that accompanied Duffy reading the poem. My reproducing this undoubtedly smashes through copyright law like a scaffold pole through a pub window, but I thought it was so fantastic it deserved a continuing audience, and if you do borrow any of it, fair use only, lads, eh.
A few comments first: the start of the poem refers to the traditional folk song “John Barleycorn”, of course, which makes me believe Duffy has been a habituée of folk clubs as well as pubs. As far as I can tell, every pub name mentioned is a real pub – the Corn Dolly, for example, is in Bradford, the Flowing Spring is near Reading, the Moon and Sixpence (named for the Somerset Maugham novel and/or the film) is found in several places, the Wicked Lady (also named for a film) is in Hertfordshire, the Bishop’s Finger in London.
Considering how much time poets have spent in pubs, there’s very little poetry ABOUT pubs. This is one of the very best.
- “John Barleycorn”
Carol Ann Duffy
Although I knew they’d laid him low, thrashed him, hung him out to dry,
Had tortured him with water and with fire, then dashed his brains out on a stone,
I saw him in the Seven Stars, and in the Plough.
I saw him in the Crescent Moon and in the Beehive.
In the Barley Mow, my Green Man, newly born, alive, John Barleycorn.
I saw him seasonally, at harvest time, in the Wheatsheaf and the Load of Hay,
I saw him, heard his laughter in the Star and Garter and the Fountain and the Bell,
The Corn Dolly, the Woolpack and the Flowing Spring.
I saw him in the Rising Sun, the Moon and Sixpence and the Evening Star.
I saw him in the Rose and Crown, my Green Man, ancient, barely born, John Barleycorn.
He moved through Britain, bright and dark, like ale in glass.
I saw him run across the fields, towards the Gamekeeper, the Poacher and the Blacksmith’s Arms.
He knew the Ram, the Lamb, the Lion and the Swan,
White Hart, Blue Bull, Red Dragon, Fox and Hounds.
I saw him in the Three Goats’ Heads, the Black Bull and Dun Cow, Shoulder of Mutton, Griffin, Unicorn.
Green Man, beer-born, good health, long life, John Barleycorn.
I saw him festively, when people sang for victory, for love and New Year’s Eve,
In the Raven and the Bird in Hand, the Golden Eagle, the Kingfisher, the Dove.
I saw him grieve and mourn, a shadow at the bar, in the Falcon, the Marsh Harrier,
The Sparrowhawk, the Barn Owl, Cuckoo, Heron, Nightingale.
A pint of bitter in the Jenny Wren for my Green Man, alone, forlorn, John Barleycorn.
Britain’s soul, as the crow flies, so flew he.
I saw him in the Holly Bush, the Yew Tree, the Royal Oak, the Ivy Bush, the Linden.
I saw him in the Forester, the Woodman.
He history: I saw him in the Wellington, the Nelson, Marquis of Granby, Wicked Lady, Bishop’s Finger.
I saw him in the Ship, the Golden Fleece, the Flask
The Railway Inn, the Robin Hood and Little John.
My Green Man, legend-strong, reborn, John Barleycorn.
Scythed down, he crawled, knelt, stood.
I saw him in the Crow, Newt, Stag, all weathers, noon or night.
I saw him in the Feathers, Salutation, Navigation, Knot, the Bricklayer’s Arms, Hop Inn, the Maypole and the Regiment, the Horse and Groom, the Dog and Duck, the Flag.
And where he supped the past lived still.
And where he sipped the glass brimmed full.
He was in the King’s Head and Queen’s Arms. I saw him there:
Green Man, well-born, spellbound, charming one, John Barleycorn.