The best ever poem in praise of the pub

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.

21 thoughts on “The best ever poem in praise of the pub

  1. I saw it on the ‘Culture Show’ and like you think it’s a fantastic poem.

    Most of the the pubs are in Manchester where, like me, Duffy lives. I’ll buy her a pint if I see her in any of them!

    1. What video were you watching? Most, if not all, of the pubs were in Glasgow.

      Who cares that you live in Manchester. If it weren’t for another Scot you’d need a map to find you lot, and your football team.

      You and the Scousers have got a lot in common.

      No poets. And football teams that are 2nd at anything they ever ‘achieve’.

      1. A triflew unfair about the Scousers, there, Kev, who actually had a school of poetry named after their city in the 1960s: I treasure a letter I have from Brian Patten, one of the leading Liverpool Poets.

  2. I caught this by accident too – then re-watched it online (seems it’s no longer on the BBC I-player – but I bet ‘Celebrity Come Singing & Dancing In The Jungle On Ice’ is still up there!)

    Anyway, back to the poem – just great – really moving stuff.

    I heard about the song it refers to a year or 2 ago – a modern re-working of it appears on a recent CD from Imagined Village (a great folk-fusion super-group – nowhere near as bad as that sounds!)

    see –

    Then I bought a beautiful book of the poem – illustrated with cracking woodcut images by artist Mary Azarian.

    1. Me, makk a typeo? Nevver!

      All I can say is that it sounds like “He history” to me – but listen to it yourself here and tell me what you think

  3. I copied this down off the telly & had it as
    “Pre-history – I saw him in The Wellington . . .”
    but it only makes slightly more sense – but it does sound like she may have had a crafty pint or two of Wobbly Bob before the recording :~)

  4. Only just caught up with this, love it, reminds me of Edward Thomas’ Lob, the idea of a poem using collective memory to celebrate our history— also reminds me of Chesterton’s ‘The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road’.

  5. I heard Carol Ann Duffy reading this at a poetry garden party in Didsbury, Manchester, this very afternoon. Made me want to go straight out and have a pint …

  6. They have laid him in three furrows deep
    Laid clods upon his head
    Then these three men made a solemn vow
    John Barleycorn was dead, John Barleycorn was dead

    They have let him lie for a very long time
    Till the rain from heaven did fall
    Then little Sir John sprang up his head
    And he did amaze them all, he did amaze them all

    They let him stand till the midsummer day
    Till he looked both pale and wan
    Then little Sir John he grew a long beard
    And he so became a man, he so became a man

    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Sing fa, la, la, lay, oh
    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Fa, la, la, la, lay, oh

    So they have hired the men with the scythes so sharp
    To cut him off at the knee
    And they rolled him and they tied him around the waist
    They’ve served him barbarously, they have served barbarously

    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Sing fa, la, la, lay, oh
    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Singing fa, la, la, lay, oh

    And they have the hired men with the crab-tree sticks
    To cut him skin from bone
    And the miller he has served him worse than that
    He’s ground him between two stones, he’s ground him between two stones

    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Sing fa, la, la, lay, oh
    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Singing fa, la, la, lay, oh

    And they have wheeled him here, and they have wheeled him there
    They’ve wheeled him to a barn
    And then they have served him worse than that
    They’ve bunged him in a vat, they’ve bunged him in a vat

    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Sing fa, la, la, lay, oh
    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Singing fa, la, la, lay, oh

    And so they worked their will on John Barleycorn
    But he lived to tell the tale
    Now we pour him out of an old brown jug
    And they call him home brewed ale, they call him home brewed ale

    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Sing fa, la, la, lay, oh
    Fa, la, la, la, it’s a lovely day
    Singing fa, la, la, lay, oh

    Read more: Steeleye Span – John Barleycorn Lyrics | MetroLyrics

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