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The Green Man
I met a man in Lincolnshire
Who smelt of frost and hay.
His skin was painted with the sun,
His body was of clay.
His coat was made of bindweed
His cap was made of bark,
He gathered up the morning
And put away the dark.
He had a hump upon his back
Along the road he swayed,
And in his mouth, a silver flute
On which a tune he played.
It was an ancient melody
That came upon my ears,
Older than the centuries
And longer than the years
He turned his face towards me
His eyes were polished stone.
I gazed upon his features –
And gazed into my own!
Inspired by the carving of “The Green Man” in Southwell Minster which I first saw in 1986 and has fascinated me ever since.
NOTE: The Green Man has found a special and intriguing place in British history in the past thousand years or so. He flourished throughout England in Medieval times, and he is also infamously seen at the Rosslyn Chapel (mid fifteenth century) in Midlothian, Scotland where he has a part to play in a storm of controversy and conspiracy theories.
The first carvings of foliate heads originated in Roman art during the second half of the first century AD. These early foliate heads and masks were usually adorned with acanthus leaves, a common plant in the Mediterranean at the time.
Foliate heads made an appearance at Neumagen in Germany carved on the sarcophagi of wine merchants during the second and third centuries. As Kathleen Basford wonders in her book ‘The Green Man’, this “perhaps recalls the ancient rustic festivals held in honour of Dionysos where revellers stained their faces with new wine and masked them with huge beards made out of leaves.”
However, the Green Man didn’t make his first appearance in Britain until the eleventh century where he put down roots in the Church and adapted his leafy structure to the English way of life, incorporating oak leaves, hawthorn, ivy and hops during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
In twelfth century churches such as St John the Evangelist, (Elkstone, Gloucestershire) and St Leonard, (Linley, Shropshire) the Green Man is crudely depicted in the stonework, but in St Mary and St David (Kilpeck, Herefordshire) the doorway carvings are beautifully chiselled in intricate detail.
Although the Green Man is often nowadays connected to Jack-in-the-Green, there isn’t any evidence to suggest a relationship. Jack-in-the-Green and the Green Man only appear together towards the end of the eighteenth century when a photographer, Mr CJP Cave, took photographs of the roof bosses in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral and noted that the faces under the foliage reminded him of the Jack-in-the-Green he recalled from his childhood days.
However, the Green Man is easily traced through the Church as this is where he grew and developed into the anguished soul peering through the foliage as we know him today.
He began life in Britain and countries north of the Alps as a diabolical figure. In Exeter Cathedral he is depicted as being trodden upon by The Virgin, but without knowing the artist’s motives we can only guess at what he was trying to portray. Perhaps it is the triumph of Christianity over paganism or the triumph of ‘higher’ man over his animal nature. The Green Man has also been portrayed as the three-headed Satan (Triceps Beelzebub, the Trinity of Evil) which shows evidence of being perpetuated in Scandinavia but is comparatively rare in Britain. Fifteenth century examples of the unholy Trinity can be found in the Green Man’s portrayal as a devil in Chester Cathedral and as a crowned tricephalos at Cartmel Priory, Cumbria.
The Green Man branched out and flourished within the confines of the Church across Europe in the thirteenth century with unusual and startling depictions in Bamberg Cathedral, Germany and in Auxerre Cathedral, France. The former is in stone – a rectangular, almost stylised portrait of the Green Man – with an indescribable, yet knowing, expression, while in Auxerre he peers down at the congregation in bewilderment.
In England during this time he was often depicted with a pained expression biting down upon branches, or growing sprigs out of his mouth, such as at St Wulfram (Grantham, Lincolnshire), Ripon Cathedral (Yorkshire) , Dorchester Abbey (Oxfordshire) and famously at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire.
Sometimes he is seen poking out his tongue, or with an ape-like face, almost as a grotesque or a gargoyle might be employed to frighten away evil spirits, but through the centuries he has become increasingly human, more a tortured soul than a demonic entity. It’s difficult to distinguish between simple decoration and a depiction with greater meaning, but it’s tempting to think that the Church was visually reminding their flock that man is a creature of two parts and that submitting to the animal half, aligned to flora and fauna, would lead to misery. In this way the Green Man appears to be a lost soul.
Changes of style took place in France, then Germany, during the thirteenth century, and it is during the fourteenth century that the Green Man in his guise familiar to us today of a human head surrounded by leaves took form. There is a spectacular example of him in All Saints church at Sutton Benger in Wiltshire where his sorrowful eyes look at us amidst a mass of hawthorn carved in stone, and he looks positively desperate to escape his leafy bondage in the choir stalls at Lincoln Cathedral. Norwich cathedral has a variety of Green Men with quite alarming expressions glowering down at us from the roof bosses.
Nowadays, the Green Man is claimed as belonging to various groups, from neo-Pagans to certain occult societies. The worship of nature and the worship of the severed head certainly have places in British folk-lore and customs stretching back in time and a recurring character is Jack in the Green. He is also known as the Grass King, King of the May, the Wild Man, King of the Wood and more, and it can be said that in any of these incarnations he represents the spirit of vegetation. Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ cites many examples of customs pertaining to Jack in the Green, too numerous to mention, but suffice it to say that the custom of beheading a foliate man effigy at the vernal equinox is persistent throughout Europe.
We can only guess at the reasons why the Church adopted the Green Man and in what context their architects meant him to be portrayed. In more recent centuries he has captured the public imagination as can be seen by the number of pubs bearing his name. However, as artists and pagans alike continue with their fascination with the Green Man it seems that we haven’t outgrown him yet nor completely forgotten that we are, like him, enmeshed with our natural surroundings.
Poem in October
It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed
Myself to set foot
In the still sleeping town and set forth.
My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.
A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with
Blackbirds and the sun of October
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.
Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
Away but the weather turned around.
It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels
And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart
moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the
And the mystery
Still in the water and singingbirds.
And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
A Thirtieth birthday is important, it marks the transition from unthinking and joyful youth to the beginnings of wisdom and worldly concerns. It is unlikely that the heart’s truth will be celebrated in a years time, rather that the vagaries of our childhood upbringing will come to have an increasing effect on the possibilities open to us. WE thought we owned the world but the world owns us snd decides our fate without our permisssion. Indeed on that birthday, for us as for the poet, the ‘weather turned around’ and life began to unravel the dark side of our personaility which hitherto had gone unrecognised except in the occasional but inexplicable outburst of fury at what life has served up to us.
On Hearing of the Death of John Lennon (1940-1980)
I heard the news today, Oh boy,
Down there in lonely canyons of Manhattan
Dropped to earth, a falling star,
And trails of chords left patterns
On an empty sky.
Here comes the sun, and over blue horizons,
Quells the nightmare fever chart of love,
Iceflows melting on the bathroom floor
And rhythm’s beat on bone, softens
In the sad glow of age.
Love, love, love, incessant descant
Drives the world in slow mutations.
Nothing was the same again, they said,
Returning their gold medallions
In the dilatory post.
You know it ain’t easy to get us some peace!
But this is crazy, should have told you, man!
That limelight damages your health.
And now, suspended ‘twixt heaven and hell,
Poor guru, old brown shoe, farewell.
(to Joan 1937- 2003)
Union Street fades with the sunset,
Dying towards the lingering sea.
You are always there, walking away,
Blue Dragons in the wind,
And memories of the Albatross.
Nobody walks here anymore,
The street is drained of life.
Union Street is always raining,
Wet in the autumn lamplight,
Memories are like shadows,
Flitting down the alleyways.
Today the smell of loneliness
Scares me like nothing else,
Our footsteps are frozen in the sand,
Memories, crushed like sea shells.
They always said that night became us.
Even the moonlight is dimmed
Now you have gone away.
Without your faraway eyes,
No exploding circles of light,
Just the sound of your dying call.
Even the birds are silent now,
Until a raven on a lamp post
Smacks the night with its caw.
Crazy bird stalks the pavement
With its memories of broken darkness.
Cellars give up their secrets
On this shadow shrouded night.
Memories are fused in my head.
They say that every Raven
Craves a crimson stone.
Why did you go from me suddenly
Ending the years of endless waiting?
Inside us are the shades of heaven,
Glimpses of lost origins,
And the years that never were.
Summon me up the darkness,
Let falling night reign in my soul.
Come to me in all your comeliness,
Re-kindle my lost memories
And refresh my star studded dreams.
A poem composed in memory of my late ex-wife, Joan (1937 – 2003). Union
Street is in Southport,
England, where we first lived. It is a narrow street which runs down to the sea
front and had a Chinese restaurant, The Blue Dragon, and a jazz club, the
Albatross, where we were regulars. Divorce after 25 years of marriage and 4 children does not negate the good times we had together and there were many of those. We merged together like hand and glove when we first met. She is also the mother of my kids. She is sadly missed.
The Raven seems to foreshadow a dark future but is also a repository of
raven shows us how to go into the dark of our inner self and bring out the light of our true nature resolving inner conflicts which have long been buried. This is the deepest power of healing we can possess. If
a raven totem has come into our life, magic is at play. The raven activates the energy of change and links it to our will and intention. With
this totem, we can make great changes in our life; especially the ability to take the unformed thought and make it reality.
Across the face of the moon
A memory, an apocalypse, flickers.
Dark eyes glitter like craters
From the dried up lake of dreams.
When the dry season is here,
My mind is emptied of desire.
My body filled only
With the throb of a beating heart.
Surely there is an end of striving,
When life is dried up and shriven
And the soul pulsing quietly
Towards the dying stars.
Written on a clear night in January when the moonlight illuminated the shapes of faces and past memories in the trees. Where on earth are we going to and why?