Home  »  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895  »  From “Canute the Great”

Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Michael Field

From “Canute the Great”


SCENE.—A room on the northern bank of the Thames.

Canute.She dared not wait my coming, and shall look

No more upon my face.—A vacancy,

A blank! that scarf left trailing on the floor,

A shred too of her robe,—I must have trampled,

Have hurt her, as I thrust her off. A shred,

A tag, and is it thus that women suffer?

We can inflict so little on such natures;

We cannot make reprisals. Slavish tears

For Edric, and,—O Hel!—a bloody gleam

Across her eyes, when I proclaimed the rights

Of Edmund’s children. I am cut adrift,

Far, far from the great, civilizing God,—

Dull, speechless, unappraised.

[A voice singing.]Is that a child

At babble with his vespers?—Silver sweet!

It minds me of the holy brotherhood,

Chanting adown the banks. As yesterday

I see all clear, how as they moved they chanted,

And made a mute procession in the stream.[Gazing abstractedly on the water.]

Merrily sang the monks of Ely,

As Canute the king passed by.

Row to the shore, knights, said the king,

And let us hear the Churchmen sing.

Still are they singing? It was Candlemas,

My queen sat splendid at the prow and listened

With heaving breast. ’T was then the passion seized me

To emulate, to let her know my ear

Had common pleasure with her, and I thrilled

The story out. The look she turned on me!

The choir shall sing this music. I resolved

In the glory of the verse to civilize

My blood, to sweeten it, to give it law,

To curb my wild thoughts with the rein of metre.

Row to the shore! So pleasantly it ran,

A ripple on the wave. I grew ambitious

To be a scholar like King Alfred, gather

Wise men about me, in myself possess

A treasure, an enchantment. For an instant

I looked round royally, and felt a king.

The abbey-chant, the stream, the meadowland,

The willows glimmering in the sun;—a poet

Wins things to come so close. A plash, a gurgle!

There ’s a black memory for the river now;

And hark! strange, solemn, Latin words that toll,

And move on slowly to me … Up the stair.

Without the door. A wail, a litany!

Enter Child singing.

Child.Miserere mei, Deus, secundam magnam misericordiam tuam;

Et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.

Can.How perfectly he sings the music! Child,

Who art thou with that voice, those dying cheeks?

Art thou an angel sent to wring my heart,

Or is it mortal woe? Thine arms are full.

Child.Green, country herbs, they say, will staunch a wound,

And I have run about the fields and gathered

Those I could catch up quickly:—for the blood

Was leaping all the while. But here is clary,

The blessèd thistle, yarrow, sicklewort,

And all-heal red as gore. I knew a wood

So dark and cool, I crept for lily-leaves;

Then it grew lonely, and I lost the way.

But, oh, you must not beat me; it is done.

Father, I stabbed him, throw away the whip!

Now God will scourge me. So I plucked the flowers,

And sang for mercy in the holy words

Priest Sampson taught me, Miserere!


Is Edric’s child, the little murderer,

Who did my deed of treason. Edmund, turn

Those trustful eyes from off me.

Child.Take me back.

He will be dead … He fell, O father, fell,

And when I put my cheek against his side,

Gave a great pant. Let ’s pray for him together.

Can you sing Miserere? For I did it,

And then he looked … Once in the ivytod

I caught an owl, and hurt its wing. ’T was so

He looked. Oh, quickly tell me where he lies—

Next room? or down the passage? Do you know

He was my uncle, and was kissing me,

One, two, three, on my head.

Can.Cease! From these lips,

White, childish penitents, how awful sounds

The wild avowal of their treachery.

Child, it was I who struck your uncle’s side,

Who falsely kissed him; it was I who set

Your father on this wickedness; ’t was I

Who drove your frantic innocence to work

The sin of my conception. Can you learn

That I alone am guilty, and God’s wrath

Will visit me with judgment?

Child.Come along,

And take me where he is. How can I go?

I do not know the path or time of day.

The leaves are fading. Can the blood flow long

Before it kills? I saw it spirt and jump;

I could not see it now. I ran and ran…

Perchance I stayed too long about the fields.

’T is dark; no trees and hedges. He is gone,

And I am damned forever; the fresh herbs

Could once have saved me.

Can.He is chill and fainting;

Give me these hands.

Child.I am not much afraid.

Before I struck at him my skin was hot;

Now dew is falling on me; it is cool.

Let me lie in your arms where I can look

Up at the sky. There ’s some one … and he grows

So kindly. Oh, he smiles down all the way,

Quite golden in my eyes.

Can.He sees the moon.

How pale and cold he ’s growing! All the flowers

Are slipping down. I cannot bear his weight.

’T is condemnation. There is just a spot

Here on his garment, one bright drop of blood,

Sprinkling his spirit; he is saved; on him

It is the very mark of Christ; on me

The blot that makes illegible my name

I’ the book of life.

Child.If I should fall asleep,

It will not matter, for I could not see

The healing plants by night; besides, my eyes

Will open wide at morning. I must hold

The blessèd thistle in my hand, and pray;

And God may so forgive me. Miserere!

Can.The child is dying on my breast. He closes

His frightened eyes; the notes are on his lips,

His arm still round my shoulder.

Sharply flows

The Thames now he is dead; the rush, the hum,

Are like a conscience haunting me without.

I cannot bear it. I will fling him forth

To the engulfing river, and forget him.

Rank, pagan impulse! I would learn the prayer,

Recall the gracious song,—and stormy sagas

Come hurtling through my brain. I am a stranger

To our sweet Saviour Christ; I cannot pray;

I love the slaughter of my enemies,

And to exact full vengeance. Little one,

Thou shalt have fair, white cere-cloth, and a circlet

Of purest gold. Now that I look on thee,

It grows soft in my heart as when they chanted

Across the stream,—Canute the king passed by,

And listened. They shall sing about thy grave.[He bows himself over the child and weeps.]