Narrative poetry (in English) has long fallen out of fashion. English narrative poetry arranged in rhyming quatrains = outdated + are you fuggin’ kiddin’ me?! (Exclaim post-modernist poetic arbiters of taste — such traditionalist poetry openly mocked as hopelessly outmoded, tired, played out. FYI: Writers of such formalist “drivel” are regarded by the apparatchiks of the avant-garde as vulgarians of the worst sort: unimaginative hacks who perpetrate tired moon-june-spoon rhyme schemes upon a jaded, seen-and-heard-it-all-before reading public. This is arrogant dismissive nonsense, of course: early 20th century faddish criticism that still holds unaccountable sway in many quarters (especially the academic) of the Realm Poetic. Such prejudice against formalist verse is as risible and wrong-headed as it is laughable. Summoned to give testimony for the defense: Robert Service, George Sterling, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Yeats, Frank Coffman, Robert Frost, et. al. Hmm . . . lotta “Roberts” in that list. Change first name?)
To be sure there is still power, potency and picturesqueness a-plenty to be found in the rhyming (and occasional near-rhyming —”missed” rhymes inject semantic tension and suspense into a work) narrative poem. Especially the ballad. The form has not yet—even now, in the early part of the 21st century—been exhausted. In fact, I would argue that formalist narrative poetry is having a bit of a moment here in 2021. Furthermore, I assert that the poetic form of rhyming narrative verse will never be entirely exhausted. How could it be, given the fecundity of literary imagination and the richness of our language?
Exhibit A (or should that be Y?) rejected by divers editors “with regrets” as being “too long for publication” (in truth, it’s asking a lot for an editor to devote 10-12 pages of a poetry magazine to one writer–especially an obscure unknown):
The Ballad of Annie Croft
A Tale of New England: circa 1660
Annie Croft had brown eyes soft
as sable fur, her hair
red as sun-kissed roses—carriage
& deportment exceeding fair.
Her charms caught the attention
of the village magistrate;
William Moore was married
but desired to fornicate
with the woman who had acted
as mid-wife to troubled births —
Tom & John: William’s sons
bawled, & kicked, & nursed
at the breasts of rigid Constance Moore:
helpmete of grim, hawk-eyed mien;
ten years frigid, the magistrate’s wife
praised God, & hearth, & kin
“for the bounteous beauty of new life
predestined for Hell or Heaven;
scourging rod & dour prayer
shalt ensure their souls will leaven
the afterlife with willing thralls
obedient to God—
though here they’ll hunt, & fish, & farm,
& praise our loving Lord.”
Alas, but this was not to be;
sickness swept the village.
Tom & John died three-month’s-old;
warpath Indians pillaged
& burned surrounding settlements;
shallow wells ran dry.
Barley, corn, & oat crops failed
fully half the pilgrims died.
’Twas in this monstrous starving time
Anne’s ministering hands
eased divers aches & ailments;
she served both God & man.
Her potions, salves, & ointments
brought relief to those in need;
ancien’ practice/hallowed tradition:
medicine of roots, & barks, & leaves.
’Midst Indian war & famine,
sickness & internal strife,
the magistrate’s bold lustful eyes
turned from his somber wife
to smiling, sun-kissed Annie
who shrank from his loathsome touch.
William schemed to catch Anne alone;
his hands itched to feel her up.
A man of means & property
respected by the Church
Wil manifested Falstaffian vices:
greed, lust, & drunken mirth.
Anne spurned the magistrate’s advances;
William sulked & called her bitch.
He grabbed her bosom; she slapped his face—
Wil lodged the charge of “witch”.
Constance Moore took up the cry;
unhinged by woe & grief
she echoed William’s charge of witch
declared, “A vile, sneaking thief
crawls odious as an ambidexter
amongst God’s very own.
This wretched girl culled souls for Satan;
let Satan call her home!”
The magistrate issued a warrant
for the arrest of Annie Croft.
She was jailed: stripped naked, poked & prodded
devil’s marks were sought
& duly found by venal men
who understood in times of strife
a scapegoat—preferably peasant class—
must sacrifice their life
that godly folk be reassured.
Noose, burning brand, & bludgeon
were educative instruments
in the inculcation of religion
& unquestioning blind obedience
to clench-jawed grim authority.
Majoritarian Calvinist polis:
control, consensus, conformity.
Anne Croft was given the water test;
William Moore was seen to gloat
as “witch-woman” Annie forbear to drown
but perversely deigned to float.
A trial was held: rank mockery
of fairness, truth, & justice;
hysterical children testified
that evil Annie corrupted
their innocent minds with devilry.
They capered, gibbered, danced
naked beneath an argent moon:
“Ann hexed us with a glance.”
Devil’s marks, failed water test,
unexpected deaths & sickness;
the testimony of dancing children—
“I trust we’ve proved the wicked
intent & malicious mind-set
of a peasant girl so bold
as to forge a pact with the Prince of Lies.
The devil take her soul!”
So saying, the magistrate hammered hard
’pon the table with his fist;
closing argument thus concluded,
he added, “Think on this—
Divine Providence hath gifted us
a New Canaan: virgin lands;
though witches, warlocks, heretics
pervert our blessings—all are damned
who ally with liar Lucifer.
In New England let us begin
to lead lives of shining righteousness
& root out the enemy within.
Will ye stand with Christ our Lord?
Will ye stand with God?
Or will ye suffer a witch to live
in defiance of the Law?”
Jittery men & tittering women:
a jury of Anne Croft’s peers
threw reason & good sense to the wind,
took counsel of their fears
& returned a shameful verdict:
“Guilty as charged,” they said.
“Thou shalt be hanged from good stout rope
’till thou art surely dead.”
A fortnight later Annie Croft
mounted the gallows afore a crowd
of stern-eyed men, women, & children—
shaved head upright, unbowed.
Anne’s countenance was ashen
as the noose slipped about her neck;
& though she trembled, no tears flowed
when she drew a final breath
& dropped hands-bound & shoeless
through the banging scaffold door;
she fell, jerked to a violent stop—
kicked—and knew no more.
The crowd: a dark-clothed murder of crows
turned as wrenching wail
scythed knife-like through that awful scene:
to poor dead, convulsing Annie
vented oaths & shrill, hot screams
of horror, fury, shock, & rage
at act so vile, cruel, obscene.
I aimed a shaking finger
dead-straight at the magistrate:
“Ye days are numbered, swill-belly Wil!
Ye stand before the Gate
of Judgement with thy viper wife.
Repent! Afore it’s too late.”
& shouldering through that gape-mouthed crowd
returned home to seethe with hate.
One month later, in the misted dark
of a cold November morn’
a band of grim-faced men & I
stood ready to greet the dawn
around the cut-log, thatched-roofed home
of the murderous magistrate
& hawk-eyed, forked-tongued Constance Moore.
We’d come to congregate
& exact a fiery vengeance
for the death of Annie Croft;
our blood had boiled to see fair Annie
dance at the end of a rope.
At a silent signal the torch was passed:
fire moved hand-to-hand;
we ignited the resin’d clapboard sides
of Wil’s home with burning brands.
The pitch-smeared tinderbox house inferno’d—
hellfire flames leapt high;
crimson tongues of fire crackled;
smoke boiled into the sky.
Minutes later piercing screams
sounded from within:
the magistrate & his false-witness Mrs.
burning for their sins.
The roaring fire flared & spit;
Constance cried & called
out to Heaven for mercy denied.
Wil burst out the door
wreathed head-to-toe in guttering flame—
he hit the ground & rolled.
I knocked him flat, raised keen-edged blade
to end his life & send his soul
down to the sulfurous, burning Pit.
The magistrate’s vulgar life
voided there in blood & fire
at the bitter end of my knife.
Wil’s face was charred & smoking —
flesh cracked & purplish-black;
burnt hands fumbled at blistered throat.
I crowed: “Woe & alack!
ye lusting, lying, swill-belly dog!
A sweet soul sent aloft
was mine own precious loving sister:
mid-wife Annie Croft.
Ye works condemn thee! Murderer!
Foul Magistrate, farewell!”
& planting steel in smoldering skull
I sent his soul to Hell.
No other “witches” were ever hung
in that old New England town;
the arsonists who’d burned the Moores
were hunted, though never found.
Decades passed & life went on;
guilty consciences tread soft;
& the subject was ever swiftly changed
when arose the name of Annie Croft.
— Carl E. Reed
Afterword: “Annie Croft” is a composite character who lives and dies three decades before the outbreak of witch hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts. Let us a take a moment to remember the actual people who perished in the madness of 1692 (WIKI):
- Bridget Bishop
- Rebecca Nurse
- Sarah Good
- Elizabeth Howe
- Susannah Martin
- Sarah Wildes
- George Burroughs
- George Jacobs Sr. (August 19, 1692)
- Martha Carrier
- John Proctor
- John Willard
- Martha Corey (September 22, 1692; wife of Giles Corey)
- Mary Eastey (née Towne; September 22, 1692)
- Mary Parker (née Ayer; September 22, 1692)
- Alice Parker (September 22, 1692)
- Ann Pudeator (September 22, 1692)
- Wilmot Redd (September 22, 1692)
- Margaret Scott (September 22, 1692)
- Samuel Wardwell Sr. (September 22, 1692)
- Giles Corey (September 19, 1692) – pressed to death
Died in prison: