Standing at the palace window, scowling
Henry waits for news
Hidden from the sight of all
Who'd sneer and cheer the whore's death
The witch must die!
What courage, dignity she doth show
Her last walk slow across the green
Fat bumble bees drone, ravens caw, and peck the grass
A dragonfly flutters still-moist wings in warm air
Spectators talk in whispers, wait
Assembled 'round the scaffold
Its macabre trappings; the block
What say you, now, Anne?
Lost your tongue?
Ah! Mind not—soon 'twill be your head
Masked executioner from France
Sword not axe
Henry harkened her plea
Muffled drumbeats match her footsteps
Close to scaffold she pauses,
Head held high, dark eyes fearful
With trembling hands
She clutches rosary close to breast
He waits for news
Oh! Anne, my Queen, he sighs
I loved you so
With discontent you plagued
He conjured up an image of her face
No beauty this
Bold, small eyes, a mouth too wide
Parchment pale skin
No lowered eyes or gentle ways
A sly, sloe-eyed, mocking smile
So insolent—So arrogant
Mounts steps to platform, resolute and proud
Refuses kerchief binding for her eyes
Her long gown scatters straw
Across the wooden boards
Kneels close to block
His face grows red
She shamed him much at Court
Sour bile of rage within him burns
As thoughts of whisperings 'bout wanton ways
Assail his seething mind
Blinded to the gardens, hedges, lawns
His blue eyes streak, like arrow leaving bow
Search beyond the line of mighty oaks
To Tower Bridge
And on to where the dingy, gloomy, old stone walls
Of London Tower wait
Suddenly, is heard the sonorous toll of bell;
St Peter ad Vincula
She hears soft footfalls from behind
The executioner draws close
Affright, she maunders
My neck is small; one rapid stroke will serve
To please My Lord, the King
He nods impatiently, and raises sword
In noonday sun
The great bell's tolling cease
Unable to contain his rage
His eyes alight with fire
You dared to cuckold me! Your King
As if in answer sound of cannon, loud and clear
Angrily roars back
Copyright 2007 by Babs Halton
Critique by Jendi Reiter
In this month's critique poem, "Anne Boleyn", Babs Halton sets herself the task of restoring dramatic tension to a story whose outcome and characters are well-known. She achieves this by zeroing in on the personal emotions and sensations of the characters in the present moment, allowing the reader's imagination to fill in the familiar historical context.
Most of us who know British history carry in our minds the famous Holbein portraits of Henry VIII: a ruthless, sensual figure whose distance from us is reinforced not only by his sumptuous old-fashioned costume but by his aggressively regal demeanor. Such a defense against intimacy invites breaching by the creative storyteller. Halton gives us a plausible glimpse into the secret thoughts of a man who can command life and death, but not his own heart. He is human after all, as we hoped.
The poem's first line, "Alone", sums up what Halton is telling us about Henry's essential dilemma. Love (albeit a selfish, infatuated version of it) made him more vulnerable than it was safe for a king to be, or so he thought. Suspicion, pride, and violence present themselves as the path of true strength, yet in the end the cannon signaling Anne's death gets the last word, an unwelcome reminder that there are some powers even the king cannot intimidate.
Halton builds tension by having the action occur in slow-motion, focusing with painful clarity on each physical step of Anne's progress toward the block. The beauty and tranquility of nature add tragic irony: "Fat bumble bees drone, ravens caw, and peck the grass/A dragonfly flutters still-moist wings in warm air". These fine observations mimic how the mind of a person in danger can magnify small irrelevant details of her surroundings in order to avoid comprehending the main threat.
The style of the poem occupies the intriguing territory between formal and free verse, an unobtrusive way to make the poem sound natural to modern ears while retaining the flavor of the historical period. The iambic beat is strong throughout, yet the varied line lengths convince the eye that this is free verse. The short lines without end-punctuation contribute to the stream-of-consciousness sensation that brings the poem to life.
I nearly always advise writers to steer clear of thee's and thou's, and their associated verb endings, like "hath" and "doth". Hardly anyone now knows the correct way to use these constructions, and therefore they get interspersed at random in a poem primarily written in modern English. Halton's single "doth" is a minor speed-bump in the flow of the poem, but the problem is worth noting because haphazard thee-thou usage derails so many emerging writers.
Her other old-fashioned phrases worked more naturally as approximations of how the characters would think and speak: "Affright, she maunders..." or "Whisperings 'bout wanton ways". Too much of this sort of language can seem precious, so it is a technique to use sparingly, as Halton has done here.
I found this sequence particularly striking: "Blinded to the gardens, hedges, lawns/His blue eyes streak, like arrow leaving bow/Search beyond the line of mighty oaks/To Tower Bridge". The visual is so important in this poem because all communication between the two main characters must now be indirect: internal monologue, recollected conversation, or clues to the other's actions inferred from surrounding sights and sounds. This may be why, as I entered into the events of the poem, it felt like they were unfolding in an unnatural silence, even though there are sounds mentioned throughout. The only directly observed conversation is Anne's last words to the executioner, and this is a one-sided exchange because he only replies with a silent nod. Is she really even speaking to him, or is he just another indirect vehicle for her final effort to reach out to Henry? "My neck is small; one rapid stroke will serve/To please My Lord, the King". Her thoughts turn toward him, inescapably, as his toward her, yet they cannot cross the gulf between them.
Admirers of this poem may enjoy Maxwell Anderson's verse-dramas "Elizabeth the Queen" (1930) and "Anne of the Thousand Days" (1948).
Where could a poem like "Anne Boleyn" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Wigtown Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by January 25
Prizes up to 1,500 pounds for unpublished poems, plus award ceremony in Wigtown, "Scotland's National Book Town"; no simultaneous submissions
Fish International Poetry Prize
Entries must be received by March 31; don't enter before January 1
Irish independent publisher offers prizes up to 1,000 euros and reading at West Cork literary festival in this contest for unpublished poems; online entry only
This poem and critique appeared in the December 2007 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free).
Categories: Poetry Critiques