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Godiva

First published in 1842. No alteration was made in any subsequent edition.

The poem was written in 1840 when Tennyson was returning from Coventry to London, after his visit to Warwickshire in that year. The Godiva pageant takes place in that town at the great fair on Friday in Trinity week. Earl Leofric was the Lord of Coventry in the reign of Edward the Confessor, and he and his wife Godiva founded a magnificent Benedictine monastery at Coventry. The first writer who mentions this legend is Matthew of Westminster, who wrote in 1307, that is some 250 years after Leofric's time, and what authority he had for it is not known. It is certainly not mentioned by the many preceding writers who have left accounts of Leofric and Godiva (see Gough's edition of Camden's 'Britannia', vol. ii., p. 346, and for a full account of the legend see W. Reader, 'The History and Description of Coventry Show Fair, with the History of Leofric and Godiva'). With Tennyson's should be compared Moultrie's beautiful poem on the same subject, and Landor's Imaginary Conversation between Leofric and Godiva.

[1] _I waited for the train at Coventry; I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge, To match the three tall spires; [2] and there I shaped The city's ancient legend into this:_ Not only we, the latest seed of Time, New men, that in the flying of a wheel Cry down the past, not only we, that prate Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well, And loathed to see them overtax'd; but she Did more, and underwent, and overcame, The woman of a thousand summers back, Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled In Coventry: for when he laid a tax Upon his town, and all the mothers brought Their children, clamouring, "If we pay, we starve!" She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode About the hall, among his dogs, alone, His beard a foot before him, and his hair A yard behind. She told him of their tears, And pray'd him, "If they pay this tax, they starve". Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed, "You would not let your little finger ache For such as _these?_"--"But I would die," said she. He laugh'd, and swore by Peter and by Paul; Then fillip'd at the diamond in her ear; "O ay, ay, ay, you talk!"--"Alas!" she said, "But prove me what it is I would not do." And from a heart as rough as Esau's hand, He answer'd, "Ride you naked thro' the town, And I repeal it"; and nodding as in scorn, He parted, with great strides among his dogs. So left alone, the passions of her mind, As winds from all the compass shift and blow, Made war upon each other for an hour, Till pity won. She sent a herald forth, And bad him cry, with sound of trumpet, all The hard condition; but that she would loose The people: therefore, as they loved her well, From then till noon no foot should pace the street, No eye look down, she passing; but that all Should keep within, door shut, and window barr'd. Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there Unclasp'd the wedded eagles of her belt, The grim Earl's gift; but ever at a breath She linger'd, looking like a summer moon Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head, And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee; Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid From pillar unto pillar, until she reach'd The gateway; there she found her palfrey trapt In purple blazon'd with armorial gold. Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity: The deep air listen'd round her as she rode, And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear. The little wide-mouth'd heads upon the spout Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur Made her cheek flame: her palfrey's footfall shot Light horrors thro' her pulses: the blind walls Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she Not less thro' all bore up, till, last, she saw The white-flower'd elder-thicket from the field Gleam thro' the Gothic archways [3]in the wall. Then she rode back cloth'd on with chastity: And one low churl, [4] compact of thankless earth, The fatal byword of all years to come, Boring a little auger-hole in fear, Peep'd--but his eyes, before they had their will, Were shrivell'd into darkness in his head, And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misused; And she, that knew not, pass'd: and all at once, With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon Was clash'd and hammer'd from a hundred towers, [5] One after one: but even then she gain'd Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown'd, To meet her lord, she took the tax away, And built herself an everlasting name.

[Footnote 1: These four lines are not in the privately printed volume of 1842, but were added afterwards.]

[Footnote 2: St. Michael's, Trinity, and St. John.]

[Footnote 3: 1844. Archway.]

[Footnote 4: His effigy is still to be seen, protruded from an upper window in High Street, Coventry.]

[Footnote 5: A most poetical licence. Thirty-two towers are the very utmost allowed by writers on ancient Coventry.]


Lord Alfred Tennyson

Early Poems

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