Poetry Corner

This poem appears, in part, in the front matter of E.R. Eddison’s THE WORM OUROBOROS, which I had read back when I was 16.  Eddison quoted only six stanza, but I thought (for no one told me otherwise) that this was the whole of it.

Now, in my 60’s, only now have I learned there is a complete version.

Ironically, I did not know of the visitor to Elfland who could not lie until this very day: despite how unexpected the coincidence might seem, Gilberec Moth of my own invention is unrelated to True Thomas.

What I did not know what the Thomas the Rhymer, True Thomas, the Scottish foreteller who could not tell a lie, is based on a real man from history.

As the tale tells it, Thomas of Erceldoune meets the Queen of Elfland, who seeks to employ him as her harper, but he seduces her to become his leman. He harps at her court during a feast, which lasts three days there while seven years pass by on Earth.

During the ride to Elfland, whose food he dare not eat, was given an apple whose taste prevented him thereafter from ever telling a lie — hence his name “True Thomas.”

Sir Walter Scott remarks: “The traditional commentary upon this ballad informs us, that the apple was the produce of the fatal Tree of Knowledge, and that the garden was the terrestrial paradise. The repugnance of Thomas to be debarred the use of falsehood, when he might find it convenient, has a comic effect.”

The second and third parts of the poem tell of his prophecies regarding the wars between England and Scotland, and his mysterious disappearance at the end of his life, following a snow-white hart who appeared at his doorstep.

Alexander Gardner, publisher to the Queen, in 1865, in the annotated edition of THE BALLAD MINSTRELSY OF SCOTLAND, remarks “As both the English and the Scots availed themselves of the credit which his prophecies had obtained, in falsifying them, to serve their purposes against each other, it is now impossible to ascertain what the real prophecies of Thomas the Rhymer were, if he ever published such.”

He also remarks that the original and ancient poem, on which the later versions were based (such as that of Sir Walter Scott, given below) may indeed have been penned by Thomas the Rhymer.

In his words “Would it not be pardonable, from such instances as these, to suppose it at least probable, that Thomas Kymour (Thomas the Rhymer) was really the original author of this romance; and that in order to give a sanction to his predictions, which seem all to have been calculated in -one way or other for the service of his country, he pretended to an intercourse with the Queen of Elfland, as Numa Pompilius did with the nymph Egeria? Such an intercourse, in the days of True Thomas, was accounted neither unnatural nor uncommon.”

Here is the story as told by a modern (and comedic) historian.

Here is the poem:

First part:

True Thomas lay on Huntlie bank;
A ferlie he spied wi’ his ee;
And there he saw a lady bright,
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

Her skirt was o the grass-green silk,
Her mantle o the velvet fyne,
At ilka tett of her horse’s mane
Hang fifty siller bells and nine.

True Thomas he pulld aff his cap,
And louted low down to his knee:
‘All hail, thou mighty Queen of Heaven!
For thy peer on earth I never did see.’

‘O no, O no, Thomas,’ she said,
‘That name does not belang to me;
I am but the queen of fair Elfland,
That am hither come to visit thee.

‘Harp and carp, Thomas,’ she said,
‘Harp and carp, along wi’ me,
And if ye dare to kiss my lips,
Sure of your bodie I will be!’

‘Betide me weal, betide me woe,
That weird sall never daunton me;
Syne he has kissed her rosy lips,
All underneath the Eildon Tree.

This was all the poem I knew all my life until today. It continues onward to epic stature.

Now, ye maun go wi me,’ she said,
‘True Thomas, ye maun go wi me,
And ye maun serve me seven years,
Thro weal or woe as may chance to be.’

She mounted on her milk-white steed,
She’s taen True Thomas up behind,
And aye wheneer her bride rung,
The steed flew swifter than the wind.

O they rade on, and farther on –
The steed gaed swifter than the wind –
Until they reached a desart wide,
And living land was left behind.

‘Light down, light down, now, True Thomas,
And lean your head upon my knee;
Abide and rest a little space,
And I will shew you ferlies three.

‘O see ye not yon narrow road,
So thick beset with thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Tho after it but few enquires.

‘And see ye not that braid braid road,
That lies across that lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

‘And see not ye that bonny road,
That winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where thou and I this night maun gae.

‘But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue,
Whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land,
Ye’ll neer get back to your ain countrie.’

O they rade on, and farther on,
And they waded thro rivers aboon the knee,
And they saw neither sun nor moon,
But they heard the roaring of the sea.

It was mirk mirk night, and there was nae stern light,
And they waded thro red blude to the knee;
For a’ the blude that’s shed an earth
Rins thro the springs o that countrie.

Syne they came on to a garden green,
And she pu’d an apple frae a tree:
‘Take this for thy wages, True Thomas,
It will give the tongue that can never lie.’

‘My tongue is mine ain,’ True Thomas said,
‘A gudely gift ye wad gie me!
I neither dought to buy nor sell,
At fair or tryst where I may be.

‘I dought neither speak to prince or peer,
Nor ask of grace from fair ladye:’
‘Now hold thy peace,’ the lady said,
‘For as I say, so must it be.’

He has gotten a coat of the even cloth,
And a pair of shoes of velvet green,
And till seven years were gane and past
True Thomas on earth was never seen.

Part Second

When seven years were come and gane,
The sun blink’d fair on pool and stream;
And Thomas lay on Huntlie bank,
Like one awaken’d from a dream.

He heard the trampling of a steed,
He saw the flash of armour flee,
And he beheld a gallant knight
Come riding down by the Eildon Tree.

He was a stalwart knight, and strong;
Of giant make he ‘pear’d to be:
He stirr’d his horse, as he were wode,
Wi’ gilded spurs, of faushion free.

Says – ‘Well met, well met, true Thomas!
Some uncouth ferlies show to me.’-
Says – ‘Christ thee save, Corspatrick brave!
Thrice welcome, good Dunbar, to me!

‘Light down, light down, Corspatrick brave!
And I will show thee curses three,
Shall gar fair Scotland greet and grane,
And change the green to the black livery.

‘A storm shall roar this very hour,
From Ross’s hills to Solway sea.’-
‘Ye lied, ye lied, ye warlock hoar!
For the sun shines sweet on fauld and lee.’-

He put his hand on the Earlie’s head;
He show’d him a rock beside the sea,
Where a king lay stiff beneath his steed,
And steel-dight nobles wiped their ee.

‘The neist curse lights on Branxton hills;
By Flodden’s high and heathery side,
Shall wave a banner red as blude,
And chieftains throng wi’ meikle pride.

‘A Scottish King shall come full keen,
The ruddy lion beareth he;
A feather’d arrow sharp, I ween,
Shall make him wink and warre to see.

‘When he is bloody, and all to bledde,
Thus to his men he still shall say –
‘For God’s sake, turn ye back again,
And give yon southern folk a fray!
Why should I lose, the right is mine?
My doom is not to die this day.’

‘Yet turn ye to the eastern hand,
And woe and wonder ye sall see;
How forty thousand spearmen stand,
Where yon rank river meets the sea.

‘There shall the lion lose the gylte,
And the libbards bear it clean away;
At Pinkyn Cleuch there shall be spilt
Much gentil bluid that day.’-

‘Enough, enough, of curse and ban;
Some blessings show thou now to me,
Or, by the faith o’ my bodie,’ Corspatrick said,
‘Ye shall rue the day ye e’er saw me!’-

‘The first of blessings I shall thee show,
Is by a burn, that’s call’d of bread;
Where Saxon men shall tine the bow,
And find their arrows lack the head.

‘Beside that brigg, out ower that burn,
Where the water bickereth bright and sheen,
Shall many a fallen courser spurn,
And knights shall die in battle keen.

‘Beside a headless cross of stone,
The libbards there shall lose the gree;
The raven shall come, the erne shall go,
And drink the Saxon bluid sae free.
The cross of stone they shall not know,
So thick the corses there shall be.’-

‘But tell me now,’ said brave Dunbar,
‘True Thomas, tell now unto me,
What man shall rule the isle of Britain,
Even from the north to the southern sea?’-

‘A French Queen shall bear the son,
Shall rule all Britain to the sea;
He of the Bruce’s blood shall come,
As near as in the ninth degree.

‘The waters worship shall his race;
Likewise the waves of the farthest sea;
For they shall ride over ocean wide,
With hempen bridles, and horse of tree.’

Part Third.

When seven years more were come and gone,
Was war through Scotland spread,
And Ruberslaw show’d high Dunyon
His beacon blazing red.

Then all by bonny Coldingknow,
Pitch’d palliouns took their room,
And crested helms, and spears a-rowe,
Glanced gaily through the broom.

The Leader, rolling to the Tweed,
Resounds the ensenzie;
They roused the deer from Caddenhead,
To distant Torwoodlee.

The feast was spread in Ercildoune,
In Learmont’s high and ancient hall:
And there were knights of great renown,
And ladies, laced in pall.

Nor lacked they, while they sat at dine,
The music nor the tale,
Nor goblets of the blood-red wine,
Nor mantling quaighs of ale.

True Thomas rose, with harp in hand,
When as the feast was done:
(In minstrel strife, in Fairy Land,
The elfin harp he won).

Hush’d were the throng, both limb and tongue,
And harpers for envy pale;
And arm’d lords lean’d on their swords,
And hearken’d to the tale.

In numbers high, the witching tale
The prophet pour’d along;
No after bard might e’er avail
Those numbers to prolong.

Yet fragments of the lofty strain
Float down the tide of years,
As, buoyant on the stormy main,
A parted wreck appears.

He sung King Arthur’s Table Round:
The Warrior of the Lake;
How courteous Gawaine met the wound,
And bled for ladies’ sake.

But chief, in gentle Tristrem’s praise,
The notes melodious swell;
Was none excell’d in Arthur’s days,
The knight of Lionelle.

For Marke, his cowardly uncle’s right
A venom’d wound he bore;
When fierce Morholde he slew in fight,
Upon the Irish shore.

No art the poison might withstand;
No medicine could be found,
Till lovely Isolde’s lily hand
Had probed the rankling wound.

With gentle hand and soothing tongue
She bore the leech’s part;
And, while she o’er his sick-bed hung,
He paid her with his heart.

O fatal was the gift, I ween!
For, doom’d in evil tide,
The maid must be rude Cornwall’s queen,
His cowardly uncle’s bride.

Their loves, their woes, the gifted bard
In fairy tissue wove;
Where lords, and knights, and ladies bright,
In gay confusion strove.

The Garde Joyeuse, amid the tale,
High rear’d its glittering head;
And Avalon’s enchanted vale
In all its wonders spread.

Brangwain was there, and Segramore,
And fiend-born Merlin’s gramarye;
Of that famed wizard’s mighty lore,
O who could sing but he?

Through many a maze the winning song
In changeful passion led,
Till bent at length the listening throng
O’er Tristrem’s dying bed.

His ancient wounds their scars expand,
With agony his heart is wrung:
O where is Isolde’s lilye hand,
And where her soothing tongue?

She comes! she comes! – like flash of flame
Can lovers’ footsteps fly:
She comes! she comes! – she only came
To see her Tristrem die.

She saw him die; her latest sigh
Join’d in a kiss his parting breath,
The gentlest pair that Britain bare,
United are in death.

There paused the harp: its lingering sound
Died slowly on the ear;
The silent guests still bent around,
For still they seem’d to hear.

Then woe broke forth in murmurs weak:
Nor ladies heaved alone the sigh;
But, half ashamed, the rugged cheek
Did many a gauntlet dry.

On Leader’s stream, and Learmont’s tower,
The mists of evening close;
In camp, in castle, or in bower,
Each warrior sought repose.

Lord Douglas, in his lofty tent,
Dreamed o’er the woeful tale;
When footsteps light, across the bent,
The warrior’s ears assail.

He starts, he wakes; – ‘What, Richard, ho!
Arise, my page, arise!
What venturous wight, at dead of night,
Dare step where Douglas lies!’-

Then forth they rush’d: by Leader’s tide,
A selcouth sight they see-
A hart and hind pace side by side,
As white as snow on Fairnalie.

Beneath the moon, with gesture proud,
They stately move, and slow;
Nor scare they at gathering crowd,
Who marvel as they go.

To Learmont’s tower a message sped,
As fast as page might run;
And Thomas startled from his bed,
And soon his clothes did on.

First he woxe pale, and then woxe red;
Never a word he spake but three;-
‘My sand is run; my thread is spun;
This sign regardeth me.’

The elfin harp his neck around,
In minstrel guise, he hung;
And on the wind, in doleful sound,
Its dying accents rung.

Then forth he went; yet turn’d him oft
To view his ancient hall:
On the grey tower, in lustre soft,
The autumn moonbeams fall;

And Leader’s waves, like silver sheen,
Danced shimmering in the ray;
In deepening mass, at distance seen,
Broad Soltra’s mountains lay.

‘Farewell, my fathers’ ancient tower!
A long farewell,’ said he:
‘The scene of pleasure, pomp, or power,
Thou never more shalt be.

‘To Learmont’s name no foot of earth
Shall here again belong,
And, on thy hospitable hearth,
The hare shall leave her young.

‘Adieu! adieu!’ again he cried,
All as he turn’d him roun’-
‘Farewell to Leader’s silver tide!
Farewell to Ercildoune!’

The hart and hind approach’d the place,
As lingering yet he stood;
And there, before Lord Douglas’ face
With them he cross’d the flood.

Lord Douglas leap’d on his berry-brown steed,
And spurr’d him the Leader o’er;
But, though he rode with lightning speed,
He never saw them more.

Soem said to hill, and some to glen,
Their wondrous course had been;
But ne’er in haunts of living men
Again was Thomas seen.