Ode on Visiting Flodden

John Leyden

Green Flodden, on thy blood-stain'd head
Descend no rain nor vernal dew!
But still, thou charnel of the dead,
May whitening bones thy surface strew!
Soon as I tread thy rush-clad vale,
Wild fancy feels the clasping mail;
The rancour of a thousand years
Glows in my breast; again I burn
To see the banner'd pomp of war return,
And mark beneath the moon the silver light of spears.

Lo! bursting from their common tomb
The spirits of the ancient dead
Dimly streak the parted gloom,
"With awful faces, ghastly red;
As once around their martial king
They clos'd the death-devoted ring,
With dauntless hearts, unknown to yield;
In slow procession round the pile
Of heaving corses moves each shadowy file,
And chaunts in solemn strain the dirge of Flodden field.

What youth, of graceful form and mien,
Foremost leads the spectred brave,
While o'er his mantle's folds of green
His amber locks redundant wave?
When slow returns the fated day,
That view'd their chieftain's long array,
Wild to the harp's deep, plaintive string,
The virgins raise the funeral strain,
From Ord's black mountain to the northern main,
And mourn the emerald hue which paints the vest of spring. *

Alas! that Scottish maid should sing
The combat where her lover fell!
That Scottish bard should wake the string,
The triumph of our foes to tell!
Yet Teviot's sons, with high disdain,
Have kindled at the thrilling strain
That mourn'd their martial fathers' bier;
And, at the sacred font, the priest
Through ages left the master-hand unblest, *
To urge with keener aim the blood-encrusted spear.

Red Flodden! when thy plaintive strain
In early youth rose soft and sweet,
My life-blood through each throbbing vein
With wild tumultuous passion beat.
And oft, in fancied might, I trode
The spear-strewn path to fame's abode,
Encircled with a sanguine flood;
And thought I heard the mingling hum,
When, croaking hoarse, the birds of carrion come
Afar on rustling wing to feast on English blood.

Rude border chiefs, of mighty name
And iron soul, who sternly tore
The blossoms from the tree of fame,
And purpled deep their tints with gore,
Rush from brown ruins scarr'd with age,
That frown o'er haunted Hermitage;
Where, long by spells mysterious bound,
They pace their round with lifeless smile,
And shake with restless foot the guilty pile,
Till sink the mouldering towers beneath the burden'd ground. *

Shades of the dead, on Alfer's plain
Who scorn'd with backward step to move,
But, struggling 'mid the hills of slain,
Against the Sacred Standard strove; *
Amid the lanes of war I trace
Each broad claymore and ponderous mace!
Where'er the surge of arms is tost,
Your glittering spears, in close array,
Sweep, like the spider's filmy web, away
The flower of Norman pride, and England's victor host!

But distant fleets each warrior ghost,
With surly sounds that murmur far:
Such sounds were heard when Syria's host
Roll'd from the walls of proud Samar.
Around my solitary head
Gleam the blue lightnings of the dead,
While murmur low the shadowy band —
"Lament no more the warrior's doom!
"Blood, blood alone, should dew the hero's tomb,
"Who falls, 'mid circling spears, to save his native land."

The Battle of Flodden in 1513 was a decisive and bloody defeat for the Scottish clans. There are a number of poems about the battle of Flodden. Just as there are about another Scottish defeat, the Battle of Culloden.

Author's (copious) Notes:
* Paints the vest of Spring: Under the vigorous administration of James IV., the young earl of Caithness incurred the penalty of outlawry and forfeiture, for revenging an ancient feud. On the evening preceding the battle of Flodden, accompanied by 300 young warriors, arrayed in green, he presented himself before the king, and submitted to his mercy. This mark of attachment was so agreeable to that warlike prince, that he granted an immunity to the earl and all his followers. The parchment, on which this immunity was inscribed, is said to be still preserved in the archives of the earls of Caithness, and is marked with the drum-strings, having been cut out of a drum-head, as no other parchment could be found in the army. The earl, and his gallant band, perished to a man in the battle of Flodden; since which period, it has been reckoned unlucky in Caithness to wear green, or cross the Ord on a Monday, the day of the week on which the chieftain advanced into Sutherland.

* Left the master-hand unblest: In the border counties of Scotland, it was formerly customary, when any rancourous enmity subsisted between two clans, to leave the right hand of male children unchristened, that it might deal the more deadly, or according to the popular phrase, "unhallowed" blows, to their enemies. By this superstitious rite, they were devoted to bear the family feud, or enmity. The same practice subsisted in Ireland, as appears from the following passage in Campion's History of Ireland, published in 1653. "In some corners of the land they used a damnable superstition, leaving the right armes of their infants, males, unchristened, (as they termed it,) to the end it might give a more ungracious and deadly blow."

* Sink towers beneath the burden'd ground: Popular superstition in Scotland still retains so formidable an idea of the guilt of blood, that those ancient edifices or castles, where enormous crimes have been committed, are supposed to sink gradually into the ground. With regard to the castle of Hermitage, in particular, the common people believe, that thirty feet of the walls sunk, thirty feet fell, and thirty feet remain standing.

* Against the Sacred Standard strove: The fatal battle of the Standard was fought on Cowton Moor, near Northallerton in Yorkshire, 1138. David I. commanded the Scottish army. He was opposed by Thurston, archbishop of York, who, to animate his followers, had recourse to the impressions of religious enthusiasm. The mast of a ship was fitted into the perch of a four-wheeled carriage; on its top was placed a ittle casket, containing a consecrated host. It also contained the banner of St. Cuthbert, round which were displayed those of St. Peter of York, St. John of Beverley, and St. Wilfred of Rippon. This was the English standard, and was stationed in the centre of the army. Prince Henry, son of David, at the head of the men of arms, chiefly from Cumberland and Teviotdale, charged, broke, and completely dispersed the centre; but unfortunately was not supported by the other divisions of the Scottish army.