Lady Godiva: a Sequence
godiva statue


Upon the railway bridge at Coventry
Lord Tennyson, inspired by far-off spires
Rather than modern transport’s stoked up fires,
Admired Godiva’s tax-avoiding spree
Glad his day’s poor weren’t taxed so heavily;
While slums and soot were fouling up the shires,     
Unguessed as yet the horsepower of live wires,                           
He watched her shameless horse-ride zestfully.

                His sympathy from one low churl withheld
(For every cockroach that you catch, be sure
Of scurrying hordes beneath the dirty floor)
And cozened husband by her ruse impelled
To lose his income, Alf was blind as Tom
Bedazzled by her brazen bare aplomb.



                “This sort of parade is right up my street,”
                Said Tom on the Look-out, in his last tweet,
                                “She’s a blonde, but not fair,
                                For she’s wearing her hair
                (How dare she? It's cheating!) right down to her feet!"


               When Tom peered out with palpitating heart
               His was no basilisk eye that harm could dart,
                                   Punished so dreadfully
                                   For fatuous hope he’d see
               Those rippling ringlets briefly breezed apart.

The citizens

Did they who wished or visited affliction on poor Tom
Envy the courage they had lacked to do an equal wrong?


When proclamaton of the ride was made
No cowering peasant in the market stayed.
“Come children, indoors!” one wife ordered, “now!
And you too, Tom: although you made a vow
Till death us part, long since I’ve seen you flinch
At what initially provoked a clinch,
But know you’ve got instead a roving eye,
And while our Lady’s riding naked by
To dock our taxes, you’ll not want to hide;
In thought the don’t-look edict you’ve defied,
And scornfully despise the skulking crowd
That’s too afraid to peep when not allowed!
And so I’ve shut the shutters, locked the doors,
But now you’re at the keyhole on all fours
Or by the door-jamb squinting through a crack
With puzzled children dancing at your back
And shouting ‘Tell us, tell us, what you see!’
The answer’s just a pinkish, dimpled knee,
Plump calf and dainty ankle, for her hair
From crown to coccyx hides what else is there.
Don’t think I’m jealous, roughened though I am,
That she’s fine bread while I’m like speckled ham,
Because, you silly mutt, my cackling glee
Enjoys your lame-brain lack of sense to see
You wouldn’t see, for that stern Leofric
Would not have let her out without her breech,
Kindling the blood of every slavering lout
A peepshow for  the town to jest about,
Unless convinced her natural veil enough
The prying eyes of such as you to bluff!”
“You quite mistake,” he said, “no human flesh,
However pink and youthful, smooth and fresh,
Excites me: what I’m keen to see’s the style
Of horse, how well conditioned mile for mile,
He’s sent her forth on — fearing no attack —
A lively palfrey, not a run-down hack!
The Earl’s a fool to risk so fine a prize
That outlawed bandits swooping might surprise,
Or uncontrolled might prance off who knows where
If not first rustled out from under her.
That noble head, tossed mane and sprightly pace
Firm rippling muscles, full of strength and grace!
No doubt his pride a cheaper jade would shame
Ignobly bearing, baring his fair dame,
But give her such a splendid horse? Sure he
Must know there’s not its like in Coventry!”
“Is that how much you value me,” she cried,
“Less than a horse?”  “Well, hardly,” he replied
(Meaning not “No, indeed!” but “scarce as much”,
But she was not well versed in Double Dutch),
“But Leofric must know its worth: that’s why
He’s ordered indoors every envious eye.
To please his wife our burdens he’ll relax,
He may relieve us, but our nags he’ll tax!”

(In 1057 Leofric, Earl of Mercia, freed the town from all taxes except those on horses.)

Beneath an inn arch waiting for a bus
At Glaston, James, for whom a Tudor glow
Invested barmaid, ruin and cottage row,
Remembered Tennyson, who waited thus
At Coventry, and gave Godiva us,
A reshaped legend out of long ago
About a noble wife who deigned to show
For starving townsfolk’s sake her humbleness.

Lord Alfred gazed at spires and told the tale
While James admired old abbey masonry.
Did Joseph plant a thorn within this vale?
Was Arthur buried here at Glastonbury?
A sense, but not the tales, of earlier days
Moved James; but legends Tennyson would praise.

“The little inn is a capital bit of character, and as I waited for the bus under its low dark archway (in something of the mood, possibly, in which a train was once waited for at Coventry), and watched the barmaid flirting her way to and fro out of the heavy-browed kitchen and among the lounging young appraisers of colts and steers and barmaids, I might have imagined that the Merry England of the Tudors had not utterly passed away.  A beautiful England this must have been as well, if it contained many such abbeys as Glastonbury.”
Henry James, Cathedrals and Castles (1905) (Penguin, 2009), p. 43.

Brian S. Lee

If you have any comments on this poem,  Brian S. Lee  would be pleased to hear from you.