How they Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix
Robert Browning (1838)
Browning wrote this in 1838 while on a sea voyage from London to Trieste. The incident it describes is fictional but refers to the (real) Pacification of Ghent in 1576, an historical treaty of such political complexity that I can’t be bothered to untangle and relay the facts to you, in the doubtful event that anyone would be interested anyway. It concerns Spain and Brussels and Holland and religion (inevitably) and all that sort of thing. W C Sellar & R J Yeatman, authors of 1066 and All That (1930) could have explained it far better than me. Their parody of Browning’s famous poem appeared in a follow-up volume, Horse Nonsense, published in 1933 (largely the work of Yeatman as Sellar couldn’t stand horses).
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turned in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shortened each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chained slacker the bit,
Nor galloped less steadily Roland a whit.
’Twas moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawned clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’twas morning as plain as could be;
And from Mecheln church-steeple we heard the half-chime,
So Joris broke silence with ‘Yet there is time!’
At Aerschot, up leaped of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To stare through the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray.
And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other pricked out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.
By Hasselt, Dirck groaned; and cried Joris, ‘Stay spur!
Your Roos galloped bravely, the fault’s not in her,
We’ll remember at Aix’—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretched neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shuddered and sank.
So we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laughed a pitiless laugh,
’Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And ‘Gallop,’ gasped Joris, ‘for Aix is in sight!’
‘How they’ll greet us!’—and all in a moment his roan
Rolled neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.
Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, leaned, patted his ear,
Called my Roland his pet-name, my horse without peer;
Clapped my hands, laughed and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland galloped and stood.
And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.
How I brought the good news from Aix to Ghent or Vice Versa
W C Sellar & R J Yeatman (from Horse Nonsense)
I sprang to the rollocks and Jorrocks and me,
And I galloped, you galloped, we galloped all three.
Not a word to each other: we kept changing place,
Neck to neck, back to front, ear to ear, face to face:
And we yelled once or twice, when we heard a clock chime,
“Would you kindly oblige us, is that the right time?”
As I galloped, you galloped, he galloped, we galloped,
ye galloped, they two shall have galloped: let us trot.
I unsaddled the saddle, unbuckled the bit,
Unshackled the bridle (the thing didn’t fit)
And ungalloped, ungalloped, ungalloped, ungalloped a bit.
Then I cast off my buff coat, let my bowler hat fall,
Took off both my boots and my trousers and all –
Drank off my stirrup-cup, felt a bit tight,
And unbridled the saddle: it still wasn’t right.
Then all I remember is, things reeling round,
As I sat with my head ‘twixt my ears on the ground –
For imagine my shame when they asked what I meant
And I had to confess that I’d been, gone and went
And forgotten the news I was bringing to Ghent,
Though I’d galloped and galloped and galloped and galloped and galloped
And galloped and galloped and galloped. (Had I not would have been galloped?)
So I sprang to a taxi and shouted “To Aix!”
And he blew on his horn and he threw off his brakes.
And all the way back till my money was spent
We rattled and rattled and rattled and rattled and rattled and rattled and rattled –
And eventually sent a telegram.
Haven’t heard either of these poems for about 40 years, when at prep school. I remember the laughter, and unlike most things that one remembers from one’s childhood, this was funnier than when I heard it the first time!
Thank you for bringing them together again for me!
I seem to remember a line that went “I sprang to the saddle,I fell to the earth; I found I’d forgotten to tighten the girth…2 Is this a different parody? Perhaps there are several.
I suspect you Brits don’t want to say what this is really about. The peace treaty that ended the War of 1812 between The United States and Great Britain was negotiated at Ghent and signed there on Christmas Eve 1814. There was then a race to communicate this fact to London and elsewhere because that war had suddenly turned very badly for Britain and the British government wanted out quick and settled for status quo ante before anything else went wrong. Which it did; in the Battle of New Orleans January 8, 1815 1,394 British soldiers were killed in 25 MINUTES (American losses: 8 wounded). Since that time Britain hasn’t fought the US and we became “Allies” in 1871 in the Treaty of Washington.