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The Bard of the Garter by Nigel Roth

Peer for a moment through this stained glass window and view the medieval scene before you, a bit like Scrooge viewed the dancing at Mr Fezziwig's Ball.

With only candles to light the great vaults of the hall, the mighty King Arthur, prince of Camelot, stands at the head of his great Round Table, imploring his knights, among them such chivalrous luminaries as Galahad, and Lancelot, Tristan and Geriant, Percival, Bors, Lamorak, Kay, Gareth, and Bedivere, to be upstanding, and to toast the bravery of their brother knight Gawain, who sits bow-headed opposite Arthur.

They stand as one, as does the reluctant Gawain, for he’s still feeling shame for accepting the gift from the wife of the sly Green Knight, which ultimately saved his life, and aided his resistance to the charms of the temptress Mrs Green.

Arthur, an overflowing flagon of ale held aloft, addresses Gawain, telling him he must bear no shame for his actions, and that that gift would have been theirs if they’d been in need of it at that moment. He nods to his knights, and they to Gawain, and to show the true camaraderie they share and to celebrate their fraternal bond they, in unison, raise their knee-length tunics, push their best leg forward, and reveal their garters, putting Gawain at his instant ease.

Now, of course, none of this actually took place because Arthur didn’t really exist as King of anywhere, and Monty Python didn’t concoct this scene for The Holy Grail.

And yet even though Arthur, the round table, and his band of knights were a fiction of the twelfth century French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, this is exactly where The Order of the Garter, an order of British honor second only to the Victoria and George Crosses, and dedicated to the fabricated dragonslayer Saint George, began.

The Bard of the Garter may have been a better moniker.

Of course, Queen Elizabeth II was presented with this honorary order, as was her aurisilian son, Prince Charles. The Dukes of Kent, York, Gloucester, and Cambridge all got one, and so did the Princesses Royal and Alexandra, and the Earl of Wessex, and twenty-one other Royal ne'er do wells.

One prominent member of the Royal horror show, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, never received a garter, probably because there was no room in his closet for any more.

Of course, most people didn’t get a royal garter, poets especially, they just got to wear ordinary ones, and for much of the garter's history that included men, as it’s only recently that they’ve become associated with the attire and objectification of women.

The ‘Father of English Literature’, and the ‘Father of English Poetry’, and the father, most importantly, of his son Lewis, Geoffrey Chaucer wore garters when he wrote his Canterbury Tales around 1395.

Chaucer was the first person to be entombed in Poet’s Corner, in Westminster Abbey, for his contributions to our literary legacy, like this bawdy passage from his fourteenth century work The Miller's Tale, which I will summarize for you as the English is somewhat hard to follow.

Essentially, Absolon, an unwanted suitor of the miller's wife, Alison, who's having an affair with a man called Nicholas, demands a kiss from the aforementioned Alison, who, not wanting to pucker up then or ever, sticks her derriere out the window for Absolon to smooch, which he duly does until he detects her pubic hair and realizes his grave mistake.

This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie./ Dirk was the nyght as pich or as the cole,/ And at the wyndow out she pitte hir hole./ And Absolon hym fil no bet ne wers,/ But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers/ Ful savourly er he was war of this./ Abak he stirte and thoughte it was amys,/ For wel he wiste a woman hath no berd.

William Shakespeare, had he existed in the sixteenth century or any other century for that matter, would’ve worn a garter with his hose (a word English stole from the German hosen), as he sat in his Oxfordshire home, demanding tea and proofreading services from his long-suffering wife Anne Hathaway, and writing the lines so many elevate today as genius, including this pathetic offering from King Lear.

“Tis hot, it smokes;

It came even from the heart of –

O! she’s dead.”

Sir Richard Blackmore, a man who authored more poems than Homer, Virgil, and Milton put together, probably wore a garter to hold up his stockings, as he toiled all and every night, while managing to work as a somewhat-distracted physician during the day. His efforts were rewarded, with such unpoetic lines as these, from his rather appropriate epic, Prince Arthur, from 1695.

Of bloody War, forsook his Native Soil,

And long sustained a vast Heroick Toil,

Till kinder Fate invited his Return,

To bless the Isle, that did his Absence mourn:

To re-enthrone fair Liberty, and break

The Saxon Yoke, that gall’d Britannia’s Neck.

In the eighteenth century, garters were often highly decorated with quotes and humorous phrases, and fastened with buckles or springs to keep socks from falling, and were particularly useful on long hikes in the Lake District, which is why William Wordsworth most certainly wore them while traipsing around Lake Windermere, composing these lines for his very odd poem The Thorn.

And to the left, three yards beyond,

You see a little muddy pond

Of water–never dry

I measured it from side to side:

‘Twas four feet long, and three feet wide.

And then there's the utterly astonishing William Topaz McGonagall, who strode around Scotland reciting from his extensive works of more than two-hundred poems, garters tightening his socks around his spindly-limbed legs. With the use of subtle rhyme and a cadence seldom found in literature or human speech patterns anywhere, McGonagall wrote this of the tragic 1879 Tay Bridge Disaster.

Oh! Ill-fated bridge of the silv'ry Tay,

I now must conclude my lay

By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,

That your central girders would not have given way,

At least many sensible men do say,

Had they been supported on each side with buttresses

At least many sensible men confesses,

For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed.

Eventually garters became, at least for men, under- or over-the-knee suspenders, using a little metal clip to keep socks from falling down. The saying ‘pull your socks up’, which seems to have originated around the turn of the twentieth century to encourage a better show of things from the low-hung sockee, may have helped spur this pseudo-mechanical innovation. And it’s very possible, so I’m told, that the great British-born and later American poet Wystan Hugh Auden wore them.

Auden’s poetry, classically taught at universities in the United States, is often heralded as some of the best of that era, as efforts like this dreadful eulogical piece for fellow poet William Butler Yeats, testify.

Earth, receive an honoured guest:

William Yeats is laid to rest.

Let the Irish vessel lie

Emptied of its poetry.

Auden was also one of the greats who wrote nonsense poems without trying, totally bereft of understanding.

Poetry makes nothing happen; it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches and isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

While men no longer typically wear garters, they live on, having traveled from the quill of de Troyes, to the patch-pockets of Dukes, from the limbs of men, to the thighs of brides.

And as for these awful poets, their usefulness, as well as their poetic garters, must surely be on its last legs.

photo by Chalo Garcia

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