The Ballad of the Loyalist

The old North Bridge, Concord MA.

The old North Bridge, Concord MA.

I’ve a couple of reasons for posting the poem below. Firstly I’m continuing to let today’s readers get to know my older writing. Secondly I’ve recently been discussing alternative views of history, in particular the imperative to strip away the gilding that patriotism has put on certain things. In 2008 I was invited to contribute a poem about the American Revolutionary War of the 1770s. I decided to use an old form – the ballad – and write from the point of view of what we used to call a Native American, before that term came to be used of the aboriginal people of that continent, that is to say a white farmer; this particular individual was amongst the large section of the population – getting on for half, I believe – whose political inclination was towards loyalty to the Crown. The poem became an exercise in imagination and a calling-into-question of war, as well as in the repetitive structure of the ballad and its metrical integrity. I hope you enjoy it and, if you’re American, I hope you don’t mind being asked to see things from another point of view. [Note on formatting: I find I’m unable to indent alternate lines, as originally typeset; this alters the visual impact of the poem a little, and for this I apologise.]

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                   The Ballad of the Loyalist

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

I was raised upon this soil – a New England farm my toil –
and brought up a faithful subject of the Crown.
Though the rebels cussed and swore at the scarlet coat I wore,
I fought for King George, to put sedition down!
Though it gives some people pause, there’s a true and loyal cause,
there’s a greater good, a better song to sing;
In the tavern by the forge, a good health to German George
I would drink, and wish a long life to our King.

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

Though the contrabandiers’ plaint seemed legitimate – it ain’t –
for the tea they dumped at Boston, it was cheap!
Contrabandiers hated tax, but our English laws were lax;
As the rebels sowed, as surely they would reap!
And the contrabaniers’ ploy – throwing snowballs at a boy –
there were stones inside them to provoke a fight…
Then a “massacre” they cried, and though many people died
now their propaganda hides the truth from sight.

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

With a Hessian on my left, and my gun at shoulder-heft,
I marched bravely from my Massachusetts farm;
With a Mohawk at my side, I set off to stem the tide
of sedition, and protect the Law from harm.
Though the foe that I did face was like me, of native race,
it was he who marched to perpetrate a lie;
Though our culture was the same – why, I even knew his name –
we were mortal, and each one of us could die.

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

Maybe things ain’t as they’re taught, maybe war is good for naught –
there were heroes, there were villains on each side;
If a monument you’d raise, or you’d sing a song of praise,
then kneel on the ground where we all fought and died,
Search among the mould and spall, till you find a musket ball,
and make that your icon, set it up on high –
Such a thing can stop your breath, save your life, or bring you death…
think upon it when you ask a man to die!

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones.

So I fell, and now the bones of poor farmer William Jones
lie beneath his native clay in silent rest,
On a Massachusetts farm, far from trumpet’s shrill alarm,
I would seem to sleep the slumber of the blessed.
But my lonely ghost now walks with a thousand others, stalks
o’er the old North Bridge. The beauty of the scene
Belies all the pain and blood, all the marching and the mud –
we march into dark, as though we’d never been…

When the snow is on the ridge, and a rime upon the bridge
and the whippoorwill calls out in solemn tones,
Over wooden span and arch in my scarlet coat I march –
I’m the shade of British soldier William Jones –
Through the snowy winter night, in the deathly pale moonlight,
with my spectre-comrades, dressed in blue or red.
All you people of the town, safe beneath your eiderdown,
think not on us… no… for we are all long dead!