Monday, October 27, 2014

Shift of Shape and Season

About two decades ago, I found a curious yet intriguing magazine in the college bookshop at Princeton University in New Jersey. It was Autumn and the ivy leaves on the brick walls of this prestigious intuition were beginning to turn. I felt enlivened by the collegiate atmosphere as well as by the brisk wind and changing foliage. And then, when I  opened  The Witches Almanac, I was drawn deeper into the mysteries of Autumn and the ancient magic of Wiccan lore, spells and wisdom. Everything from fire-gazing to  herbal recipes for curing various ailments   resonated between the pages. 


What stood out as my favorite, was the legend of  Lady Sybil of Bernshaw Tower. Her story was one of  noble malaise, shape-shifting and a need to be more than ordinary. Described as a "proud and wealthy young woman" in 17th Century England, she felt confined by the social demands and obligations of her day. She was drawn ( since childhood) to the landscape of forest and field along with its secretive wild life . In time, she developed a desire to practice the art of shape-shifting and other enchanting tasks that were associated with pagan sorcery.

She become very proficient in this craft and would run through the woods at night, especially through the deep ravine at Cliviger Gorge in the form of a milk-white doe. Her woodland excursions would linger throughout the night into early dawn. Then she would return to the manor house and resume her mortal shape and normal routine. She kept this secret from her husband and led a dual life. He, however, suspected his wife was dabbling in the forbidden art" and forsaking her Christian faith; thus bringing peril to her soul and the good fortune of the household.  Eventually, he confronted her and she confessed promising to give up witchcraft and atone for her wayward deeds.

In some versions, Lady Sybil relinquishes her power and allegiance to the occult on her death bed. She is forgiven by her husband and absolved of all sin. Her spirit, however,  rises from the grave and still continues to haunt the woods and grounds in the form of that white deer. In my two poems, there is a slightly different twist. The first piece was written years ago when I first read about her legend. It's more or less a narrative/ballad  simply defining the beauty and wonder of Lady Sybil's run through the dark woods. It praises her sense of freedom and furtive grace, her connection to nature and the transformative power of one's will and imagination.  Even the lines in the first stanza ( describing her hair) deliberately linger on its texture and color to show how she is  rooted spiritually in both a rustic and Christian world.


The Lady Of Bernshaw Tower

Run wild through the ravine
lovely milk-white doe,
dark-green with ivy
red-sweet with raspberry
and no one  will know
of your golden hair
long as the marshland grass
clean as the brook,
and soft as candles
rippling light at evening mass.
Run wild through the ravine
lovely milk-white doe,
the moon grinds a new dream
against a wheel of wind
and no one will know
of your beautiful hand
wearing the signet ring;
a hand that wields magic
and coins of mushroom
scatter about in the spring.
Run wild through the ravine,
lovely milk-white doe;
the maid will lay out your gown
and shoes in the tower
so  no one will know
of your journey downward
along  the witch’s path,
all vines and rock-chasm’d hill.
Fear not the morning bells,
nor your husband's wrath,
the tongues of stone,
water and timber
 remain ancient and still.
The second poem, written recently as a retrospective piece, is more about the human struggle to change for the sake of winning the approval and trust of a significant other. And in the process of making that change, there is always the question of relinquishing part of one's identity and will. While the vow to transform  is given with an earnest heart, the ache, the ghost of the natural self  still haunts, often evoked by certain creatures or events in nature, like the  cry of migrating birds or the changing phase of  the moon.
And besides the woman changing for the sake of her husband and soul, there is also the transformation of the asker. Lord William, Lady Sybil's husband, had been an avid hunter and had suspicious of her behavior and random absences for some time. Yet, when he forgives her and believes her to be truly redeemed, his character becomes more tender and vulnerable. Where as his wife had metamorphosed into a wild creature via sorcery, he through faith and  need, comes passionately seeking  her renewed affections   like the deer described in psalm 42:1
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, So panteth my soul after thee.
The irony  exists not only here in the concept of shape/soul-shifting but also in the last strophe describing what he hears and does not hear. So absorbed in confirming his wife's loyalty and love, he hears the kiss he placed on her hand but not the cry of swans passing overheard. Their raw song unravels like a restlessness that had been stitched in place. A release of something (within) that still lingers behind  in echo and want.


Lady Sybil With A Mirror In Her Chamber
I will spare him the misery
of suspecting any move, look or mood
that seems unnaturally mine....
      From Confessions  of The Bernshaw Tower Bride                                                     

She turns before the tilted glass
soft-footed,  hair falling
long and light
like the moon shafted
through the wild wood
where she used to run.
Those days now
are the fade of nettles
damp mushrooms and moss.
The  disappearance
of a doe's shadow
that was white, once  her own.

Candles respire
at a steady rate. The room calm
and covert with oak shade
awning the windows. She, too,
breathes easier this night
having a husband's trust
restored He forgave
as she traded  ancient spells
for psalms. Tall

and lean-limbed he came,
not as a hunter tracing
the heel marks of a swift hind,
but like a thirsty stag
longing for the clean
tears of her love, the sobbing
of a sorceress
redeemed. He removed
his gloves and  took her hand
hearing only the kiss
he issued there

while the cry of swans
crossing overhead
unraveled like thread
from a tight stitch
that might hold a button
or hook. The sky's
           opalescent moon.
Note -- for further reading on the legacy and legend of Lady Sybil of Bernshaw Tower, here's a link to a 19th




Robert Rose said...

Thanks for an interesting blog on this subject! You may be interested in Bearnshaw; The Legend of the Whyte Doe, the newly released first book in the series by author Natalie Rose, an adaptation of the ancient legend of Sybil. It's set against the backdrop of Wars of the Roses England, fact & fiction is carefully woven in this enthralling re-telling of the tale.

smzang said...


I read both poems and the info on Lady Sybil...very interesting
and your poetry, as always, delights.

Thanks for sharing the link!

As ever,