Adultery, a cult of knights
who championed the trampled rights
of women stuck with simple men,
enunciated once again
its awesome old philosophy:
Love pardons all. So harden me.
Maid Marian embarrassed boys
who courted her with mortal joys,
who planned to make romantic books
come true with their intrusive looks.
Their practiced gestures waxing wild
made Marian more wary. Mild
yet mistress of a vicious wit,
she made them test the blade of it.
Her orthodoxy soared above
pedestrians requesting love
according to some formula,
some passionate anathema.
She'd lose them with her Q.E.D.;
she'd take their hands and make them see.
But one, the Earl of Huntington,
had answered all her banter, done it
nicely with no trace of spite.
Regardless of how hard she'd bite,
he sent his argument along
politely, sifting right from wrong.
The phony trope, erroneous
conclusion or unruly fuss,
the battering of rhetoric,
the softer philosophic trick
all challenged him, and balancing
ideal design and real thing
he routed them repeatedly.
She couldn't consent, wouldn't agree
with every point a clever boy
might put her, but she could enjoy
the magic of his logical
production -- ineluctable
but ultimately tolerant,
no martyrdom by argument.
When Marian practiced archery
in general the men would flee.
They'd heard the jokes, absurd accounts
of each prospective teacher pouncing
on the opportunity,
the thrill of possibility,
dismayed to find the lady's aim
better than theirs. She'd hit the same
small mark from twice as far away.
A chuckle. "What good luck," she'd say.
But Huntington, not one to shrink
from jokes or care what jokers think,
invited her to tutor him.
Beginning with an interim
of weeks between their meetings, she
agreed that they would need to meet
more frequently. And he suggested
"Daily lessons may be best."
A pair of scholars. Marian should
probably call him Robin. Good.
Willing to use familiar names,
Robin and Marian, able to aim
two arrows at some narrow post
and vary by a hair at most,
together in one another's thought,
the teacher and the creature taught,
they went all winter, spent all spring
and summer on the same old thing.
Target practice. Arguing.
When autumn came he bought a ring
and after tea one afternoon
produced it -- all too soon, too soon.
"You're joking," she said. "You're mocking me."
In looking for his equal he
had never thought how every male
he knew preferred his beauty frail,
had not imagined what it meant
to beauties when their suitors went
away to marry safer wives --
the failure of their daily lives.
The church that had the virtue of
a summer cool she came to love
in autumn somehow caught a cold
that weighed her down and made her old.
She sat and thought her future up.
She'd join a convent, interrupt
the sermons of determined friends
who burdened her with worldly ends,
advice on acting nice and sweet,
to handle every man you meet
with cataleptic flattery,
to catch the point of lechery
as if it were uplifting wit
and titter when he mutters shit.
She'd interrupt their endless bragging,
simpering and dimpled nagging,
broach the subject, watch the fun:
"Me, I think I'll be a nun."
Wealth and self-indulgence had
been hobbling efforts Robin made
to swell his faith: developing
some charity, the scary thing
he hoped for most in groping prayer.
Laughably childish, half aware
that living means to give things up,
he still preferred his silver cup
kept full, as if the ale he'd drink
should never make the level sink.
Thinking of Marian, drinking more
intransigently than before,
cursing when his servant failed
to keep his cup completely filled,
enraged to hear his page repeat
he'd just brought out the last of it,
he yelled and knocked the fellow down,
saddled his horse and rode to town.
Livid. He didn't give a damn
what he might do in Nottingham.
Obviously Robin Hood
found Justice so disgusting, Good
so downright bad, the Crown so far
away, so busy playing war,
he doubted courts could outlaw him
and make their dictum take. The whim
of hothead Norman Nottingham
could never cause a quiver: damn
or pardon him, it hardly made
a difference in the drifting shade
of Sherwood. Once he learned the poor
keep company, how some endure
their general lot of penury
with merriness, hilarity,
he guessed that his misfortune might
be Providence unraveled: light
undone in shadow, wonder wound
in dappled overlapping ground
like mortar in the forest tile
to teach a man too rich to smile.
To set down tales of Little John
repeating every cheater's song,
to give the names as if you knew
the men he met, pretend a true
intention even when you have
no facts at all, in practice serves
the wishful thinking legends use
to win an audience to views
congenial to maniacs
who call the mob to lawless acts.
The convent Marian joined became
a family home, the family name
quite prominent, anonymously
mentioned here only because
her family's papers came to hold
the convent archives. Finally sold
at auction to a speculator,
records of Robin's reckless ways
settled in the Vatican:
his letters, her memoirs settled in.
These dumbstruck dead can't come to term
except in papers kept from harm
by sisters with a history
to cherish. No posterity
to worry them: a heritage
for mothers of another age,
for daughters also, taught by vows
what mastery the chaste espouse.
I read and I repeat the facts:
explicit or implicit acts,
some things hinted, some things guessed,
but nothing invented, nothing suppressed.
I consequently cannot tell
the usual tales. But you have all
heard wild accounts in childhood, seen
the movie versions, rude cartoons
and magic-camera agitprop.
You've put the best on videotape.
Why insist that my approach
conform to topics normally broached?
Hearing that his Marian
was entering a convent, one
where sisters kept their visitors
outside the cloister, hiding there
from fellowship with relatives,
from intercourse with any living
soul beyond the walls, the earl
hired an outlaw courier.
He sent a message meant to melt
her anger with the pangs he felt,
convince her with intensity,
strike her blind and make her see.
He bundled it with one thing more:
a frozen purple rose that bore
the scars of fortune, marks that he
interpreted quite artfully
as bearing more on Marian's
emotion than his own. The senseless
season of unreasoning
reaction must come back to spring.
But if it made a difference kept
among her other manuscripts
I cannot say. I went through every
particle the archives saved,
those documents that mock me now,
their ordinary porridge sour,
lacking sweetness, lacking spice:
the good quotidian advice
of mother superiors. Nothing more.
Science must not rely on lore.
I cannot therefore end my tale.
Scholarship must always fail
to put paid or to write fini.
History and mystery
will blend until the end of time,
a born cliché, a worn-out rime,
hackneyed as the pack of songs
the English keep on singing, long
as Robin's reign and cobbled up
each day. New verse. No way to stop.