Nov 12 2022
Poetry review – THE KENTISH REBELLION: Rennie Halstead admires Robert Selby’s successful intermingling of history and poetry
Robert Selby examines the events of the Kentish Rebellion of 1648. He reports the past with a modern twist, interposing contemporary events with history in a lively and accessible way. To prevent the poem – really a collection of poems on the themes of the revolution – becoming stale and predictable, he uses a variety of tones and devices, poetic forms, to keep the language fresh.
In the “Prelude” Selby adopts what will become a trademark of the collection, mixing modern language and situations with 17th century events.
‘We interrupt this programme.’ A helmeted reporter crouches behind a wall, finger to earpiece. Tickertape: Flames in Kent. Many dead; fierce house to house fighting; bodies in the street.
This technique seems forced at first, a false note:
[…] Dering, (his brother-in-law)— receives a dispatch at HQ in the High Street, above the Carphone Warehouse, first floor: Fairfax is at the corner of Knightrider Street,
However, as the story develops, this device emphasises the shift from other elements of story-telling to a focus on a battle. At the beginning of the battle for Gabriel’s Hill, Selby invokes football hooligans:
As opposing sets of hooligans, abroad, tanked on summer tournament’s lager and sun, sunder café culture by chucking chairs at each other […]
Here the contrast in style works well. After showing how hooligans confront authorities in a heedless show, before being dispersed by water cannon, Selby takes us to the events in Gabriel’s Hill:
so Fairfax’s men, funnelling up Gabriel’s Hill, wet with rain and enfilading lead, are minced by canister shot careering down from Brockman’s two cannon
Other poems show a wide variety of tone and technique.
The opening section of the collection focuses on the lives of people suffering under extremes of religious dogma. It’s 1640, and Archbishop Laud persecutes dissenters on the king’s behalf. He orders the Dutch churches in Canterbury to be closed. Many of the Dutch weavers who had brought the highly profitable weaving of silk to the city, were forced to leave the communities where they were well established:
Pieter the clothier? HIs place backed on mine in Turnagain Lane, by the cathedral. Always stopped to chat. His boys? Tall, serious; when not at books, mean footballers.
Selby brings out Laud’s disdain of the catholic establishment towards ordinary citizens they believe heretical. John Fennar a carpenter is to be summoned to account for his beliefs as he is a “scismaticall recusant.” The masked, hooded and well armed men “manhandle him into a chair, feed to the fire / his books and writings, yet make no search for his family”. But Fennar’s accusers have sent men who sympathise with the victims of this persecution:
You long devotedly rendered with and for Him in all things wood, in all things made good, the Lord’s skill. Your repayment now is safe escort westward.
By the end of 1640, Laud is accused of treason by the Long Parliament, and the first rumblings of the Civil War are under way. The king is imprisoned and the parliamentarians, dominated by the Puritans, change the rules of religious observance. In conservative Kent, there is a strong desire for church reform, and limiting the power of the bishops. Sir Edward Dering, MP for Hythe. takes a petition to parliament in 1641. When he publishes his speeches, his views are seen as inflammatory and he is briefly imprisoned in the Tower for his views.
By 1648, the king is in prison and the puritans control the country. This first section ends with:
We are living in a time when all things sacred are throughout the nation demolished or profaned. We all must submit to a militant virtue as stifling as the sin at which it is aimed.
Having shown us the background, Selby takes us to the heart of the rebellion; its immediate cause a decision that Christmas must not be celebrated. The citizens of Canterbury resist this edict, driving the Mayor “knocked down and beaten” out of town. The militia is sent in, but sides with the rebels:
[…] The trained bands melting, accepting proffered pints, turning their arms upon their officers,
Parliament responds by sending General Fairfax, a soldier with a fearsome reputation, to put the rebellion down. The campaign is conducted in appalling weather. In Selby’s account Fairfax camps at Boxley, rather than East Farleigh, takes over the church and has nightmares. The rain disinters ‘the dead back into the light” in the Choric Song:
The rain drowns out everything. No lights shone. The sentry says the graves are moving, the dead are coming back, may God Almighty have mercy on us […] the bones of the dead are riding the horses to us they have come to take us down into the terrible places
The battle between Fairfax’s seasoned veterans and the citizens’ army is bloody. The rebels have well-defended positions in the town centre and Fairfax can only overcome resistance by fighting through the town, street by street. There is no bloodbath. After the rebel commander, Brockman is seriously hurt Fairfax offers an amnesty. The citizens’ army disbands, apart from a small group led by Lord Norwich who try to escape to Essex. For the foot-soldiers, it is a disaster. Wading through thick mud, they find Fairfax’s cavalry in the dunes behind them:
Soon, across the plain of shifting sun-gleam, the cries of the drowning came.
Some are rescued:
Hauled out like big fish, weeping, jabbering, mud-caked in common with their russet-coated rescuers; swaddled in tinfoil and handed hot tea.
I found this a fascinating account of the Kentish rebellion. Not being particularly familiar with this period of Kent’s history, however, I did find the opening section a little confusing, and would have welcomed a clearer chronology of events.
One of Selby’s great skills is in bringing out the characters of ordinary citizens suffering under the Puritan yoke. There is a distinct shift once the rebellion is under way and Fairfax appears on the scene. His iron determination, in the face of nightmare conditions, contrasts with the weak Lord Norwich who fails to engage to support the Maidstone citizenry and allows an army of several thousand to disappear in the night. The real achievement of the book is to bring history to life. Selby puts the reader there with the ordinary citizens in Part One, and with the soldiers in Fairfax’s army at the end of the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it.