Landscape with the Fall of John Damian
after Auden, “Musée des Beaux Arts”
If the painter had been there, he would have seen
how flat the lands below the castle
dotted with people – the tenant in his fields
making hay, the fisherman in his barge,
the distant drover bringing cattle
from the markets at Crieff. They did not
turn their backs. They glanced up
from time to time, checking for signs
the king was in residence, wondering
when the carts would be sent out
to gather their crops and cattle for a feast.
So it might have been that one of them
would have noted the fall from the cliff –
an indeterminate shape dark against the sky,
not flying too close to the weak Scottish sun
even for a moment, but plummeting –
too distant to make out the detail.
The observer would have shrugged, assumed
a particularly large bundle of rubbish
had followed the piss that the maids
emptied from the chamber pots,
wiped his brow, turned back to his work.
© Catherine Fitchett
Note: Scotland’s first recorded attempt at flight took place at Stirling Castle in September 1507. John Damian, an Italian alchemist at the court of James IV, attempted to fly from the castle’s walls with the aid of feathered wings. He failed completely, landing in a dunghill and breaking his thigh.
After wrestling with a different poem about our 2007 visit to Stirling Castle, I laid it aside. Some years later, inspired by Breughel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus", and the Auden poem which was inspired by that painting, I wrote the above poem, which was included in the 2014 New Zealand Poetry Society anthology take back our sky.
My ancestors farmed in the very flat lands across the river from Stirling Castle. I was able to visit the farm where my great grandparents were married, and observed the magnificent view of the castle across the river. I like to imagine one of my ancestors working in the fields and looking up to observe John Damian falling from the castle walls, as described in the poem.
I have been a bit slack about posting to Tuesday Poem lately. However, I am having a poetry reading binge lately and am in the process of selecting a number of poems to post over coming weeks, providing that permission is forthcoming. So, to kick it all off, I am posting one of my own this week.