With fatal inevitability, the narrative poems I wrote in the 1960s and 70s became longer and longer. They changed from surreal to more psychologically aware, and I thought they got better as they got longer – but it was a frustrating development, because they were hard work to write, and who on earth wanted to read long poems? 'The Hands of Felicity' dates from 1976. It's about thirty pages long and was based on a traditional fairy-tale, rearranged into five sections or chapters, long, short, long, short, long. The metre is hendecasyllabic. I present here the first section.
The Hands of Felicity
I. The Mill
When the narrative demon sits astride my
cerebrum and compels with yells and jeers these a-
ppetitive cattle along some grassless track, I
find no pleasure in feeling bit and spurs! No,
surely nothing rewards these vehement labours
unless out of the wreck of sweat and flowers I
glimpse that body, the intangible and lovely
woman's body again for whom I wayfare.
And when that is the case indeed how could I
ask for more? – Yet without conviction, rather with
apprehension I don the demon's mask, I
whistle and shout to the dogs, I heave at the rein, I
wheel my horse.
There are few defined beginnings
in the tissue of history though the text be-
fore me starts with a miller and his mill, his
wife, his appletree, and his only daughter.
But what years of hard work are thus passed over!
From his youth he has fought the idle peasantry
and the greed of the merchants bringing lies of
flour more cheap in some pen-adjacent village,
and by marrying late his worried, capable,
sanctimonious wife he has built by the age of
fifty a good-enough working miller's business.
He himself has become a forceful, absolute man. Not
tall, but stocky, with solid chest and shoulders,
black hair jutting from every plausible lo-
cation, nostrils, and eyebrows, thick forearms, his
blunt and powerful hands.
Yet to have controlled the
human variables need not imply a
treaty adequate with the natural. One
season almost before the spring was out the
fields lay scorched in a parody of harvest,
and such grain as the sun permitted threshed out
grey and wizened. That winter was near-famine.
Prices rose, men went hungry, and the miller
drew – and even then sparingly! – upon the
hoarded stocks he had stored so cunningly that
scarcely Peggy herself (who baked the flour) had
any inkling about them. "One more year like
that," he said, "and our lives will be in jeopardy."
But the pattern repeated both the following
year and the one that succeeded; by that autumn
riot and famine possessed the local villages.
And the miller had neither corn to mill nor
stocks to set up for sale nor even water to
race on the boards of his channel. Massive chains of
panic dragged in the lake of heat and silence.
He refused both to eat and to speak and strode (said
Peggy: "eating his heart") strode up and down his
burnt land, brooding and furious. And in that
blind mood stalking the earth at noon he came to
the cool shade of a plane-tree. There beneath it a
boyish, elderly man was leaning gracefully.
"You look hot," said the elderly man. "I am in-
deed," the miller replied; "so too would you be,
with my worries." And thereupon the taciturn
forceful miller undammed his bulk of thoughts in
quite a freshet of raging and distress! sur-
prised, but drawn by the twinkling mobile face and
various postures that bent the man before him.
When he came to an end the smiling man said
pensively: "What would you give to terminate this
painful tension? For nothing is so bad that
by a resolute twist one cannot buck it!" – He
bent his body like plasticine as if in
demonstration! The miller stood bewildered.
"For example: if I prevailed upon the
local meteorology to lull us
with cool mists, with agreeable warm showers and
gentle sun, as delightful to the cornfields
as a bath and a pint to the exhausted reaper –
would you, say, for example, let me take, in
three years time, what is there behind your mill?" "You
make no sense." "On the contrary, old son, I
make most excellent sense. I am saying, would you
for a lifetime of pleasant autumns and a-
bundant grain, for that guaranteed security,
let me take what is there behind your mill?" "You
mean the appletree." "I have said what I in-
tend to say." "And suppose I answer Yes?" "Then,"
said the flexible man, "how could you not be
happy, you and your wife?" And to support his
words there muttered a genial, sympathetic
thunder out of the secrecy of the clouds.
foolish miller assented. Signed awkwardly in
sticky scarlet the crumpled rag of paper the
smiling (really surprisingly elegant) gentle-
man unpicked for him, then (decidedly), yes, baffled
and unable exactly to remember (or
give due weight to the memory of) that bargain,
he came out of the plane-tree's shade and somewhat
dazzled strode on the sun-dried hardened roadway.
The first drops of a storm began to fleck the
dust about him before he had gained the house. There
on the doorstep he all-but collided with his
good wife Peggy. "Come in at once," she cried, "in-
to the dry. For myself I am just taking
this old coat to Felicity; she went to
hang out clothes in the yard behind the mill." – The
miller shrank like the trout that grabs the fly and
the unsuckable hook enters his cheek! –
blinded amazement precedes the clutch of panic.
"You can hop out of that," said Peggy briskly.
"Look! it's raining!"
So lovely were the twelve en-
suing seasons, springs bright, the summers long, the
autumns golden, the
winters mantled with snow and dripping icicles,
that anxiety slept in swathings of contentment.
Not slept. Better: it all-but slept. Sometimes it
dreamed horrifically and the miller woke, eyes
bursting out of their beds with his refusal
to see that which the dream rehearsed before him.
Sometimes, governed by what?, his gaze would fasten
upon Felicity, and from who knows how great
depths of violence or of love distorted
she would summon him back by her uneasy
question, "What is it, Father?" – He would answer,
startled, "Nothing. It's nothing," and by then it
would be nothing, dissolved, a warp in the light, a
quiver veiling its face behind solidities.
For she also, of course, Felicity, like the
seasons ripened. First plumping of prospective
rounding fruit. You'd have thought my lecherous pen would
leap to limning her portrait, but some inhi-
bition has tardied me: it is perhaps her piety
holds me back from unstinting admiration.
For my text is emphatic: though fourteen and
indeed pretty-as-a-picture, golden-haired, with
star-blue eyes and a smile like the April sunshine, some
hearty devilment that completes the character
seems not present: she is all white gauze, and buds, and
First Communion. And so in pleasant slumber – who
could be critical? – days and years went by. And
you, large-breasted Pomona, rocked their sleep.
has a talent for not remembering when
Doom has jotted his name down in the calendar;
and it's almost an air of righteous grievance
one assumes when one hears the bell and goes to
the front door, and behold, he has kept his appointment.
He is courteous, always; does not show any
pain one's own lack of courtesy may cause him;
does not even require that one invite him
into the living-room, saying "Come in, come in, you must
meet my spouse, yes, and these are my dear children,
Charlotte! Maria! please! say good-day to the gentleman!"
None of this he requires; he stays on the doorstep,
shifty, obsequious, fawning, shrinking, enlarging –
how one plasters with adjectives that odious
undertaker's demeanour! yet the fact of
his being there is what counts, however qualified.
And suffusions of dread well throbbing time and
time again through one's gut as if to match the
echoing chime of the clock. For it is mid-day....
And it was, when the angry miller answered
the loud crash on the door, precisely mid-day.
He had forgotten (of course) he had this assig-
nation, and with unblemished outrage opened
the bright door with its panes of crystal glass. The
pure calm sunlight receded timelessly be-
yond the harvested hills, and the hedgerows gleamed with
lovely luminous tints of wax and amber.
A man stood on the doorstep wearing black and
saying: "You will as a business-man admire my
punctuality." "Who in hell are you?" the
miller said, for he had at once remembered
and he fought to forget again. The chap was
all apology. "Yes, of course, dear me, with
such a trifling appointment made with someone
of such stature, how most unreasonable I
am to suppose it might stay in your recollection.
But you see this exasperating scrap of
paper? yes, and this signature? and this mere
fiddling date? as it happens, marking out to-
day exactly of all the unnumberable
possible options? I am quite embarrassed! to bring
down your lofty attention to such pettiness!
But you see how it is. The bargain made three
years ago has now reached fruition and (just
look around you!) I think you will not quibble I
failed to honour my part in it." And thus he
wittered on, as the miller stood in torment.
There are those who I think would claim that such a
bargain cannot cohere with talk of honour;
that a monstrous engagement virtuously pro-
ceeded with is a moral broth or shambles
to be neither approached nor admired. The miller
lacked the freedom bestowed by such distinctions:
what he had said he had said and it determined him.
So the outcome of this bemusing confron-
tation is not in doubt: his understanding
stabilised: there was no alternative; he
For Felicity is
what the fellow has won by his contriving.
Yet she had (we are not surprised! yet neither
gent nor miller appeared to have considered it)
her own views on the prospect of abduction:
she was not to be found. At last they found her:
once more standing behind the mill, beneath the
laden appletree; she has drawn a circle
with a spade in the grass around her, and she
stands there weeping and trembling, all in white, to
wait their coming. The gentleman was angry.
"Haul her out of that!" he commanded. "Now, then,"
said the miller in some uncertainty. "No," she
cried, "I never will go with him!" She wept and
wept. Because of that circle and such purity
neither man could approach her. "Cunning bitch!" the
gentleman commented. Then he gave his orders:
to exclude her from water and entrap her
in her circle; she would not be able then to
keep so clean; and tomorrow morning early
he would return.
–You can bust your brains attempting
to understand how the miller could obey him.
Is it fear of the bending man's mysterious
magic powers that can control the seasons?
for he might reinstate the famine, or kill
off the miller himself, although no whisper of
that has yet got abroad? Or is a magic
operating already to transfix the
miller's freedom, an as-it-were hypnosis?
Or (perhaps we should ask) what does he feel a-
bout his daughter? For can it be that somehow,
by violating the canons of paternity,
he discovers an unreportable satis-
faction? But, with that stolid bulk of chest and
muscle, as with the honest author of my
text, no answers (indeed no questions) mar the
forward march of the facts. We know so little!
But I think for myself she stayed the night en-
circled, there in the open, not because of
some disgusting machinery but because (if
she had come out) the bending man was present
like a gas or a tangle of gaseous claws to
clutch and bear her away; though other authors
speak of guard-dogs, patrols, and razoring search-lights.
In the morning the men were back. Felicity
still stood, tearful, exhausted. She had cried so
freely that she had washed in tears and was as
clean this morning as on the previous day. The
bending man was enraged. He danced about in
spasm and yelled at the miller: "She is foiling
our important arrangement! You must see she
keeps our bargain! In order to prevent this
washing, cut off her hands!" The miller, poor docile
fool, he wanted to obey, yet could not quite per-
suade his limbs to approach her; she shrank up like
a hurt bird. But he did. Took out his razor
and then quickly and with a gaze determinedly
bent down, severed her yielding hands from their a-
stonished wrists. And she squatted down, and sobbed. The
bending man in the energy of his rage strode
away shouting: "I shall return to fetch you
at dawn!" Then left alone, unwatched, the miller
found in his powerful hand two trusting hands.
dawn the following day, miller and bending
man are back. With impatience now the bending
man strides up to Felicity, as a glutton might
snatch indifferently some fruit he has al-
ready gorged from. She is squatting still, and weeping
quietly onto her stumps, and her white dress and
golden hair, though dishevelled, still are clean, are
more than clean, are ablaze with radiance! And when she
looks up, tearful blue eyes and rightful anger
(like an angel at bay!) what can he do but
stop bewildered? He cannot penetrate the
space about her. And I think in fury he di-
ssolves, exclaims and dissolves in fumes like some black
lump of sickening liquid in a belljar.
It diffuses itself into transparency.
And the miller comes to! He is all remorse. He
weeps and pleads for Felicity's forgiveness,
and whatever she wishes he will gladly
do, or give her. He begs that she will now ac-
cept to live all her days at home and he will
count it honour to serve her like a princess, to
dance attendance upon her ruined stumps. But
she is not much concerned with all this ardour.
In a daze, or as if bemused, she steps from
the worn circle and turns her head about and
her wrists dither in front of her. As if such crying had
washed the sight from her sockets! But she says: "I
must not stay," with a sort of desperation
or a sort of conviction, and then, focussing
and ignoring her father, on his knees in
agony to the back of her, she squares her
head and shoulders and with determined, wading
steps goes off through the long-grown, tangled garden.
The gate closes behind her.