‘a good man long forgotten’

a good man long forgotten
      : charles the good      was murdered
praying to his god
in eleven twenty-seven
      so galbert of bruges informs us

      : all those warring kings
and disappointed heirs
      the plundering soldiery
            the inquisitions      burnings
at the stake      or worse

      : and charles the good      the good
            who fought the barons      fed
the poor in times of famine
      ministered to the sick
            : poor charles the good

      the times being what they were
            (and have been since      or worse)
poor charles the good
      -- with a name like that      he was
      a murder waiting to happen.

I wrote this poem shortly after reading a book by the historian Galbert of Bruges (d.1134) * about Charles, count of Flanders (1084-1127) who, as the poem says. met his end in the same way as did Thomas a’ Beckett. Prince Hamlet baulked at the idea of killing Claudius while he (Claudius) was at his prayers and therefore, according to the superstition of the time, would go straight to heaven. Charles’s murderers didn’t care where he went. They just wanted him out of the way and not be around to interfere with their ambitions

I suppose the poem touches on the well-worn theme of how difficult it is to find goodness in the murk of the political world. Or in the world at large, for that matter. U.S President Joe Biden looks a decent man. Certainly, for many, he would seem to outshine his predecessor as regards being sensitive to the needs of those outside his own electoral support. It’s hard to pin down, this idea of the good man, or woman. We always we end up with no real candidates, just approximations. Even saints, like Augustine, were often not so saintly in their early days.

So it is too with Count Charles, whom we find took part in the Crusades and which are now seen as little more than looting expeditions undertaken in the name of Christianity. Still, he seems to have been one of the clearest examples we have of someone worthy of the title ‘the good’, a sobriquet bestowed on him because of his exemplary character, his care for the less well-off (not much of a political priority in those days) and his religious devotion.

My thanks to Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and the editing team of Cyphers Magazine for including this poem in edition no. 91.

  • The Murder of Charles the Good, by Galbert of Bruges. Translated and edited by James Bruce Ross. Published by the University of Toronto Press (1982) in association with the Medieval Academy of America.

Cyphers 91

And … Lots of fine writing in this edition of Cyphers. I particularly liked The First Time the Pope Came by Colm Scully, with its combination of shrewd observation and understated humour. It brought back memories of that long-forgotten (and little-lamented), Ireland of the past. Nell Regan’s poem The Geologist in Lockdown is also a fine piece with its vocabulary of apposite hard, gritty words. And Ann Zell’s First Readers is an excellent example of terse telling. Lots of other top class work too, including two brief but memorable sketches by my good friend Richard W Halpern. And Natasha Cuddington’s review of Leontia Flynn’s new book, Slim New Book, makes me want to look at Catullus again.

Also I must thank to the other members of the our Troika workshop: Liz McSkeane, Anamaria Crowe-Serrano and Ross Hattaway for their valuable support in the writing of this poem.

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