I can quite understand, in the circumstances,
your reluctance to let down
your golden tresses. However
I feel I must point out
that the weather isn’t getting any better
and I already have a nasty chill
from waiting at the base
of the White Tower. You must see
the absurdity of the
Some of the courtiers are beginning to talk,
not to mention the humble villagers.
It’s been three weeks now, and not even
a cold, black wind
howls through our empty palace.
Dead leaves litter the bedchamber;
the mirror on the wall hasn’t said a thing
since you left. I can only ask,
bearing all this in mind,
that you think again,
let down your hair,
The Mersey Sound, a bestselling anthology by Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten – poetry that captured the mood of the swinging Vietnam-era 60s in Britain.
Fairy tales, fables, folk tales and mythology have provided inspiration for many works of fiction and poetry through the ages, whether revisionist retellings or thematically faithful. There is something about how we love them from an early age – whether because of their magical, fantastical aspects or just the imaginative and creative narratives.
Of course, in our early forays into those magical, fantastical worlds, we do not grasp the darkness in most of the stories, as this wonderful article by Mallory Ortberg this past week in The Toast pointed out regarding the endings of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales. And, this earlier BBC article about the grim nature of Grimms’ tales.
A point of clarification for those interested: fables are characterized by talking animals and objects of nature, while fairy tales are more about, well, fairies, witches, elves and their magical worlds. Another main distinction is that fables tend to be very clear with their moral purpose – there’s always a lesson to be imparted and learned. Fairy tales may have some moral truth, but they always have the good vs evil juxtaposition and tend to be more about imagination and fantasy. Myths and folk tales are different entirely yet and we’ll get to those later.
In this poem, Henri mixed it up with fables by Aesop (The Goose That Laid Golden Eggs), original fairy tales by Hans Christian Anderson (Princess and the Pea, Princess and the Frog Prince,) and the collected fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm (Rumpelstiltskin, The Shoemaker and the Elves, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel). What he did cleverly, with all of them, was add a contemporary realism so that the “good” wasn’t so unequivocally pure anymore and the “evil”, more prosaic, came from this world rather than any other. And, because of its commonplace nature, perhaps, we don’t think of it as evil anymore, but accept it either matter-of-factly or with a pathetic resignation. Yet, the multiple narrators, though world-weary, don’t seem to be giving in to easy schadenfreude. Rather, they seem to be trying, weakly, to reassure that ever-hopeful child within all of us, who still continues to live partly in that fairy tale world, even as the magic is no more.
So, our first narrator, who is worried about the lack of any golden eggs from the fat goose, sounds like he could be Rumpelstiltskin, from the Grimm Brothers, who is trying to weave straw gold from withered sedge, worried about the market price falling.
In the next stanza, we have Anderson’s Princess and the Pea, where the Prince is apologizing to the Princess about the uncomfortable night on the mattress over a pea, while also conflating with the frog footman (which, oddly, is actually a character from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll) and a strong nod to another of Anderson’s tales about the Princess and the Frog Prince…. only, the poem points to an alternate denouement, where the Frog does not succumb to the Princess’ efforts to turn him into a Prince.
We now come to the usual solution for all such troubles in fables and fairy tales – the granting of the magical Three Wishes. These have shown up in many fairy tales, fables, folk tales, myths and various other works of fiction through the ages and across cultures and countries. So, they could, in fact, be a collective reference to all of them. Often, they were granted to make up for misfortunes or by way of reward and by magical / supernatural beings. Here, Henri uses them as a way to redress the business difficulties of the shoemaker who cannot rely on his hard-working elves anymore due to the changes in the Elves’ Union rules. And, instead of a magical or supernatural being, he keeps it real by having a General Council or Assembly grant them by, no doubt, a vote.
As for Snow White’s poisoned apple, as would happen in present-day with any food exports deemed suspicious, Henri’s narrator reveals that the Board of Trade will handle the complaint. No Prince or Happy Dwarfs to help cheer her up and fix everything, then.
There’s a passing nod to the sleeping court of Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom – rendered useless by a cursed spell.
The last third of the poem is dedicated to the Grimm Brothers’ Rapunzel story. The Prince, cold and embarrassed from having to stand waiting, begs a more worldly-wise Rapunzel to let down her hair so that he may climb up. This, to me, is the best bit because it gives us a new, although depressing, version of both Rapunzel and her Prince in those few lines – one will never be rescued from her Tower (seemingly, she doesn’t want to be) and the other will never attain the object of his affections.
What a subtle indictment of our present times in beguiling verse – beautifully referencing much-loved fairy tales while starkly pronouncing governmental bodies as not only representative of evil but also having taken away all the magic and happiness.
A few words about the poet, then. While the Americans had their Beatnik scene in the 60s, Britain had the Liverpudlian Merseybeat, where artists, musicians, poets, storytellers, etc., took to the streets of Liverpool, performing their arts in new ways.
Henri, though born in Cheshire and raised in Wales, adopted Liverpool as his artistic home. Primarily known for his performance poetry, he was also a painter, musician, teacher/lecturer and author of children’s books, plays, librettos, and TV dramas for about 40 years strong – winning several awards in his lifetime.
While he was a friend of Lennon and McCartney, his strongest relationships and works were with 2 other British poets, Roger McGouch and Brian Patten. They were part of a band called The Liverpool Scene, which opened once for Led Zeppelin.
In the 1990s, a quadruple heart bypass and two severe strokes, forced him to slow down, but he never gave up, even with all the difficulties in walking, talking, painting, etc. When he died at age 68, in 2000, Mike Evans (who first met Henri as a 16-year-old and then played the saxophone in their band, The Liverpool Scene) wrote a lovely obit at The Guardian. One of the things he wrote:
Adrian’s poems were very much those of a painter; he wrote what he saw, as much as what he felt, though what he described was often expressed with such passion that even the most simplistic listings of people or places were lit with an emotional glow. “I want to paint/ Pictures worth their weight in money/ Pictures that tramps can live in/ Pictures that children would find in their stocking on Christmas morning/ Pictures that teenage lovers can send each other/ I want to paint/ pictures.”
In all this activity, it was Adrian’s character that others warmed to. He was eclectic, tolerant and generous of spirit, and happy to mention influences as diverse as James Ensor, Nicholas de Staël, Jasper Johns and Mark Rothko in the same breath – or, in the case of Me, in the same poem. And he could be just as excited about the work of those around him, whose paintings, poetry or whatever he would promote with an enthusiasm sometimes bordering on the evangelical.
In that same Guardian obit, Neil Dunn, a contemporary of Henri’s, described the latter as a free spirit in the tradition of Byron and Shelley. He also shared this wonderful story Henri had told him:
He told me how, after a gig, he had gone back to a girl’s room in some desolate seaside town and lost his wallet. Forced to leave before breakfast in the morning, he walked by the grey waves and, hearing a seagull, looked up – and a piece of bread dropped into his open mouth.