Sunday Poetry – Caroline Norton

Caroline Norton (picture from here) was one of the most remarkable women of the 19th century. Trapped in a miserable, abusive marriage, she left her husband. Her husband sued Lord Melbourne, a friend of Caroline’s & the Prime Minister of the day, for criminal conversation which really meant adultery. Although the claim was dismissed, the scandal was enormous & Caroline was left in limbo. By the laws of the time she had no right to her own earnings or to the custody of her children who she was forbidden to see. She became a social reformer, working for laws allowing women to obtain divorce & giving them rights over their children & their own property. Her work led to the passing of the Custody of Infants Act (1839) & the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857). She was also a poet. Much of her work was written to publicise the causes she was so passionate about. Even though this poem, The Faithless Knight, is in the style of an antique ballad, the theme of faithless love is poignant. I have a biography of Caroline on the tbr shelves & I would love to learn more about her life. The book I have is by Alan Chedzoy & there’s a more recent biography by Diane Atkinson. She’s also featured in Margaret Forster’s excellent book on 19th century feminists, Significant Sisters.

The lady she sate in her bower alone,
And she gaz’d from the lattice window high,
Where a white steed’s hoofs were ringing on,
With a beating heart, and a smother’d sigh.
Why doth she gaze thro’ the sunset rays–
Why doth she watch that white steed’s track–
While a quivering smile on her red lip plays?
‘Tis her own dear knight–will he not look back?

The steed flew fast–and the rider past–
Nor paus’d he to gaze at the lady’s bower;
The smile from her lip is gone at last–
There are tears on her cheek–like the dew on a flower!
And ‘plague on these foolish tears,’ she said,
‘Which have dimm’d the view of my young love’s track;
For oh! I am sure, while I bent my head,
It was then–it was then that my knight look’d back.’

On flew that steed with an arrow’s speed;
He is gone–and the green boughs wave between:
And she sighs, as the sweet breeze sighs through a reed,
As she watches the spot where he last has been.
Oh! many a sun shall rise and set,
And many an hour may she watch in vain,
And many a tear shall that soft cheek wet,
Ere that steed and its rider return again!

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