This review and the poem it discusses contains reference to violence,
cannibalism, death (including children), colonisation, racism, suicide,
sexual violence (including rape and incest), torture and murder.
Discretion is advised.
Epic poetry – in all its intergenerational, preternatural and moralistic glory –is a staple of most student literature, wherever in the world you may be. As a child, I ‘studied’ an Fhiannaíocht – a medieval Irish collection about the hero Finn mac Cumhaill and his warriors, the Fianna – and Beowulf, which made me scared of Grendel. While it would be easy to slap the label ‘epic’ on any poem deemed ‘long’ – and at 205 pages, The Woe of Roanoke more than qualifies –Mathew Horton’s account of murder and cannibalism runs so deep and so entrenched into the lifeblood of the genre.
The Woe of Roanoke is formed of nine different poems (‘books’, in the context of the collection) divided into three parts and an epilogue, all of varying length. Book One tells the story of ‘Black’ Agnes Bean, daughter of Sawney and den mother to her numerous siblings. After the murder of her lover by her mother Agnes manages to escape her family and marries a ploughman. Weighed down by guilt and grief, she is driven to confession ten years later.
The themes of grief and loss run strong through The Woe of Roanoke. Agnes’s narrative is temporarily overtaken in Book Two by Thomas Hume, ex-lover of King James VI and I [Historical note: King James ruled as James VI of Scotland from 1567 and James I of England and Ireland after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Despite sharing a monarch under the Union of the Crowns, England and Scotland continued to be autonomous states until the Acts of Union in 1707]. Hume lost his parents to the vigilante groups searching for the Bean clan. Part of the force which uncovers the Bean cave, Hume witnesses the humiliation of the monarch at the hands of Sawney himself.
The Woe of Roanoke does not portray James in a flattering light. Historically, James was obsessive about witchcraft. Under his reign in Scotland, the first witch trials in the British Isles began in earnest. The Scottish Witchcraft Act 1563 made witchcraft and consulting with those suspected thereof a capital offence; a law which was spread to England in 1604 after James’s accession. He was known for personally supervising the judicial torture of women suspected of being witches. His ‘theological’ treatise Daemonologie, published in 1597, examined necromancy, black magic and how the implications of both justified the execution of suspected witches. Daemonologie went on to become a foundation text for Shakespeare’s Macbeth, of which James was a patron. James was also known for his same-sex affairs, most notably with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham whose unpopularity led to his assassination in 1628.
None of this historical context is wasted by Horton. James is presented almost farcically; a pantomime villain with a sword. After the raid on the Bean cave, James begins to purge his kingdom in order to keep his reputation intact. Hume flees to London, where the death of Elizabeth later brings James. His English coronation, which takes place in Book Three, is notably Roman in its style and influence; excess and decadence offset by the background of plague-ridden London.
The plague itself is a malleable thing. While not as infamous as the Black Death of 1360-3 or the Great Plague of 1665, 1603 saw an outbreak of plague in London which lasted for eight years and claimed the lives of approximately 43,000 people.[i] In the context of the poem, the plague is implied – in the mind of Hume, at least – to be a result of a dying curse from Agnes Bean. Within his quarantine inside a brothel (itself an interesting parallel with the lack of moral fortitude associated with his nemesis James), Hume suffers hallucinations of the Bean clan. Fittingly entitled ‘A Ruined Hume and Bean’, the third book of this poem brings together the casual ghastliness of epidemic and disregard for human life associated the Early Modern period with the mystic undertones integral to epic poetry.
The second part of The Woe of Roanoke leaves Scotland and England behind as the ship of colonists The Lion makes passage to America. Book Four introduces a new voice to the narrative; wealthy merchant Humfrey Dimmock, who provides an insight into the tensions between the Puritan settlers and the mariners on board. In the middle of this conflict is a Scottish boy named Blue Bill Brown. The unrest on board is fuelled by Blue Bill, who encourages dissent between the colonists and the primary antagonists on the staff, the pilot and the cook’s assistant.
This conflict takes up the majority of Book Four, and Book Five finds Blue Bill living with Chief Wanchese, the last known leader of the Roanoke people, to whom Bill’s blue skin and red hair are a source of fascination. Given the Algonquian name ‘Matwau’ (meaning ‘Enemy’), Blue Bill stalks and terrorises the colonists’ isolated camp, who are also battling food and water shortages. Bill becomes an almost preternatural presence among them. Book Six concerns Eleanor Dare – mother of the ‘first white child’– kept chained alive inside a cave by Blue Bill, the son of Sawney and his daughter Black Agnes. Eleanor tries to keep her grip on reality by shielding her child from the worst of the cruelty that surrounds them; a parallel of Black Agnes’s narrative in the first book. As she loses her grip on sanity, her murdered husband Ananias appears to her. Eleanor begs Ananias to protect their teenage daughter Agnes as she succumbs to her fate as a captive.
The third part of The Woe of Roanoke knits together the strands of London, Virginia and the fate of the colony itself. Book Seven starts with an excerpt from Sallie Southall Cotten’s The White Doe, a 1901 self-styled ‘legend’ about the fate of Virginia Dare. The work is proudly colonialist; the dedication reads ‘To The National Society of Colonial Dames of America; WHOSE PATRIOTIC WORK HAS STIMULATED RESEARCH INTO AN IMPORTANT AND INTERESTING PERIOD OF THE HISTORY OF OUR BELOVED COUNTRY’[ii]. Book Seven’s six line quotation ends with the phrase ‘The fierce brawny red man is king of the wold’, repeated three times like an incantation.[iii] The duality of ‘wold’, an almost-archaic phrase referring to a piece of high, open uncultivated land or moor and ‘world’ is clear here. The wold on which Blue Bill rules is the world; it is the beginning and the end of the lived experience of all who come across him. It brings to mind Macbeth’s witches on the heath; the meeting of two spaces in a land deemed ‘unclaimed’. The book continues with James I still tormented by his memory of the Beans. The colony briefly thrives, before a mysterious wedding prophesises a ruination which unfolds through the rest of the book.
Part Eight – broadly told as a conversation between Blue Bill and Matwau, both embodying a separate character – highlights the script-like nature of the poem. The individual speakers and their idiolects, intercut occasionally with lines from the omniscient Narrator, feels very much like the text of a Jacobean tragedy. Horton carries this atmosphere forward into Book Nine, with the ruin of Roanoke told by Chief Powhatan – whose proper name Wahunsonacock is the title for the ninth book – to John Smith, of Pocahontas infamy. Wahunsonacock recounts the final climactic battle against Matwau, the ‘tawny cannibal King’ to bring the poem to its ostensible finish.[iv] In true epic poetry form, the defeat of evil does not mark the end. Hearing of the tragedy of the colony and the spread of the Bean clan, King James orders a sustained effort into their eradication; one of his lieutenants is Enn, one of the original raiders of Sawney’s cave.
It is not the poem’s close – the glumly prophetic warning ‘Matwau was not the last one-/Madman believed messiah/More rejects were to follow on/As sheep will seek pariahs’ – which cements its epic form, although that is certainly a part of it. [v] The cyclical nature of the narrative, of violence begetting violence and the repeating of the same intergenerational mistakes is a hallmark of the genre. Other characteristics of the epic; the supernatural, the breadth of setting, the objectivity of the central voice (in this case, the narrator) are immediately evident in Horton’s verse. Others are less so. One of the seven primary features is the hero; a character deemed to be historically or legendarily significant. Sawney Bean himself was most likely fiction – or at the very most, a significant embellishment – and many of the other characters, while being historical figures in their own right, are unlikely to be labelled as ‘historically significant’. Is Sawney, by dint of his legendary status and as the overall connecting force between the books, the true hero of this piece? Is it King James? It is not required that the hero be good.
Horton plants narrative themes within the text – colonialism, the critique of monarchy, the externalisation of evil as disease – and he manages to sustain them through the whole 205 page effort. While Macbeth’s influence is present, there is the intriguing thought that The Woe of Roanoke could be seen as the inverse of Shakespeare’s Henry V, itself a mediated metaphor for the colonisation of Ireland. The legend of Sawney Bean is believed to be a piece of anti-Scottish propaganda invented after the Jacobite Risings. The Woe of Roanoke also presents an interesting inversion of another popular propaganda myth, that of the ‘savage native’ which was used by Europeans as a pretext to invade, massacre and enslave indigenous groups during the colonisation of North and South America. The savagery of colonisation is made manifest in Blue Bill, whose very existence is used as an excuse for further invasion and terror at the end of the piece.
Other influences are visible in the scheme and metre of Horton’s work. Book Four, ‘Dimmock’s Yellow Diary’, which focuses on the voyage out to America brings to mind Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in its verses which run ‘Half a crew, no wind blew/Both boats were lagged in loiters/Lazy, for the spirits knew-/Chastisement for exploiters’, and ‘Like men morphed into mannequins/Pus coughed from corrupt lungs/Like the strangled cut from scaffoldings/With scurvy bloodied gums.’ [vi] [vii] The brief homage to Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est in ‘coughed… corrupt lungs’ – which may or may not be intentional – serves to underline the futility of the viciousness inflicted throughout the course of the text. Horton has had some fun with the historical background of the text; ‘Four cannon and some cannon shot/And gunpowder to blow their plot’, a reference to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a plan to assassinate King James by blowing up the Houses of Parliament on November 5th is just one of the historical witticisms planted in the text.[viii]
Horton manipulates the verse in a way which spares the reader none of the savagery associated with his narrative. Wahunsonacock recalls finding the corpse of his wife ‘…stripped of every sinew/Eye sockets stuffed with plumes’; the ruins of the colony described as ‘… Its corrupted sin/Like feasting on the flesh of men/Or laying with your kin.’[ix] [x] The colonisers bring ‘disease, disgust, despair/Convinced us It was sacred’.[xi] There is a vivid veracity to the verse, one which does not shy away from showcasing all the horror and violence of its subject.
The rhyme and rhythm are varied throughout the course of the poem. Some verses are deceivingly simple in their structure, such as ‘Johnny Bright was set alight/His treachery uncovered/His torched remains were torn by kite/Dog, rat and crab and buzzard’ has an almost nursery rhyme-like skip to its structure.[xii] Similarly, ‘An English boat was spied to float/Into Chesapeake bay/Matwau slit five English throats/To scare the ship away.’[xiii] Compare this to the comparatively long opening verse of the poem, which runs ‘T’was not just the gale that chilled his skin/As he mulled on the cannibal captured within./In trembling state he clenched his cane/To rap tap the gate of the jail in the rain’.[xiv] These variations are not limited to individual books of the poems either; in Book One, The Ballad of Agnes Bean from which the previous quotation was taken, is the verse ‘They say I’m a witch/Which I say to them nay!/I’m a Christian now/I know how to pray’ which echoes the ABCB structure of the fate of Johnny Bright.[xv] Within the same verse are the follow-on lines ‘I’m repented of sin lamented the crime/A new son’s arrived. A husband who’s kind’; the change in rhyme scheme abrupt.[xvi] Horton wrong-foots the reader in many such instances, allowing his rhythm to become familiar before snatching it away.
Other times the rhymes flow on and on; the verse ‘Five years in a pit with a fern for a door/A toil for food in the soil on the floor/Rat and root and dreams of boar’ describes the squalor which Sawney, his wife and their early children lived in before migrating to their infamous cave.[xvii] The verse feels claustrophobic and tight, but the rhyme does not feel laboured. There are similar moments of exposition, such as ‘He came into the world callous and brawny/Alexander she named him/They nicknamed him Sawney’, in which it would be all too easy to fall into the trap of forcing a rhyme for rhyme’s sake – you cannot, after all, write this poem without the word Sawney.[xviii] Yet Horton’s admirable writing and eye for rhythm surmount these challenges without the reader realising there was a challenge to begin with. Horton does not sacrifice rhyme for image; the verse ‘The hangman was a man of frock/The noose was tightened by the parson/A forced recluse, now half an orphan.’ exchanges the half rhyme of ‘parson’ and ‘orphan’ for the role of the diocese in the judiciary, which is so integral to the background against which Horton is writing.[xix]
That is not to say the work is flawless. As with any poem, and particularly in a poem of this length, there are words and phrases which do not quite sit right. There are some continuity errors in the rhyming; ‘kirk’ and ‘clerk’ are rhymed on page 28, the word ‘clerk’ pronounced in the American-English manner /klɜːrk/. [xx] In the opening pages of the poem, ‘clerk’ is rhymed with ‘dark’, where ‘clerk’ is the British-English pronunciation /klɑːrk/. [xxi] However, in a work of almost 900 verses, it is to be expected that not every verse measures up to exactly the same standard. There are moments of incredible skill; the lines ‘The grog soaked ogre, half hungover/Eyed his empires’ fall’; ‘They added to the mound of meat/With severed hands and severed feet’ and ‘This pulsing place that now was raw/A crucifix on every door’ were all moments of writing that I found particularly outstanding.[xxii] [xxiii][xxiv] There are moments of humour as well – the dead remnants of the Bean clan are referred to as ‘baked Beans’ at one point in the text – which manage to offset the tone of the poem from what could be an atmosphere of unrelenting gloom.[xxv]
Mathew Horton has produced something incredibly uncommon. While the thought of the sustained length of an epic – not to mention the other genre-specific characteristics – would daunt even the bravest of us, The Woe of Roanoke is plainly a labour of love for Horton. His enthusiasm shines through the text, and his thorough research into the historical background of the piece is testament to his dedication. While its subject matter and violence may be off-putting to some readers, for those interested in some of the more traumatic areas of the past (or perhaps to fill that Game of Thrones hole), The Woe of Roanoke could well be the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
Mathew Horton’s The Woe of Roanoke is available from Amazon.
The Wellington Street Review received a copy of this book from its author in exchange for an honest review. Neither author nor publisher are affiliated with the Wellington Street Review or its staff.
[i] Graunt, John (1759), Collection of Yearly Bills of Mortality, from 1657 to 1758 Inclusive https://archive.org/details/collectionyearl00hebegoog
[iii] Mathew Horton, The Woe of Roanoke, p.140
[iv] Horton, Woe, p.167
[v] Horton, Woe, p.205
[vi] Horton, Woe, p.88
[viii] Horton, Woe, p.32
[ix] Horton, Woe, p.p. 159
[x] Horton, Woe, p.p. 164
[xii] Horton, Woe, p.136
[xiv] Horton, Woe, p.3
[xvi] Horton, Woe, p.4
[xvii] Horton, Woe, p.9
[xviii] Horton, Woe, p.5
[xix] Horton, Woe, p.25
[xx] Horton, Woe, p.28
[xxi] Horton, Woe, p.9
[xxii] Horton, Woe, p.48
[xxiii] Horton, Woe, p.41
[xxiv] Horton, Woe, p.36
[xxv] Horton, Woe, p.54