Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Damsel John

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Illustrated by Charles Green


Damsel John is fair to see;
Damsel John is bold and free;
By his father rideth he.

Damsel John hath scarcely seen
Eighteen years: his life is green,
Yet his heart is aged, I ween.

Damsel John doth love a maid
Hidden in the country shade,
Daughter of plebeian grade.

She has lit the altar fire
Of young manhood’s first desire:
Flames it high as funeral pyre.

Rich the peach-bloom of her cheek;
Hearts will throb, and eyes will speak;
Love is strong, and man is weak.

Many a night and many a day,
From the Court, with turrets grey,
To her bower he steals away.

Many a day and many a night
He is lost from all men’s sight,
In that bower of delight.

There be some with serpent eyes,
Hearted like the snake which lies
Cold beneath blue summer skies.

Such an one hath found the lair
Of the Prince and lady fair,
Stealing, like the night-wind, there.

In his malice and his guile,
Rides he many a rugged mile,
Meets the King with deadly smile:

Whispers in his greedy ear
Words that pierce him like a spear
Of the low-born, sweet-eyed fere:

Shall a Son of France bring shame?
Tarnish his ancestral fame?
Perish he, by sword or flame!”

To the Court, with turrets grey,
Damsel John now takes his way:
“Sweet, not long from thee I stay!”

Meets his father’s loveless smile,
Meets the lord of serpent guile,
All unwitting ill the while.

Hears a raptured hermit preach
Of Christ’s tomb, in Paynim’s reach,
Of Saint Sepulchre’s sad breach:

Wrongs of dames and virgins holy,
Knights that pine in dungeons slowly,
Pilgrims smit with melancholy.

Damsel John hath drunk the sound;
He must hence to Syrian ground;
Deal a death-wound to Mahound.

Damsel John must tarry not;
Quick he tears him from the spot,
Turrets grey and hidden cot.

Laughs the father-king in glee;
Laughs the serpent-lord full dree
In his guile and villany.

Weeks have numbered ten and nine,
And the blazing sun doth shine
O’er his head in Palestine.

Fever-parched and travel-sore,
Drags he o’er the burning shore;
Yet he sings for evermore,—

Love! whom I have left behind,
Thou, in life, my heart do’st bind;
True, in death, thou me shalt find.”

But in short and troubled sleep
Visions weird his flesh make creep;
Make him, groaning, wake and weep.

For he sees his lady fair
Dragged by her dishevelled hair,
Hears her cry of wild despair:

Sees her face so scared and pale;
Sees a hand, in cruel mail,
Her long golden locks assail:

Sees—O shame!—the girl bowed low
At that false lord’s saddle-bow;
Sees him deal the dastard-blow:

Sees her dragged through brake and brier,
Through cold brook and village mire,
Fainting, ready to expire:

Sees her poor feet, white and wan,
Bleeding, where sharp thorns have gone,
Stain the stones they tread upon:

Hears foul words of deep disgrace,
Contumely, and insult base,
Cast into her suffering face.

Fiend-like, jeering her distress,
Grasping hard her golden tress,
Rides that false lord, merciless.

Damsel John hath never rest
For the anguish in his breast,
With hot fever-fire opprest.

Ever when his weary eye
Closes, is that vision nigh:
Soon he wakes with terror-cry.

Woeful, sick, he struggles on,
’Neath chill moon and raging sun;
Reaches humbled Ascalon:

Stops not, though his strength is small,
Till he hears the clarion’s call
Under Acre’s leaguered wall.

Wounded sore, but not to die;
Wins his spurs amidst the cry
Of the Christians’ victory.

Then, in litter slowly borne,
Ignorant of night and morn,
Recking not of love or scorn,

Comes he back to pleasant France;
Waking then, as from a trance,
Takes from faithful squire his lance—

Trembling seeks, alone, the cot
Ne’er in fever’s dream forgot:
Finds the desolated spot;

Every vestige swept away
From the eyesight of the day,
Roof and wall and flow’rets gay.

Weeps he tears that heroes weep;
Swears he then his vengeance deep;
Nought shall bar him—moat or keep.

Swears, with surging, struggling breath,
By his knightly crest and wreath,
That false lord shall die the death.

Black in soul, he turns away;
Rides all night, until the day
Lights the Court with turrets gray.

There he sees his father ride;
There, on destrier, by his side,
Sees the lord of guile and pride.

Dark his father’s countenance,
Dark that false lord’s hate-full glance,
As they watch th’ approaching lance.

Few the words, and sharp the fight,
Till the dust that false lord bite:—
Hies his soul to endless night.

For a space the son and sire
Stand opposed, in speechless ire,
Glaring each like lightning fire.

Damsel John then spurs his horse
Through the golden summer gorse;
Leaves his father to remorse.

Never more they meet again
In this world of changeful pain,
Hapless love, and shadows vain.

Manhood’s joys nor regal pride
Knows he henceforth. At his side
Never stands a loving bride.

He hath laid his knighthood down,
Waives aside the coming crown.
Clad in ashen hood and gown,
In dim cell and cloister grey
Wears the rest of life away,
Breathing but to fast and pray.

And if tortured by a dream
Of sweet eyes that sadly gleam,
Tresses like a golden stream,—

Then to harder prayer he flies,
Hair-cloth, scourge, and bitter cries,
Self-inflicted agonies.

But, from men for ever gone,
None may find the nameless stone,
Where, at rest, sleeps Damsel John.


  1. Damsel was originally an exclusive designation of the children of the king:—thus, the “Damsel” Richard, Prince of Wales. The title was afterwards extended to the offspring of nobles; but it always applied to both sexes.