Bran


Elizabeth Gaskell

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First published in Household Words, Saturday, October 22, 1853

This web edition published by eBooks@Adelaide.

Last updated Wednesday, February 26, 2014 at 13:37.

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eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
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A poem in octosyllabic couplets, ‘Bran’ appeared in Household Words on 22 October 1853. Possibly, like ‘Sketches among the Poor, No. 1’, this was jointly produced by husband and wife (who may have met the original Breton tale while holidaying in France that summer). The ballad related how the hero’s mother crossed the sea to ransom her son, only to discover a lifeless Bran; for, misled by a deceitful jailor, he had died in despair of her ever arriving. The conclusion illustrates those traditional beliefs of Brittany which represent the dead as re-appearing in the guise of birds. Doubtless Mrs. Gaskell was drawn to the tale by its inherent poetry and pathos. by the devotion of Bran’s mother, and by the legendary returning of the dead. The versification is competent, and the narrative easy-flowing.

(Sharps, Mrs. Gaskell’s Observation and Invention, 173)

“Bran”

This ballad commemorates the great Battle of Kerloan fought in the tenth century. Kerloan is a small village a the coast of the country of Leon, one of the ancient divisions of Brittany. Evan the Great then and there challenged the men of the North (Normans). The illustrious Breton chief compelled them to retreat; but they carried away many prisoners when they embarked; and among them, was a warrior named Bran, grandson of an earl of the same name, who is often mentioned in the Acts of Brittany. Near Kerloan, on the sea-coast, there still exists a small village, where most probably Bran was made prisoner. It may be necessary to add that Breton traditions frequently represent the dead appearing in the form of birds, and that the love of country and of home, is to this day a passionate feeling among the Bretons. Bran, besides being a man’s name, signifies also a crow in the Breton language.

I.

WOUNDED sore was the youthful knight,

Grandson of Bran, at Kerloan fight.

In that bloody field by the wild sea-shore,

Last of his race, was he wounded sore.

Dear did we pay, though we won that day;

Lost was our darling - borne far, far away.

Borne o’er the sea to a dungeon tower,

Helpless he wept in the foeman’s power.

“Comrades, ye triumph with mirth and cheer,

While I lie wounded and heart-sick here!

“O find a messenger true for me,

To bear me a letter across the sea.”

A messenger true they brought him there,

And the young knight warned him thus with care:

“Lay now that dress of thine aside,

And in beggar’s weeds thy service hide.

“And take my ring, my ring of gold,

And wrap it safe in some secret fold.

“But, once at my mother’s castle gate,

That ring will gain admittance straight;

“And O, if she comes to ransom me,

Then high let the white flag hoisted be;

“But if she comes not - ah! well-a-day!

The night-black flag at the mast display!”

II.

When the messenger true to Leon came,

At supper sat the high-born dame;

With cups of gold and royal fare,

And the harpers merrily harping there.

“I kneel to thee, right noble dame;

This ring will show from whom I came.

“And he who gave me that same ring

Bade me in haste this letter bring.”

“Oh! harpers, harpers, cease your song;

The grief at my heart is sharp and strong.

“Why did they this from his mother hide?

In a dungeon lies my only pride!

“O quick, make ready a ship for me,

This night I’ll cross the stormy sea.”

III.

The young Bran asked at morn next day,

Asked from the bed whereon he lay:

“Look out now, warder, look well, I pray,

See’st thou no ship that sails this way?”

“Sir knight, I look; but nought I spy,

Save the open sea, and the open sky.”

Again, when the sun was high o’erhead,

The young Bran asked from his weary bed:

“Look out now, warder; look well, I pray,

See’st thou no ship that sails this way?”

“Sir knight, I look, but nought see there,

Save the white sea-birds that skim the air.”

And at vesper hour, in sorer pain,

The young Bran asked of him again:

“Look out once more; look well, I pray,

Still see’st thou no ship that sails this way?”

Then the warder, cruel and false was he,

Smiled as he spoke right wickedly:

“Yes, now, Sir knight, a ship I spy,

Tossed by the billows against the sky.”

“What colour her flag? O tell me right;

Speak, warder, speak! is it black or white?”

“Sir knight, it is black, if I truly see;

By the embers red I swear to thee.”

When the downcast knight that answer heard,

He asked no more, he spake no word;

He turned to the wall his face so wan,

And shook in the breath of the Mighty one!

IV.

The lady’s foot scarce touched the sand

Era she cried to them upon the strand:

“Tell me who now has passed away?

For whom is the death-bell tolling, say?”

And a gray-haired man, there standing by,

To the high-born lady made reply:

“A poor young knight, in prison chained,

At the vesper hour his freedom gained.”

Soon as these words the old man said,

Away to the tower she wildly sped,

Her hair all scattered, her hair so white,

Streaming abroad on the breeze of night.

Wondering around her the townsfolk came,

To gaze, as she passed, on the high-born dame -

Wondering a lady so queenly to meet,

As moaning she rushed up the long steep street.

And each asked another, as half in fear,

“What land does she come from? What seeks she here?”

At the foot of the tower, to the gaoler grim,

She sobbed aloud, and she called on him:

“Oh! open the gates! (my son! my son!)

Oh! open the gates! (my only one!)”

They opened the gates; no word they said:

Before her there her son lay dead.

In her arms she took him so tenderly,

And laid her down - never more rose she!

V.

On Kerloan shore there stands a tree,

In that battle-field beside the sea;

An oak which lifted its lofty head

When from Ewan the Great the Saxons fled.

On that aged tree, when the moon shines bright,

The birds they gather in flocks at night;

From North and South, from East and West,

The white sea-birds with blood-specked breast.

And amidst them comes, ever croaking low,

With a young dark raven, an old gray crow.

Wearily onward they flap their way,

With drooping wings, soaked through with spray,

As they had come from a far countrye,

As they had flown o’er a stormy sea.

And the birds they sing so sweet and clear

That the waves keep very still to hear.

They all sing out in a merry tone,

They all sing together - save two alone,

With mournful voice, ever croaking low,

“Sing, happy birds!” says the old gray crow.

“Blest little birds! sing, for you may,

You do not die from home far away!”

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005