What to do with sculpture? Follow the trail!




It has amazed me that since taking a bit more notice of public sculpture, it has opened up a whole new way of seeing places I visit.  For instance, I was in Winchester, a beautiful English cathedral city, and I had a vague recollection that there was a sculpture in the crypt of the cathedral.  So the first thing I went to see inside was the very same, and discovered it was the work of Antony Gormley.  It is called Sound II, and it is a man with cupped hands looking at the water in them.  He always stands in water, as the base of the cathedral is always partially flooded.  Apparently, in 2014, when the area experienced flooding, the water was up to the thighs of the statue!  And old King Canute was mentioned again – the one that couldn’t stop the tides!  Lots of problem with water!

It made me think of a poem I had learned (and forgotten) in primary school days as a small child – you know the one, about King Canute and his bathing suit!  It’s been a while, and I probably wasn’t paying that much attention in lessons, so I couldn’t remember alot.  ‘If it declines, though the sun still shines, the remedy Sire is yours.  Speak to it strongly for acting so wrongly and banish it from your shores’.  Fragments – happy memories lodged!

So I tried to track down the words of that poem on-line and it turns out that there were a lot of children who learned it but couldn’t remember it now!  And the Poetry Library at the Southbank Centre in London, asked people to send in the fragments that they remembered in order to amplify and even complete the poem, as it was listed amongst their lost quotations.  It was so interesting to read memories of people from Zimbabwe come up with a few lines, and people from England in the 1950’s remembering learning it and acting it out, and the same for people from Australia in the 1960’s!  It was still doing the rounds in the 1970’s when I learnt it!  Here is a compilation (thanks to Anne Watkins with some of her words, as published on the Poetry Library website):

King Canute

On a sunny day in early May
One thousand and thirty three
King Canute took his bathing suit
And came down to the sea

The sea was cold the king was old
He very soon changed his mind
He sat down there in an old deck chair
His courtiers stood behind

Although I am king not a single thing
Is ever done to please me
My bath is not what I’d call hot
And now you try to freeze me

It is not we your majesty
The fault is of the sea
We told it precisely to heat itself nicely
At sixty four degrees

If it declines though the sun still shines
The remedy sire is yours
Speak to it strongly for acting so wrongly
And banish it from your shores

Thank you my man an excellent plan
I’ll show it I’m not afraid
A king should swim when it pleases him
And never be disobeyed

Sea North sea just listen to me
My orders are firm and plain
You will leave this beach at the end of my speech
And never return again

From far and wide they watched the tide
To see the retreat begin
And got ready to shout as the sea moved out
But still the sea moved in

Oh sire we beseech repeat your speech
The sea could not have heard
But king Canute stood firm and mute
Refusing to say a word

As daylight dimmed a howling wind **
Swept dark clouds o’er the moon **
The folks on the pier began to fear **
But the king sat still as stone **

The sea crept on till the beach was gone
But the king sat resolute **
The waves they rose and tickled his toes
But still the king was mute **

He started to freeze as they reached to his knees
But still he showed no fear **
His majesty felt them reach to his belt
And he shouted for all to hear **

Sea North sea just listen to me
My orders are firm and plain
Come right in shore as you did before
And then go out again

The folks on the pier raised cheer upon cheer
T’was marvellous to behold them
And the waves on shore rolled in once more
Exactly as he told them

We’ve come without fail to the end of our tale **
A tale of bold endeavour **
Kings may come and kings may go
But the sea goes on forever.

Poetry aside, some other details about King Canute, tell of him being a religious man, who did know his limitations.  He made the point that however great a king might appear, it was nothing compared to the greatness of God’s power:

Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings. For there is none worthy of the name but God, whom heaven, earth and sea obey”.

He was Danish, born in about 990AD, and was king of a united England from 1016 to 1035. He died in Shaftesbury, Dorset, but his bones lie in a mortuary chest in Winchester Cathedral.

I went up to the British Museum in London to find out some more about King Canute.  But it seems they were not so enamoured of the Viking era of Britain’s past: there was a small room with some Viking artefacts on show, and only one mention of the said King.  There was a really beautiful piece, though, that I thought delightful.

Whalebone plaque, AD 800’s, Norway

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