“Woodworker’s Ballad”: A Woodworking Poem by Herbert Edward Palmer

A former student of mine showed me this poem a couple of days ago, and I thought I would post it here.  It’s called “Woodworker’s Ballad,” and I reprint it from the The Oxford Book of English Verse (link to poem here).  It was written by a little-known English poet named Herbert Edward Palmer (1880-1961), and it attempts to place wood at the top of a hierarchy of construction materials.

ALL that is moulded of iron
Has lent to destruction and blood;
But the things that are honour’d of Zion
Are most of them made from wood.

Stone can be chisell’d to Beauty,
And iron shines bright for Defence;
But when Mother Earth ponder’d her duty
She brought forth the forest, from whence

Come tables, and chairs, and crosses,
Little things that a hot fire warps,
Old ships that the blue wave tosses,
And fiddles for music, and harps;

Oak boards where the carved ferns mingle,
Monks’ shrines in the wilderness,
Snug little huts in the dingle,
All things that the sad poets bless.

King Arthur had a wood table;
And Our Lord blessed wood; for, you see,
He was born in a wooden stable,
And He died on a wooden tree;

And He sailed in a wooden vessel
On the waters of Galilee,
And He work’d at a wooden trestle
At His wonderful carpentry.

Oh, all that is moulded of iron
Has lent to destruction and blood;
But the things that are honour’d of Zion
Are most of them made from wood.

I will admit up front that I don’t particularly like the poem.  The folksy, informal rhythm of the poem is quite intentional, but I think the folksy-ness is over-wrought.  For one, the flaws in the poem’s reasoning are too obvious: whatever the speaker thinks of iron, it’s difficult to make anything out of wood without the aid of iron.  And Zion itself was made mostly of stone.  Formally, the slant rhymes in the first and last stanza prevent the poem from reaching full, auditory closure–even if you read it in a really thick, northern English accent.

It’s the usual result when a meticulous craftsman decides to leave his work rough for a change in order to imitate “primitive” or “rustic” work.  He’s liable to leave the work rougher than he should.

Yet the poem does have a few strong images–the hot fires warping small pieces of wood and the carved ferns mingling on oak panels, though Palmer probably has acanthus leaves, not ferns, in mind.  The inclusion of “crosses” in the ninth line seems initially out of place until we reach the fifth stanza where the poem turns to consider the traditional association of Christ with wood, and then suddenly it fits perfectly.

It’s not a great poem, but it works in its own simplistic way.

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2 Responses to “Woodworker’s Ballad”: A Woodworking Poem by Herbert Edward Palmer

  1. Flo Schuler says:

    Sarah says you have not heard this read in a midland English accent. She would be happy to read it for you. You might change your mind a bit.

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