In the latest issue:

The American Virus

Eliot Weinberger

The Home Life of Inspector Maigret

John Lanchester

Story: ‘Have a Seat in the Big Black Chair’

Diane Williams

The Last Whale

Colin Burrow

In Beijing

Long Ling

Princess Margaret and Lady Anne

Rosemary Hill

At the Movies: ‘Arkansas’

Michael Wood

Ruin it your own way

Susan Pedersen

At Home

Jane Miller

Good to Think With

Helen Pfeifer

Poem: ‘Muntjac’

Blake Morrison

The Inequality Engine

Geoff Mann

Short Cuts: In Tripoli

Jérôme Tubiana

Coetzee Makes a Leap

Christopher Tayler

At Auckland Castle: Francisco de Zurbarán

Nicola Jennings

Drain the Swamps

Steven Shapin

Diary: In the Isolation Room

Nicholas Spice

Fire: a song for Mistress AskewDavid Harsent
Vol. 35 No. 24 · 19 December 2013

Fire: a song for Mistress Askew

David Harsent

716 words

fythynesse, rust, menstrue, swylle, mannys durt, adders egges, the brede of lyes …
                                                                                 Johan Bayle

The firebug rises whistling from the fire. Slats laid
on the overlap, branches at a pitch, as for Anne Askew
wordless under torture, so broken the hangman’s crew
carried her to the stake, a seat where she sat astride.

There was rain in the air as I built it. Bramble and thorn,
lumber and junk. Dead stuff. Whatever would burn.


Charge and denial; the bald accounts of martyrdom;
the mechanics at work, their gift of transformation.
Torchlight and stone. She stripped to her shift
unbidden and climbed up to the machine; when it took hold
she was lifted clear of the bed, her body hard strung,
the wrench and crack of greenstick.
                                                                                 Notebook: She bell’d
but speke no worde and sylence alwayes her gift.


The frame of her in the fire, black to the bone. Her head
a smoking cinder, smiling, smiling, smiling.
Some stood close enough to catch the haul
and roar of flame in the summer wind as it fed,
close enough to hear the shrivel-hiss
of burning hair, to see her sag and slump, to witness
the pucker and slide of her skin, the blister-rash on her eyeballs.

In the fire lies your salvation, Anne, they said. What greater thing
than the brush of His hand as He stoops to take up your soul?


Notebook: (Her Newgate poem) –
A woman poore and blinde:
more enmyes now I have than hairs upon my hedd.
(She stood her ground.)
Then the byshopp sayd, I shuld be brente.


Anne, you are nothing to me. Only that you knew best
how to unfasten your gown while they waited at the rack.
Only that she was hard prest
which I can’t now shake from my mind. Only that black
flux flowed from you, that they let you void and bleed.


I set this fire in a hard frost: early evening, the garden’s
winter leavings, the unretrievable, the piecemeal burdens.
Paraffin to start it – that dry whoomph! – and I saw her ghost
chained there: the woodcut from Foxes ‘Acts
and Monuments’ that hung on the chapel wall
beside ‘The Light of the World’, a mild-mannered Christ,
his jaunty crown of thorns … The minister’s stage-effects
were rage and unforgiveness, his colours red and red again
which were heart’s blood and hell-fire, the least of us already lost.


Notebook: (Johan Bayle, her apologist) –
By the fore heades understande she the hartes
or myndes of men. (And then): Christ wuld speake
in darke symylytudes. (And of her judges): They brede
cockatrice egges and weve the spyders webbe.


That they gave her cripple-water; that she ate
spoiled meat; that this was her penance; that she saw
those long nights through bedded on stone and straw;
that women in the garden by the White Tower,
turned to one another, amazed: ‘What is that animal?’
                                                                                     The river beat,
hour after hour as they racked her, back from the water gate.


That job taken in hand by Wriothesley and Richard Rich.
Then the pyre at Smithfield; those there to watch:
Norfolk, Bonner, Bowes, priests, judges, one and all
the Devil’s dishwashers. Before they lit the stack,
Shaxton preached repentance. Broken, she listened.
The crowd stood round in a ring, ten deep, and felt the scorch.


Notebook: (Johan Bayle, in sorrow) –
So had Anne Askewe the flamynge brandes of fyre,
nor scremed until the first flaym reched her brest.


My dream of her puts me in close-by: her poor bare
feet, her shift just catching a flame that chases the line of the hem …
And when I wake in sunlight, that flare is the flare
in her eye, that rising note in my ear the singing deep in green
branches, that low rumble her blood at a rolling boil;
and what she screams from the centre, now, as her hair
goes up in a rush, as her fingers char,
as the spit on her tongue bubbles and froths, as she browns from heel
to head, as she cracks and splits, as she renders to spoil:
the only thing she can get to me through the furnace, as I lean
in to her, is yes it will be fire it will be fire it will be fire …

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences