10 June 2015
Words on Sheepskin
We have been overwhelmed by the critical response to our Magna Carta exhibition. We'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has already visited or has written to us about it, and we hope that many more people will do so before Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy closes on 1 September 2015. But readers of this blog may be aware that we're always happy to look at things from different angles, and Magna Carta is no different. We were recently approached by the poet Laila Sumpton, who had visited our exhibition and was keen to write a poem about it, reflecting on the nature of rights and our ongoing battle for them.
The poet Laila Sumpton speaking at Keats House
Here we publish Laila's poem. We hope it inspires you, much as Magna Carta as inspired people across the world in the 800 years since it was first granted by King John.
Words on sheepskin
We have rights, they are not given-
realised when inked, then acted.
We have rights destroyed, diluted, flouted,
then welded anew in rhetoric fires-
in a law maker wars that buffets our rights
between crown and barons, crown and commons,
with ‘boo’, ‘hurrah’ jousting over green benches.
Each decade rephrases our penalties,
our liberties, and the mound of cast-off laws
is growing- as the tailor re-fits skin
over bones and organs, then re-stitches
the tears on the cheek of Lady Justice,
adds to and weakens her muscles before
they argue and anoint her into being.
Whilst crowds gather to watch the few wielders
of libels, pamphlets and brazen placards
as they jump before all the king's horses
all the king's men; trying to put our lady
back together again.
Heirs of our rights were etched on a shield
held up by barons against a tyrant crown
laws as big as the sheep they were scratched on
with a few petering off down the legs
and into oblivion.
Above the shrivelled seal, of skeletal John
wrapped in robes with a sword pointing at God
shadows of former words proclaim that-
No free man is to be taken
without the lawful judgement of his peers.
That a woman’s word cannot imprison a man-
save on the death of her husband.
That all Welsh hostages must be returned.
That the Church of England shall be free.
That there must not be, under any circumstances,
any more fish weirs in the Thames of Medway.
That no town can be made to build a bridge,
unless they have an ancient oath to do so.
That widows can remain widows if they choose.
That wine, ale and corn should be measured
by the London quarter, everywhere.
That officials cannot partake as they please,
even if they do so in the London quarter.
That the City and their dragons can hold fairs
and be supreme, whilst no man, including the king,
most particularly the king, shall be above the law.
They scraped away gold, to reveal a wooden chair,
for below every polished floor is Earth,
and above each roof is sky-
so we still re-sole our boots
to march for the ghost and grandchild
of our Magna Carta.
Laila Sumpton (@lailanadia) is a member of the Keats House Poets and works in both the poetry and NGO world, hoping to bring the two together. She runs creative writing workshops at museums, charities, hospitals and universities and writes extensively about human rights issues. She co-edited 'In Protest- 150 poems for human rights', published by the University of London's Human Rights Consortium and is working on her first pamphlet with the working title of 'King Arthur in Kashmir.'