Saturday Poem – When Winchester Races

Apparently Jane Austen wrote this poem only two days before she died.  It might have been a more appropriate choice for a July Saturday Poem since it makes reference to the people of Winchester running wild on St Swithun’s Day (15th July).  This is the saint’s day where supposedly if it rains, forty more days of rain will prevail and if it’s sunny then forty days of that instead.  St Swithun was a Bishop of Winchester and supposedly buried in the realms of that great cathedral, so Jane Austen imagines his wrath at the townsfolk of Winchester who have forgotten him.  The Austen family suppressed the poem for many years, it not being seemly for their maiden aunt to be writing about races, particularly while she was on her deathbed.  Still, while the poem’s apparent humour may seem out of place, there is something strange going on in the second line of the fourth stanza.  The word that best fits the rhyme scheme there is not ‘gone’, but ‘dead’.  This was a poem written by a dying woman, listening to the racket going on outside and not quite able to distract herself from what is ahead.

When Winchester Races

When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of Saint Swithin
And that William of Wykeham’s approval was faint.

The races however were fixed and determined
The company came and the Weather was charming
The Lords and the Ladies were satine’d and ermined
And nobody saw any future alarming.–

But when the old Saint was informed of these doings
He made but one Spring from his Shrine to the Roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he addressed them all standing aloof.

‘Oh! subjects rebellious! Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinned and must suffer, ten farther he said

These races and revels and dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–You shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.

Ye cannot but know my command o’er July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.

Jane Austen

For past Saturday Poems, take a look at the archive in Poetry Please.

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