‘The Princess and the Gypsies’ by Frances Cornford tells of a conversation between a princess and some gypsies, narrated in the ‘voice’ of the Princess. One May morning, the Princess decides to lay down her crown ‘And live no more like a queen‘, and so, still dressed in her silken gown she steps down the ‘golden steps‘ of her palace and into the open wood. Here she meets some gypsies. As she begins to speak to them, we learn that the princess is unsatisfied with her ‘crown and state‘, and her life in the palace where her ‘old and grey‘ councillors ‘sit in narrow chairs‘, at all times perhaps in stifling surroundings away from nature and the open sky. She longs to join the gypsies for they ‘can hear the birds sing clear‘, and their ‘hearts are as light‘ as the birds’.
The gypsies, while not unwilling to take her along, enlighten her about the realities, that is to say, the hardships of their lives, which may appear attractive but are certainly not easy even if they may be ‘free’. And so they tell her,
If you would come long with us,
Then you must count the cost
Life away from the comforts of the palace is far from easy; the weather, the food, even the path that one has literally to walk on, all are often hard even if they also bring some pleasure. In the springtime, one may be treated to birdsong but in the winter, ‘comes the frost‘. In food too, she must compromise for there won’t be the ‘sugary cakes’ that please but barley-bread that is ‘bitter to taste‘. And when she has to wash in the palace, she has not only basins of gold but water that is warm while the gypsies must make do with streams that might ‘have silvery foam‘ but are cold! The princess is served by her ladies ‘all the day‘ but the gypsies must go barefoot.
So if she chooses to join them, to eat barley bread that is bitter, and wash in streams that are cold, her heart may be ‘as free as birds in the tree‘, but her feet will be cut by stones. Not only that, her silken gown will be spoiled by mud, and dogs in farms will bark when she with the gypsies will pass by.
Life every day is hard for the gypsies, and the end when it comes, is not much better for as they tell the princess,
‘And you will die in a ditch’
Their life may have its attractions, not only birdsong and the open air but hearts that are ‘deep and gay‘ and ‘wise and rich‘ but all of that comes at a price as they explain to the princess. The princess, her head heavy, realises that this life although she may well praise it is not for her and all she can do is to turn back and return to her palace. She may want the freedom that comes with it, but the price is too heavy a one to pay. So giving her ruby rings and chain to the gypsies, she heads back up the stairs, her heart (and dreams) broken, while the gypsies laugh.
The poem through the story of the princess and the gypsies tells us of a situation that almost every person must face or dreams of in one way or another–many dream of lives different from their own–free of the frustrations, problems, that they face–but that other life be it a gypsy one or any other has its own problems, and perhaps not the comforts that one is used to. The grass seems greener but is perhaps only a different kind of green with its own set of problems and hardships.
Reading this poem reminded me of a Jeffrey Archer short story called ‘The Grass is always Greener…’ which starting with a tramp who lives outside a bank takes us through his life, and the lives of various employees in the bank including its chairman, each of whom envy the life of the next ‘higher’ person in the hierarchy thinking, if only they had what that person had, life wouldn’t be so bad. But as we find, even though each one may have something that the other doesn’t, their life isn’t better or rosier because of it–they always have their own problems. And when we get to the story of the chairman, well, that would be a spoiler.
The poem is supposed to be based on an older ballad according to the book I read it in but it doesn’t mention which one. (Let me know if you do).
The poet, Frances Crofts Cornford, was a granddaughter of Charles Darwin (daughter of his son Francis Darwin and Ellen Wordsworth Crofts). She wrote several books of verse. The best known (according to wikipedia; as also the Encyclopaedia Britannica which says this is unfair) is her sad/comic poem ‘To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train’ (1910) to which G.K. Chesterton wrote ‘The Fat Lady Answers’ in response. As both her father and her husband were named Francis, she was known to her family as FCD before marriage and as FCC after.
Have you read this one before? What did you think of it? There are some things that may not be all PC (references to colour and such) but still the point of it makes sense irrespective of setting. Looking forward to your thoughts!