The Daily Echo recently published an article about blind poet John Heath-Stubbs, written by SeeSouthampton’s Jack Wilson and Adrian Risdon, a Brother at the Hospital of St Cross in Winchester.

John Heath-Stubbs was the author of the poem Bevis of Hampton and here is that poem with Adrian’s interpretation, based on his knowledge of John’s life as his friend for more than 30 years.

The poem tells the story of how Bevis/John, the potential murderer, turned into a creative artist. Like Sir Bevis, John hated his mother’s lover, who became her second husband when his father died.

Bevis waded ashore through the surf

Of four-tided Solent. At his heels

The delicate island was glimpsed,

Unglimpsed through the mist:

Victoria watches the yachts

Flit to and fro, decrees tea and biscuits in the library

For Mr. Gladstone, invites

Mr. Disraeli to stay for dinner.

Bevis is John returning from his schooldays on the genteel Isle of Wight. Victoria stands for John’s dominant mother. She transferred her love from the disabled John (Mr. Gladstone), to John’s non-disabled brother George (Mr. Disraeli).

Bevis and Ascupart on the cover of a medieval book.

Bevis and Ascupart on the cover of a medieval book.

Bevis - his bones were chalk and his flesh was clay,

The crest of his helm

Royal and Roman Winchester;

Arthur’s table,

An amulet, hung on his brow.

Gorse and fern of the New Forest

The scrubby hair on his chest and groin.

The spirituality of Winchester is contrasted with a sexualized New Forest - John struggled to reconcile his Christian beliefs with his homosexuality.

Bevis kills his stepfather.

Bevis kills his stepfather.

As his feet touched the shingle and undercliff, coltsfoot,

Rest-harrow, scabious and knapweed

Blossomed about them – the Dartford warbler

Stonechat and sand-martin spluttered a welcome.

Ponies obsequiously trotted forward –

They would convoy him inland.

John loved wild flora and birds - they embodied a freedom he lacked. As a lonesome schoolboy, he would study wildlife on the beach at the foot of Culver Cliff. This side of John had its roots in a fear of people. Having read to John for thirty years, I like to think of myself as one of these obsequious ponies!

Heath-Stubbs outside Winchester Town.

Heath-Stubbs outside Winchester Town.

‘I am Bevis’ he shouted, ‘I am Beow the barley-man.

I have been killing dragons and things

In the Middle East; now I come home

To claim my inheritance.’

John here is a boastful adolescent. While Bevis’ inheritance was gained by killing his step-father, John’s was the Hampshire literary tradition, including Isaac Watts, Jane Austen and Gilbert White; this inheritance works to soften his violent mood.

Bevis attacks his step-father Murdure.

Bevis attacks his step-father Murdure.

His mouth was Southampton Water, where ships of Tarshish,

All the big steamers, chugged in and out, their holds

Bursting with biscuits you nibble, and beefsteaks.

Out of that throat the hymns of Isaac Watts

Arose in salutation to God and to judgment.

Miss Austen observed his coming

From the corner of her eye; on his shoulder the down of Selborne –

There a discerning cleric discriminated the songs

Of willow-wren, chiffchaff, wood-wren.

Bevis - his right hand rested on Pompey and the great guns;

His left hand gently fondled

The dusty, fairy pavilions of Bournemouth.

In frozen horror a landlady

Stared at the ceiling, a spreading stain–

The blood of Alec D’urberville.

John contrasts the manly qualities of Portsmouth, and behaviour in Bournemouth, where Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles stabbed her lover in a boarding-house. Suddenly he is the landlady, reacting in horror at the thought of murder.

Bevis fights the dragons.

Bevis fights the dragons.

The corner of his left sleeve

Lightly brushed the blue-slipper clay

Of the Barton beds, where Eocene fossils

Attested a former sub-tropical climate,

And curled asleep, in his middle-class room, a boy

Surmised he might be a poet.

The “sub-tropical climate” illustrates John’s state of mind as a hot-headed teenager, who hated his mother’s lover. But now it is described as “former” - the grown-up poet is maturely in charge of his emotions.

A real Southampton poem, by a great Hampshire poet.

Bevis of Hampton, from Selected Poems of John Heath-Stubbs, Ed. John Clegg; published with kind permission of Carcanet Press .

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SeeSouthampton logo.

Jack Wilson is a tour guide with .