Two things surprised me recently: to learn that my understanding of the old tale of King Canute supposedly trying to stop the tide was completely back to front; and to discover that the poet Lachlan MacKinnon has written a poem (“Canute”) which gives a wry, dry voice to this long departed king. So here’s my take on the king, the tide, and that thousand years ago time.
II What Canute Understood 1030 AD
Not bound for glory, poor Canute!
And yet it was not as legend claims
(That he, a fool, had raised his kingly arm to stop the tide).
Instead, when waters lapped the throne’s high legs,
His followers found out—exactly as their canny lord intended—
That human power is pure delusion.
No throne, no ruler, no human hand or foot
Can turn a rampant tide, return the time.
Aye, rocks & stones may shore up ruins,
Though only for a while;
For, iron-tipped, time pushes forward—feathered, swift—
And a ruinous tide rolls on, rolls in.
Text © Lizzie Ballagher, image © Jamie House