Sestina for the six wives  


My brother’s wife, but only I loved Catherine:

No woman did I ever trouble more

To be the mother of my kingdom’s heir,

To consummate my first, my last, desire.

She failed; and still I travel to her, farther

Than dreams can ride, into her castle blackness.


While black-eyed, six-fingered Anne, all blackness –

But yellow for the funeral – round Catherine

Danced, and so miscarried; leaving me father

To no son, but to the death of More and more.

The French blade of a sonneteer’s desire

Took off the goggle-eyed brunette; which done, ere


I had half composed a twisting hybrid air

And walked the paths of polyphonic blackness,

I found in fresh green leaves my heart’s desire.

Since neither the Marquess Anna, nor Catherine

Of Aragon would give, let plain Jane Seymour

Be the mother, and I at last the father


To the name of his father’s mother’s father,

King Edward.  Fog clears, sun explodes the air.

Queen Jane lies back exposed on Childbed Moor

Bleeding into her last puerperal blackness.

And I must seek a wife: another Catherine,

An Anne.  But all I find when I desire


Are dreams that buck, a face that cleaves desire,

A Flanders nightmare come to lure me farther

From my senses; until a fifth, a Catherine

Comes pumping down my dropsied, ulcered skin, air

Off Venus’ mount, bubbling eruptive blackness –

I rise! I sing! – for a breve.  For hundreds more


Lie in Mistress Catherine’s score.  And the maw

Of Traitor’s Gate gapes wide.  Some say desire

For heads is for maidenheads; that the blackness

Gathered in these my good looks proves them father

To impotence, one nine-year-old their heir.

But winch me here, and I will show them, Catherine…


(And you, Catherine, that if you had given more –

Bequeathed me one male heir – this one desire

Had flamed no farther, the rest been sweet blackness.)


An interesting anecdote about this poem: many years ago,  I was typing it on to a computer in a remote corner of  the castle where my school is based –  Kimbolton, where Catherine of Aragon was sent by Henry VIII to die..  When I reached the second stanza (about Anne Boleyn), the computer crashed for no reason.  A friend managed to get it working  so I started again. The same thing happened at the same point.  Then I pressed a wrong button and lost forty pages!