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Lay for the Day
10th March


1914: in the National Gallery in London, Mary Richardson, a suffragette, takes a cleaver to the famous painting by Velasquez known as the Rokeby Venus and leaves seven large slashes in the naked back of the Goddess of Love. (The image above appeared in The Times the following day – the first time the paper printed a half-tone photograph.)
Richardson accounted for her act in ringing words: “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history. Justice is an element of beauty as much as colour and outline on canvas.”
Mary Richardson herself is an intriguing character. As a suffragette she was imprisoned in Holloway, where she went on hunger strike and was subjected to force-feeding three times a day. She had been at Epsom racecourse on Derby Day, 4th June 1913, standing alongside Emily Davison before she carried out the most famous suffragette protest of all – running into the path of the King's horse, which killed her.
Richardson’s later career was chequered. She stood as a parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in 1922, and two years later she stood against Labour, for the Independent Labour Party, which was funded by the Communists. In 1931 she stood for Labour again, and then in April 1934 she joined the British Union of Fascists and became the organiser of their women’s section. She wrote enthusiastically for The Blackshirt, the fascist paper, but soon left the party, in November 1934. This appears to have been her last involvement in public life.

The Sea to Venus

The sea that carried her
Cries on the shore,
For that god married her
Who lives for war

And for no gorgeous limb
Can keep in bed
But must make the sun dim
As though it bled

And the poor earth tremble
As though afraid
When his troops assemble
To ply their trade.

Those waves whose shining spray,
Whose curving sides,
Whose everlasting sway,
Whose constant tides

Poured glory, force and grace
To round her form,
Those breasts and thighs, that face
That stills the storm,

And on a leaning breeze
Sent her to land
That our loves’ woes and ease
Be in her hand

As once the fruit in Eve’s
For which we fell;
That same sea groans and grieves
That on its swell

Forge fleets of conquerors,
Keel after keel
Whose wake is cankerous
And does not heal.

The waves break white and green
With ceaseless sound
Sent to the gentle queen
They ran aground:

“Deliver us from Mars,
No more a knight –
A baby’s body chars
To show his right.

No hero with a face
To face down death,
Even the cold of space
Chills to his breath.

Deliver us from Mars,
Queen of delight,
Whose arms would blot the stars.
Hold him tonight

And fold him in your rose
Where courage learns
The greater hearts are those
Where great love burns.”

John Gibbens
from The Promise

 

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The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar