In 1960, I was attending St. Bernadette’s Catholic School in Stockton, California, now closed, alas. My teacher was my very favorite over all the years, and I had many teachers I adored.But most beloved was Sister Mary Gerard.
I have always loved memorizing poetry. When I drove regularly to Tulsa, Oklahoma as a publisher’s representative, I would get on the Indian Nation Turnpike, which was a straight drive up from Texas with nothing in the way in between, and hardly any exits. First I would sing a verse of Woody Guthrie’s “Oklahoma Hills”:
“Way down yonder in the Indian Nation
Ridin’ my pony on the reservation,
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.
Now, ‘way down yonder in the Indian Nation,
A cowboy’s life is my occupation,
In those Oklahoma hills where I was born.”
Then I would proceed to memorize poetry. Usually it was something by Robert W. Service. I would prop the book on the steering wheel, look down, get one line in my head, and repeat it aloud until I felt I knew it. Then I would go back and repeat all the lines I had already memorized, and I would do this over and over until I thought I was ready for the next line. “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute Saloon…” It was still the West, but Oklahoma and the Yukon were a bit different. The lines I love the most by Service are:
“Were you ever out in the Great Alone, when the moon was awful clear,
And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear;
With only the howl of a timber wolf, and you camped there in the cold,
A half-dead thing in a stark, dead world, clean mad for the muck called gold;
While high overhead, green, yellow, and red, the North Lights swept in bars? —
Then you’ve a hunch what the music meant . . . hunger and might and the stars.”
To parapharase Service himself, “My God, but that man could write!”
One of the things I loved about Sister Gerard was she had us memorize poetry. That was swell. There was one poem we memorized that stuck in my head and my heart, just a bit of it, but I never forgot.
“Within my heart I long have kept
A little chamber cleanly swept,
Embroidered with a fleur-de-lis,
And lintel boughs of redwood-tree…”
I have carried this bit of verse with me for 49 years. This was all I could remember, and I hadn’t the slightest idea who wrote it. As soon as search engines were invented I began looking. Sometimes I would forget, and years would go by without a search, but always I came back. And I honed my search skills over the years, until this week I did it right. I found my poem and I found my poet.
Clarence Thomas Urmy wrote the poem. I have yet to find any biographical material on him, but the poem was published in a volume called A California Troubadour in 1912. Urmy must have been well-known in his day. At the end of this I have appended the credits from the book. He was in Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan, and Harper’s Bazaar, to name only a few. Who was this man whose poetry has remained with me for so long? Well, I looked for this poem for almost half a century. I suppose I can spend a little time looking for Mr. Urmy.1
The poem is called “Blondel” and concerns a legendary minstrel, perhaps the minstrel of King Richard the Lionhearted. I have also appended part of a Wikipedia article on Blondel and Richard. Now that I have the entire poem, more lines come back to me and seem familiar and I can see dear Sister Gerard. She was a large woman with an even larger smile. “A bed, a book, a crucifix…” Thank you Sister.
by Clarence Thomas Urmy
WITHIN my heart I long have kept
A little chamber cleanly swept,
Embroidered with a fleur-de-lis,
And lintel boughs of redwood-tree;
A bed, a book, a crucifix,
Two little copper candlesticks
With tapers ready for the match
The moment I his footfall catch,
That when in thought he comes to me
He straightway at his ease may be.
This guest I love so to allure—
Blondel, King Richard’s Troubadour!
He often comes, but sings no more
(He says his singing days are o’er!);
Still, sweet of tongue and filled with tales
Of knights and ladies, bowers and vales,
He caps our frugal meal with talk
Of langue d’oïl and langue d’oc,
Of Picardy and Aquitaine,
Blanche of Castile and Charlemagne,
Of ménestrel, trouvère, conteur,
Mime, histrion, and old harpeur—
Small wonder that I love him well,
King Richard’s troubadour, Blondel!
Still, as he comes at candle-light
And goes before the east is bright,
I have no heart to beg him keep
Late hour with me when wooed by sleep;
But one request I ever make,
And ever no for answer take:
He will not make the secret mine,
What song he sang at Dürrenstein!
Sleep, troubadour! Enough that thou
With that sweet lay didst keep thy vow
And link thy name by deathless art
With Richard of the Lion Heart!
By 1260, Blondel’s name had become attached to a legend in the highly fictionalised Récits d’un Ménestrel de Reims; this claimed that, after Richard I of England was arrested and held for ransom in 1192, he was found by the minstrel Blondel, whom he saw from his window, and to whom he sang a verse of a song they both knew. Later versions of the story related that Blondel went from castle to castle, singing a particular song, and that the imprisoned Richard replied with the second verse – thus identifying where he was imprisoned. Then, Blondel either aided the king’s escape or reported his position back to his friends. Blondel finally found Richard at Dürnstein; in fact, there was no mystery about Richard’s location.
‘Blondel’ is a common surname on the Channel Island of Guernsey. It is recorded that King Richard I granted a fief on the island to a vassal named Blondel, but it remains uncertain as to whether this has any connection with the legend, or whether the legend has any connection with the known trouvère.
[The original book cites these sources. As this editor did not know from whence came “Blondel” all are listed]
The verses in this volume originally appeared in Appleton’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Bookman, The Century, The Cosmopolitan, East and West, Everybody’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The Independent, Appincott’s, The Munsey, The Outlook, Peterson’s, Putnam’s, The Reader, The Smart Set, Sunset, The Times Magazine, Vogue, and The Youth’s Companion
1 I did find a bit about Urmy. His papers are at the California State Library in Sacramento. This information was available on line:
“Clarence Urmy was a California poet born in San Francisco, July 10, 1858. He was educated at Napa College, and lived for most of his life in San Jose. He published three books of verse and used the pseudonym Feliz Jose. He was the drama critic for the San Jose Mercury and a teacher at San Jose Normal School. He was also the organist at Trinity Episcopal Church in San Jose. Urmy died June 2, 1923.”