Mark Rutter on ‘Uffington Chalk Horse’

Mark Rutter on ‘Uffington Chalk Horse’

Mark Rutter shares his thoughts on his poem (‘Uffington Chalk Horse’ in Issue 9), the subject and his writing process.

Uffington White Horse

        ripples

    along the ridge

wind ripples

the chalk flank

These are the first notes I wrote in my journal on the day last summer when I walked along the Ridgeway with my wife Robin, who is also a writer. Uffington White Horse is a prehistoric hill figure, first cut into the northern slope of the Berkshire Downs 3000 years ago. Most images of the Horse show it from a distance, as up close at ground level it is impossible to get a sense of the whole figure at once. Instead, it ripples along the ridge, revealing different parts of itself depending on the angle of view, like a piece of Cubist sculpture. 

The White Horse is the most ancient of all the chalk hill figures in England, and it is in part this sheer ancientness which is so inspiring.  We simply don’t know what it meant to the people who made it, or what their reasons were for doing so. There are Neolithic burial sites nearby, and above the horse at the top of the ridge, there is a circular turf palisade known as Uffington Castle. Like all chalk figures, this one needs to be scoured periodically and the chalk replaced. As late as the 19th Century the locals would meet in the Castle for a fair after the scouring, an event known as ‘The Pastime’. 

My next journal notes introduce the imagery of calligraphy which I turn to in the second stanza, but after that there are some lines which I cut:

the wind blows through the

              seed-filled grasses

gnawing at our silence

                  our memory

of some other life

No one knows what the meaning of the Horse is, but like the stone circle in nearby Avebury, it still speaks to us.  We don’t know what they are saying, yet such places call to us and we hear them.  They feel like a memory.

My notes go on to explore the physical dynamism of the shape of the horse, the ‘backbone / readying its strength’, but then I detour to think about the people who made it:

how many labourers

to clear the woods

to carry the earth away

how much planning

dedication

vision as if for the skies

precision

       the stroke of a pen

on a steep slope

a turf cliff

Little of this made it into the final poem, but I think it is easy to underestimate the sheer physical difficulty of making such a chalk figure when seeing images of it taken from the air.  It looks so whole and finished when viewed that way, but what did the people who originally cut it see?  Did they have plans and diagrams to work from?  Did they pace it out from memory?

under what pay

and conditions?

did they have union

rights?

Some of these notes belong in a different poem, and that may have been my intention at the time.  Some of them sound just too mundane or anachronistic for the context: the mystery of the hill figure itself, which gradually imposes itself on the walker.  And that is where my notes end:

and always the mystery

of why they did it

and the attendant sense

of its answering some

question we have

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