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Beware the 'base and wicked elfe'

By Wells Journal  |  Posted: November 01, 2012

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As reported in last week's Journal the Witch of Wookey Hole is looking for love. However, while searching our archives Looking Back has found a reason for any potential suitors to take care.

In July 1874 the Journal published a poem with the strange title The Witch at Wokey (sic) recounting the tale of the famous sorceress.

The poem was first published in the Newcastle Magazine of 1755, by an unknown poet.

It was also honoured by Bishop Thomas Percy, chaplain to King George III and Bishop of Dromore in County Down, Ireland, by including it in his collection of ballads and popular songs, Reliques Of English Poetry in the same year.

In a note on the poem Bishop Percy he explains that: "Wookey Hole is a noted cavern in Somersetshire. Thro' a very narrow entrance it opens into a large vault, the roof whereof, either on account of it's height or the thickness of the gloom cannot be discovered by the light of torches.

"It goes winding a great way underground, is crost by a stream of very cold water and is horrid with broken pieces of rock, many of those are evident purifications which on account of their singular forms have given rise to the fables alluded to in this poem."

Thomas Percy also notes that the editor of the Newcastle Magazine wrote to him stating: "Sir, the following stanzas were sent me from Wells in Somersetshire and assigns the reason why the ladies of that fair city are destitute of gentlemen."

The poem relates the contest between a "lernede clerk" and an old hag who is turned to stone, though not before she lays a curse on the fair ladies of Wells.

The poem concludes with an invitation to the young men of Oxford University to come and save the ladies of Wells from the curse.

So prepare yourselves for the tale of the Wookey Hole Witch and please note that the spellings are as they appeared at the time:

In anciente days tradition showe

A base and wicked elfe arose,

The Witch of Wokey hight:

Oft have I heard the fearfull tale

From Sue, and Roger of the vale,

On some long winter's night.

Deep in the dreary dismall cell,

Which seem'd and was ycleped hell,

This blear-eyed hag did hide:

Nine wicked elves, as legends sayne,

She chose to form her guardian trayne,

And kennel near her side.

Here screeching owls oft made their nest,

While wolves its craggy sides possest,

Night-howling thro' the rock:

No wholesome herb could here be found;

She blasted every plant around,

And blister'd every flock.

Her haggard face was foull to see;

Her mouth unmeet a mouth to bee;

Her eyne of deadly leer,

She nought devis'd, but neighbour's ill

She wreak'd on all her wayward will,

And marr'd all goodly chear.

All in her prime, have poets sung,

No gaudy youth, gallant and young,

E'er blest her longing armes;

And hence arose her spight to vex,

And blast the youth of either sex,

By dint of hellish charms.

From Glaston came a lerned wight,

Full bent to marr her fell dispight,

And well he did, I weene:

Sich mischief never had been known,

And, since his mickle lerninge shown,

Sich mischief ne'er has been.

He chauntede out his godlie booke,

He crost the water, blest the brooks,

Then -- pater noster done, --

The ghastly hag he sprinkled o'er;

When lo! where stood a hag before,

Now stood a ghastly stone.

Full well 'tis known adown the dale:

Tho' passing strange indeed the tale,

And doubtfull may appear,

I'm bold to say, there's never a one,

That has not seen the witch in stone,

With all her household gear.

But tho' this lernede clerke did well;

With grieved heart, alas! I tell,

She left this curse behind:

That Wokey-nymphs forsaken quite,

Tho' sense and beauty both unite,

Should find no leman kind.

For lo! even as the fiend did say,

The sex have found it to this day,

That men are wonderous scant:

Here's beauty, wit, and sense combin'd,

With all that's good and virtuous join'd,

Yet hardly one gallant.

Shall then sich maids unpitied moane?

They might as well, like her, be stone,

As thus forsaken dwell.

Since Glaston now can boast no clerks;

Come down from Oxenford, ye sparks,

And, oh! revoke the spell!

Yet stay -- nor thus despond, ye fair;

Virtue's the gods' peculiar care;

I hear the gracious voice:

Your sex shall soon be blest agen,

We only wait to find such men,

As best deserve your choice.

Whether the good men of Oxenford came down to revoke the spell, we just don't know. But let anyone wishing to venture into the caves at Wookey Hole be warned of the "base and wicked elfe".

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