Saturday, 26 October 2013

CBe 2013 9 / J. O. Morgan, At Maldon

This much is fact: in the summer of 991 an army of Anglo-Saxons, commanded by Earl Byrhtnoth, engaged a Viking raiding party beside the River Blackwater near Maldon in Essex, and was defeated. A poem recounting the battle was composed in the east of England in the 10th century or (the scholars dispute) in the west of England in the 11th century. The beginning and end went missing. The only known manuscript of the surviving 325 lines was destroyed in a fire in 1731. A transcript made in the 1720s got lost, then was found in the Bodleian Library in the 1930s.

I suspect most reporting of war is like this: a muddle, with unreliable sources and things getting lost and no one really knowing. (Why, one wonders, was the original poem even written? Battle poems are generally written by the victors; this one recounts a defeat.)

Here are the last six lines of the original poem:

Swa hi æþelgares bearn ealle bylde,
Godric to guþe. Oft he gar forlet,
wælspere windan on þa wicingas,
swa he on þam folce fyrmest eode,
heow and hynde, oðþæt he on hilde gecranc.
Næs þæt na se Godric þe ða guðe forbeah

Here are the last six lines of a modern English text on the Battle of Maldon website:

And thus them all did Aethelgar's son urge,
Even Godric, to the battle – oft he cast a spear,
A spear of slaughter to go upon the Vikings,
As he 'mid the folk foremost went,
Smote and struck down till he sank down in the fight.
He was not that Godric who left the battle.

(As befits the confusion of battle, there was an earlier Godric. That one fled and survived; this one stayed and died. Perhaps, as Helena Nelson suggested in a earlier blog post, there are always two Godrics.)

Here are the final lines of Morgan’s At Maldon:

As he is buried under bodies newly dead,
and hears the rumour of the fight above,
the rhythm of hit after hit,
as calm, as constant, as familiar
as the soft wet tap of rain upon a roof.

Though it follows the narrative pattern of the original poem, Morgan’s At Maldon is clearly not a translation in the way of, say, Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur. In the blurb, we went back and forth between the verbs ‘re-imagine’ and ‘re-interpret’. A new character makes a brief appearance: a farm boy digging for whelks in the estuary mud, looking up and seeing advancing ships ‘with wide white handkerchief sails’. In among the imagery: bin liners, a petri dish. A Viking, before the battle, demanding tribute from the Anglo-Saxons, offers ‘a great investment opportunity’. There’s a flash forward to the elderly Godric, the one who survives, reminiscing to his grandchildren in a nursing home (‘And the nurse brings his food tray, / empties the bedpan, changes the sheets’). Think, if you like, Christopher Logue. But Morgan is entirely his own man.

To hear a podcast, courtesy of the Scottish Poetry Library, of Morgan talking about At Maldon (and his Natural Mechanical, which was the first book of original poetry published by CBe and won the 2009 Aldeburgh First Collection Prize), click here.

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