It’s silly, I know, but I tend to think that valuing heritage is a rather modern concept, very British – probably kicking off in the eighteenth century with all those landowners filling their bosky domains and deer parks with Grecian grottoes and Roman temples, and Lord Elgin using diplomatic privilege to ‘save’/ make off with the Parthenon’s marbles. So years ago, when I first discovered this Saxon poem in Penguin Classics’ The Earliest English Poems, I was both amazed and captivated.
Even in its fragmentary, fire-damaged state, and some thirteen hundred years after it was written, the words come powering through. It has been well translated of course by Michael Alexander. In his introduction he says he believes it to be a description of the ruined Roman spa city of Bath – Aquae Sulis (Somerset, England), and written some 300 years after the Romans left Britain. I’m posting it as a source of inspiration for all poets writing in English. All those alliterative compound nouns – showershields and gravesgrasp – don’t they just hit the mark!
Well-wrought this wall: Wierds broke it.
The stronghold burst…
Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen, the work of Giants, the stonesmiths mouldereth.
Rime scoureth gatetowers
rime on mortar.
Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them.
And the wielders and wrights?
Earthgrip holds them – gone, long gone,
fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers
and sons have passed.
grey lichen, red stone, kings fell often,
stood under storms, high arch crashed –
stands yet the wallstone, hacked by weapons,
by files grim-ground…
…shone the old skilled work
…sank to loam-crust.
Mood quickened mind, and a man of wit,
cunning in rings, bound bravely the wallbase
with iron, a wonder.
Bright were the buildings, halls where springs ran,
high, horngabled, much throng-noise;
these many meadhalls men filled
with loud cheerfulness: Wierd changed that.
Came days of pestilence, on all sides men fell dead,
death fetched off the flower of the people;
where they stood to fight, waste places
and on the acropolis, ruins.
Hosts who would build again
shrank to the earth. Therefore are these courts dreary
and that red arch twisteth tiles,
wryeth from roof-ridges, reacheth groundwards…
There once many a man
mood-glad, goldbright, of gleams garnished,
flushed with wine-pride, flashing war-gear,
gazed on wrought gemstones, on gold, on silver,
on wealth held and hoarded, on light-filled amber,
on this bright burg of broad dominion.
Stood stone houses; wide streams welled
hot from the source, and a wall all caught
in its bright bosom, that the baths were
hot at the hall’s hearth; that was fitting…
Thence hot streams, loosed, ran over hoar stone
unto the ring-tank…
….It is a kingly thing
Copyright Michael Alexander 1966
You can buy an e-pub copy at this link:
The Earliest English Poems Penguin Classics
Anglo-Saxon poetry was produced between 700 and 1000 AD for an audience that delighted in technical accomplishment, and the durable works of Old English verse spring from the source of the English language.
Michael Alexander has translated the best of the Old English poetry into modern English and into a verse form that retains the qualities of Anglo-Saxon metre and alliteration. Included in this selection are the ‘heroic poems’ such as Widsith, Deor, Brunanburh and Maldon, and passages from Beowulf; some of the famous ‘riddles’ from The Exeter Book; all the ‘elegies’, including The Ruin, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Complaint and The Husband’s Message, in which the virtu of Old English is found in its purest and most concentrated form; together with the great Christian poem The Dream of the Rood.
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