Gone is my Lily, white like snow,
Drifting down-stream where none may go.
Bashed against rock, ground against stone,
Silently takes its path alone.
I counted three nights; three days did I weep;
Three days did I pray for I could not sleep.
As I grieved my lily, counting day three,
My sweet, battered lily would I see.
It was stained red, drenched by tide;
Pierced were its petals, spread out wide.
My Lily is gone, white like snow,
Bearing wounds like none men may know.
Note: In a Facebook group, Mistress Zsof challenged people to use as little filler words as possible, as well as avoid words like “or, and, the, a”. I tried my best.
Yesterday I started reading “Middle English Survey”, which is a book of academic essays about Middle English literature (snagged it used!), and particularly an essay about religious symbols in verse and song. Some examples in the essay were more heavy-handed, others more subtle.
In terms of the rhythm, I tried to do something vaguely like “Corpus Christi Carol” (which is an absolutely beautiful piece with or without music). It was hard for me to strike a sweet religious note since I’m not religious, but I enjoyed writing it.
I’ve posted bits and pieces of this before, but this is the full thing. It looks bulky because I left the half-lines together instead of giving them each an individual line like I usually do. It’s about Harold Godwinson from the time of Edward the Confessor’s death to the Battle of Hastings.
Hwaet! His fair name Harold do we hail, highest of the hlafords, our heahcyning.
Honored the oath-keepers all, offered rings to bind the oath.
Wyrd wove him into those ways; War and weeping were his lot.
Edward had no aetheling, Left no lord to the land.
No cyning, that Confessor, flooding the fords with fighting.
Too sound was his sleeping, that no sunu was seen.
Aefaest at the altar, lifeless in his loins.
What honor has an ealdor, A king without his kinsmen?
Edward’s realm, the ring-giver Rising strength, the ruler
Harold held his army As enemies swarmed in.
Harold called Hardrada, Hailed from the giant’s home.
Set his sight across the sea, on wave-steed came to Wodensland.
Tostig turned the traitor to take his brother’s title.
Sword’s sweat dripped where land met sea, Struck swift and true for Sigurdsson.
Flanks were secured at Fulford, Flanked to the right of Fordlands.
From the South, the Saxons Swung first, striking their swordsmen.
The line loosened, but let none through Harold held hope, huscarls at hand.
Regrouped to the river as ravens rushed in for the rebels.
More men murdered, meant nothing As Godwinson gave ground.
The third front thirsted for their blood. The defenders were defeated.
Silent as a shadow, Harold took Hardrada.
Hanged god, from his gallows, Gave Harold his headland of swords.
The Saxons were circled, surrounded, but butchered Norse until they crossed the bridge.
Their trailing was tempered. There, an ax-man turned to tarry.
Flooded the fields with the wound-sea. Forty men he fought and slayed.
Beneath the bridge, a blood-worm Broke the brave man’s boldness.
To Tostig and his new thane The true king took his battle.
Sigurdsson held a shield-wall Standing against the Saxons.
The lines clashed, collided, Locking shields, striking with spears,
Thinning out their troops. Traitors taken without armor,
Tossed to the field for ravens. For hours they fought.
So many slain, Sigurdsson among them.
And the traitor, Tostig, Slain in the spear-din.
Mead for their mettle, his men, Made to meet in battle.
Cauldron-liquid filled their cups; In their cups, found courage.
Harold held his head high, heard tales of the heroes.
Men, so many, filled with mead Make oaths without meaning.
Wine was their fill, their weregild, like water for the war hawks.
Heaven’s wheel had yet to hail When Harold heard the horn-call.
Bold men, battle-worn, battered, blood-soaked,
Hilt in hand, held the ridge, their home.
Swords shine in sunlight, slaying past sundown.
bucklers between them, bound to the breaker of rings.
Came forward, clashed, for crows to feast.
Dawn brought the dew, called battle-sweat,
Flowing freely silent as the sunrise.
we waited for the war-horn Together to the apple tree.
Not whole, our number, sent notice: “Fearless fighters, to the fore.
Sun’s span twice past, twice came twilight.
So spanned the stillness, Before the bloodshed.
First to the field, to the fore, Fearless, fighting the frenzy.
Shield wall stayed solid, Swords swung by strongest arms.
Bold was their behavior; boldly they bled.
The words were wind as William, Rode up the ridge, his claim be reaped.
Fearless until fallen, Fortune not their favor,
Shattering spears, Saxons, swinging swords,
In faith to their ealdor, experts with their axes.
Ridge’s roadway they retained There, by the trees, teeth ruddy tinted
Firmly held spears, crafted finely Shoulder to shoulder, single-minded,
Valor unmatched, courageous champions.
Without fear, their wall, without weakness
Holding as the hounds came, Stallions dead for show.
First to the field, Golden-haired and glory-bound,
Huscarls with helmets, hauberks, for Harold,
Skilled with their shields Rushing blood like rain.
Few were their years; vicious their fight. Pressing hard, their line planted.
Deep in their defenses, drenched in the dew,
Slaying past the sunset, swan’s song under the stars.
Breaking spears and shields to bits, Before they were cut down like beasts.
First to the field, songs for the blood you spilled.
Quiet and kind; courage without cost;
Your heart, fearless and young, Filled with Harold’s love.
Slaying for a song, dying for distinction,
So close they stood; no swords would swing.
Arrows from above, even this endured.
Man and mare metal murdered.
Honor the highest, Bold clashing in battle,
sinking into silence. The sortie slipped, was seen;
soldiers sought them, soon were slain.
Right flank ran to them, rushed to the hills.
Unseen by armies, in the hills, red marked their graves.
Fierce hearts are foolish, sure to fail.
North now, the ridge was naked, bare.
Still they stood, shields busted, spears shattered; Still they stood, under the stars, still fighting.
Diademed, deemed worthy of duty,
loss became his lot, our lord, our leader.
Fallen from arrow fire, faced by his foes,
Fair flower picked from the field, From the field into the fire.
Long live his praise, his legacy, Lost in long-forgotten lands.
I’d take the time to tell them
the things that you turn out.
On my honor, honestly
I err if one was uttered.
No nerve have you to be a knight,
No blood-worm soaked with battle sweat;
Body and mouth are bloated both –
What bloodless boy has right to boast?
You’ve not the strength to swing a sword,
Nor silver tongue to be a skald.
I’ve wasted words on your weakness
You’re more woman than warrior.
Edith de Brereton
This work is eddic poetry, a type of Germanic poetry. Its theme is a heroic retelling of a historical battle, with praise elements directed at a historical leader who perished in the battle. The theme and devices in the poem are consistent with period pieces, though I wrote the poem in modern English.
Skaldic poetry, though there are several forms, follows a set of rules which are shared across all forms of Germanic poetry.
Alliteration: Also called “initial rhyme”. This is a requirement of Germanic verse. Important words in the half-line will alliterate, and half-lines, the basic unit of Germanic verse, are paired together by alliteration. Any vowel alliterates with any other vowel. For a period example of this, take lines 2 and 3 from “Cædmon’s Hymn”, written in England in the 7th century:
“Metodes meahta and his modgeþanc / weorc Wuldor-Fæder, swa he wundra gehwæs.”
Here we see that line 2 is paired together by alliteration of the letter m, while line 3 is paired by the letter w.
Stress: In Germanic poetry, the half-lines tend to have a certain number of stressed and unstressed syllables. More complex forms like drottkvaett have rules about which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed, as well as how many syllables can go in each line, but the majority of poems we find both in Snorri’s Prose Edda and eddic poetry are not so strict. There are still different types of meter which may act as a guideline. Old Lore Meter, or Fornyrdislag, has two to three unstressed syllables per half-line. Speech Meter, or Malahattr, has four to five unstressed syllable per half-line. For this reason, poems written in strictly speech meter would have longer lines than those using strictly lore meter. Many poems will use both.
Stress becomes a challenge, especially when writing more restrictive forms like drottkvaett, when we write them in modern English. Old Norse and Old English both stressed the first syllables of the words they used, whereas we tend to stress the second (which is why iambic pentameter can flow so nicely). Therefore, the natural flow of a poem written in modern English may be different than if the same poem were translated into Old Norse.
Stanzas: Not all Germanic verse was divided into stanzas. Eddic poetry like Beowulf was not stanzaic, but Norse poetry is. Being a longer poem with multiple stanzas means that a poem is either a flokkur or a drapa. The difference is that a drapa has a refrain and a flokkur has none. My poem is a flokkur. I like the feel of the drapa because I feel that the refrain ties the poem together well and brings the reader (or, in period, the listener) back to a consistent theme, but I didn’t have a suitable refrain, so I chose a flokkur.
When I began writing this poem, I wanted to write a heroic piece. I had been reading two pieces of heroic (though not necessarily skaldic) poetry, The Battle of Maldon and Y Gododdin. The Battle of Maldon is an Old English poem that focuses on the Anglo-Saxons battling the Vikings. The poem is a battle poem to the core, and it makes numerous mentions of men fighting bravely against the foe. Here are some examples:
“They heard him shout,
Send o’er the tide the taunt of the pirates;
Hailing the earl, he hurled this challenge…”
“Strode the battle-wolves bold through the water;
West over Panta waded the pirates;
Carried their shields o’er the shining waves;
Safely their lindenwoods landed the sailors.”
From this I took my theme. I wondered which battle I might write about, and settled on the Battle of Hastings, where the English were defeated by the Normans. I wrote about the men fighting, about how, despite being outnumbered, they held out through the night against men mounted on horses until they were overwhelmed. Later I added in earlier events, from the beginning of Harold’s rule to the end.
There are many similarities between The Battle of Maldon and my poem. The most basic one is the theme; both focus on a battle that was fought bravely by the Saxons and still ended in defeat. Both mention battle with the Vikings. The battle against the Vikings in The Battle of Maldon even features a bridge:
“Defended the bridge, and fought with the boldest,
As long as their hands could lift a sword.”
Beyond that, this verse is a testament to what the men in the poem – the heroes – achieved. They were bold. They fought as long as they were physically able to fight. While the style is different (I was hoping to mimic the shorter lines of Old Lore Meter), I hoped to do the same thing when I wrote lines like this:
“Bold men, battle-worn,
Hilt in hand,
retained the ridge.”
“Still they stood, shields busted, spears shattered;
Still they stood, under the stars, still fighting.”
There were verses in The Battle of Maldon that mentioned the intensity of the fighting.
“ Shield against shield, to shatter the enemy.
Near was the battle, now for the glory,
Now for the death of the doomed in the field.
Swelled the war-cry, circled the ravens.”
This really feels vivid, and it takes you into the battle and makes you ever more aware of the bravery these men had. I tried to add in details about the battle.
“So close they stood; no swords would swing.
Arrows from above,
even this endured.
Man and mare metal murdered.”
“Sigurdsson held a shield-wall
Standing against the Saxons.
The lines clashed, collided,
Locking shields, striking with spears,
Thinning out their troops.
Traitors taken without armor,
Tossed to the field for ravens.
For hours they fought.
So many slain,
Sigurdsson among them.”
Both poems make mention of ravens. This is not exclusive to these poems, as ravens were commonly associated with death in battle. They were a common symbol, and so it would be inappropriate to not mention ravens feasting on the fallen.
I feel that The Battle of Maldon focuses less on a single man than my poem, but I notice that there are signs of loyalty to a thane and grief when the heroic leaders fall:
“Killed in conflict and covered with wounds;
He lay by his lord, a loyal thane.”
“Here lies in his blood our leader and comrade,
The brave on the beach. Bitter shall rue it
Who turns his back on the battle-field now.
Here I stay; I am stricken and old;
My life is done; I shall lay me down
Close by my lord and comrade.”
When I wrote about Harold, I was going off of the period assumption that he was cut down savagely in battle. There was a poem written within a few years of the Battle of Hastings, called Carmen De Hastingae Proelio (“The Song of the Battle of Hastings”) which said that all William did was “remove the heads of the flowers”. And so I took that sentiment, which I’m sure was common at the time after the battle, and incorporated it into my own poem:
“Fair flower picked from the field,
From the field into the fire.”
While I’ve mostly mentioned The Battle of Maldon, there are plenty of poems with a historical focus. Konunga sogur was a collection of about 1270 stanzas about Icelandic kings. Landnamabok was a saga about bishops; Islendingadrapa is about Icelanders; Jomsvikingadrapa is about Jomsvikingar. In addition, kings would often commission skalds to write poems to praise their great deeds. In Old English mead halls, heroic tales were passed around by scops. I feel confident when I say that my subject matter is period.
I tried to add in additional Norse/Old English ideas to give the poem a more period feel. For starters, I put in a few Old English words. Then, I took the idea that the king was favored by the gods and mentioned Odin, the “Hanged god, from his gallows,” in reference to the days Odin spent hanging from a tree. A medieval Norse audience would clue into this. I also called England “Wodensland”, in reference to the Saxon god Woden. I introduced the English idea of destiny and wrote things like “Wyrd had woven his last thread” and “fortune was not their favor”. One way of thinking of wyrd (or fate) was as a thread being woven into a tapestry, so I thought I would incorporate it in.
I made sure to use kennings in my poem. Many of them were period. For example, “battle sweat” was used in Beowulf; “headland of swords” is used in Glymdrápa; “hanged god” and “lord of the gallows” are common names of Odin; “battle sweat” was used in Beowulf. Since these were written down, I thought that they would be familiar to a medieval audience and therefore used them.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf.
New York: W. W. Nortan & Company, 2000. Print.
Ross, Margaret Clunies. A History of Old Norse Poetry and Poetics.
Cambridge: D. S. 2005. Print.
Young, Jean I. The Prose Edda.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954. Print.
Hollander, Lee. The Skalds.
New York: Princeton University Press. 1947. Print.
Vantuono, William. Old and Middle English Texts with Accompanying Texual and Linguistic Apparatus.
New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994. Print.
Pollington, Stephen. Wordcraft Wordhoard and Word Lists Concise New English to Old English Dictionary and Thesaurus.
Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books. 1996. Print.
Ricks, Christopher. The Oxford Book of English Verse.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Shapiro, James and Woodring, Carl. The Columbia Anthology of British Poetry.
New York: Columbia University Press, 1995. Print.
“The Battle of Maldon (Fragment).” Trans. J. Duncan Spaeth. Old English Poetry. Princeton University Press, 1922. 164. LitFinder. Web. 8 Jan. 2016.
The Battle of Hastings. (n.d.) Retrieved July 17, 2015. http://regia.org.research/warfare/hastings.htm
Jófríðr þorbjarnardóttír. Old Norse Poetry: Eddic and Skaldic Verse. Unpublished handout.
To flesh from dust and dust again
When what from dust has come and been,
Made into dust, dust may begin –
Flesh into dust and dust from skin.
Dust takes from dust what dust may take
And falls to dust in dust’s own wake.
This is heavily modeled off of “Erthe Took of Erthe” which is a poem written in Middle English. Basically around this time period (1300s and on into the 1400s), writers wrote a lot from the religious viewpoint that life is futile, and that earthly pleasures are futile since everything returns to the earth. This was even written about by Pope Innocent III. Chaucer wrote about it in his “A Thoroughfare Full of Woe”.
I wrote this according to version A of the manuscript at the British Library. It has a rhyme scheme of aaaabb with four beats per line, with a rhyme at the caesura and at the end of the line. The word “earth” is always at the caesura of this version. It has a very similar theme and feel so it’s not super original but it’s historically and stylistically accurate.
Note: Someone suggested to me that I should take period myths and stories and use them to write poetry, and it seemed like an excellent idea, so I thought I would give it a try. The first one is this poem. The story I used is out of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, and it’s the story of King Arthur’s conception.
In the story, King Uther wants a woman named Igraine, but she is the wife of the Duke of Tintagil, who he’d been at war with, and she was definitely not interested in Uther’s advances. Merlin decides to step in though! While the real duke is away fighting, Uther goes to Igraine disguised as the duke, and they conceive a son. Later she finds out that the duke had been killed some three hours before Uther had come to her. She was pretty troubled by this, but once Uther took her as his wife, he told her that it had been him and that the child would be legitimate, and all was well again.
This is another rondel, so it follows that structure.
By candle’s light, he sought her as his own
Without a word, as silent as the night
In rival skin, seeing through rival sight –
In that late hour, he came to her alone.
With daylight, to her fair eyes it was shown,
After he had fled with the morning light
By candle’s light, he sought her on his own
Without a word, as silent as the night
Night settled now again, as she had known
Her husband’s life cut short by some foul knight.
Yet… three hours later, all had seemed set right
Looking at her, eyes sharper than a stone:
By candle’s light, he sought her as his own.