Waves beating up against cliffs.
Cliffs holding hard against waves.
The weight behind each water molecule;
each rush to scour more tissue from the rock.
The cliff-face weathered into jagged lines;
ceramic sharpness shattering the water.
And the bowmen are busy;
choice shots through the disarray
that missing one side-stepping may yet
stick in another behind.
And shields become cumbersome,
heavied by a hodgepodge of blunt-ended spines.
And somewhere in the early excitement
big-hearted baby-faced Wulfmaer is killed.
Beloved nephew of the earl,
in lifting his sleeve
to wipe away a creeping fringe of sweat
finds the liquid gumming his eyebrows
is thicker and hotter and redder than water.
And in pausing to ponder the source of the flow
a swung shard of sunlight sparks a fresh ache in his arm.
A brightness, opened up across his back.
The weakness in his thighs.
The wetness welling in his eyes.
surrounded by a ring of light;
his deepening blush, so foolish with failure,
musters one last look towards the earl,
‘What was it they . . . ?’
who sees the big kid fall,
‘Why didn’t you . . . ?’
a baggy man-sized lump upon the earth,
‘How now shall I . . . ?’
as their boot-soles roll the body over,
find Wulfmaer’s worth already stripped;
so turn on old Byrhtnoth,
who gapes like a landed trout astounded
in its incapacity
as in its abundance of breath.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2013. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2013 was David Robinson
A book-length poem about an insignificant battle between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes in 991AD. Not particularly interested? I can’t blame you: too much Beowulf too young can do that to a man. How wrong I was!
What J.O. Morgan has done is to re-imagine that otherwise forgotten battle in a way that makes it absolutely comprehensible today, conveying a vibrant sense of what it must have felt like to be in a battle, from wondering what it must be like at the start, to being in the thick of the actual muddled conflict itself, to the embarrassment of death and failure. The opening lines quoted here immediately give you a sense of how completely Morgan revivifies the epic. And while I’m in recommendation mode, can I also urge you to listen to the podcast on the SPL’s website in which Morgan talks about his poetry with Ryan van Winkle.
One of the recurrent yet unvoiced themes of the poem is the manner in which an individual going out to fight never quite believes that they might be the one to die. No matter how experienced or inexperienced a soldier, they yet each march onward with that same thought: how they will be the one to win the day, will be the last one standing, will come home a hero.
As such the moment of death itself, or else the realisation that death is irreversibly imminent, is tinged always with a sense of surprise. We can all relate to that sudden shock of thought: ‘surely not me…’, just as those who catch sight of their falling comrade may also stagger briefly to think: ‘surely not he…’ and so, perhaps, begin to doubt even themselves.