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My natural preference is for lyric.
I like poems that fit inside a page and have enough depth and beauty for me to read them over several times, and then go back to them. Sometimes I even learn them by heart. I’m not keen on battles or epics or religion.
So I was sorely tested last week. I went to the launch reading of Henry Marsh’s A Voyage to Babylon, which contains a long sequence of pieces about the Scottish Covenanters. It is prefaced by a detailed introduction about the historical period (1637-1685) that preceded the events and characters in the poems. The texts themselves are like fragments of a historical novel, mingling fiction and fact, but in verse form.
Here’s a bit from the introduction that I paused over, read and read again:
It is easy to skip through names of battles but the estimated numbers of Scottish casualties resulting from the Wars of the Three Kingdoms give pause for thought. [ . . . ] To get some perspective on these figures, perhaps 9% of the population of Scotland died directly or indirectly as a consequence of these wars, 3.7% of the population of England and a staggering 41% of the population of Ireland.
It seems almost inconceivable that people survived at all in a period of such turbulence.
But it’s the personal stories that affect us most. On the way back from Henry’s reading, I read the whole Covenanter sequence. The narrative had me completely gripped from Edinburgh bus station to Bankhead Roundabout in Glenrothes. And so I was brought back to that other way of reading poetry, which is illumined by the story, and the personalities – the captive Lady Athunie and her diary, John Fraser, William Hanna, John Forsyth, Jean Moffat – and the little plangent details of their suffering and perplexity. Now and again, I stopped to savour lovely and haunting lines (“Some passed, in these summer days, / into their minds’ winter.”)
But Henry’s Marsh was not my only dose of verse narrative. I also went to the launch of J O Morgan’s At Maldon in the splendid Looking Glass Books in Edinburgh, which I’ve not visited before but certainly will again.
So there I was, bracing myself for another battle poem and this one not even a sequence: a book-length narrative about The Battle of Maldon in 991 AD, when an invasion of Vikings demolished the Anglo-Saxon defences.
Oh hell. I don’t enjoy battle poems, even though I love J R R Tolkien, himself also fascinated by the original Anglo-Saxon poem commemorating this battle (the beginning and end is lost). I'm not keen on book-length poems either (why not write a novel?) I might not even have gone along, had the volume not been published by Charles Boyle’s C B Editions, which never prints a dud.
And this was no exception.
J O Morgan (whom I had somehow assumed was old – I think I had him mixed up with Fergus Allen) was just a young man, with a most beautiful voice. He told us how he had worked not only from the original fragmented poem but from other contemporary accounts to recreate something of his own, “a poet picking morsels from the aftermath”.
Then he read lengthy, seamless extracts together with Ishbel McFarlane, an actress. Their style was restrained, their voices hardly raised – and yet the drama of the thing was palpable. They were telling a great story, and creating that hush of expectation only true storytellers can evoke.
Battles? It didn’t matter what the topic was, I would have listened. And on the way home (train, this time) I read the whole book. And later I read it again. And then I read it again, and looked up what there is to know about the original Anglo-Saxon poem.
This is a glorious piece of writing. To tell the truth, it took me a while to sort out quite who was doing what and where, but it was like a film: I could see the landscape and hear all the little sounds. And there was the Anglo-Saxon army “a single solid block of muscle-men, / from which lord Byrthnoth / steps out, one pace forward, / leaving an earl-shaped gap in the leading edge.” It’s vivid. It’s witty. It’s delicate. It’s masterfully paced. It sings.
In the original poem, there are two characters called Godric. One runs away, and survives. The other fights to the death. Morgan’s poem features both men, and concludes with the Godric who stands and fights: “And another man / named Godric fights / for everything he has / or has not loved”.
As I say, it took me a while to work out how all this fitted together, not least why there were two Godrics. But it seemed to me that the Godrics were the key. The great battle happens: the terrible, sad losses, young men and old men, their bodies sinking into the wet earth. They don’t just die – they surrender their whole lives, bit by bit. Morgan creates them as people carrying mental existences with them – their thoughts, whims, memories, impressions. They are real.
But it all happened a long, long time ago. Some say Godric fled. Some say he fought to the death. Maybe there are always two Godrics. There was fighting, there was valour and stupidity and pragmatism and grace and blood. There was, and is, a terrific story here, fabulously well told. It “becomes the history it tries to tell.”