10 November 2011

Tennyson's Alliterative Verse: "The Battle of Brunanburh"

Here's a treat. I've always enjoyed Tennyson more than any other Victorian poet. (That is, except for Kipling. I grew up reading Kipling). As it turns out, Tennyson's son, Hallam, made a prose translation of the Old English poem "The Battle of Brunanburh," which inspired the father to try his hand at alliterative verse. The story is here, a page that contains links to discussions of the poem. If you want to see the poem as Tennyson published it, look at the RPO (Representative Poetry Online) site here.

However, in his time it was usual to print each half-line as a separate line on the page. For the comfort of people used to seeing both half-lines together, I've taken that liberty below. I've kept the capitalization the same as Tennyson had it, even though I've joined the half-lines.


Constantinus, King of the Scots, after having sworn allegiance to Athelstan, allied himself with the Danes of Ireland under Anlaf, and invading England, was defeated by Athelstan and his brother Edmund with great slaughter at Brunanburh in the year 937.
Athelstan King, Lord among Earls,
Bracelet-bestower and Baron of Barons,
He with his brother, Edmund Atheling,
Gaining a lifelong Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge 
There by Brunanburh, Brake the shield-wall,
Hew'd the lindenwood, Hack'd the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer'd brands.

Theirs was a greatness Got from their Grandsires--
Theirs that so often in Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

Bow'd the spoiler, Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews Doom'd to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow'd, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.
There lay many a man Marr'd by the javelin,
Men of the Northland Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman Weary of war.

We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated;
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone
Fiercely we hack'd at the flyers before us.

Mighty the Mercian, Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the Weltering waters
Borne in the bark's-bosom,
Drew to this island: Doom'd to the death.

Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

Then the Norse leader, Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following, Fled to his warship;
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it,
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

Also the crafty one, Constantinus,
Crept to his north again, Hoar-headed hero!

Slender warrant had He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives--
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels, A youngster in war!

Slender reason had He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive-- 
Traitor and trickster And spurner of treaties-- 
He nor had Anlaf With armies so broken
A reason for bragging That they had the better
In perils of battle On places of slaughter--
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,
The wielding of weapons--
The play that they play'd with
The children of Edward.

Then with their nail'd prows Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden'd relic of
Javelins over The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen again, Shamed in their souls.

Also the brethren, King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.

Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin--
Left for the white-tail'd eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb'd raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

Never had huger Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge--Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories--Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat Hold of the land.

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