e a m harris

Roaming the byways of literature

Descriptions of the dark side: ambiguity towards prose and poetry

Yesterday with a bang of letterbox and thump of things hitting doormat, my quarterly surprise from the Poetry Book Society arrived: a magazine, a sheaf of leaflets, and a book of poetry. I get all this four times a year for my subscription.

The magazine is interesting and introduces me to a lot of poets I’d otherwise not know about, but it’s the book I really appreciate. The back of the magazine tells me what I’ll get next quarter, but by that time I’ve forgotten what it is, and I like the surprise. This time it outdid itself – a 4,000+ verse story about the adventures and death of King Arthur.

The Death of King Arthur a by Simon Armitage is a translation of a 15th century manuscript called the Alliterative Morte D’Arthure. The original poem, by an unknown author, has survived in one copy, kept at Lincoln Cathedral. Reading about such chancy transmissions of our literature gives me a chill – what have we lost? what wonderful lines have vanished forever into that void we call ‘the past’? It also gives me a thrill – are there hidden manuscripts and secret caches waiting to be discovered?

Back to my new book. It’s a story in verse and Armitage has maintained the alliterative form. I’m quite keen on alliteration myself; I guess this could be because it’s the style of verse used in Anglo-Saxon and is particularly suited to all forms of English. The original of the poem was written in an English that’s just about understandable:

Now grete glorious God   through grace of Himselven
And the precious prayer   of his pris Moder
Sheld us fro shamesdeede   and sinful workes

but I’m very glad to have Simon Armitage’s modern rendering:

Now may God, great and glorious, by His very grace
and the precious prayers of His perfect mother,
shield us from shame and sinful deeds

The invocation to God is presumably a stock preamble: the rest of the story seems to be firmly about men.

I say seems because I haven’t read much of it yet, just dipped into it here and there, tasting some of the powerful and descriptive lines:

His face and forehead were flecked all over
like the features of a frog, so freckled he seemed.

The only book-length poem I’ve read before is Sir John Betjeman’s autobiography Summoned by Bells and that is a gentle story. The Death of King Arthur is not. According to the introduction it’s a tale of war and politics, and describes the horrors of the battlefield in full verbal technicolour.

This gives it a universality that bridges the centuries, and the concentration on politics and psychology (again I’m paraphrasing the Introduction) show us Arthur both as a mythic king:

King Arthur had at length acquired by conquest
many castles, kingdoms and countless regions

and a man who can feel sorrow and depression (at the death of his knights):

Never was our Sovereign so saddened and sorrowful,
or so sunk in his spirits as he was at that sight.

As I turn the pages and read snippets I can’t help puzzling over the willingness of translator, publisher and reader to engage with scenes of blood and killing that they probably (in my case certainly) wouldn’t glance at if written in prose by a modern author.

Is this one of the functions of poetry – to turn the dark side of life into a form even the squeamish will study and learn the lessons of?


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