Okay, so I could’ve sworn I posted these back in May, but here are the two poems I entered in the Poeta Atlantiae competition (and won!). The theme was “Endings” and the contest required two different period forms, so I went with my two favorites: an Anglo-Saxon alliterative poem and a sonnet.
Widowed and weeping / woeful my lot
Ever an exile / endless my sorrow
In trials tearful / twice widowed
Of kingdoms broken / a queen again
Harold my husband / at Hastings slain
His crown claimed / his kingdom falling
Bravely my brothers / brought me to shelter
Fearful was our flight / fleeing from London
To a stout city / safe behind walls
Armies advance / onward in conquest
Sorrow surrounds us / safety is fleeting
Can walls withstand / William’s forces?
I wake weeping / waiting in dread
Loud lamenting / but not for my lord
A husband I hardly knew / How shall I mourn him?
Once I was wed / to the Welsh king
Eager he allied / with Aelfgar my father
Brief was my bliss / broken in war
English armies / ambushed his forces
Hacked off his head / to Harold sent it
His kingdom sundered / among kinsmen divided
I was not eager / again to wed
Pawn and peace-weaver / passed between men
I weep for my fate / fearful, uncertain
For the child I carry / his kingdom taken
Where will we wander / weary exiles?
Seeking safety / searching for a home
The poem is Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (the same verse style as Beowulf). It has a fairly loose meter, with two stressed syllables in each half line. The number of unstressed syllables varies from line to line. Rather than rhyming, it has alliteration, with one or both of the stressed syllables in the first half-line alliterating with the first stressed syllable of the stressed syllables in the second half-line, usually the first.
The rules for Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse are a little different than modern alliteration. First, the focus is on the stressed syllables, whether they come at the beginning of the word or not. For example, “fighting forever” looks like it alliterates, using the “f” sound at the beginning of both words. But, since “forever” is accented on the second syllable,, it doesn’t. “Finding misfortune,” on the other hand, would be considered alliteration in Anglo-Saxon verse. The other bit of weirdness is that all the different vowel sounds are considered to alliterate with each other. So, you could alliterate not only “axes and apples,” but also “axes and elephants” or “axes and ice cream.”
Anglo-Saxon verse also uses kennings—compound words or phrases used to metaphorically rename an object or concept. Kennings are useful in alliterative verse, because they allow objects to be renamed to fit the alliterative structure. “Peace-weaver,” which I used in this poem, is a kenning that refers to a woman married to an enemy in order to secure peace.
Another common figure of speech in Anglo-Saxon verse is ironic understatement that uses a negative to emphasize a positive. (A modern example would be “not bad looking” to mean handsome.) I pictured Ealdgyth being distraught at being expected to marry the man responsible not only for her husband’s death, but who also may have had some hand in her father’s exile, so I used “I was not eager / again to wed” to emphasize that.
Events in the Poem
This poem is inspired by the Norman Conquest in 1066. Harold Godwineson, the recently crowned king of England, was killed in battle with William of Normandy’s forces, paving the way for William to claim the English crown. Since my persona is Anglo-Saxon, the Norman Conquest fits very nicely with the theme of “Endings.”
I wanted to explore this from the perspective of William’s queen, Ealdgyth. She married King Gruffudd ap Llewellyn, the first and only king of Wales, in approximately 1057. Her father, Aelfgar, had been exiled for treason, and the marriage cemented his alliance with the Welsh king. Her husband was killed when Harold Godwineson invaded Wales in 1063, and the kingdom of Wales was broken up. Some time between 1063 and 1066, Ealdgyth was later married again, to Harold. When Harold was killed, her brothers took her from London to Chester, a walled city near Wales which was the last to fall to William. It’s not known what happened to her after she went to Chester. It’s also not entirely certain which of Harold’s children, if any, she bore. Harold had a common-law wife (married according to pagan traditions rather than Christian ones) prior to his marriage to Ealdgyth, and had several children with her. To muddle things even more, she was also named Ealdgyth, called Edith the Fair or Edith the Gentle Swan. It’s been speculated that Harold’s son Harold was Queen Ealdgyth’s son.
I was struck by the rather depressing symmetry of Ealdgyth’s life. She had two husbands, both kings who were killed in battles that spelled either dissolution or conquest for their respective kingdoms. Wales was divided into three kingdoms, while England came under Norman rule.
Cavendish, Richard. “The King of Wales is Murdered,” History Today, 8 August 2013: http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/king-wales-murdered
Delahoyde, Michael, “Anglo-Saxon Culture.” Washington State University. http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/medieval/anglo-saxon.html
Ealdgyth 2, Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England: http://pase.ac.uk/jsp/pdb?dosp=VIEW_RECORDS&st=PERSON_NAME&value=15095&level=1&lbl=Ealdgyth
Hartley, Cathy. A Historical Dictionary of British Women. London: Routledge, 2003. Accessed via Google Books: https://books.google.com/books?id=uY2B224NwmYC
O’Donnel, Daniel. “Old English Metre: A Brief Guide.” University of Lethebridge. http://people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/Tutorials/old-english-metre-a-brief-guide
The End of the War
Just yesterday, the children laughed and played
Bright pennants fluttered in the summer breeze,
And merchants sold the wondrous things they’d made
While fighters rested under shady trees
Now tents come down and carts are packed en masse
With cloth and canvas, shoes and swords and shields
With nothing left behind but trampled grass
In patches spread across the empty fields
Ten thousand travelers clog the weary roads
To lands diverse and distant as they wend
The wagons scarce can bear their heavy loads
While bleary eyes look toward the journey’s end
Though we must leave, however far we roam,
The wheel turns round, until it brings us home
One of the best known poetic forms in English is the sonnet: fourteen lines of iambic pentameter. The Shakespearean sonnet divides those fourteen lines into three quatrains and a couplet, with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg.
It’s called the Shakespearean sonnet because Shakespeare’s sonnets are the best known and are considered the epitome of the form, but it didn’t originate with Shakespeare. Sonnets originated in Italy in the thirteenth century, and the poet Giacomo da Lentini is generally credited with inventing them (Brand and Pertile, 11-12). The most famous of the Italian sonnet writers is Petrarch.
In the sixteenth century, Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey translated a number of Petrarch’s sonnets and wrote many of their own, introducing sonnets to England. Their sonnets appeared in Tottel’s Miscellany, whose first edition was published in 1557. This was the first printed collection of English poems. It was extremely popular, and was reprinted several times. (Holton and MacFaul)
Surrey is credited with inventing the abab cdcd efef gg rhyme scheme. Petrarchan sonnets in Italian used more complex rhyme schemes (either abba abba cde cde or abba abba cdc cdc), which are better suited to Italian than to English. For example, Surrey’s sonnet “Description of Spring, Wherein each thing renews, save only the Lover” uses this rhyme scheme:
The soote season, that bud and bloom forth brings
With green hath clad the hill and eke the vale;
The nightingale with feathers new she sings;
And turtle to her make hath told her tale.
Summer is come, for every spray now springs;
The hart hath hung his old head on the pale;
The buck in brake his winter coat he flings;
The fishes flete with new repairèd scale;
The adder all her slough away she slings;
The swift swallow pursueth the flies small;
The busy bee her honey now she mings;
Winter is worn that was the flowers’ bale.
And thus I see among these pleasant things
Each care decays, and yet my sorrow springs.
In the late sixteenth century, sonnets were extremely popular, and lots of poets were writing sonnet sequences. Sir Philip Sydney’s Astrophel and Stella, a collection of over 100 sonnets, was published in 1591, and Spenser and Drayton, as well as many others, also produced sonnet collections (Bevington, 1660).
Shakespeare’s sonnets were actually published after the end of SCA period, in 1609. However, we know he was writing sonnets in the 1590s, as Francis Meres referred to Shakespeare’s “sugared sonnets” in 1598, noting that they’ve been privately circulated among his friends (Bevington, 1660).
Shakespeare frequently used the sonnet format of three quatrains and a couplet to methodically develop an idea through the quatrains and then either summarize it or turn it on its head in the couplet (Bevington, 1664). This sudden turn is called a volta, and in Italian sonnets it usually appears at the ninth line.
Bevington, David (ed.) The Complete Works of Shakespeare. 4th ed. Longman: New York, 1997.
Brand, Peter and Lino Pertile. The Cambridge History of Italian Literature. Cambridge University Press: London, 1996. (Google Scholar: https://books.google.com/books?id=3uq0bObScHMC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false, accessed May 25, 2016).
Holton, Amanda and Tom MacFaul (ed.). Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Thomas Wyatt, and Others. Penguin: New York, 2011. (Google Scholar: https://books.google.com/books?id=9jOzeRwyPKMC&printsec=copyright&source=gbs_pub_info_r#v=onepage&q&f=false, accessed May 25, 2016).