A Journal of Contemporary Arts 












Eϸandun, an epic poem
William G. Carpenter
Beaver's Pond Press, 2021

Think of those dark age and medieval illuminated manuscripts, the thickly clotted detail on buckles, brooches, helmets, lamps, tapestries, the return to idiosyncratic and runic content after the centuries of abstract classical form. Even the Romans, as the republic dwindled into the past, were returning to thick narrativity: Trajan's column is a crowded mass of symbolic detail. As papyrus became scarce, expensive parchment made a cost-effective piece of writing dense with meaning. The Bible's wild variety of forms required four distinct levels of interpretation to make it plausibly the word of God. Look at the Book of Kells with its intricate labyrinths, the Bayeux tapestry with its multilingual emblemology.

Such works require a different sort of reading, in which a page should take about as long to digest as it took a scribe and illuminator to sweep out and embroider the letters by candlelight. Bill Carpenter's epic--gorgeously illustrated by Miko Simmons--requires and richly rewards such a reading. Carpenter is in some ways the consummate scholar of that period toward the end of the ninth century when Alfred the Great began the history of the English-speaking peoples. His poem deals with the events leading up to the climactic battle between Alfred's army of Wessex and Guthrum's Viking army from East Anglia in the spring of 878. Carpenter is more than a scholar--he is a poet who has utterly disappeared into another time and place and become a learned native there. He reads like a poet of that time, not this one.

Some of us today like exploring the earth on Google Earth, never sated with its wealth of detail and deliciously alien landscapes. The lucky among us get to live different lives, speaking a different language, taking part in the local economy and politics. It is not the same as flying above a place in a plane or zipping though it on an autobahn. Experiencing this poem is like such an exploration; it takes a different kind of reading. It needs all the sidenotes, biographical sketches, glossaries, dictionaries and maps that the book provides. It's not like a picture that the eye can take in all at once, but a whole Pompeii whose every corner gives, on inspection, further significance; a wide landscape, an ecosystem where we shiver in a different wind:

The pair of pilgrims paced the wintry downs,
still chasing Sherborne’s lord and Alfred’s lady.
No butterflies adorned the air, no blues
or coppers that patrol the turf in summer;
no grasses yielded, glinting, to the breeze,
revealing nests where bustards fed their young;
no wheatears whitened vacant rabbit holes;
no partridges scrabbled at dry anthills;
and no dull larks, ascending by gradations,
descanted on the excellence of heaven.
Instead, the tent of lead enclosed a plain
emptied of living things, though raised above
the snow-filled dells that cupped the naked elms.
The wind had fanned the plots of snow like sand,
raking them into corrugated rows
or sculpting frigid haunches, hips, and flanks
whose northward hollows harbored bowls of shadow.
But all around the boundaries of this desert,
beneath the pall of mist and drifting forms,
a band of color curtained the horizon,
paler than peach or apricot, yet mild,
as if midwinter’s menacing arena
were guarded by angelic sentinels.

The fellows’ features roughened and grew lean
from short days in icy airs and gales
and long-drawn nights endured in herdsmen’s huts,
but mainly from uninterrupted hunger.
They’d brought bread alone from Dorchester
nor had they bow or spear to take a deer.
A gray morning found them atop a ridge
peering down on the ditched Roman road,
on three British barrows built nearby,
and farther off, the ruined Badbury fastness,
from which the Virgin’s champion, Artorius,
dispersed the overconfident Saxon host.

This landscape is the place where Alfred makes his crucial decision to go to Rome and from there to take up his final role as Christian King. But this is not the complacent Christianity of our own times, but a struggle fought out in the landscape itself, an illocutionary moment in the playing-out of the cosmos.

Many historical epics give coy sidelights from the time of their composition, and we get acquainted with the author and are invited to make modern judgments on the more primitive choices of the protagonists. Carpenter though is invisible. The poem makes no judgments but such as might have been made by a sophisticated poet of, say 900 AD. Even its vocabulary is singularly lacking in words that descend from Norman and Parisian French: William the Conqueror has not yet arrived. It's basically Anglo-Saxon and North Germanic, with a rich Christian foliage of terms with medieval Latin roots. Though richly idiomatic, there are almost no modern idioms even from educated colloquial American English.

This is the birthplace of the English language, the first encounter between Germanic and Latin, the reuniting after 5,000 years of two great branches of Proto-Indo-European, each with its own set of mythologies, lifestyles, moral and legal systems, pantheons, and kinship priorities, all inflamed with what was for them the new revolutionary ideas of Judaic Christianity. So the poem is an investigation of the roots of its own means of expression.

The universe of the poem is a few thousand miles across, with the Lord of Hosts above, a pit of groaning sinners below. It began three thousand years ago, and a promised apocalypse could come at any time. It is a different England, subjectively as big as North America in terms of ease of movement and communication. Battles take place between nations that that take twenty minutes today to cross on a motorway. Europe is a whole universe, but without border controls or accurate small-scale maps or official dictionaries or police. It is a natural ecosystem as relatively untouched as Alaska is today.

The bloodlines of its folk carried not only the taint and alcohol of original sin, but the mana of great ancestors, pumped with the male seed of warriors into the fertile wombs of haughty princesses and bearing the intended destinies of divine purpose. All events are known and interpreted in realtime as the epochal confluence of many stories and whole cosmologies. God is still fighting it out with other gods, and the significance of the gospels hangs in the balance. We get the feeling of a life lived in the immediate presence of God and his real rivals.

But the actors in Carpenter's world are not naive--they are fully as aware, as capable of irony and skepticism, as humanly sympathetic, as politically savvy and economically thoughtful as anybody today. The reader is continually impressed by the huge multilingual learning and historical awareness of the actors. The quiet pleasure of many of our own time's writers at their own greater intelligence and insight relative to their fictional puppets is quite absent. In truth, we are far more the puppets of our ancestors than they are of us.

The poem takes work. It is full of loving detail that one must patiently visualize, an exercise that shapes the reader's brain into the receptor of a different world. The poem takes Homer's and Virgil's epic similes and extends them further with Nordic kennings and clerkly digressions, and we must have patience with them, for their wanderings illuminate in more than one sense the core meanings of the poem.

Not that the poem is dry scholarly antiquarianism. Its violent mixture of brutal physical realism and exquisite refinement is shocking:

“Grandfather Grim,” the seed of Ingeld growled,
“frets where fiends exfoliate his hide.
Will you surrender to your Sigedryhten?”
When Alfred got but hard stares from his foe,
he rolled the quaking balance of his weight
forward against the edge that nipped the devil.
He would have cut his gullet to the bone,
avenging all the kings the fiends destroyed
and all the Saxon spearmen bled in battle,
but the nicked, lacquered implement he clenched
between his bleeding fingers wouldn’t budge—
(his bad eye caught a hand—he mashed it down)—
nor would his joints or ligaments obey
the urgent lust to push the steel home.

As if the Lord had dulled his sinful will
or a dry droned a rune to blunt the blade,
the hilt halted, much as the Lombard’s lingered
over the nape of Sanctulus of Norcia,
and Alfred felt, beneath his sticky palm,
the urgent legend graven in the metal,
“go, sell your coat, and buy a sword”—
tunicam suam vendat, emat gladium—
which Alcuin gilded as an allegory,
interpreting the parable for Charles,
the Lord’s “sword” being his two-edged “word.”

So unlike rigorous Ingwar, who broke open
Aella at York and Edmund after Hoxne;
unlike Theodoric the Ostrogoth,
who clove King Odovacar as he supped
and took his title, King of Italy
(“He’s boneless, men,” the princely killer quipped);
unlike deceitful Simeon and Levi,
who drowned defiled Dinah’s shame in blood;
and unlike Cain, who spilled his brother’s life;
but just as anointed Saul the Benjamite
acquitted the Amalekitish king,
and David, Judah’s heir, spared drooping Saul,
the seed of Ingeld spared King Godfred’s spawn,
if only through the Lord’s misericord.

Read it aloud. This is a poetry that is oral as much as literate, that takes its time and is not interested in economy. It's not easy, but neither is cross-country hiking in new territory.

And it is new: our own past is a hundred times more alien than the present of the most remote tribal landscape of the present day. And yet it's an alienness in our own linguistic, cultural and historical blood. We discover the roots of our own ethical automatisms in Eϸandun’s journey.



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Frederick Turner is the winner of the annual Levinson Prize, Poetry magazine’s highest honor, and has written four epics in verse, including the current Apocalypse; Genesis; The New World; and The Return. He is Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities Emeritus at the University of Texas at Dallas, and has also produced numerous volumes of essays and criticism.  Between epics, he has also managed to write plays and other theater work including the acclaimed Prayers of Dallas. He recently completed a translation of Goethe's Faust (Part I), Turner maintains a blog and Web site here.