Friday, April 17, 2009

A visit to a famous west-Midlands poet



An Preost wes on leodan. Layamon wes ihoten
he wes Leouenaðes sone. liðe him beo Drihten
He wonede at Ernleye. at æðelen are chirechen
uppen Seuarne staðe. sel þar him þhute
On-fest Radestone. þer he bock radde.
(A second hand blue peter badge for anyone who can spot the misspelling forced by Word's lack of one character)(Answers on a post card to PO Box 1 Eagle Alasaka)

Sometime around the end of the twelfth century, Lawman (Or Layamon), began to write the history of the English. In an age when French was the literary language of England, he wrote in something recognisable as English. When most poetry was resolutely anonymous, he begins his poem by telling the audience his name, his job, where he lived, his father’s name, why he wrote this poem and how he went about writing it. For perhaps the first time in English poetry, a poet steps forward to claim the text as his own. (And was promptly ignored by his publisher, the scribe, who rewrote it, chopping out about a third of the poem and modernising everything botching the ‘poetry’).

His thirty two thousand lines (or 16,000, depends on the editor;is there a pattern emerging here?)begins with the adventures of Brutus, after whom he believed Britain to have been named, and continue until the Anglo Saxon conquest of the island.

Like so many medieval texts, instead of a poem, it remains an historical curiosity. A curiosity, and an academic gold mine. It's the first surviving appearance fo King Arthur in English. Here, for the first time, England is described in a language recognisable as English. Naming towns, describing natural wonders, giving the history of the roads, Lawman sang the landscape into literary being.

Eight Centuries later I wanted to see his place for myself. To hell with theories. I had spent so long studying the poem and its context that I wanted to know what the poet would have seen if he looked up from his work. After too many years of careful scholarship, where enthusiasm is bounded by a thorny hedge of carefully annotated footnotes and certainties recede down an endless chain of subordinate clauses, I wanted a direct and unashamed encounter.

I like this poem.(Or bits of it)

On a previous visit to England I had hijacked a family outing to visit the only Areley I could find on the road map. We drove through rain, down narrowing English lanes that dropped towards the river. There was a small red church in a small village on the banks of a flooded Severn.

I knew, instinctively, as I opened the door of the church, that this was the wrong Areley.

Seven years later, having given up searching, I found a road map that had Areley Kings marked on it, where I knew it should be. The new difficulty was finding someone willing to accompany me and read the map.

Our first stop was Worcester for three reasons. The first to pay my respects to King John, who was regal but silent about the local poet he may have known. The second, the monks of Worcester were instrumental in keeping written English alive when every one else was writing in French and it is logical to assume some sort of connection between Lawman and the monks here. The third... well, I'd bribed my mum with a promise of tea and cakes and a visit to the cathedral, followed by a pub lunch if she’d read the map.

A green winter landscape that can't have changed greatly since Lawman's time: the bare hedge rows and naked trees twisted into fairy tale grotesques; rain and muddy lanes leading to and through places with names like Piddle, Frogs Pool, Upton Snodsburry, Long Itchinton. We merged into urban sprawl, lost in new housing estates. This was nothing like my mental image. I was preparing myself for another disappointment when I saw "Layamon Lane".

First a glimpse of the tower, then a maze of winding roads leading to a view overlooking the river.

Like most English churches it was locked.

At first no one answered my persistent knocking on the rectory door. The vicar appeared.
"And why do you want the key."
The inside of the rectory suggested the presence of an elderly housekeeper: polished wood, lines of books, carpet. I had forgotten to wear my visiting Vicars clothes. Scruffy and road stained, I looked more like someone who wanted a place to kip than anyone's idea of an earnest academic.

I told him I'd come all the way from Australia to visit his church. (I didn't tell him I'd come via Siberia, on the train. I thought that might be too weird, even if it was true.)

He had heard of Lawman, the first known incumbent of the parish. He was even used to the occasional pilgrim like myself. An expert on early English history had been through recently and had told him Lawman was unreadable.

"I've read him," I said, determined to establish my credentials. "I've read him from start to finish.” I wanted that key. “Several times."
He was reaching for the shelf. "Where did you get your translation"
"I read the original."
He gave me the key, and told me to make myself at home.

(So I hope he didn’t watch me skipping though the graveyard brandishing the key. Very unacademic like.)

I didn't need the little guide book: I knew where the memorial glass was, in the twelfth century window discovered during a nineteenth century rebuilding. I knew all about the baptismal font with its fake inscription carved into the base.

I knew this place.

It wasn't difficult to imagine what the view was like without the modern houses and boats. It didn't take any great effort of the imagination to visualise a priest, struggling against the wind as he walked to the church, his mind full of an heroic world where the men were brave, the women beautiful, and it never rained.

(The picture is from the note cards on sale at the church. Some bits of this appeared in a much more serious article called 'Lawman Lived Here' in PNR.)

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