Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Susan Watson’s ‘The Time of the Angels’ in 'Long Poem Magazine' issue 21

Susan Watson’s ‘The Time of the Angels’ (p.61-68 in Long Poem Magazine issue 21, spring 2019.)

Warning: Enthusing in progress…

Susan’s Watson’s poem, or sequence, is divided into pieces of varying length and form, each with its own title. The prose introduction states that in 1979 its author was writing an honours thesis on Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. It also refers to ‘the‘end of an era’ marked by the election of Margaret Thatcher in May 1979. The poems are written in third person ‘because I wanted to distance myself from the nameless young woman reading.’

Literary criticism and autobiography made into public art.  It’s a very impressive balancing act.
Of all the poems in the magazine, I read this one first for a very superficial reason. If I were to take one book to a desert Island, I’d take an untranslated Malory. This is the only book I’ve written poems to and about. So, there’s an element of envy in the admiration that follows.

There’s also a personal irony; in 1980, I was planning to write an honours thesis on Malory. I was gently but firmly told to do something else. Had I been allowed to follow my obsession, A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) might be about Malory, Lollards and the War of the Roses and not Laȝamon, Anarchy and the legendary history.

I start with this because I recognise the quality of Watson’s reading of Malory.  There are other fine poems in the magazine, but this one stands out. 

The first poem in the sequence is called ‘Why she began to fall in love with the works of Sir Thomas Malory’. It stands as an overture to the rest of the sequence. Each of its irregular, short stanzas presents a reason ‘why’, but each introduces ideas and images that are picked up, extended and passed on as the sequence unfolds. This means the intelligence is there, in the architecture, where it should be if a sequence is to be more than a collection of random pieces.
This first poem begins:

'Because of the narrative voice
a plain voice threading beads'

The first two lines announce the validity of the reading, and the writer’s skill: the unobtrusive metaphor is effective as a description of Malory’s style.  The idea of things in sequence, like beads on a thread, how they can be similar and yet vary, how repetition can be a form of variation, are all important ideas in what follow in the poem.

As a reading of Malory, the sequence provides interesting ways of rethinking the book. Malory’s knights eagerly fewter their spears and charge at each other before the hat has time to drop. Sir Thomas obviously loved to write about their endless foynings and slashings. But as Watson points out the ‘customary moves’ of this ‘courtly love dance’ repeated so many times, like those almost identical beads on the thread, lead up to the sudden shock of their disappearance in the combat between Mordred and Arthur.

At one point Watson describes the act of academic writing:

She’d already explained all the things
That blood meant and means
In those customary terms that she had borrowed  

which felt like a great sheet of iron
preventing things she really thought and meant

But the poems, not being essays, have the freedom to move around those sheets of iron, to explore and suggest possibilities, to make their own links.  

Initially, Maying reads like a reflection on one of Malory’s most famous passages, alternating its long lines, some about the passage, some evoke the physical reality of reading, but then the piece bends gently to suggest something about Malory himself while perhaps also suggesting something about the poet’s life and choices at that time. To get that many things happening coherently in a poem is a tribute to the writer’s skill.

Guinevere is perhaps Malory’s great creation. She is his great contributions to English literature. It’s hard not to wonder where she came from. And it’s hard not to occasionally feel the author is suddenly speaking in his own voice about things outside the story. In the post-modern world of dead authors and author functions one might feel awkward advancing such an idea in an essay,  but the Maying opens a space for reflection:

'Also she likes
the sudden subtle taste of cinnamon in the raisin cake, this voice, this brief scenting of a voice: Sir Thomas Malory Knight

Her idea of essayists:
men sitting in towers looking down, judging, but not like this. What had happened, what made those lines flow out just then?'

As Watson writes, ‘Contrition and sorrow lie lightly under the surface of those words’, leading to the final line, ‘ So he had forgiven her then’.

It’s done lightly, and well. The cinnamon in the raisin cake is another one of those metaphors you might miss if you weren’t paying attention.

The danger is that if the reader isn’t interested in Malory, the poem could sink. However that is not the case here because the sequence is more than just ‘a reading of Malory’.

Even in Maying there’s a feeling of life choices being considered by the narrator: ‘Adventures’ or the quiet of books; a withdrawal into the library or the risk of riding out.

People fall in love with a book. The academic essay rarely manages to capture the untidiness of recognition and obsession but ‘The time of the Angels’ as a whole, effectively conveys the way a book inflects the world of the reader, providing new ways of thinking and seeing, while the world inflects the reader’s way of seeing the book.
In ‘New year 1979’ the gothic arch on gothic arch, leading away down the corridor, is both a physical description of a place, but also an image of Malory’s narrative. Since everything is predicted at the start, the story leads inexorably to its final point, like the vanishing point in a drawing of perspective, but the doors leading off, opening and shutting, are like the strange sub texts that bubble under the stories.

The world in 1979, in England, was cold, and threatening. The poem is dusted with snow. Margaret Thatcher was about to come to power. Although Woods didn’t quote it, her description of going to the polls, and her feeling of frustration, evokes Malory’s denunciation of the English: Alas! Thys ys a greate defaughte of us Englysshemen, for there may no thynge us please no terme.

What I initially thought was my only criticism of the poem, on reflection, might be an example of how good it is.

The sequence ends:

'Was Merlin there in the polling booth?
He’d never have told her 

She’s taken the aventureset out on a quest, without knowing,
chosen the man she’d marry.'

 I initially thought the last two lines are the only point in the sequence where an ambiguity suggests something hidden and personal. ‘The man she’d marry’ has made no appearance in the poem, unless we’re still with metaphors and the man is Malory. But on reflection the stanza underlines the difference between the book and lived experience, and allows the subject to exit the sequence.

In Malory you know how the story ends from the start:

Because of the prophecies
Like setting books down on a table
Those things must happen[…]

But life isn’t like that. Merlin doesn’t turn up at the polling booth (though political pundits would like to pretend they have the power of prophecy). There’s no one to tell you how the story ends. Encounters are random and meaningless until they are given significance in retrospect.

The paragraph introducing the sequence says that ‘this is part of a longer poem’. I would very much like to read the whole thing.

End of enthusing

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Waste Land, a complete reading.

I recorded a complete reading of the poem for 'The Poetry Voice Podcast'.  For me an opportunity to enjoy the poem without thinking about it as something that has to be analysed or understood, which affirmed not only how good it is, but how entertaining it is as well.
He was good was Mr. Eliot.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

How to write a poem

The Irish Poet Austin Clarke:

Robert Frost had been given an honorary degree in Dublin, and after the conferring was introduced to Clarke.

'As we sat together on a comfortable sofa in Newman House, he asked me what kind of verse I wrote. Having been rarely asked such a question I was confused, and then suddenly, thinking of the 'strong man' whom I had often seen on his 'pitch' near St Martin's in the Fields, replied: 'I load myself with chains and try to get out of them'. 'Good Lord!" exclaimed the wise octogenarian poet, 'You can't have many readers'.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Presentment of Englishry

Print extracts and sound files of me reading some of the shorter pieces are now available at

The Legendary History, which these poems are based on, is one answer to the question: What does it mean to be British, or English. And the Medieval response was not as simplistic as some of the more recent political attempts to answer that question. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Gerald of Wales, Three stories from the Journey through Wales.

On this week's The Poetry Voice Podcast my version of three stories from Gerald of Wales' 'The Journey through Wales' one of the most readable of 12th century texts.

You can hear them read here:

The first one is a brutal mini tragedy, it starts like this....

He stepped out into unobstructed wind,
shut and barred the door, half-dragged, 
half-carried the defeated child towards 
the parapet. His fumbling hand felt stone

felt for the edge and end of stone, found space.
Footsteps on the stair, pounding at the door.
A small crowd in the courtyard, pointing 
to a blind man and a child on the castle’s 

highest tower. The castellan was pleading: 
‘Give me back my son!’ and demanding 
to know how the prisoner had escaped.
Blinded and castrated, for a reason

no one could remember, he’d been there so long
he’d been allowed to grope his way around. 
No one thought he could be dangerous.
‘Give me back my son, my only son, my heir,

and I will set you free.’ ‘Castrate yourself,’ 
the blind man raged. ‘Castrate yourself or 
I will toss your son, your only son, onto the stones below.’
The gathered people saw the blade descend and groaned.

‘You’ve done it?’ called the man. ‘I have.’
‘Where does it hurt?’ ‘In my groin, ‘You lied.’ 
The blind man moved the child closer 
to the edge. ‘Wait,’ screamed the lord, ‘this time.’ doesn't end well....

The poems were first published in The High Window. They are now available in A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) available from online book sellers and direct from www. liamguilar. com

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Poetry Voice Podcast is fifty!

Despite Illness, howling dogs, screeching parrots, unwanted door knockers, the Australian Tradesman's strange habit of trying to listen to his portable radio while operating power tools and wearing the compulsory ear protection, not to mention hail storms, gale force winds and other natural disasters....The Podcast has made it to fifty episodes.
You can subscribe on iTunes. Just search for The Poetry Voice in their podcasts, or you can hear it at 

You can also request poems.

So to celebrate being fifty,  this week's episodes will be ...different. Here's the first.

So far there's poetry from Old and Middle English, poems in translation from Poland to Palestine, well known poems, poems that should be well known, pieces so small I had to do more than one to make the podcast and some long pieces. Most enjoyable to read? 'The Rime of The Ancient Mariner' and David Jones's 'The Hunt'. Surprises? How awful some poems sounded. (They never made it to the podcast) and on a positive note how Bunting's 'Villion' and Pound's Canto ll swing.

A full list of the fifty episodes listed by Poet.

Anon (15th Century ) ‘I sing of a maiden’
Anon Old English, From The Battle of Maldon.
Anon. ‘Dom Niperi Septoe’ or ‘The Dairy Maid’.
Anon. From Old English ‘The Dream of the Rood’
Atwood Margaret ‘Marrying the Hangman’
Balmer  Jo ‘The Librarians’ power’
Boland Evan ‘Quarantine’
Bunting Basil ‘Villon’
Byron  ‘To Thomas Moore’
Campbell Joseph ‘Two Poems’
Carroll, Lewis  ‘Jabberwocky’
Carson Ciaran ‘Five sonnets from The Twelfth of Never’
Cavafy C.P ‘Ithaka’
Coleridge, Samuel, 'The Rime of the ancient Mariner' 
Daniel Sam to ‘To Delia’. The first sonnet.
Darwish Mahmoud ‘Lesson From the Karma Sutra’
Dawe Bruce  ‘And a good Friday was had by all’
Eliot T.S. ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’
Feaver Vicki   ‘Judith’
Guilar Liam 'Lute Recitals'.
Guilar Liam ‘Laȝamon Remembers ireland’
Guilar Liam ‘Presentment of Englishry’
Heaney Seamus ‘The Given Note’.
Herbert Zbigniew ‘The Envoy of Mr. Cogito’
Hewitt John ‘An Irishman in Coventry’
Hope A.D. ‘The End of a journey’
Jones David ’ ‘The Hunt’
Kavanagh Patrick ‘Kerr’s Ass’
Kipling Rudyard  ‘Danny Deever’
Kipling Rudyard ‘A Three part song’
Kipling Rudyard ‘In the Neolithic age’
Laȝamon ‘The prologue to Laȝamon’s Brut’. 
Laȝamon’s ‘Brut’, The conception of King Arthur.
Longley Michael ‘Laertes’
Macniece Louis ‘Cradle song for Eleanor’
Mahon Derek  ‘Everything is going to be allright’.
Meehan Paula 'My Father perceived as a vision of Saint Francis'
Mew, Charlotte  ‘The Farmer’s bride’
Milne A.A ‘Disobedience’
Pound Ezra ‘Canto 11’
Rossetti Christina  'A chily night'
S.Vincent Millay Edna, 'Bluebeard'
Saunders Lesley ‘Ephemera’
Saunders Lesley ‘Praise song for a pair of earings’.
Service Robert ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’
Shelley Percy 'Ozymandias'
Sidney, Sir Philip Sonnet 1 from ‘Aristophil and Stella’
Tennyson Alfred  ‘Ulysses’
Thomas Dylan ‘Lament’
Thomas Edward ‘The Gallows’

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Casket by Andy Brown

Casket by Andy Brown. Shearsman Chapbooks, 2019. (31 pages)

I like this short collection very much.

The Casket in question is the The Frank’s Casket, a ‘whalebone’ box dating from the eighth century, covered with Runic inscriptions and almost cluttered with intricately carved and often enigmatic scenes.

For readers interested in Old English Poetry, the Casket is accidentally iconic. The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Michael Alexander’s ‘The Earliest English poems’ (1966), which contained those ground breaking translations of Old English,  was a slightly blurred image from one of its panels. It is a pleasure to see the thing in the British Museum. And astonishing to see how small it is.
Brown’s chapbook consists of five poems, or five short sequences, one for each of the side panels, one for the lid. It’s very good.  I like the way it ghosts Old English.

Each poem begins with the relevant runic inscription and takes off from there. A note from the author explains the runic alphabet. Each rune has an equivalent letter and what Brown calls a ‘pictorial’ value… the word for Fish in runic script also contains the values for ‘wealth’ ‘ice’ ‘sun’ and ‘torch’’.  ‘To write the following poems I determined the sequence of images yielded by each runic word, and then used these images or variants of them, to write the poems’ (p.5).

As a concept, it’s interesting, but it puts conceptual intelligence into the architecture of the poems, where I think it should be. Whether or not you can map the runes directly onto the poems, and how much latitude Brown allowed himself in that ‘variants of them’, would require far more time than I’m willing to dedicate to the effort of finding out. Unlike so much 'conceptualised poetry', the poems in this collection stand as poems.

The collection is thematically linked by the last line ‘…this shared and ever constant now’. The chapbook presents ‘the place where I live’ (coyly unspecified in a book about place)  as a palimpsest: modern golfers play where Britons and Saxons fought. On the water, New Foundland cod boats set sail and pass Danish raiders and ‘Dunkirkers’ coming home, while Flemish privateers have landed to burn the town.  Glimpses of history mingle with scenes from the present, graffiti’d bridges and frozen allotments, trail bikers and fishermen.

The poetry itself is skilfully written. The first sequence, ‘Whalebone’ picks up the echo of Old English alliterative verse. The Anglo-Saxon line with its triple crash and bang doesn’t sound good if sustained in modern English, so Brown’s handling of it here is skilful, evocative of Old English, giving the poem an onward movement but without sounding heavy handed:

This unforgiving trade, when the ice
Of February frets the core and fingers
And the sun’s declining disk smoulders
Barely bright enough to light the creek. 

The nod towards Old English is also beautifully done towards the end of the fifth section. One poem, beginning ‘I sing’ blurs the distinction between the Casket, its maker and the poet, since all three are ‘singing’:  the lines evoke the epigrammatic mood of Old English. 
This leads to that most Old English of poems, ‘the thing speaking’….(’prosopopoeia’ is not a word I get to type very often.)

Snatched from the creature’s warmth
And brought into the sun
I’ve made this voyage to artful box 

This sounds like the beginning of one of the Exeter book riddles. But ‘For month’s I knew the workman’s hands’ leads into the bone’s description of how it became a casket and we’ve moved from riddle to something more affecting. My candidate for ‘the best piece in the book’.
The last fourteen lines in the chapbook seem to offer some kind of conclusion, but I think they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. The tendency of OE to epigrammatic, generalising is captured in

We have the measure of our lives all wrong
it’s not this time of flesh and blood alone,
but the slow millennia of dissolution,
when skin and bone return to whence they came

But the sudden shift from the previously specific ‘I’ to the vague ‘we’ and the equally generalised statement which slides off the fact the Casket has, after at least a thousand years, most definitely not returned to whence it came, might be the only flaw in the collection.. 

My only reservation may be irrelevant and whether you see it as criticism or observation depends on what you want from the poems you read.

As a reader of poems, and buyer of poetry, there are thousands of books to choose from. But increasingly I feel it doesn’t really matter. There are varying degrees of technical competence but at the end of some collections I wonder if life would have been any worse for not reading them. 

The problem facing writers and readers of contemporary poetry is that lurking, ‘Nice.. but so what? ‘

Bunting wrote ‘Then is now’ and produced Briggflatts . Eliot spun whorls with time past and time present being simultaneously present in time future. David Jones started with the idea of a past permanently present in the language and built In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. The idea of ‘a shared and ever constant now’ has been the starting point of some major poetic writing.

If you read Casket, you’ll never look at the Frank’s casket the same way again. Which is a good thing, though looking at the Frank’s Casket is not something most of get the chance to do very often.

If you live in Britain and don’t realise you are living in a place with a deep and varied history, some of it still visible around you, the collection might wake you up to that fact.

But if the last fourteen lines offer a conclusion, they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. For all the verbal skill, there’s a step not taken, and ‘so what?’ is doing a passable impersonation of Grendel, lurking on the edges of the reading. Whether you let him or not depends on you. If you let him in, the effect is disastrous.

I don’t know if this is an observation or a criticism.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

C.S.Lewis on Obscurity in Poetry

Reading David Jones, the complicated question of obscurity: what it is, how you deal with it, what effect it has on reading and value, is never far away.

Here’s C.S.Lewis, discussing the Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams and teasing out different categories of ‘obscurity’.  He describes four types, admitting that the boundaries between them can be blurred.  Endearingly, he wrote: ‘the extreme indulgence towards obscurity which characterizes the taste of modern readers is not very likely to last’. He was writing in 1948. 

1)    Obscurity may come from slovenliness of syntax. Poets, as well as prose writers, may construct sentences which are difficult to construe. Lewis calls this kind of Obscurity a vice. His example from Williams is ‘‘‘who fly the porphyry stair’ is intended to mean ‘who fly up the porphyry stair’. But by the nature of the English language it cannot do so. This is a bad fault.’
2)    Obscurity may be deliberate. No poetry worth the name can be perfectly translated into prose. But the poet may choose to write poetry which makes not perfect translation but any translation impossible. This is legitimate. 
3)    Privatism. This occurs when the reader, however sensitive and generally cultivated he or she may be, could not possibly understand the poem unless the poet chose to tell something more than he has done in the poem. Lewis’ example is that he has been told he is wasting his time trying to puzzle out lines in a poem because the explanation lay not in the poem but in events which had occurred in his informant’s house. ‘In so far as the poem was addressed to a circle of friends such privatism is a not a literary fault at all; in so far as the poem was exposed without warning for sale in the shops it seems to me to be simply a way of ‘obtaining money under false pretences’. He goes on to state that ‘if I do not desire a law against this form of cheating, that is only because such a law would be too difficult either to frame or administer. The thing involves such a blend of dishonesty, puerility, and discourtesy, such a denial of ‘co-inherence’ such a reckless undermining of the very conditions in which literature can flourish, that no punishment such criticism can inflict would be sufficiently severe.’ 
4)    Unshared background. Lewis’ uses the Waste Land as his example. If you have never read Dante or Shakespeare certain things in that poem will be obscure to you. ‘But then, frankly, we ought to have read Dante or Shakespeare, or at least the poet has the right to address only those who have’.  Williams assumes you know the Bible, Malory and Wordsworth pretty well, and have at least some knowledge of Milton, Dante, Gibbon, the Mabinogion and church history. Lewis sees this as legitimate. But when Williams assumes that you know ‘Heraclitus as quoted by W.B Yeats’ or Eliot assumes you know ‘From Ritual to Romance’ the difficulties are becoming less obviously legitimate. However, as he points out, the things referred to are accessible. You could read RtoR. This is not the same as selling a poem which only works for those who know ‘the colour of your nurse’s hair, the jokes of your preparatory school, or the favourite sayings of your aunt.’ ‘Yet is it obvious that there will come a point at which you use in your poetry scraps of your own reading so intrinsically unimportant and so very unlikely to be shared by the best readers [if any] that you have become guilty of privatism’.

The point where 3 becomes 4 is obviously harder to define than problems of syntax. But I wonder. How many readers do you need to share your background before you're free of the charge of  'privatism'? And i wonder how many poets, with established reputations, have been guilty of privatism, and got away with it because no one was willing to admit they couldn't understand the poems but were too intimidated by reputation to admit their own educated incomprehension? 


Saturday, June 22, 2019

Charles Williams on the difference between Wace and Layamon.

'The style of the two poets was very different. Wace carried on the culture and medieval splendour of Geoffrey. Layamon wrote under the poetic influence of the older poets, of the Anglo-Saxons. Wace is busy with courts and progress; Layamon with heroes and fighting. There is in Layamon something not unlike dialogue and exclamations: where Wace gives silk and the polish of steel, Layamon gives cloth and the weight of steel.'
(Charles Williams. Arthurian Torso. p223)

If the modern jury is out on Laȝamon's dept to Old English, the balance of that last sentence, and the aptness of the judgement, are both impressive.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Post modernism is just Medievalism rebranded?

What are the differences between Early Medieval and Modern Writers part 2

What follows is part two of a working hypothesis. It’s a work in very slow progress. And since this is a blog post and not an essay, I’ll skip to the conclusion. The full-length version might appear on the website at some stage. I also want to follow up the last post and consider what happens when one tries to imagine turning the story of Rowena into a film but that’s for another post.


In the previous post I noted that Geoffrey, Wace and Laȝamon all seem to make the same mistake in allowing Auerelius or Ambrosius to accuse Vortigern of having murdered A’s father.
If you have an obvious contradiction in a story, then the writer might have overlooked something, was doing something very clever, or was simply inept. When you have three writers ‘making the same mistake’ something different is happening.

So backtrack a bit and begin with 2 well-known examples.

What our three early medieval writers didn't do.

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago and Roderigo move onto the stage. They are in the middle of an argument.

It’s a simple, effective trick to make us imagine that the conversation started before the play did. And that illusion is an essential part of modern, post-Shakespearian, assumptions about how fiction works.

This illusion, that characters are more than just words on a page and can be known as real people, reached it critical apogee when A.C. Bradley asked ‘How Old is Macbeth’ or ‘Did Lady Macbeth really faint?’  This, and similar questions, have been the subject of subsequent critical derision: epitomised by L. C. Knight’s famous ‘How many children has Lady Macbeth?’ but they are a testament to the power of the illusion that Lady Macbeth is a ‘real’ person.  

If they are no longer considered ‘credible’ critical questions, both New Criticism and Post Modernism having rendered them suspect, they are exactly the kind of ‘character background’ modern writers are encouraged to develop while writing their novels. 

Pace the critics, we remember Lady Macbeth because she does seem real. Literary conventions and learnt reading practices combine to lead us to wonder why she does what does and why she is the way she is. The illusion is that something happens between the Banquet scene and the sleepwalking scene, to bring about such a radical change in her state of mind.  She has a life off stage which we can somehow access and discuss. Or argue about.

As I’m rewriting the story of Vortigern and Rowena, I feel obliged to treat her as a coherent character, with a biography that stretches back before the story starts, and comes to some kind of conclusion in her death. Childhood? Upbringing? Hengist pitches her at Vortigern but how did she feel about that? What does she even think of Vortigern? What did they talk about on their wedding night? How did they talk, given that they don’t speak each other’s language? What is her relationship with her father? Does she have any kind of relationship with Vortigern beyond the contractual sex of their marriage?  And if she does, how is it affected by her murder of Vortimer?

What our Writers Did.

None of these questions seems to have interested Wace or Laȝamon as they revised Geoffrey. And I think that suggests something different about their attitude towards the story.

Rowena is not a ‘fully rounded literary character’ in the modern sense, whose biography we might expect to follow to its conclusion as though she were a biological entity. She is a proper noun accumulating verbs and nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. All that is important is what she does, relevant to the downfall of Britain.

She has no life off-stage. She only exists in the words that describe her speech and actions. Bright shards of incident and dialogue. This is strictly true of modern fictional characters, but the illusion of modern fiction is that these are just the visible parts of the life and a reader can fill in the gaps. Modern writers work at making that illusion.

In the ‘Brut’ there are no ‘gaps’ for the audience to fill. Asking ‘Why is Vortigern evil, what motivated his career before he is first mentioned’ is an irrelevant question. He is his reported actions and nothing more.

It follows from this that there is no character development and no sense that characters are able to learn from their ‘experiences’.   

Laȝamon's imagination sees Rowena in focus in the scenes where she is important, but that’s all. She has no opinions, no feelings, and no attitudes that can be explored.  She is a noun, the subject, object, even indirect object of sentences.  It’s not that her death happens ‘off stage’. 

There is no ‘off-stage’. She doesn’t die. She never lived. She is simply no longer part of the linguistic event.

And this, to return to the previous post, explains the ‘inconsistency’. It’s not inconsistent because the process doesn’t acknowledge let alone aspire to consistency. Constantine’s story exists only in the words and phrases used about him at a particular stage of the text: not in the past of the story. Not five pages back. There is no coherent ‘biography’ to disrupt. The rhetorical and emotional possibilities of Aurelius’ anger take precedent.

Which is very strange. And very different. And has multiple implications for the way a story works.

 A presentment of Englishry, stories from the Brut and about its writer,  a necessary lead up to the story of Vortigern and Rowena, is now available from the Book Depository, Amazon, and the Shearsman website. Signed copies are available from ,

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

What are the differences between early Medieval poets and Modern ones? Part 1

My working theory is that I can learn about Laȝamon and his process by rewriting his text. The process is steadily illuminating aspects of his work that I would not notice if I were approaching it from a literary critical/historical/academic perspective. 

One of the major differences between Laȝamon as a writer and his modern descendants can be seen in the way he retells the story of Rowena. What he did, and what I feel obliged to do, are very different. 

But first an important general point. 

Medieval authors often appear inconsistent. Sometimes this might be the result of inaccurate copying. Sometimes, however, I think it points towards a much more interesting difference in their practice. 

In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Ambrosius launches into a diatribe about the sins Vortigern has committed. It’s excessive in length. It’s also inaccurate. What he says doesn’t match up with the story we’ve just read. Ambrosius accuses Vortigern of betraying both Constantine and Constans, the father and brother of Ambrosius and Uther. 

The second charge is indisputably true. But nowhere in Geoffrey’s text, describing the brief career and death of Constantine the father, is there any mention of Vortigern. Constantine is knifed by a Pict.  

If this diatribe had been written by Robert Browning we might see this as a subtle way of suggesting hatred has unhinged Ambrosius. But inconsistency seems not to have bothered Geoffrey or his subsequent translators.

Wace, following Geoffrey, has Constantine stabbed by a Pict, who had been in his service but had begun to hate the King: ‘I do not know why’. But when he comes to Vortigern’s death, Wace repeats the accusation that Vortigern has slain both father and brother. He refers to it twice. Once ‘in text’ and once in words that he gives to Ambrosius. Had he flicked back a few pages, he could have checked and seen that this is wrong.  

Laȝamon does the same. He expands and dramatizes the initial treachery, giving the Pict a name and lines to speak. He describes the assassination. Wace’s ten lines became 21 long lines (or 42 short lines in Madden’s edition). 

The scene obviously caught his imagination. He makes no mention of Vortigern. 

When he gets to Vortigern’s death, Laȝamon leaves out the long speech. No Robert Browning effect here. Instead, Ambrosius makes a grim joke about keeping warm. Then Laȝamon follows Geoffrey and Wace in repeating the accusation that Vortigern killed both father and brother. 

Either they couldn’t check what they’d read, which is unlikely; they had forgotten what they had written, which in Laȝamon’s case seems improbable, or it wasn’t important. 

Considering why it wasn't important, points towards an essential difference between Medieval and Modern writing which will be the subject of the next post.

But you can discover it for yourself by considering how you would film the scene where Rowena  murders Vortimer?  

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Hengist's daughter as part of a pattern.....

It’s hard to understate the importance of ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’ (completed by 1136) to the Matter of Britain. Before Geoffrey there are scattered stories, anecdotes and incidents. After Geoffrey, the swirling fragments become stories set in sequence, given a spurious feeling of historical truth. 

The scale of the work is as easily overlooked as was the scale of the writer’s ambition and achievement. 

He may not have created the foundation myth of British history, but he made it work as a coherent story. Beginning with the legendary Brutus, he notes every King who succeeded down to the historical Kings like Edwin and Oswald. It has very little historical value but the originality and inventiveness, the artistic shaping of the narrative, and the effort that must have gone into it are impressive.

His simple chronicle framework was very flexible. Some kings could be nothing more than names in a list:

Rivallo’s son Gurgustius succeeded him, Sisillius came after Gurgustius, then Jago the nephew of Gurgustius, then Kimarcus, the son of Sisillius and after him Gorboduc. (p. 87-88)  

The frame also allowed for expansion, most obviously with Arthur, but also with Lier, Ebruac, Bellinus and Brennus and Vortigern. 

What the chronicle framework imposed on individual stories nested between others, was the necessity for a narrative arc. Each had to have its own beginning and end, but then had to fit into the sequence between preceding and succeeding reigns. 

The sequencing of events demands some form of causality: because this happened, that followed. Or the sequence will imply causality. This has happened, therefore what came before it was in some way responsible.

Even the most superlative imagination could not avoid repetition. The genre itself is built on it: 

A king comes to the throne, rules, dies. Repeat. 

It’s inevitable that patterns begin to appear and create a sense that the story is generating its own criteria against which actions can be measured. 

Laȝamon, reading Wace, sees that love stories are stories of aberrant behaviour. There’s nothing heroic or tragic about his lovers. 

For Laȝamon, one paradigm is begun when a King, seeing a woman, puts his desire for her before his duties and obligations. When we encounter Vortigern, lusting after Rowena, we’ve already heard the story of Locrin and Aestrild and know how badly that ended.  What has happened casts its shadow forward over this new event. But it also works retrospectively. The story of Locrin will qualify the story of Vortigern, and the story of Hengist’s daughter will qualify the earlier story of Aestrild. Both will qualify the story of Uther and Ygaearne, which is complicated enough already. 

The pattern should also set the alarms ringing when Arthur does something all for the love of Gweneviere.
And it's worth noting that only in the last of the four stories is the woman in any way responsible for the disaster that follows.    

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Hengist's daughter becomes an evil murderous step mother

This post is about Laȝamon's version of the story of Hengist’s daughter with a passing glance at Wace. 

(The names can be confusing so unless quoting I will continue to call Hengist’s daughter Rowena.  Vortigern’s son is called Vortimer. Translations from Wace are Judith Weiss’. Quotations from the Brut are taken from the excellent online 'Corpus of Middle English prose and verse' .) 

Going back to the sources sidesteps other people’s summaries. Plodding through the versions can reveal aspects of a well-known story other readers might not have noticed because they were looking for something else. 

As the story moves from Geoffrey’s Latin to Wace’s Anglo-Norman to Laȝamon's English we can watch the medieval storytellers at work. We can read their source, and then look at what they did with it. I’m going to leave this for the next post.


It’s obvious that Wace, reading Geoffrey, visualised Rowena as he was reading. She doesn’t just move from the chamber to the feast, she is beautiful, and well-dressed and he tries to describe her:

La Meschine ot le cors mult gent
E de visfu bele forment
Bele fu mult et avenant
De bele groisse e de bel grant;
Devant le rei fu, desfublee,
Qui merveilles l‘ad esgardee

(The girl had a fine body and very beautiful face; she was fair and comely, handsome in shape and size. Uncloaked she stood before the king who could not keep her eyes off her.)

She stood before the King ‘desfublee’ sounds so sleazy that it seems a pity it just means ‘without a cloak’.

Wace reinforces the speed of Vortigern’s infatuation:

Le jur l’ama si l’out le seir 
(he fell in love with her in the morning and had her in the evening) 

He also emphasises Rowena’s status as stepmother. At the wedding, he states that Vortigern had a wife who was dead, and names his three sons. When Rowena organises the death of Vortimer, she is ‘cum mal marastre’ like a wicked stepmother. But this stepmother is not fighting for her own children, she acts because her father has been exiled. 


Laȝamon's major additions to her story are two-fold. The first is that he imagines what happens in the chamber before she walks into the feast with the Wassail cup: the second is that in his version, rather than organising Vortimer’s death, she murders Vortimer in a twisted repetition of the Wassail ceremony. 

He also ties the story together. Laȝamon's answer to the question that hung over Nennius’ version of the story ‘Why are you telling us about this girl’? is that because of her, Vortigern favours the Saxons over his own people, is vulnerable to Hengist’s manipulation, and endangers his people and himself by turning away from Christianity. This is reinforced in a number of speeches he adds to Wace.   

Laȝamon habitually expands on Wace. He adds detail and direct speech.  Picking up Wace’s stepmother comment he states that Vortigern’s first wife was a very Christian woman. 

He also sees things differently. When Rowena arrives in the poem, unlike Geoffrey and Wace he does not mention her appearance. She is Rowena, ‘his daughter, who was most dear to him’. This is consistent with Laȝamon’s habit of seeing people as identities whose definitions depend on their relationships and social roles. He acknowledges her appearance at the feast episode, but in place of Wace’s description quoted above he writes ‘The beautiful Rowena sat beside the king ‘. 

Laȝamon’s first major addition to her story is that he imagines what happens in the chamber before she walks into the feast with the wassail cup.

She is, above all else, Hengist’s daughter, and Hengist is aiming her at Vortigern like a King-seeking missile. Wace wrote that she was beautifully dressed. In Laȝamon, Hengist enters the chamber and gives orders to ensure she is beautifully dressed: 

he heo lette scruden; mid vnimete prude.
al þat scrud þe heo hafde on; heo weoren swiðe wel ibon.
heo weoren mid þan bezste; ibrusted mid golde.

She is then led before the king by high born men. It’s hard to imagine how she could be more of a passive object.

The major change that Laȝamon makes to her story ties several strands of the narrative together and makes her Vortimer’s killer. She moves from passive, obedient object to treacherous murderer. 

The Question of Religion 

The real divide in this narrative is not ethnic: Briton vs Saxon, but religious. All three writers are horrified that a Christian king weds a pagan woman. All three maintain the devil entered Vortigern. 

Laȝamon expanding on Wace, manages to sound horrified. The implication from Geoffrey onwards is that if Rowena had converted, if Vortigern had insisted on the conversation of the Saxons under his command, there wouldn’t be a problem. 

Laȝamon makes the point explicit when the Britons give Vortigern an ultimatum which is not in Wace. 

The anonymous speakers state that Vortigern's crime is that he bought disaster and great evil upon himself. He has bought in heathen folk. He has abandoned God’s law for the foreigners and will not worship God. If the heathens take over, they will not keep him as king for very long if he is still a Christian. The speech ends, ‘Then you will be damned on earth, and your wretched soul shall sink down to hell, then you will have paid the price for the love of your bride’. 

Vortigern rejects their criticism. He states that Hengist is his father, that Rowena is his beloved wife. He has sent for Hengist’s son Octa. In a startling comment he calls the Saxons wine deore…dear kinsmen.

This is not good history, but it makes sense in the story. 

When Vortimer the son takes over, he is a good king, Britain's darling,  not only because he thrashes the Saxons in battle, but because he rebuilds the churches and re-establishes Christianity. He ends a long speech to Saint Germain, who he has invited from Rome to straighten out the church in Britain, by repeating the claim that through his daughter Rowena, Hengist has lead his father astray.

Rowena now considers what she could do to avenge her father who Vortimer has driven out of the country. And Laȝamon moves the problem of her religion into an opportunity she is willing to exploit. She starts sending gifts and messages to Vortimer, saying that she will become a Christian if she can stay with Vortigern. 

For his father’s sake, Vortimer agrees on condition she observes the Christian faith.

She turns up wherever he is, willing to accept the Christian faith. Vortimer is delighted, and very soon dead. 

In a twisted version of the wassail story she offers him wine. But she has concealed poison, in ‘ane guldene ampulle’ beneath her breasts, and having drunk half the wine in the goblet, while Vortimer is laughing at what she’s said, she poisons the rest of the wine and gives it to him. 

After he has been poisoned, she orders her servants and followers to saddle up and they steal out of the town. Travelling by night they reach Hengist’s fortress at Thongchester, where they lie to Vortigern that his son is planning to attack him. 

And telling that lie is the last thing Rowena does in the poem. She is no longer involved in recalling Hengist, or sending him secret messages before the massacre on Salisbury plain. Why Laȝamon leaves out these further examples of her swikfullness is a mystery. 

Hengist saves Vortigen from the massacre on Salisbury plain ‘Because he has suffered great misfortune and he has my fair daughter as his queen..’ but what happens to her after the death of Vortimer is of no interest to the poet.

If her father aims her at Vortigern, like the spear that may have once given her her name, she conceives and plans the murder of Vortimer entirely on her own. 

Rowena moves from the nameless girl of Nennius’ slander to the wicked woman whose only independent action is to kill, treacherously, ‘Britain’s Darling’.  Poisoning is not an uncommon way of removing Kings in the Brut. There is a range of female characters in the English Brut.  They are never simply either passive or evil and the Brut seems freer of clerical misogyny than one might expect, but Rowena is presented as particularly evil, not because she's a woman, but because of what she does and how she does it.