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This poem is taken from PN Review 37, Volume 10 Number 5, March - April 1984.

The Battle of Brunanburgh Michael Alexander

Translator's note: The Battle of Brunanburgh is a poem found in four of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as the annal entry for the year 937. The battlefield in the north-west of England has not been identified for certain; possibly it is Bromborough on the Wirral shore of the Mersey estuary. There in that year the King of the West Saxons, Athelstan, and his brother Edmund the Atheling, who was then sixteen, defeated the combined invading forces of King Constantine III, King Owen of Strathclyde, and Anlaf, leader of the Vikings of Dublin, whom Athelstan had previously driven out of Northumbria. Thus the West Saxons, with the help of the Mercians, defeated the Scots and Picts, the Strathclyde Welsh, and the Vikings. Foreign annals confirm that the defeat was crushing, and mention the same casualties as the Old English poem. Brunanburgh confirmed the ascendancy of Wessex over the whole of England.

Brunanburgh is the last heroic poem surviving in Old English to have been composed in the high style best known from the eighth-century Beowulf. It was the only Old English poem translated by Tennyson. The last notable Old English poem, composed after 991, The Battle of Maldon, although a more detailed and engrossing account of a battle, is more ordinary in vocabulary and looser in versification. Brunanburgh is a disciplined epitome of the older battle-poetry, recreated by a court poet with an historical turn of mind. The remoteness with which the battle is described is part of the heroic tradition, as are the use of sustained understatement and elaborate antithesis - and the introduction of the beasts of battle.

Athelstan the King, captain of men,
Ring-giver of warriors - and with him his brother
Edmund the Atheling - unending glory
Won in that strife by their swords' edges
That there was about Brunanburgh. The board-wall they cut
  through,
Cleft the lindens with the leavings of hammers,
Edward's offspring, answering the blood
They had from their forebears: that in the field they should often
Against every foe defend the land,
Hoard and homes. The hated ones fell,
The people of the Scots and the shipmen too,
Fell as was fated. The field was running
With the blood of soldiers from the sun's rise
...


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