Kevin Crossley-Holland: 1965

From The Battle of Maldon, and other Old English Poems, Macmillan


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I can sing a true song about myself,
Tell of my travels, of many hard times
Toiling day after day; I can describe
How I have harboured bitter sorrow in my heart
And often learned that ships are homes of sadness.
Wild were the waves when I took my turn,
The arduous night-watch, standing at the prow
While the boat tossed near the rocks. My feet
Were tortured by frost, fettered
In frozen chains; fierce anguish clutched
At my heart; passionate longings maddened
The mind of the sea-weary man. Prosperous men
Living on land, do not begin to understand
How I, careworn and cut off from my kinsmen,
Have as an exile endured the winter
On the icy seas.......
Icicles hung round me; hail showers flew.
The only sound there, was of the sea booming ---
The ice-cold wave --- and at times the song of the swan.
The cry of the gannet was all my gladness,
The call of the curlew, not the laughter of men,
The mewing gull, not the sweetness of mead.
There, storms echoed off the rocky cliffs; the icy-feathered tern
Answered them; and often the eagle,
Dewy-winged, screeched overhead. No protector
Could console the cheerless man.
He who is accustomed to the comforts of life
And, proud and flushed with wine, suffers
Little hardship living in the city,
Will never know how I, heavy with weariness,
Have often had to make the ocean paths my home.
The night-shadow grew long, it snowed from the north,
Frost fettered the earth; hail, coldest of grain,
Battered the ground. But now my blood
Is stirred that I should make trial
Of the mountainous streams, the tossing salt waves;
My heart's longings always urge me
To undertake a journey, to visit the country
Of a foreign people far across the sea.
On earth there is no man so self-assured,
So generous with his gifts or so gallant in his youth
So daring in his deeds or with such a gracious lord,
That he harbours no fears about his seafaring
As to what Almighty God will ordain for him.
He thinks not of the harp nor of receiving rings
Not of rapture in a woman nor of any worldly joy,
But only of the rolling of the waves;
The seafarer will always feel longings.
The groves burst with blossom, towns become fair,
Meadows are beautiful once more, the whole world revives;
All these things urge the eager man
To set out on a journey over the salt streams.
And the cuckoo, too, harbinger of summer, sings
A mournful song, boding bitter sorrow
To the heart. Prosperous men know not
What hardship is endured by those
Who tread the paths of exile to the ends of the world.
Wherefore my heart leaps within me,
My mind roves with the waves
Over the whale's domain, it wanders far and wide
Across the face of the earth, returns again to me
Eager and unsatisfied; the solitary bird screams,
Irresistible, urging my heart to the whale's way
Over the stretch of the sea.
        So it is that the joys
Of the Lord inspire me more than this dead life,
Ephemeral here on earth. I have no faith
That the splendours of this earth will survive for ever.
There are three things which, until one
Occurs, are always unpredictable:
Illness or age or death in battle
Can deprive a doomed man of his life.
Wherefore each man should strive, before he leaves
This world, to win the praise of those living
After him. The best of posthumous fame
Is to achieve great deeds on earth
Against the malice of the fiends, against the devil,
So that the children of men may honour a man's name
And his fame at last may live with the angels
For ever and ever, in the joy of life eternal
Amongst the heavenly host.
        Days of great glory
In the kingdom of earth are gone forever;
Kings and emperors and gold-giving lords
Are no longer as they used to be ---
Once they wrought deeds of greatest renown,
Lived in most lordly splendour;
Such excellence proved ephemeral, those joys have passed away;
Weaklings thrive and hold sway in the world,
Enjoy it only through their own labours; all honour is laid low;
The earth's flower ages and withers
As now does every man throughout this middle-world:
Old age grasps his hand, his face grows pale,
Grey-haired he mourns; he knows that his former friends,
The sons of princes, have been placed in the earth.
Then when he dies, his lifeless body
Cannot taste sweetness, feel the sharpness of pain,
Lift a hand or be lost in reveries of the mind.
Though a brother may bury his kinsman
Amongst the dead, strew his grave with gold
And the many treasures he wished to take with him,
The shining gold which a man stores on earth
Is of no assistance to his sinful soul
Confronted at the last by God's wrath.
Great is the fear of God; through Him the world turns.
He created the mighty plains,
The face of the earth and the sky above.
Foolish is he who fears not his Lord: death will find him unprepared.
Blessed is the humble man: he will find mercy in Heaven.
God gave man a soul to have faith in His great strength.

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