Antony Oldknow: 1986

from North Dakota Quarterly 54.4, 18-24;
University of North Dakota, Grand Forks


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I shall let the true song inside me ring out,
I shall tell of my journeys, how I've toiled
long harsh days, and how I've suffered often,
enduring the sting of my heart's anguish.
I've steered my ship through many haunts of grief
where often at night when savage waves tossed
I kept anxious watch at my vessel's bow
as it tore down on cliffs. My feet were scorched
with cold, they were clamped in the rigid lock
of frost, while my sorrows kept up a howl
inside that seared the heart; hunger gnawed
at a soul worn-out by the sea. This, no man knows
who enjoys a tranquil life on the land:
how, troubled wretch that I am, I must spend
winter out on the icy sea, and wander
like a castaway cut-off from folks and friends,
caged in by icicles and flurries of hail
where I could only hear sounds of the sea,
the chill crunch of the waves. Sometimes, the swan's call
and the gannet's cry rang out to cheer me;
instead of man's laughter, the curlew sang ---
seagulls shrieked, but there was no rejoicing.
storms battered rock bluffs where cries came from terns
with frozen feathers; often, a sea eagle
screamed from its beak of bone --- no kinsmen there
to bring delight to a desolate soul.
A man flushed with wine, glad of the pleasures
of a life among houses, but few rough journeys,
could ill imagine how exhausted I was,
so often forced to trek across the seas.

Shadows deepened, snow came from the black north,
frost locked earth rigid, hail battered the ground
with beads of ice, just as my head throbs again
with troubled thoughts as I go once more
into the salty hurl and towering waves ---
at all such times, the overwhelming itch
to wander flares up in the mind, and I go,
a foreign outcast seeking a home.

Yet there's no man on earth, no matter how
fine, how generous, how vigorous in youth
or fierce in the fight, or loyal to his lord,
who fails to be anxious on a voyage,
concerned with what fate the Lord will send him.
His desire is for neither ring nor harp,
he seeks neither woman nor worldly things,
he thinks of nothing but the crash of waves ---
they always fret and yearn who seek the sea.

The woods break out in blossom and adorn
buildings and meadows --- the whole earth awakes.
It fans a flame inside the questing mind,
spurs it to cut loose from the dry land
and take its chance on the tracks of the sea,
ignoring the cuckoo, sentinel of summer,
whose sad voice chants a song of coming grief,
bitter for the heart. The soldier lounging
at ease has no idea what they endure
who trudge to the furthest places of exile.

Now my spirit flies up beyond my breast,
my soul sets course out over the great flood
into far-off regions haunted by whales,
then comes back to me from earth's wilderness,
passionate, longing --- the lone flier cries out,
goads the heart on to follow the wandering whale
over wide tracts of sea, for the joys of God
give me more inner fire than does this life
that flickers on the land. I cannot believe
one's possessions are everlasting ---
which fate of three has been chosen for a man
must lurk uncertain until his last hour:
whether sickness, old age, or the clash of battle
shall snuff out the doomed, though he turns his back.

Therefore, for each man praise is the best prize
to win before death --- praise from those still here
to spread his fame. If he excel in the world,
confounding the Devil with noble deeds
against vile foes, then the children of men
can sound his praises and make his glory live
among the hosts of the angels forever,
where joy can never end. The proud days
of this world's kingdom have wasted away.
There now remain neither kings nor emperors
nor generous lords like there were of old,
when the noblest among them performed great feats
and earned themselves splendid reputations.
This host has been dragged down, its joy has ceased;
lesser men now abandon this world
to the rule of chaos; its glory sapped,
the world's nobility grows old and fades,
just as now life dims on earth for every man:
old age overtakes him, his face turns pale,
he mourns his white hair, he knows his old friend,
the prince's son, has been given to the soil ---
when life fails, his body brings no joy to him,
he can't taste sweet things, he doesn't feel pain,
he can't move his hands, through his head no thoughts run.
Though brothers place gold in their brother's grave
and bury him with treasure beside the dead,
whatever it is, it can't go with him;
for a soul that is all wrapped up in sin
gold is no help in the face of God's fury,
though a man hoards it up as long as he lives.

God's fierce strength will buckle and split this earth ---
that power first created strong foundations
for the world's surface and the heavens above.
A fool doesn't fear God: death takes him napping.
The meek are glad: Heaven's mercy is coming.
God steadies man's soul when man fears God's strength -
headstrong tempers must be curbed and controlled;
a man must keep his word and live cleanly.
Let every man practice moderation
in love for a friend and hatred for a foe.
Though he may not wish the friend he has made
to be burned alive in a storm of flame
an swallowed up by the conflagration,
the Judgement to come will prove more drastic
and God mightier than any man imagines.

Let us consider where we have a home,
let us take stock of how we came to have it,
let us keep our struggle so we can inherit
our share of everlasting joy
whose living spring stems from the love of God
serene in Heaven.
                                                To the Prince of Glory.
the Holy eternal Lord who honored us,
be there thanks for this till the end of time.




Bayeux Tapestry. "King Harold's Return to England".
Harold and six crew have been edged out.


Anthony Oldknow's website is at:


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