Ballads, and Other Poems

Battle Of Brunanburh

Alfred Tennyson

Constantinus, King of the Scot, after having sworn allegiance to Athelstan, allied himself with the Danes of Ireland under Anlaf, and invading England, was defeated by Athelstan and his brother Edmund with great slaughter at Brunanburh in the year 937.

             1 ATHELSTAN King,
               Lord among Earls,
               Bracelet-bestower and
               Baron of Barons,
               He with his brother,
               Edmund Atheling,
               Gaining a lifelong
               Glory in battle,
               Slew with the sword-edge
               There by Brunanburh,
               Brake the shield-wall,
               Hew’d the lindenwood,2
               Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.

               Theirs was a greatness
               Got from their Grandsires—
               Theirs that so often in
               Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

               Bow’d the spoiler,
               Bent the Scotsman,
               Fell the shipcrews
               Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
               Flow’d, from when first the great
               Sun-star of morningtide,
               Lamp of the Lord God
               Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
               Sank to his setting.

               There lay many a man
               Marr’d by the javelin,
               Men of the Northland
               Shot over shield.
               There was the Scotsman
               Weary of war.

               We the West-Saxons,
               Long as the daylight
               Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.

               Mighty the Mercian,
               Hard was his hand-play,
               Sparing not any of
               Those that with Anlaf,
               Warriors over the
               Weltering waters
               Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
               Drew to this island:
               Doom’d to the death.

Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

               Then the Norse leader.
               Dire was his need of it,
               Few were his following,
               Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

               Also the crafty one,
               Crept to his North again,
               Hoar-headed hero!

               Slender warrant had
               He to be proud of
               The welcome of war-knives—
               He that was reft of his
               Folk and his friends that had
               Fallen in conflict,
               Leaving his son too
               Lost in the carnage,
               Mangled to morsels,
               A youngster in war!

               Slender reason had
               He to be glad of
               The clash of the war-glaive—
               Traitor and trickster
               And spurner of treaties—
               He nor had Anlaf
               With armies so broken
               A reason for bragging
               That they had the better
               In perils of battle
               On places of slaughter—
               The struggle of standards,
               The rush of the javelins,
               The crash of the charges,3
               The wielding of weapons—
               The play that they play’d with
               The children of Edward.

               Then with their nail’d prows
               Parted the Norsemen, a
               Blood-redden’d relic of
               Javelins over
               The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
               Shaping their way toward Dyflen4 again,
               Shamed in their souls.

               Also the brethren,
               King and Atheling,
               Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
               Glad of the war.

Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

               Never had huger
               Slaughter of heroes
               Slain by the sword-edge—
               Such as old writers
               Have writ of in histories—
               Hapt in this isle, since
               Up from the East hither
               Saxon and Angle from
               Over the broad billow
               Broke into Britain with
               Haughty war-workers who
               Harried the Welshman, when
               Earls that were lured by the
               Hunger of glory gat
               Hold of the land.

1.    I have more or less availed myself of my son’s prose translation of this poem in the Contemporary Review (November 1876).    [back]

2.    Shields of lindenwood.    [back]

3.    Lit. ‘the gathering of men.’    [back]

4.    Dublin.    [back]

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