The Battle of Maldon

MS from British Library, Cotton Otho A xii (burnt)

J.H. Prynne’s ‘Song in Sight of the World’ (The White Stones, 1969 [2005], p. 76) makes brief mention of the event (and Anglo-Saxon poem about the event) known as the Battle of Maldon, which occurred in 991CE in Maldon, Essex, UK between Byrhtnoth, eaoldorman of Essex, leader of the thanes, and a Danish raiding-force. The lines are:

We are a land
hammered by restraint, into
a too cycladic past. It is
the battle of Maldon binds
our feet: we tread
only with that weight & the empire
of love, in the mist. The name of this
land, unknown, is that.

The causeway separating the Vikings from accessing the Anglo-Saxons has a large amplitude of high to low water, meaning that it is impassable during high tide and wet, mud flats during low tide. There is considerable suspense in gazing and concentrating upon the enemy, refusing their offer of tribute-money to leave without battle, and having to wait for possible battle. The binding of the feet refers to this loyalty to place, but also to the excessively cycladic past of this binding. The proto-Indoeuropean culture on the Aegean islands becomes an adjectival link to medieval England. But is this a kind of agoraphobia? Does Prynne wish to tap into the formative stages of English civilization, and also island-culture, to describe contemporary (c. late 1960s) behavior? Surely, the English ‘restraint’ supports a false platform for the staging of imperial modesty. And this is only to diagram an ongoing poetic argument in each of these White Stones. We follow the enjambment of one prosaic constituent into the next, we often end up feeling unrewarded for our close attention and interested enthusiasm: ‘The politics | of this will bear inspection.’ The suavity and grace with which this is delivered creates a problem for the display of ironic units, as each flame burns into its neighbor. Implorations for meaning, for truthful restitution of historicity or truthful language-use are by no means resolute, neither by their isolation within line, stanza, page, or poem, nor by the thought-narrative of a single speaker, free from device, artifice or objective focus.

But to return for one moment to this treading: the poem assumes the ‘we’, which bears the reader, including him within the expanse of what is said, but also does not speak for him, which is the cognitive dissonance between reading <we> and listening at any location to a speaker attempting to speak for you , and thereby including your proxy, some flicker of exclusivity from whoever is not yet there. It is a dangerous game. And it is saturated with a depth of enthusiasm and compassion for the present tense. Frequently, definitions, evidential formations, and other corroborative matter follow colons: this historical event that ‘binds | our feet’ leads to, or is supported by, or means that ‘we tread’, firstly, ‘only with that weight’; and secondly, ‘only with that…empire | of love’. This treading is done ‘in the mist’. The weight refers to the weight of the binding of feet. As this lacks a transitional dative-object, the feet are bound to themselves by the battle of Maldon. The ’empire of love’ embodies the idea-structure of belief, caught in the simple syllogisms of the good and bad. We might ask whether the speaker’s <we> is viking or Anglo-Saxon, but the problem of name-drops in the context of such propositionality is that false parallelisms abound. With no formal separation, even if the historical reach of the Maldon metaphor (only part-metaphor anyway) is dropped quickly as it was picked up, its details when articulated by an interested reader may be led to try and support some rather faulty structures of thinking. And yet there is that playful suggestiveness, which is a gentle unease.


The Battle of Maldon at Archaeology in Europe

Full text Old English with translation and commentary at University of Oxford, Old English


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