My recent offering of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Merlin’ prompted me to dig out this one, on a similar theme but in a very different vein. It is from a long epic poem called ‘The Island’, chronicling the history of Britain from the Bronze Age to modern times. Published in 1944, it was very successful in its time and sold out its sizeable first edition very quickly, clearly having tapped something in the national psyche. I don’t imagine that many people read or remember it now, but when I came across a copy while browsing in a secondhand bookshop and lighted on this particular passage I thought, OK, so in form and style this might be about as unfashionable as you can get, but as a distillation of the historical truth that might or might not underlie the vast Arthurian legendarium it’s really quite potent, especially these last seven stanzas.
Hic Jacet Arthurus Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus
…. And all that coloured tale a tapestry
Woven by poets. As the spider’s skeins
Are spun of its own substance, so have they
Embroidered empty legend – What remains?
This: That when Rome fell, like a writhen oak
That age had sapped and cankered at the root,
Resistant, from her topmost bough there broke
The miracle of one unwithering shoot.
Which was the spirit of Britain – that certain men
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood
And charged into the storm’s black heart, with sword
Lifted, or lance in rest, and rode there, helmed
With a strange majesty that the heathen horde
Remembered when all were overwhelmed;
And made of them a legend, to their chief,
Arthur, Ambrosius – no man knows his name –
Granting a gallantry beyond belief,
And to his knights imperishable fame.
They were so few . . . We know not in what manner
Or where they fell – whether they went
Riding into the dark under Christ’s banner
Or died beneath the blood-red dragon of Gwent.
But this we know; that when the Saxon rout
Swept over them, the sun no longer shone
On Britain, and the last lights flickered out;
And men in darkness muttered: Arthur is gone . . .
Francis Brett Young
Notes: Roman rule in Britain came to an end around 410 C.E. Gwent was a post-Roman Welsh kingdom. The Welsh flag features a red dragon. Arthur, of course, is conceived of as a leader of the Celtic resistance against the incoming tide of Saxon invaders who arrived in increasing numbers during the fifth century. The Celts at that time were Christians, the Saxons still pagan. The great battle that Arthur is said to have fought, which stemmed that tide for a while, was at Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, some time around the end of the fifth century.
The Latin title translates as ‘Here lies Arthur, the once and future king’. In actual fact the grave of Arthur, if indeed he ever existed, is unknown, though it has been claimed by many places. As it says in the ‘Englynion y Beddau’ (Stanzas of the Graves) in the Black Book of Carmarthen: ‘A grave for March, a grave for Gwythur/a grave for Gwgawn Red-sword/a wonder to the world is the grave of Arthur’.