Combat Poetry

At Crown Tournament, Their Majesties Ullr and Annelyse honored my by appointing me their poet. During the tournament, I composed this, and performed it at the evening court where Arch and Runa were crowned Prince and Princess.

Strong shone the sun that day in Sternfeld.
The courageous came there to contend for the Crown,
Many men and women of might.
Ullr and Annelyse addressed the audacious,
Bid them battle with noble bearing.
Weaponclash there winnowed the warriors.
All were worthy. One would win.
First the foes honored their fellows,
Bowed to the beloved whose favor they bore.
Cellach kissed his queenly champion–
Chilly the armored cheek of his cherished.

Then boldly they began the blow-blizzard.
Jaime came joyfully where swords were jarring–
A good gift he sought to give there.
Giantlike Dyderich grappled with Zygmunt,
Two swords dealing terror twixt towering men.
Vukasin savaged the Viscount violently
Yet finally fell to the friend of the giraffe.
Ixtilixochitl of high ideals
Met Nikolai’s spear in the belly’s spot.
It darted like dragonfly, dealing doom.
Arch’s fierce flurry of flashing blows
Felled Sir Louis, laid him low.
The snowlanders struggled–Skallagrimmr
Gave way to Gaetting, giving him glee.
Tonis stood tall in fierce contention.
Killian attacked and killed Kith, near kinsman.
Dag and Nikolai danced delicately,
Both wise and wary of wicked steel.

Fearsome, the final feat fetched closer–
One contender could carry the crown.
The wolf-shield warrior was wily and wise
But Arch attacked him with all his might,
Thrice he bested him, thwacked and thrusted.
Behold him now, his honor highest,
A proper Prince with presence to lead.
Give tongue gladly for glorious deeds
Dared this day for the Dragon unconquered!

Note

The form follows the alliterative pattern common to Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry. Because of the short time available for composition, not all the niceties of those styles were observed.

The Gift

My love, I do not seek the crown
For glory to my house or name
Nor petty augmentation of my fame,
I have been given due meed of renown.
Hear me—ambition’s not the flame
That fires me to this fighting ground.
Fortuna has been generous
And granted me a chosen family
And errantry adventurous,
Far more than she for others doth decree—
Her debtor I must ever be.
To hold all this in store
Were wealth indeed, yet she bestowed still more
The gift of you, beloved Eleanor.

Since now these riches I possess
More than my quality could earn,
Unto the kingdom I would make return.
As rarely Fortune determines to bless
One man, he should charity learn
And quit her goodness with largesse.
So if a golden crown I gain
In honorable battle with my peers
‘Twere shame that treasure to retain
But right to give my best to that domain
That so enriches all my years.
Then if my blade fly true
I will bestow the gift a kingdom’s due:
The reign of such a worthy Queen as you.

Process Notes


I wrote “ The Gift” for Fall Crown Tournament 2021, in honor of Sir Jaime and Dame Eleanor von Atzinger. Before writing, I interviewed Sir Jaime, asking just two questions: “Why do you seek the crown? Why do you fight for Eleanor?” His eloquent and heartfelt response demanded that he become the speaker of this poem.

The verse is modeled, not on a style, but on a specific lyric poem from period: John Donne’s “Air and Angels.” (Donne’s verse circulated privately in manuscript throughout the 1590s, and later in his life was collected and printed.)

I chose this form for three reasons:
Because it is technically challenging (see below), because it uses a variant line length and thus avoids a singsong impression in spoken performance, and because Donne is a passionate love poet and my subject is a man who passionately loves both his wife and the tournament.

“Air and Angels” is constructed in two 14-line stanzas. That is, each stanza has the same number of lines as a sonnet. This strong example of Donne’s experimentalism uses a combination of tetrameter and pentameter lines with one trimeter line in each stanza. The rhythm is, overall, iambic, but with a large number of variations, and with some lines being very difficult to scan as any regular pattern. The rhyme scheme is inconsistent from one stanza to the next, with the first stanza rhyming ABBABACDCDDEEE, and the second introducing a variation. It is a rhyme scheme Sir Philip Sidney might have devised while high, if he had not died in 1586.

Following this model was so complex that I was forced to draw a chart and refer to it frequently during composition. I originally made the decision to write both stanzas with the same rhyme scheme, but ended up introducing a variation of my own that let me choose the words I needed.

My thanks to the Sternfeld Rapier Bards for including me in their Crown Tournament Praise Poetry Project.

Siege Triptych–Notes

The Siege Triptych encompasses three poems in English heroic verse, that is, unrhymed iambic pentameter: On Watch, Under Siege, and Victory. In writing this sequence, I have departed notably from my usual practice to create my first true SCA/modern crossover piece, both in form and content.

The triptych is a form borrowed from medieval art, in which a three-paneled painting or carved relief was used to illustrate segments or aspects of an event. The term, however, applied in period only to the visual arts, not to literature.

Blank verse is common in Elizabethan drama. In another planned crossover element, the entire piece will eventually see the stage as a speech in a five-act tragedy, wherein a character facing battle tells their companions about their previous experience of war.

However, I’ve employed the form using some modern practice, such as dividing the speech into parts and assigning titles. Although there are certainly period short poems divided into segments, I have not discovered an example that specifically adopts the form (or designation) of a triptych. The practice of extracting a monologue from a drama for recitation probably developed in the 19th century, so it’s old, but not period.

Moreover, I have deliberately created a work which can be taken to apply to a long-ago literal war or as an extended metaphor for the Covid-19 pandemic. I regard the titles as a replacement for the contextual scene-setting that will exist in the (as yet unfinished) play in which the lines will be spoken. As for the dual nature of the subject—I believe its importance provides its own justification.

On a personal level, placing the “enemy” in the distant past and in metaphorical form gave me the distance necessary to write about the pandemic in the midst of it. I wrote one modern poem (Polyphony) very early in the pandemic, in mid-March of 2020, and even it uses a high degree of figurative distancing. But as the dimensions of the crisis became clear, I found it simply impossible to address it in plain words.

The three segments were written months apart, and the events of each reflect my own knowledge and experience at the moment of writing.

Victory

Victory completes the Siege Triptych which I began in On Watch and continued in Under Siege.

And when the enemy was driven off
And we weary survivors could emerge
To see the narrow sky grow wide above,
The streets and fields seemed strange and over-broad
After the safe confinement of our walls.
E’en as we praised our brave deliverers
And reveled in our freedom newly won,
We mourned the missing, lost in those dark months,
Buried in haste with scarce a song, our grief
Unmeasurable. All we could offer them
Was a promise: We will remember you.

Notes on the sequence are here.

A Pelican scroll text

These lines were composed for the Pelican scroll of Mistress Gwyneth Banfhidhleir, O.P., of the Middle Kingdom. Her scroll was commissioned from me (text) and Steve of Tirnewydd (calligraphy and illumination) ten years after her elevation. Notes follow.

Great nobles of Our Kingdom, know Our Word–
Eikbrandr King and Runa Queen decree
By all Our Populace must now be heard
What doom to Gwyneth Banfhidhleir shall be.
The captain of a doughty band though few,
Whom she inspires in skilful cookery
To do what erst they knew not they could do,
And folk wide scattered o’er the Dragon’s land
She makes one company in service true.
So to reward that ever-eager hand
Whose praise resoundeth in Our ears full oft,
Now Gwyneth, do We give you Our command
To seek your noble seat, your apron doffed,
As Pelican, the merit of your zeal.
Your sister raised this day, join her aloft.
We do commend your faith to that ideal
That’s best upheld by deeds—‘tis a rare art
To serve our dreams forth tangible and real,
And give your many gifts with modest heart,
As a great voice in a chorus may sound
And seldom rise to take the solo part.
Thereto commands the Middle Kingdom Crown
Whose pow’rs draconian none can gainsay
The said Gwyneth: proclaim her just renown,
A Pelican in its piety display
Which honours she shall nevermore lay down
Till Sky be fallen and great Earth shall drown.
~~ Given Fifth of September, A.S. 44

Process Notes

Mistress Gwyneth–my friend Ginny–asked me to create a text for this scroll in the summer of 2019. I interviewed her at Pennsic XLVIII for details of her experience as a Pelican and of her elevation. She has generously allowed me to publish the text, although as of December 31, 2020, she does not yet have the scroll in her hands because of the pandemic.

I’ve posted poems before that seemed to fountain out of my pen. Some were finished the same day they were begun, or the next day. Under Siege was one of those, as was Master Peter. This is not one of those poems. From the initial interview to completion was over 11 months.

Gwyneth favors Italian verse and had asked for the form to be terza rima. I was excited to do it because terza rima is one of the great medieval forms; Dante used it for the Divine Comedy. But Italian has many fewer ending sounds–and therefore many more rhyming options–than English. The patterns of accents in the words are different, too. And there were things I had to say, things that could not be left out. And I had to write precisely 30 lines so that they would fit neatly onto the page that Steve, the artist, was already creating.

All of these challenges and constraints combined to make the writing process slow and painstaking. I started, got stuck, came back to the text, sought my Laurel’s advice, got stuck again, put it aside, came back, got stuck, sought another Laurel’s advice…it was a long process. If it had been a personal piece, I might have let it lapse unfinished. But one of the advantages to accepting a commission is that, once promised, the thing has to be done. And so, at last, it was, I hope to the credit of all involved.

Under Siege

These blank verse lines continue the account begun in On Watch.

Ten long months had the castle been besieged
And those within deprived of daily joys,
Of pleasures, company, safety itself.
Within the walls came sickness, fear, and want.
Physicians labored without respite; guards
Fell every day to deadly, unseen darts
That crossed the walls. Yet not the worst of pains
These dangers were. The suff’ring of the mind
Tormented more. Though sun shone down, it seemed
That necessary walls barred light and air—
No breath, no inspiration could them pass
And those once counted wise stood with the rest,
Helpless to strike the unrelenting foe.
One hope we had of succour. All did wait
Upon our ally’s force, a pow’rful Queen
Far distant, hidden. What clamorous welcome
We gave the messenger whose trumpet sang
Across the foe’s lines, heralding relief.
Our marshal took fresh courage then, and raised
The standard, rallying all to one effort:
To hold steadfast until their help arrived.

The account concludes in Victory.

Process note

This idea was handed to me when I felt like writing but didn’t know what, and creating the lines was as close to effortless as composition gets. I began and finished on the same day, a marked contrast to the process noted for Mistress Gwyneth’s Pelican scroll text.

The Muse Addresses Dame Honor von Atzinger

Fair daughter, well thou hast deserved thy wreath.
We sisters nine rejoice to see thy crown
Of Laurel noble, and the smile beneath
Of joy at this due honor and renown
That gratifies all thy compatriots’ hearts.
Terpsichore comes dancing to the pipe
To celebrate thy mastery of arts —
Euterpe plucks the golden apples ripe
To place before you. Taste the divine fruit
And be our dear companion evermore —
Cease not to dance and sing, be never mute
In service to those virtues we adore.
The king who honor gives knows Honor well,
And honors that beyond my tongue to tell.

Notes

I composed this sonnet as a gift for my friend Dame Honor von Atzinger on the occasion of her elevation to the Order of the Laurel.

The speaker is an unspecified one of the nine classical muses. Terpsichore and Euterpe are mentioned because two of Dame Honor’s chief arts are dance and singing.

A Riddle

This forest sets a seeker free,
Though in a fence its foliage bound.
Alive in death, it drinks a sea
Of oaken ale to sate its ground.
To able men with eyes to see
It speaks good guidance with no sound,
Yet fools may falter helplessly
Wand’ring its ways, and ne’er be found.
Who dares explore its paths profound,
A well of wisdom he may gain.
Though to his hearth the road come round,
This wood his wits shall e’er retain.

Process notes

The riddle is answered and dissected at the end of these notes.

I wrote this in response to a challenge Master Owen Alun created for Bardic Madness Online Edition in July 2020: “Pondering what might be.”

Riddles in English go all the way back to the roots of the language; some famous early examples appear in the Exeter Book. Verse riddling remained popular through the 14th century, with examples appearing within a number of Chaucer’s works. In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the urgent need to solve a riddle drives the plot.

I chose a verse model from another late-14th-century-poem, Pearl. The verse of Pearl is a tour de force of poetic composition. It uses 12-line stanzas which are both rhymed and alliterated, as well as having verbal connections between stanzas. The 12 lines use only three rhyme sounds.

My riddle uses a single stanza in this form, so I did not have to replicate the inter-stanza connections. I imitated the four-stress meter of the original. Because Middle English meter is stress-based rather than syllable-based, the number of unaccented syllables is not strictly counted (as it is Early Modern English forms such as the sonnet).

The Answer and the Explanation

The answer is “a book.”

This forest sets a seeker free: The book is made of wood products–pages and coverboards– and as a forest has many trees, so a book has many pages. The second half of the line contains a Biblical allusion to John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

Though in a fence its foliage bound: The riddle’s main metaphor pictures a fence surrounding a forest; the fence corresponds to the book’s covers. (This element, and the next two, make it clear that the answer cannot be “library,” which has been a common guess.) “Foliage” and “folio” both derive from Latin folium, leaf.

Alive in death: the trees used to make the paper have been cut down and pulped, but have a new existence as a book.

It drinks a sea/Of oaken ale to sate its ground: “Oaken ale” is a figure for ink made from oak galls. I would have said “oaken blood,” which is spookier, but I needed alliteration in this line, and I commandeered the Anglo-Saxon convention by which all vowels alliterate with each other. The drinking is done specifically by the paper, the ground on which the text appears, which soaks up a lot of ink in order to be filled–“sated.”

To able men with eyes to see: To people who can read–
It speaks good guidance with no sound: –the book is informative.

Yet fools may falter helplessly,/Wand’ring its ways, and ne’er be found: The uneducated who cannot read will be lost in its pages.

Who dares explore its paths profound/A well of wisdom he may gain: The reader can gain wisdom from following the deep thoughts in the book.

Though to his hearth the road come round: The reader will “go home” from the forest; that is, he will finish and close the book.

This wood his wits shall e’er retain: This line has two possible meanings, and the text offers no way to be sure which is meant. (It’s deliberately ambiguous. Because riddle.) On the one hand, it could mean, “He will leave his wits behind in this wood forever,” that the wood will drive him mad. It was a common fear that too much study could drive one insane; compare Acts 26:24, “Much learning hath made thee mad.” On the other hand, the line can equally well be construed as “His mind will always contain what he has read.”

Guest poet: Sir Ephraim

In a first today for the blog, I am sharing another poet’s work.

Sir Ephraim ben Shlomo graciously consented to publish his sonnet here. Many thanks to him, and enjoyment to readers.

The Season of Spring Crown, AS 55

Too quiet are these days for Midrealm’s taste
As peace’bly we at our estates abide.
No nobles, inspirations at their side,
Hear names announced, then to the list make haste.
No Tanist speaks in court to claim a spot
In hist’ry for one who’s inspired prow’.
The arts and sciences but whisper now,
Those skills, deserving full voice, speaking not.
Yet, drag these days so slowly as they might,
The plague-threat causing let to all our wills,
Full well we know, a better day we’ll see.
A twelvemonth hence Spring Crown again we’ll fight,
And arts and sciences declare their skills.
Restored traditions, all as all should be.

Proverb

Sun and storm, rose and thorn,
To joy and sorrow we are born.

Grief and laughter, thorn and rose,
What fate decrees no woman knows.

Process Notes

Unusually for me, I did not seek a specific period model for this. The form, trochaic tetrameter couplets, is found solidly within the 16th century, for example in the refrain Ben Jonson’s hymn to Diana, Queen and Huntress Chaste and Fair.

The proverb or saw goes back as far as English itself. Examples are found in Beowulf and in every century since. This one came to me in a solitary moment during a thunderstorm.