The King's Task

(Enlarged from
Traffics and Discoveries)





After the sack of the City, when Rome was sunk to a name,
In the years that the lights were darkened, or ever St. Wilfrid came,
Low on the borders of Britain (the ancient poets sing)
Between the Cliff and the Forest there ruled a Saxon King.
Stubborn all were his people from cottar to overlord
Not to be cowed by the cudgel, scarce to be schooled by the sword;
Quick to turn at their pleasure, cruel to cross in their mood,
And set on paths of their choosing as the hogs of Andred's Wood.
Laws they made in the Witan—the laws of flaying and fine—
Common, loppage and pannage, the theft and the track of kine—
Statutes of tun and of market for the fish and the malt and the meal—
The tax on the Bramber packhorse and the tax on the Hastings keel.
Over the graves of the Druids and under the wreck of Rome,
Rudely but surely they bedded the plinth of the days to come.
Behind the feet of the Legions and before the Norseman's ire
Rudely but greatly begat they the framing of State and Shire.
Rudely but deeply they laboured, and their labour stands till now,
If we trace on our ancient headlands the twist of their eight-ox plough....

There came a king from Hamtun, by Bosenham he came,
He filled Use with slaughter, and Lewes he gave to flame.
He smote while they sat in the Witan— sudden he smote and sore,
That his fleet was gathered at Selsea ere they mustered at Cymen's Ore.
Blithe went the Saxons to battle, by down and wood and mere,
But thrice the acorns ripened ere the western mark was clear.
Thrice was the beechmast gathered, and the Beltane fires burned
Thrice, and the beeves were salted thrice ere the host returned.
They drove that king from Hamtun, by Bosenham o'erthrown,
Our of Rugnor to Wilton they made his land their own.
Camps they builded at Gilling, at Basing and Alresford,
But wrath abode in the Saxons from cottar to overlord.
Wrath at the weary war-game, at the foe that snapped and ran,
Wolf-wise feigning and flying, and wolf-wise snatching his man.
Wrath for their spears unready, their levies new to the blade—
Shame for the helpless sieges and the scornful ambuscade.
At hearth and tavern and market, wherever the tale was told,
Shame and wrath had the Saxons because of their boasts of old.
And some would drink and deny it, and some would pray and atone;
But the most part, after their anger, avouched that the sin was their own.
Wherefore, girding together, up to the Witan they came,
And as they had shouldered their bucklers so did they shoulder their blame;
(For that was the wont of the Saxons, the ancient poets sing),
And first they spoke in the Witan and then they spoke to the King:
"Edward King of the Saxons, thou knowest from sire to son,
"One is the King and his People— in gain and ungain one.
"Count we the gain together. With doubtings and spread dismays
"We have broken a foolish people— but after many days.
"Count we the loss together. Warlocks hampered our arms.
"We were tricked as by magic, we were turned as by charms.
"We went down to the battle and the road was plain to keep,
"But our angry eyes were holden, and we struck as they strike in sleep—
"Men new shaken from slumber, sweating with eyes a-stare
"Little blows uncertain, dealt on the useless air.
"Also a vision betrayed us and a lying tale made bold,
"That we looked to hold what we had not and to have what we did not hold:
That a shield should give us shelter— that a sword should give us power—
A shield snatched up at a venture and a hilt scarce handled an hour:
"That being rich in the open, we should be strong in the close—
"And the Gods would sell us a cunning for the day that we met our foes.
"This was the work of wizards, but not with our foe they bide,
"In our own camp we took them, and their names are Sloth and Pride.
"Our pride was before the battle, our sloth ere we lifted spear:
"But hid in the heart of the people, as the fever hides in the mere:
"Waiting only the war-game, the heat of the strife to rise
"As the ague fumes round Oxeney when the rotting reed-bed dries.
"But now we are purged of that fever— cleansed by the letting of blood,
"Something leaner of body— something keener of mood.
"And the men new— freed from the levies return to the fields again,
"Matching a hundred battles, cottar and lord and thane;
"And they talk loud in the temples where the ancient war-gods are;
"They thumb and mock and belittle the holy harness of war.
"They jest at the sacred chariots, the robes and the gilded staff.
"These things fill them with laughter, they lean on their spears and laugh.
"The men grown old in the war-game, hither and thither they range—
"And scorn and laughter together are sire and dam of change;
"And change may be good or evil— but we know not what it will bring;
"Therefore our King must teach us. That is thy task, 0 King!"




Note

The words changed from the original first 18 lines written to accompany "The Comprehension of Private Copper" in Traffics and Discoveries are underlined.