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Postmodern (re)constructions of the Middle Ages in contemporary poetry ? Neomedievalism in Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley and Steve Ely

(Re)constructions postmodernes du Moyen-âge dans la poésie contemporaine ? Le néomédiévalisme chez Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley et Steve Ely
Claire Hélie


Cet article analyse la façon dont certains poètes contemporains reconstruisent le passé médiéval dans – et pour – le présent. Simon Armitage traduit Pearl pour un lectorat du xxie siècle : de l’enquête philologique à la modernisation par la poésie, le Pearl de Simon Armitage offre une traduction dont l’espièglerie parle aux lecteurs, alors que la préface laisse entendre une forme d’angoisse à l’égard de la condition et de la création humaines. L’esthétique de la dévastation à l’œuvre chez Jacob Polley reconfigure non sans humour le Livre d’Exeter tout en incluant le poète contemporain dans le processus universel de marchandisation. Le Englaland de Steve Ely fait jouer les versions hégémonique et contre-hégémoniques du la-la land des Angles. Ces reconstructions paraissent parfois plus réelles que le Moyen-âge ; par conséquent, le concept opératoire sera celui du néomédiévalisme, des essais de Umberto Eco dans les années 1970 à des travaux plus récents. Le présent article soulève donc des questions sur l’héritage poétique, l’identité anglaise et le postmodernisme.

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  • 1 The author would like to express her heartfelt gratitude to her anonymous reviewers, who clearly de (...)

1Seamus Heaney’s internationally acclaimed translation of Beowulf (1999) seems to have spurred a whole generation of poets—some perfectly-read in Old English or Middle English, others not so—to take medieval texts out of the hands of medievalist scholars and professional translators to reaffirm the poetic dimension of such pieces : Bernard O’Donoghue’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2006), Sean O’Brien’s Dante’s Inferno (2007) and Jane Draycott’s Pearl (2011) are three single-handed attempts at making the rhythms of medieval poetry available to contemporary readers, while The Word Exchange : Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (2012), edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Motto, is an anthology of more than 100 Old English poems translated by some 70 contemporary poets.1 Besides translations, there have also been, in the last 20 years or so, a large amount of creative works whose medieval hypotext is conspicuously present. For instance, John Hayne’s Letter to Patience (2006) is a rewriting of The Wanderer, Ian Duhig’s The Speed of Light (2007) of Le Roman de Fauvel and Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow (2014) of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. This sample from a substantial and ongoing production testifies to the fact that the Middle Ages is more than ever a text-hoard to be broken up and rebuilt for contemporary readers.

2In her introduction to The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, Louise d’Arcens notices that ‘medievalism, here defined as the reception, interpretation, or recreation of the Middle Ages in post-medieval cultures’ (D’Arcens 1) is also gaining momentum as a research field. This ‘reflexive offshoot’ (D’Arcens 1) of medieval studies is separated into two branches, two types of discursive practices. The first kind of medievalism consists in the critical philological examination of the Middle Ages by academic medievalists bent on excavating and investigating the ‘found’ or material remains of the past that have survived. The second one, ‘the medievalism of the “made” Middle Ages’ is ‘imaginative in [its] impulse and founded on ideas of “the medieval” as a conceptual rather than a historical category’ (D’Arcens 2). Even though such distinction between historical revival and ideological fantasy is debated—and indeed philological exegesis and creative re-imagining have gone hand-in-hand ever since the end of the Middle Ages—some critics have turned the second trend into a field in its own right and coined the word ‘neomedievalism’ so as to insist on the mediated nature of this type of medievalism.

3In the words of Carol L. Robinson and Pamela Clements in ‘Living With Neomedievalism’, a critical response to Umberto’s two seminal essays which popularized the concept in the 1970s—‘Dreaming in the Middle Ages’ and ‘Living in the Middle Ages’—, ‘Neomedievalism is further independent, further detached, and thus consciously, purposefully, and perhaps even laughingly reshaping itself into an alternate universe of medievalisms, a fantasy of medievalism, a meta-medievalism’ (Robinson and Clements 76).

4Medievalism reaches for a genuine link to the past, one that can accommodate a distance with the past which may induce irony or nostalgia, as in Pre-Raphaelite painting for instance. On the contrary, neomedievalism is unapologetically inauthentic in its anti-historical stance : the Middle Ages is considered as a pool of tropes and devices contemporary authors can draw from to create a medieval world that, at times, seem more medieval than the Middle Ages itself. In other words, neomedievalism can be defined as medievalism revisited by postmodernism, simulacrum and hyperreality (incidentally, the title of the collection in which Eco’s two essays were reprinted in 1986). Brent Moberly and Kevin Moberly write :

Neomedievalism works, in this sense, do not simply seek to describe, reproduce or otherwise recover the medieval, but instead employ contemporary techniques and technologies to simulate the medieval—that is, to reproduce a version of the medieval that is more medieval than the medieval, a version of the medieval that can be seen and touched, bought and sold, and therefore owned. (Moberly 15)

5There is, in neomedievalism, a postmodern possibility to consume the Middle Ages. Since medievalism can only lead to the recognition that the reconstruction of the Middle Ages is an impossible task, neomedievalism creates an alternative Middle Ages in which contemporary readers can navigate.

6In ‘Dreaming of the Middle Ages’, Umberto Eco identifies ten ‘Little Middle Ages’, ten types of reconstruction of the Middle Ages that can be found in neomedieval works :

1. A pretext for modern fiction
2. A mode of ironical revisitation
3. The archetype of barbarism
4. The setting for haunted fantasies
5. The philosophia perennis of theological dogmatism
6. The source of nostalgic national identity
7. A model of decadence
8. An era of philological reconstruction
9. The foundation of esoteric and occult traditions
10. The source of fervent millennial expectation (Eco 68-72)

7Many critics seem to take issue with Umberto Eco’s neatly defined categories, even though the necessary distance from labels was already ironically inscribed in the semiotician’s list (see the round number of items, the pun on ‘pretext’, the fact that the serious and the humorous, the psychological and the moral, the historical and the esoteric are treated the same way). Yet they prove invaluable when reading contemporary texts that gesture towards the Middle Ages. This article will analyse how three postmodern poems reconstruct the past in, or for the present while bearing in mind the unavoidably constructed nature of the Middle Ages and therefore discarding notions of historical truth and veracity in favour of an a-temporal poetry. Simon Armitage, a modern ‘troubadour’, as the subtitle to his Walking Home has it, and the translator of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2006), The Death of King’s Arthur (2011) and Pearl (2016), to name but his translations from Middle English poetry, falls under, or plays with ‘philological reconstruction’ : he does lead a scientific investigation, but in his own specific field of research, poetry. Jacob Polley’s work belongs to the second category : in The Havocs (2012), The Ruin becomes a ‘site of ironic revisitation’ in which contemporary fantasies can be played out. Finally, Steve Ely’s three collections to date, Oswald’s Book of Hours (2013), Englaland (2015) and Incendium Amoris (2017) testify to his enduring interest in the medieval times which he constructs as Dark Ages, the ‘archetype of barbarism’, as dark as contemporary England is, thus questioning contemporary definitions of Englishness. Therefore, though in very different ways, all three poets explore the Middle Ages as the ‘source of nostalgic national identity’, which problematizes the contour of postmodernism.

Neomedievalism in Simon Armitage’s Pearl : A New Verse Translation (2006)

8Pearl is Simon Armitage’s third published translation of a Middle English poem for a contemporary audience. One can’t help wondering about such a sustained interest for the Middle Ages. While the introductions to the translations put forward a postmodern desire to reconstruct the past and conflate it with the present, a 2012 interview with Alice Gribbin for NewStatesman suggests something slightly different when the poet compares the modernisation of language to a ‘negotiated truce with the past’ (Gribbin). Indeed, Armitage’s poetic persona is playful and ironical, which appeals to large audiences who are more than happy to have a good laugh at a poetry reading. Yet, there is also an underlying sense of anxiety regarding the state of Britain, its language and its literature, which he deems are itemized and commodified (see his poem ‘Poundland’ for instance). According to Michel Maffesoli in ‘The Return of the Tragic in Postmodern Societies’, ‘in the tragedy of postmodernity there is a concern for entirety’ (Maffesoli 133). Negotiating a truce with the past, that is to say finding the terms of agreement that will temporarily cease hostilities, through translation, is therefore tantamount to bringing peace to a war-ridden literary and critical space and history, while knowing that the endeavour is fated to come to an end once the book is written or read.

9In ‘The Knight’s Tale’, which would later become, in an abridged version, the introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Armitage recounts how, sometime in the early 2000s, he went to the British Library to consult Cotton Nero A.x., the only (surviving ?) manuscript containing Pearl, Cleanness, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th century), and failed, because the Northern lad in him did not feel he was entitled to have direct access to this treasure of English poetry. The passage was not included in his introduction to the translation published with Faber. Instead, he declared his Northern English allows him to hear the rhythms and sounds of the Gawain poet as they should be heard (even though the origins of the medieval poet are debated). Now the Oxford Chair of Poetry (among many other accolades), he can no longer don the role of the Philistine Northerner and instead acts as the erudite academic salvaging past poetry from oblivion for a 21st-century readership. In his introduction to Pearl, he extols the anonymous, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent author of the piece, traces the history of the manuscript, lists some of the many books he consulted while working on his translation (Chaucer, the Bible…), compares choices that have been made by other translators (Marie Borroff, J.R. Tolkien…) in terms of vocabulary, poetic devices and metrics, which makes him some sort of translator of the divine word, a modern-day compilator and a figure of authority. In other words, Pearl is presented as a translation by a medievalist. The Norton edition makes it even clearer by printing the original text and the translation together.

10Yet, the translation is clearly target-oriented and Armitage also takes good care of proving his readers that it is easy to relate to the narrative : a male narrator loses a pearl and falls asleep, broken-hearted. In his dream, he meets a woman who happens to be the grown-up version of his daughter, who died at age 2. He will wake up feeling regenerated and comforted about afterlife thanks to their encounter. Pearl thus blends several genres that were commonly used in the Middle Ages—the dream, the allegory, the myth. The poem is therefore ‘a lesson in Christian doctrine’ (Pearl’s first appearance in a white dress is highly reminiscent of Beatrice’s in Dante) ; however, the religious dimension at the heart of the original poem is mentioned only very briefly in the introduction whereas the more universal theme of loss and unconditional love is put to the fore. Armitage forces the text one step further towards its apostate version when he compares the initiatory process to ‘embarking on an out-of-body experience’ (Armitage 2016, IX), a phrase coined in the mid-20th century by psychologists to describe a range of paranormal activities that had been so far invested with religious meaning, but really were neurochemical reactions to external factors. Therefore, the translation is at the same time a story of religious consolation, ‘an act of condolence’ (Armitage 2016, XVIII) and a dissociative experience reminiscent of a New Age trip.

11The same wavering between the philological reconstruction of a medieval scholar and the creative re-imagining of a 21st-century poet is felt when Armitage explains the poetic structure of Pearl. Indeed, he spares the common reader no technical term, even though he makes sure these terms are accessible to those who are not so well-versed in the lexicon of Middle English poetry analysis. For instance, the word ‘concatenation’, placed between scare quotes as if to put its oddity at a distance, is first described in detail before the poet concludes that it is ‘a sort of passing of the baton’ (Armitage 2016, XIII). He adds that this intricate pattern of repetition represents a “circularity or spherical endlessness reminiscent of a pearl stone itself’ (Armitage 2016, XIII). This metapoetic explanation also provides an apt metaphor for the relation between the medieval hypotext and its modern-day translation, between erudition and accessibility, between sense and sound, which is why he calls every decision he made a ‘trade-off between […] the precise and the poetic’ (Armitage 2016, XV). One may notice though that more often than not, Armitage tips the balance towards the poetic, a choice that is the opposite of what medieval translators and medievalists admittedly do when working on a text, that is to say, privileging sense over sound. As he claimed in his introduction to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ‘the ambition has been poetry’ (Armitage 2006, VIII). Consequently, both the introduction and the poem itself read as metapoetic and neomedieval pieces.

12The first poem of the first section further proves how neomedieval circularity works in Armitage’s translation2, and to what extent it is different from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (Tolkien 81), Marie Borroff (Borroff 1) and Jane Draycott (Draycott 15).

Beautiful pearl that would please a prince, fit to be mounted in finest gold,
I say for certain that in all the East
Her precious equal I never found.

So radiant and round, however revealed,
so small, her skin so very smooth,
of all the gems I judged and prized
I set her apart, unparalleled.

But I lost my pearl in a garden of herbs ;
she slips from me from grass to ground,
and I mourn now, with a broken heart,
for that priceless pearl without a spot. (Armitage 2006, 3)

Perle plesaunte, to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere :
Oute of oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proued I neuer her precios pere.

So rounde, so reken in vche araye,
So smal, so smoþe her sydez were ;
Queresoeuer I jugged gemmez gaye
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.

Allas ! I leste hyr in on erbere ;
Þurȝ gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.

I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of þat pryuy perle withouten spot. (Andrew and Waldron 53)

13To describe the pearl on line 2, Armitage chooses the set phrase ‘mounted in finer gold’. The original image of a self-contained sphere in ‘clos’ is therefore lost, but the alliteration on /f/ is reinforced by an alliteration on /t/. Whereas both Tolkien and Marie Borroff keep ‘sydes’ as ‘sides’ on line 6, which is both an anatomical and geographical term, Armitage prefers the word ‘skin’ to insist on the allegory in the making. Thus, while seemingly toning down the references to the original lexicon, Armitage makes the poetry heard in the rhythms and sounds the words make. For instance, while translators use developed hyperbolic images to express the superiority of the pearl over any other thing (Tolkien, ‘her alone I deemed as dear’ ; Borroff, ‘to set her apart without a peer’ ; Draycott, ‘she was a jewel above all others’), Armitage condenses the idea in one word, ‘unparalleled’, thus creating one more alliteration with ‘apart’. Whereas all three translators turned ‘erbere’ into ‘garden’, Armitage chooses the rarer yet homophonic ‘herbs’, thus joking on the idea that the out-of-body experience might be drug-induced. Finally, whereas Tolkien and Borroff both use compound words that are reminiscent of kennings to express the man’s grief (‘love-wound’ and ‘lovesick’ respectively), Armitage uses one of his trademark stock phrases, ‘with a broken heart’, which nonetheless echoes the final rhyming word, ‘spot’.

14As can be seen, diving into the translation of the medieval Pearl is no experience in linguistic forensics for a reader of Armitage, as opposed to a reader of Tolkien who keeps some medievalisms (Armitage criticized Tolkien’s translation for sounding more archaic than its hypotext). The poetic layout, the rhyme pattern, the alliterations are unobtrusive, and since the language is so simple, rife with colloquialisms, playful and close to our modern-day experience of the world, it seems as if today and the Middle Ages were made of the same fabric. There is no defamiliarization because the experience of grief, of tragic loss is not historical. As Armitage claims in his introduction, ‘the poem has the feel of the real, as if genuine grief provided the impetus for such a poetic undertaking’ (Armitage 2016, XVII). This ‘feel of the real’ is just another word for hyperreality : Armitage’s reconstruction of the medieval text is as real as its original, it is neomedieval, but its playful ironies leave room for an anxiety over loss : the loss of a dear one and the loss of a sense of national identity.

Jacob Polley’s reconfiguration of The Ruin in The Havocs (2012)

  • 3 For instance, the Faber cover of Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris’s play My Country: A Work in Prog (...)

15The title of Jacob Polley’s third collection, The Havocs (2012) is programmatic of the aesthetics of the collection. According to the OED, ‘havoc’ is a Middle English word used to give an army the signal for ‘the seizure of spoil, and so of general spoliation or pillage’. The term has gradually taken on the meaning of destructive devastation, and, in its weakened sense, of confusion and disarray. Polley’s poetics of havoc consists in plundering the Middle Ages, in using bits and pieces of the medieval texts and era, in order to reconfigure them into contemporary poems (the verb ‘reconfigure’ is used in the acknowledgements). The cover picture of the Picador edition illustrates this rather well. It is a collage of letters taken from different graffitied corrugated doors that are laid out in neatly aligned boxes. Put together, these letters spell out the title. What makes it different from other similar cover designs3 is that the letters are reminiscent of drop caps, these initial capitals that are larger than the main text and beautifully decorated in illuminated manuscripts. Street art thus meets medieval illumination, and yet, since only the illuminated letters are used to write out the title, it is as if the readers were given the signs of the medieval, but not its essence. Therefore, The Havocs, an offspring of Polley’s artistic collaboration with Tom Chivers at Saint Andrews University on the project ‘Medieval Poetry in the Modern World’ (part of which consisted in translating riddles from The Exeter Book for Twitter), fraught with riddles, nostalgic and elegiac material, and different forms of ruin, is reminiscent of the 10th century book’s aesthetics, as well as of cultural items that are specific to contemporary experience (a doll’s house, a bike…).

16‘The Ruin’ (Polley 14–15) is not so much a translation of its Old English namesake as it is a piece of creative writing. The hypotext is a meditation on a ruin that was once a flourishing city with Roman-built baths, Bath maybe, or somewhere along Hadrian’s Wall. After praising the men who built the city with skill and effort, the text suggests that, as fate would have it, an unspecified disease spread so quickly among the population that no one survived and the buildings were left to rot. Even if the manuscript was partly destroyed by a fire, the material form of the object matching its content for the following generations, the end of the text seems to circle back to the city in its heyday. The theme might be elegiac, but the tone is not so ; it is rather impersonal and lets the images speak for themselves. Polley takes up the fragments of this text, expands them and reconfigures them into an elegy of England for contemporary readers. For instance, the three repetitions of ‘here’ (twice in rhyme position) and the extended use of ‘this’ and ‘these’ are presentist devices that annihilate time and distance. The lexicon is also of today, as can be seen in the hints at unemployment and labour exploitation (‘laid off’, ‘knew no like work’, ‘the builders are broken down’), at the excess of a society that promotes appearance over authenticity (‘muscle girls and monster fish’, ‘heaps of gems that beat and sparked’), at the recreational use of alcohol and drug (‘men making merry’, ‘where men raved’).

17The flourishing city of the past is but a world of illusion as the allusion to Plato’s allegory of the cave intimates :

happiness found haven
among men making merry, their shadows merging,
nimble as a change of mind, massive on the inner walls.

18Thoughts of an idyllic past can only offer a temporary shelter from turmoil, a ‘haven’ which is only two letters away from ‘havoc’. To protect the city, ‘Magogs raised [the walls]’, which puts the legend of Gog and Magog upside down since they are no longer the forces of evil Alexandre kept at bay by building a wall, but the evil forces that build the wall, turning the dream city into a trap. Hence the nightmarish consequence of the closing of frontier : ‘the plague came, within / and without’, which might suggest something about the dangers of epidemics that are endemic to self-enclosed urban hedonism or a slaughter due to some civil war. Yet, the disease is not so new as the paronomasia ‘Ruin already had root’ hints. There is no discontinuity in the process of corruption and destruction. In that light, the subtitle of the poem, ‘after the Anglo-Saxon’ not only suggests that ‘The Ruin’ is derived from a previous medieval work but also that the Anglo-Saxon created a form of ruin that is still at the heart of the contemporary world.

19One of the ruins the Anglo-Saxon left is the poem itself : there are missing and illegible lines. The layout of Polley’s poem on the page, with its blank in the middle, incorporates destruction as a creative process. In Early English Metre, Thomas A. Bredehoft analyses the tension between form and content in The Ruin and concludes that ‘the formal features imply wholeness through their circular linking effects, while the explicit contents of the line invoke the notion of breakdown and decay’ (Bredehoft 67). He then provides a metrical analysis of the first two lines :

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon ;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc. (Marsden 323)

20What Bredehoft shows is that four words alliterate in /b/, three of which (‘gebræcon’, ‘burston’ and ‘brosnað’) suggest decay, whereas the last one (‘burgstede’) refers to a kind of protected place like a citadel. Four other words alliterate in /w/, three of which (‘Wrætlic’, ‘wealstan’ and ‘geweorc’) describe the accomplishments of human creation, whereas the last one (‘wyrde’), designates the fates or the agents of destruction. In other words, human creations and forces of destruction are intermingled through the sounds of the poem. Even though Polley does not give a homophonic translation of the poem, he also recreates the meaning through the sounds in the first two lines :

What walls and gables, wonders still of workmanship.
Whoever’s stronghold this was, havoc’s jumbled it.

21‘Walls’, ‘wonders’ and ‘workmanship’ which hint at the beauty and strength of human craftsmanship alliterate with ‘what’, ‘whoever’ and ‘was’, all words that express a form of loss. Polley’s poem too is built on contrast and linkage but it suggests that wonderful works of the past need a specific type of human agency to be turned into works of wonder for the present : ‘havoc’ as in ‘havoc’s jumbled it’, a word that alliterates with its antithesis, ‘stronghold’. All in all, the poem is not only about the passing of time and its adjacent decaying process (see the nostalgic claim that ‘All such days are gone’), but it is also about reconfiguring the place and the poem.

22The poetics of havoc is most notably present in the title poem (Polley 29–32) which deals with the widespread destruction of language. ‘The Havocs’ opens with the line ‘In the making of havoc there is me’ (Polley 29), which places the poet at the origin of a destructive/creative process that is not authentic but fictional since it is a ‘making’. The word ‘havoc’ comes back repeatedly each time in a new context : ‘I had havoc once but didn’t know how to use it’ (Polley 29), ‘who says havoc is a vice of the young’ (Polley 30), ‘havoc is beating at the door to repossess me’ (Polley 30), ‘Change will not happen by havoc only’ (Polley 31). There are so many occurrences and possible meanings for the word—51 in total—that the word cannot be assigned a particular one and the poem verges on the nonsensical. The form of the riddle is used to mock the commodification and mass-consumption of language. The very last line of the poem operates a reversal : ‘As if I was a language and havoc spoke me’ (Polley 31). The I is no longer a creative agent that reconfigures the objects at his disposal, but a hoard of verbal items that can be reconfigured to create endless, meaningless utterances. The I is objectified and therefore caught up in the general process of destruction and commodification.

23In Polley’s works, the Middle Ages function as a pool of tropes and devices that can be used in a fragmented way and reconfigured ironically, with a slight slant due to its self-reflexivity, to tell something about the condition of England and of poetry today. The poet’s nightmarish depiction of autarky is particularly telling in the context of Brexit—the word’s first occurrence incidentally dating back from 2012 according to the OED. Beside the playful wordplay, there is a sense of anxiety due to a situation that is fated to worsen.

Steve Ely’s Dark Ages of the 21st-century Englaland (2015)

24On his website, Steve Ely describes himself as ‘preacher, poacher : poet’,4 and if the terme ‘neomedievalist’ alliterated, he would most certainly add it to the list. Born and bred in South Yorkshire, he is a Ted Hughes scholar, whose legacy he endorses and promotes—not only do the two poets share a love for the common landscape of their youth, not only are they attentive to the violent workings of outer and inner nature, but they also maintain a dialogue with ‘an organic English identity via an exploration of radical, pre-industrial and pre-reformation traditions’, to take up Andy Croft’s words on the back cover of Oswald’s Book of Hours. In his three published collections to date, Ely accommodates rather negative views of the barbaric Middle Ages—the ‘unenlightened “other” of modernity’ (D’Arcens 4) is not that different from England today after all. In an interview given before the publication of this first collection he said :

Historical and literary studies impose a series of arbitrary disjunctions—Old English, Middle English, Early Modern English, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Mediaeval, etc.
This has the effect of severing ‘the past’ from the present, resulting in its neglect. The very term ‘History’ in the popular conception implies something definitively past, therefore irrelevant and thus something that can with good conscience be ignored. (Wilson)

25While conflating the Middle Ages and today, Ely shows that obscurity and violence are passed down from one generation to the next and should be embraced. Englaland (2015) uses Faulkner’s ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ from Requiem for a Nun (1951) as an epigraph. Indeed, Ely wants to put forward a ‘synoptic and synchronic’ interpretation of history, one in which ‘7th century Oswald, 14th century John Ball, 16th century Mary 1, the 19th century Duke of Wellington and 20th century Peter Mandelson are deployed in ensemble and […] Old and Modern English words and forms are incorporated into modern English to create a distinctive idiom’ (Ely 2016, 5). In other words, England, its people, its landscape, its language exist in a continuum with no disruption in which the local and the national, the past and the present are interwoven.

26The first section of the poem is entitled ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, after a 10th century poem from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which celebrates the English King Aethelstan’s victory over an invading army of Scots, Irish, Welsh, Norse and Vikings in 937 AD. For most historians, this marks the beginning of the United Kingdom as we know it. Ely’s engagement with the poem is not new since he had quoted it in his original version as an epigraph to ‘Godspel’ in Oswald’s Book of Hours. The excerpt in contemporary England reads :

Angles and Saxons
came here from the east,
sought out Britain over the broad ocean,
warriors eager for fame, proud war-smiths,
overcame the Welsh, seized the country. (Swanton 110)

27Ely annotates it as ‘Angles and Saxons came over the broad ocean, seeking Britain. These glorious warriors defeated the foreigners and won a land’ (Ely 2016, 16). The use of the word ‘foreigner’ might first read as a case of political misreading through which Ely would revisit history to remind the readers that England began with a story of dispossession and expansion (which he later compares to American Destiny). Yet, digging the etymology of the word ‘Welsh’ makes for another interpretation. Indeed, it comes from the ‘Germanic base of Old English Weahl’, meaning ‘foreigner, Briton, Welsh person, slave’, and is still disparaging in English, as in the phrase ‘Welsh ejectment’, ‘the practice of forcing a tenant to leave a property by rendering it uninhabitable’ (OED). In other words, Ely may very well imply that ‘Angles and Saxons’ (the English) constructed a foreignness that allowed them to exclude even local populations (the Celts and Britons) and therefore create and impose their idea of national identity. Ely’s perspective is English, northern English even, not British, a perspective that can be read as nationalist, with all the dangers of being labelled a ‘far-right poet’. Ted Hughes was also placed ‘among a few angry aristocrats on the far-right’ in terms of his political sensibilities, by poets and critics such as Tom Paulin, even though he tried hard to distance himself from such politics in his later works (Bentley 43). This is something Ely deeply regrets who claims, ‘It is a tragedy that discourse of Englishness, or of English nationalism, is pre-sullied by […] reactionary racist populism […]’ (Wilson).

28‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, and the collection as a whole, asks a rather straightforward question : ‘Whose is this land ?’ (Ely 2015, 12) :

29The landscape of the poem is that of the 10th century battlefield. According to Michael Livingston and most historians, Brunanburh took place in Wirral i.e. Merseyside (Livingston 19). Yet, Ely goes with Michael Wood and locates it in South Yorkshire, by the river Rother, close to his birthplace in Brierley Commons. There are also constant switches from the 10th century (as in the first poem in which a young boy witnesses the defeated army fleeing) to the mid-80s (as in the second poem, in which the ‘metal detector’ shows time has gone by). The reader is thus constantly wondering : ‘What century am I in ?’ The chronotopical uncertainties put the historical and the biographical on a par : the embattled landscape of the first poem and the property sign in capital letters opposing the right to roam in the second one are the first two examples of a series of conflictual landscapes that are medieval and contemporary at the same time.

30Spatial and temporal landmarks are blurred and so are linguistic ones. Indeed, ‘xenoglossia’, the term Ely chooses over ‘heteroglossia’ once again to foster a reflexion on ideas of foreignness, rules since the poem incorporates different languages, dialecticisms, Old English, Middle English, Latin and antiquated spelling alongside contemporary English, to show there is no disruption between the medieval world and England today. When reading ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’, the reader will most certainly recall Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns (1971), a comparison which was intended, as the choice of the verse form with its indentation and the quote from an inscription on a coin supposedly minted by King Offa clearly show. Just as Hill, Ely resorts to medieval verse forms, some of which taken from the Bible, others from Old English and Middle English poetry, such as alliterations, compounds, stress patterns. The poem is thus several steps removed from its original, mediated through autobiography, literature and poetic references. The absence of contextualisation for the words, quotations, references and the decision to exclude an explanatory paratext (commentary, footnote, glossary…) leave the readers as if embattled themselves because of the violent imagery, the conflicting time-frame and the successful defamiliarization of English.

31One should note that the conflicting feelings we have when reading the collection may also be aroused by its gender politics. Indeed, the England described is male, virile, prone to go to war and to fight, all typical of a heteronormative culture, that is not modern, let alone postmodern. Yet, female figures have cropped up in his recent works who are just as blood-thirsty and lustful as male figures are. Therefore, his reconstruction of the past can be called a meta-hegemonic one—it challenges the current narratives of English history, yet does not seek to transform society as it is and establish a new form of hegemony, but provides a decentred vision of what England could have been so as to embrace its many conflicting identities.

32Armitage’s, Polley’s and Ely’s works do not reconstruct the Middle Ages as much as they construct it, making it more real for contemporary readers than the Middle Ages themselves. They construct it from the texts and tropes that date back to the medieval era, but instead of acknowledging the distance between the two periods, they put to the fore the modernity of such texts and tropes, thus annihilating the distance in favour of an anti-historical stance. Their works are rather different though—Armitage’s neomedievalism relies mostly on the paratextual comments on his position as a translator-creator ; Polley’s on his aesthetics of havoc which inscribes the necessity of reconfiguration into the text in a playful way ; Ely’s on the recognition that the darkness of the Dark Ages is as contemporary as can be. What they all have in common is that their neomedievalisms invite the reader to inhabit loss (be it loss of the past, of authenticity, of certainty, of innocence), which is at the heart of human experience. Beyond that assertion which could easily be read as a truism, there is also a challenge to current literary taxonomies : if postmodern works use irony to challenge current conceptions of the Middle Ages and national identity while suggesting a deep nostalgia for a holistic understanding of atemporal England, shouldn’t these poets be called, after Antoine Compagnon’s study on Les Antimodernes, ‘anti-postmodern’, in that they express a profound ambivalence towards postmodernism, recognizing that everything is constructed but being unable to accept a severance from the past conceptions of organic identity ?

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1 The author would like to express her heartfelt gratitude to her anonymous reviewers, who clearly devoted a lot of time reading this article and provided insightful comments. They raised important questions this article tried to answer and opened a dialogue this author can only hope to continue.

2 The poet can be heard reading this section of Pearl for Faber on Youtube:, last accessed on 1 September 2017.

3 For instance, the Faber cover of Carol Ann Duffy and Rufus Norris’s play My Country: A Work in Progress (2017) has its capital letters taken from different sources and aesthetics, drawing a map of England when put together.

4, last accessed on 1 September 2017.

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Claire Hélie, « Postmodern (re)constructions of the Middle Ages in contemporary poetry ? Neomedievalism in Simon Armitage, Jacob Polley and Steve Ely », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 23 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.4347

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Claire Hélie

Claire Hélie has been a Senior Lecturer at Lille University since 2013. She holds a PhD from la Sorbonne Nouvelle on English poetry in/from/about the North of England since the 1960s. Her research bears on different processes of minorisation, with a focus on dialect (she has recently organised a conference on Dialects in English poetry in Lille). She has written articles on Northern English poetry, and more specifically on Basil Bunting, Ted Hughes, Tony Harrison and Simon Armitage. She has recently set up a biennual conference on contemporary playwrights with a focus on adolescents and young adults.

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