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The Alliterative Morte Arthure trans. Simon Armitage

Poet Simon Armitage’s latest publication is THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR (Faber H/B. £12.99. 2012) which is his translation of the work known as Alliterative Morte Arthure, a poem in 4400 lines, penned in about 1400 by an anonymous writer. One copy exists in the library of Lincoln Cathedral. For the most part each line of verse in the original poem has four stresses, two falling either side of a caesura.  There are three alliterative syllables, usually two on the left of the pause and one on the right, although this often varies. And Armitage tends to be rather free with this structure in his version. It’s a lively and vigorous piece of work, very easy to read, in which Arthur is very much the warrior king who travels Europe in search of conquest and demanding tribute.  This is a typical passage where Arthur encounters a monster who wears a robe woven from the beards of kings:

          The startled glutton glared gruesomely,
          Grinned like a greyhound with grisly fangs,
          Then groaned and glowered with a menacing grimace,
          Growling at the good King who greeted him angrily.
          His mane and his fringe were filthily matted
          And his face was framed in half a foot of foam.
          His face and forehead were flecked all over
          Like the features of a frog, so freckled he seemed.
          He was hook-beaked like a hawk, with a hoary beard,
          And his eyes were overhung with hairy brows.
          To whomever looked hard, as harsh as a hound-fish
          Was the hide of that hulk, from head to heel.
          His ears were huge and a hideous sight,
          His eyes were horrid, abhorrent and aflame,
          His smile was all sneer, like a flat-mouthed flounder,
          And like a bear his fore-teeth were fouled with rank flesh,
          And his black, bushy beard grew down to his breast.
          He was bulky as a sea-pig with a brawny body,
          And each quivering lump of those loathsome lips
          Writhed and rolled with the wrath of a wolf’s head.
          He was broad across the back, with the neck of a bull,
          Badger-breasted with the bristles of a boar,
          Had arms like oak boughs, wrinkled by age,
          And the ugliest loins and limbs, believe me.
          He shuffled on his shanks, being shovel-footed,
          And his knock-kneed legs were abnormally knuckled.
          He was thick in the thigh and like an ogre at the hips,
          And as gross as a grease-fed pig – a gruesome sight.
          He who mindfully measured that monster’s dimension
          From face to foot would have found it five fathoms.

Thanks for this, Mike. I browsed this at length recently in the local bookshop, and it looked very interesting. I think I might buy it on my next visit - the excerpt you quote certainly makes me want to read more.

I must look it over too it seems ideal for one son, he has my sense of humour with an extra twist.

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