Tuesday Poem: A Winter King - George Mackay Brown

'Now,' said the sea king
'Freight the death ship
With jar and tapestry and gold.
I must sail alone, very far.
It is time for a new saga to be told.'

The king was bronze-bearded, not sick
                           or meek-mouthed or old.
On the hull a bird had been cut,
Branch-beaked, a long gray wing.

Fishermen loosed the rope.
They sent the ship down the rollers
                          with a darkling shout
Under the voyager's star.

Copyright George Mackay Brown,
from The Wreck of the Archangel 
published by John Murray, 1989

I love this small poem from one of George Mackay Brown's last collections.  It takes me back to the Norse sagas and ancient poems like 'The Seafarer'.  In that poem, the wanderer endures unimaginable hardships at sea, alone, in winter, his hands frozen to the steering oar, his feet 'in fetters of ice'.  But the anonymous poet also records the 'sea-longing' that can't be resisted.

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð (and now my heart soars
ofer hreþerlocan,                          (beyond my breast,
min modsefa                                  (my spirit longs
mid mereflode,                          (to be on the flood
ofer hwæles eþel                          (over the wide whale-road
hweorfeð wide,                          (it soars
eorþan sceatas -                          (to every corner of the earth
cymeð eft to me                          (and returns often to me
gifre ond grædig;                          (eager and greedy;
gielleð anfloga,                          (the lone bird yells
hweteð on hwælweg                  (yearning for the whale-way
hreþer unwearnum                          (the unwearying heart

Mackay Brown's seafarer is obviously a Viking - the beaked ship, the funeral vessel laden with treasure, though this Norse king is neither old nor sick. The Norsemen were wonderful seamen and storytellers who colonised the northern hemisphere, including the Scottish Isles, while the Brits were still paddling around in corracles.  The poet came from Orkney, where he spent the whole of his life, and its history and archaeology was in his bloodstream. 60% of Orcadian men have Norse DNA and George Mackay Brown, in his prime, was beautiful enough to be a Viking himself.

But there are other myths at play in this poem too - the Winter King is a figure in many northern mythologies and has even found his way into the Arthurian stories. In some myths he is paired with the Corn Queen; in Scottish mythology it is Bride who brings the spring and summer. 

The whole collection, The Wreck of the Archangel, is centred around the sea and particularly around a 19th century wrecked Russian ship that was either called The Archangel, or came from Archangel.  The only survivor was a small boy, who features in the poems.  I particularly loved 'The Horsefair', which is the boy's account of a visit to the fair with 'Old Da' who has adopted him.  The collection includes 'The Scottish Bestiary'.  One of them, 'Moth', is a lyrical, vivid picture of life on the islands.

'The moth travels from pane to pane, in August
Wherever a lamp is set.

There's old Sammy playing his fiddle,
Such a rant
The sweet plea of the moth at the pane is lost.

In the next croft
Three children are reading their school books.
He thuds on the pane.
They are lost in labyrinths;  seaports, poetry, algebra.

Travel on, moth.
The wife is out in the byre, milking.
A fire-drowsed dog
Growls at the birring in the window. . . . '

I bought this collection second hand (thank you Abe Books), as it is out of print.  The poet is passionate about his homeland, and the vividness of the poetry could only have come from such a deep attachment and observation.  It made me want to visit Orkney's wild landscape and its prehistoric monuments, and to read more of Mackay Brown's work.  At the time when it was published, the poet Charles Causley said, "I don't know anyone writing in this particular genre today who comes within a thousand miles of him".  I've ordered his short stories - The Masked Fisherman, and I'm very tempted by his autobiography 'For The Islands I sing'. 


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