Francis Turner Palgrave Poems >>
Hastings

October 14: 1066

'Gyrth, is it dawn in the sky that I see? or is all the sky blood?
Heavy and sore was the fight in the North: yet we fought for the good.
O but--Brother 'gainst brother!--'twas hard!--Now I come with a will
To baste the false bastard of France, the hide of the tanyard and mill!
  Now on the razor-edge lies
  England the priceless, the prize!
God aiding, the Raven at Stamford we smote;
One stroke more for the land here I strike and devote!'

Red with fresh breath on her lips came the dawn; and Harold uprose;
Kneels as man before God; then takes his long pole-axe, and goes
Where round their woven wall, tough ash-palisado, they crowd;
Mightily cleaves and binds, to his comrades crying aloud
  'Englishmen stalwart and true,
  But one word has Harold for you!
When from the field the false foreigners run,
Stand firm in your castle, and all will be won!

'Now, with God o'er us, and Holy Rood, arm!'--And he ran for his spear:
But Gyrth held him back, 'mong his brothers Gyrth the most honour'd, most
dear:
'Go not, Harold! thine oath is against thee! the Saints look askance:
I am not king; let me lead them, me only: mine be the chance!'
  --'No!  The leader must lead!
  Better that Harold should bleed!
To the souls I appeal, not the dust of the tomb:--
King chosen of Edward and England, I come!'

Over Heathland surge banners and lances, three armies; William the last,
Clenching his mace; Rome's gonfanon round him Rome's majesty cast:
O'er his Bretons Fergant, o'er the hireling squadrons Montgomery lords,
Jerkin'd archers, and mail-clads, and horsemen with pennons and swords:--
  --England, in threefold array,
  Anchor, and hold them at bay,
Firm set in your own wooden walls! and the wave
Of high-crested Frenchmen will break on their grave.

So to the palisade on!  There, Harold and Leofwine and Gyrth
Stand like a triple Thor, true brethren in arms as in birth:
And above the fierce standards strain at their poles as they flare on the
gale;
One, the old Dragon of Wessex, and one, a Warrior in mail.
  'God Almighty!' they cry!
  'Haro!' the Northmen reply:--
As when eagles are gather'd and loud o'er the prey,
Shout! for 'tis England the prize of the fray!

And as when two lightning-clouds tilt, between them an arrowy sleet
Hisses and darts; till the challenging thunders are heard, and they meet;
Across fly javelins and serpents of flame: green earth and blue sky
Blurr'd in the blind tornado:--so now the battle goes high.
  Shearing through helmet and limb
  Glaive-steel and battle-axe grim:
As the flash of the reaper in summer's high wheat,
King Harold mows horseman and horse at his feet.

O vainly the whirlwind of France up the turf to the palisade swept:
Shoulder to shoulder the Englishmen stand, and the shield-wall is kept:--
As, in a summer to be, when England and she yet again
Strove for the sovranty, firm stood our squares, through the pitiless
rain
  Death rain'd o'er them all day;
  --Happier, not braver than they
Who on Senlac e'en yet their still garrison keep,
Sleeping a long Marathonian sleep!

'Madmen, why turn?' cried the Duke,--for the horsemen recoil from the
slope;
'Behold me!  I live!'--and he lifted the ventayle; 'before you is hope:
Death, not safety, behind!'--and he spurs to the centre once more,
Lion-like leaps on the standard and Harold: but Gyrth is before!
  'Down!  He is down!' is the shout:
  'On with the axes!  Out, Out!'
--He rises again; the mace circles its stroke;
Then falls as the thunderbolt falls on the oak.

--Gyrth is crush'd, and Leofwine is crush'd; yet the shields hold their
wall:
'Edith alone of my dear ones is left me, and dearest of all!
Edith has said she would seek me to-day when the battle is done;
Her love more precious alone than kingdoms and victory won;
  O for the sweetness of home!
  O for the kindness to come!'
Then around him again the wild war-dragons roar,
And he drinks the red wine-cup of battle once more.

--'Anyhow from their rampart to lure them, to shatter the bucklers and
wall,
Acting a flight,' in his craft thought William, and sign'd to recall
His left battle:--O countrymen! slow to be roused! roused, always, as
then,
Reckless of life or death, bent only to quit you like men!--
  As bolts from the bow-string they go,
  Whirl them and hurl them below,
Where the deep foss yawns for the foe in his course,
Piled up and brimming with horseman and horse.

As when October's sun, long caught in a curtain of gray,
With a flood of impatient crimson breaks out, at the dying of day,
And trees and green fields, the hills and the skies, are all steep'd in
the stain;--
So o'er the English one hope flamed forth, one moment,--in vain!
  As hail when the corn-fields are deep,
  Down the fierce arrow-points sweep:
Now the basnets of France o'er the palisade frown;
The shield-fort is shatter'd; the Dragon is down.

O then there was dashing and dinting of axe and of broad-sword and spear:
Blood crying out to blood: and Hatred that casteth out fear!
Loud where the fight is the loudest, the slaughter-breath hot in the air,
O what a cry was that!--the cry of a nation's despair!
  --Hew down the best of the land!
  Down them with mace and with brand!
The fell foreign arrow has crash'd to the brain;
England with Harold the Englishman slain!

Yet they fought on for their England! of ineffaceable fame
Worthy, and stood to the death, though the greedy sword, like a flame,
Bit and bit yet again in the solid ranks, and the dead
Heap where they die, and hills of foemen about them are spread:--
  --Hew down the heart of the land,
  There, to a man, where they stand!
Till night with her blackness uncrimsons the stain,
And the merciful shroud overshadows our slain.

Heroes unburied, unwept!--But a wan gray thing in the night
Like a marsh-wisp flits to and fro through the blood-lake, the steam of
the fight;
Turning the bodies, exploring the features with delicate touch;
Stumbling as one that finds nothing: but now!--as one finding too much:
  Love through mid-midnight will see:
  Edith the fair!  It is he!
Clasp him once more, the heroic, the dear!
Harold was England: and Harold lies here.