The Empty Grave – Francis Engleheart

The George Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition
1956 Crabbe Memorial Competition – First Prize
Kennedy Williamson

Historical Note — From an excavation in 1939 of a tumulus at Sutton Hoo, Wodbridge, Suffolk, we know that about 640-670 AD an 85 foot boat was buried there with funerary panoply of great significance – but with no body. In 654 Anna, the Christian King of East Angles, was killed, with his son Jurmain, in battle with the Mercians near Blythburgh where he had founded a monastery. Both were buried at Blythburgh and were regarded as Saints. Anna was succeeded by his brother Aethelhere, a pagan. This poem, written in words of Anglo-Saxon (or allied) derivation, is a suggested interpretation of the mystery of the empty grave.

There was sad stir at Blythburgh
When there they brought the King
And laid him with his one loved son
Because the Mercian men had done
   A sore and fearful thing.

They came to slay, but when they slew
   King Anna and his child
They loosed a thing no man could bind:
Kindling their foe to maddened mind,
As a flame leaping on the wind
   It beat them, leaping wild!

       *       *

Father and son in the house of God
   Still they lay and stark.
On the waxen faces flickering lights
   Warded back the dark.

Then Aethelhere, the new King, cried
   “Here shall our brother lie
In his faith; but we’ll have a burial too
In the way our house was wont to do,
In the time-worn way at the kingly Hoo;
   And none shall ask me why.”

       *       *

At Kingston and at Rendlesham
   They combined the weapon hoard.
In a great sea boat at the waiting quay
They built a shrine of chieftancy;
The rune they wrote on the high roof-tree
   Was deeply scored.

His cloak and a clasp of golden snakes
   They brought for the King’s last home;
His harp; a nest of silver bowls;
   The spoons from Rome.

They took and mended the dragon shield
   Held from an older day
And the graven helmet of beaten bronze
   With gold inlay.

The wrights and goldsmiths furbished new
   The one time Swedish sword
With its tracery – gold and garnished hilt
   For the English lord;

With the scabbard to sheath in stone-set hide
   The ripple – welded blade
And the whistling song of sundering
   It made.

These and more in the midship shrine,
   With a purse, they laid with care,
And the whetstone badge of the Sharpening One *
   Who was not there.

       *       *

Bright was the gleam of the laded boat;
   The stones shone rich as blood
As thirty oarsmen manned their sweeps
And the ship slid out by the heathland steeps,
   Slowly out on the flood.

Under the sheer of Sutton Hoo
   She nosed the outstretching shore,
And, hauled up in her moorings, lay
As loath to leave the water’s play
The river’s and the sea’s low say,
   Their laughter and their lore;

The same wide sea that curled and swung
   With a strange weight of will,
The swingeing dragon hiss that drave
In seethe and thunder of the wave,
In shout and song and saga brave —
   Way out behind the hill.

But ropes were bent and men in scores
   Wrested her up the turf,
Hauled and hove till the tow was cast
And she lay, her loftiest comber passed,
   Overwhelmed in earth.

       *       *

High they heaped that bier with turves,
   The burial wake near done.
Knight and thane trod their farewell
   Around it – and were gone.

Back to the earth, there, went again
   The glister and wealth of men borrow…
A year was gone… and five… and ten;
And all these things seemed cloudier then,
And the kin who grieved for the slaughtered men
   Forgot their sorrow.

*a remarkably carved whetstone-sceptre, supposedly the symbol of an authoritative Sharpener.

Copyright © Francis Engleheart 1956




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