Alfred in Winter
Bill Carpenter’s work has been accepted by journals such as The Copperfield Review, Sewanee Theological Review and The Heroic Age, among others. This passage is an excerpt from a long sequence of poems depicting King Alfred’s struggle with the Danes in 878. Bill lives in Minneapolis where he works on his writing before going downtown to practice law. He grew up in Fort Worth and is still impressed by the Minnesota winter.
As shadows lengthened (later every day
according to our Father’s providence),
a sharp dampness nettled Alfred’s nostrils.
They stopped. The merlin stooped on a lone stonechat,
riding the birdling earthward, pierced and stunned.
Beornwulf ran to meet them where they fell
and pounced upon both predator and prey.
They found a shepherd’s shelter stocked with wood,
a spare spindle idle on the floor,
and as the seed of Ingeld laid the tinder
the smothered sun slipped underneath the cloud
and set the rumpled countryside on fire.
The travelers eyed the flaming streaks of snow,
the burning turf, and the far smoldering hills
and Alfred said a prayer to praise the Lord’s
mercy in serving up a Shrovetide feast.
They crossed themselves and plucked and cleaned the fowls
and roasted them attentively on sticks.
That night they fell asleep, not satisfied,
but on the upward slope from desolation.
Like the Greek giant who regained his strength
from the earth’s breast, the king sucked his from heaven.
All night he sensed the fullness of the air
until the dawn unveiled a pregnant dream.
He stood atop a saddleback amid
thick snowflakes whipping and whirling in faint light.
Beside him and behind him stood, in force,
unmoving under the biting, blinding flaws,
the silent mass of the West Saxon host.
Congealed in the twinkling of an eye,
he saw Athelnoth knotting his helmet,
Athelheah touching the edge of his sword,
his guardsmen (some of whom he knew were gone)
gazing ahead, adjusting layered shields,
or breaking icy scales from their brows.
The West Saxon levies stood behind them
immobilized by our Redeemer’s will
like the crushed bands a sudden snowstorm caught
fleeing the consul’s wrath into the mountains
after the ugly fight at Asculum —
men rigidly at rest on stumps or stones
or leaning on their spears, eyes wide with fear.
When Alfred woke, the dream fresh in his mind,
he knew he’d lost all that was precious to him,
his lady, children, servants, friends, and crown.
He didn’t know how he could bear such sorrow,
though truth be told, it was our common fate.
For all flesh perished. Only Spirit lived.
He heard the morning’s muffled soundlessness
then blinked at the low doorway filled with light
or rather at the cloudless azure sky
presiding over a glaring, sparkling field
of pure, plump, unblemished, virginal snow.
Like heaven on earth it was, an earth of light,
the glory of the Lord made manifest.
He crossed himself and blessed the Thunderer
who’d sent the snow, the morning, and the sun;
he blessed the Word through whom he made each day;
and blessed the Holy Ghost, by which his glory
was rendered knowable to mortal minds.
The Lord, he saw, had sent the sign he’d sought,
a heading for his march from that day forward.
How many kings the King of Kings had summoned
to quiet lives of scholarship and prayer:
West Saxon Centwine, Ini, and Ceadwalla;
Mercian Athred and his nephew, Cenred;
East Saxon Offa; Ceolwulf of Northumbria,
to whom Bede dedicated his great history,
and Eadbert, the conqueror of Strathclyde;
and East Anglian Sigebert, a saint
who rode to war armed with only a wand.
All had exchanged their crowns for shaven polls,
their royal robes for rough monastic gowns,
while harsh Ceadwalla and law-giving Ini
had died beside the apostles’ tombs in Rome.
Now Alfred too would make his pilgrimage,
now that the fiends had stripped him of his power,
to end his days, the Most High permitting,
extolling him before great Peter’s throne.
“To Rome,” he said to staring Beornwulf,
emerging from beneath his salted cloak.
He exited the hut to gather wood,
wading down the slope to a buried grove,
for none who found that hut should die of chill
because the king had used up all the kindling.
Laboring eastwards into the sun they trudged
between blue-shadowed domes of shrubs and anthills,
the rebounding light basting them from all sides.
They turned south and followed a thawing rill
down where snowdrifts shrank and the stream broadened
reflectively, observed by stands of alders
and flocks of snowdrops, blotless as young nuns,
and birches, whose integuments were scarred
with ink-black, impenetrable spells.