Heinrich Heine’s “Battlefield at Hastings”

Posted: September 27, 2014 in German Poetry, Poetry
Tags: , , , ,

‘The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,
Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;
Bands of armed robbers divide the land
And make of the Freeman a slave.’

For my taste there is only one thing that can match, and sometimes surpass, English poetry, and that is German poetry. In the best hands the way the German language can combine sensitivity with earthly power and grittiness is unrivalled. My own favourite German poet is the ‘Romantic’ Heinrich Heine. While rereading some of his poems, a thing I haven’t done for many a long year, I was delighted to find his 1851 poem Schlachtfeld bei Hastings – Battlefield at Hastings. The sad conquest of England in 1066 is a subject close to my heart, and Heine’s poem is the most evocative poetic telling of that sad day I have ever read.

I wanted to share this poem, but how best could I do so for those who don’t understand German? All literature loses something in translation, with poetry this is even more so. I first found an English translation by Margaret Armour, but although it was a valiant effort it did quite often miss the punch of the original, becoming at times anodyne. Armour, for example, translates Heine’s “Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie” as “The veriest rascals from Normandy”, which not only misses the singular nature of Heine’s original – he was referring to William himself – but makes the Normans sound like naughty children at a birthday party rather than the bunch of brutal thugs they were. As the great Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense in 1776, “The French bastard” was “the principal ruffian of some restless gang”.

Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine

And then I found a translation which appeared in Vienna in 1854, only slightly after the original. It was the work of Julian Fane. Whoever Julian was his translation is sublime. I reproduce Fane’s translation below, followed, for those who understand German, by Heine’s even more sublime original.

Just a couple of words by way of context. In 1066 King Harold and his English army of housecarls and warriors had just defeated another Norwegian invasion at Stamford Bridge in the north of England, when they heard that Norman duke William had landed with his army on the south coast, intent on seizing the country. Harold’s army, mauled, weakened and tired, immediately marched two hundred miles south. When they arrived, probably unwisely, Harold decided to immediately fight again, near to Hastings. We all know the outcome: after much mutual slaughter the English lost and Harold was killed – though not in all likelihood by an arrow in the eye.

The Normans had horribly mutilated Harold’s body along with the bodies of many other English dead. Harold’s mother, so the story goes, pleaded with William to surrender her son’s body for burial. William refused, even though Harold’s mother had offered her son’s weight in gold. The local monks of Waltham Abbey wanted to bury Harold in a decent Christian way, but given the piles of dead and mutilated fallen on the battlefield, they couldn’t identify Harold’s body. They went to find Harold’s long-term mistress, the mother of most of his children, Edith the Fair, also known as Edith Swan-neck. Edith walked through the carnage of the battle so that she might identify Harold by the markings on his body known only to her. It was because of Edith the Fair’s identification of Harold’s body that he was finally given a Christian burial.

This is the story that Heinrich Heine tells in his poem.

The battle-field at Hastings

Translated by Julian Fane, 1854, Vienna

Deep sighed the Abbot when the news
Reached Waltham’s courts that day,
That piteously on Hastings’ field
King Harold lifeless lay.

Two Monks, Asgod and Ailric named,
Dispatched he to the plain,
That they might seek king Harold’s corpse,
At Hastings ‘mongst the slain.

The Monks they issued sadly forth ,
And sad their steps retrace:
„Father, loathesome to us is the World,”
„Fortune forsakes our race.”

„The Bastard, the base, lives Victor now,”
„Fall’n is the Righteous-Brave;”
„Bands of armed robbers divide the land”
„And make of the Freeman a slave.”

„The raggedest Boor from Normandy”
„Now lords it o’er Britain’s Isle;”
„A tailor from Bayeux, gold bespurred,”
„I saw one ride and smile.”

„Woe now to every Saxon born!”
„Ye Saxon Saints beware,”
„Lest, Heaven itself unsafe, the scourge”
„Pursue and spurn you there.”

„Now know we what disastrous doom”
„That comet should forebode,”
„Which erst, blood-red, through blackest Heaven”
„On fiery besom rode.”

„At Hastings hath that evil star”
„Its evil portent wrought!”
„Thither we went, to the battle-field,”
„And ‘mongst the slain we sought.”

„We sought to left, we sought to right,”
„Till, every hope resigned,”
„We left the field, and Harold the king,”
„His corpse we did not find.”

Asgdd and Ailric so they spake;
His hands the Abbot clasped,
Down sat, despairing, sunk in thought,
Then sighed and said at last:

„At Grendelfield, near Bardenstone,”
„In the wood’s deepest dell,”
„Lone in a lonely pauper-cot”
„Doth swan-necked Edith dwell.”

„ ‘Swan-necked’, men named her — for that erst”
„Her neck, of smoothest pearl,”
„Was swan-like arched — and Harold the king”
„He loved the comely girl.”

„Her hath he loved and cherished and kissed,”
„And, lastly, abandoned, forgot;”
„The years roll by — full sixteen years”
„Have watched her widowed lot.”

„Brothers, to her betake yourselves,”
„And with her back return”
„To Hasting’s field; this woman’s glance”
„Will there the king discern.”

„Hither then to the Abbey-church”
„Do ye the body bring,”
„That we may yield it Christian rite,”
„And for the soul may sing.”

The Monks at midnight reached the cot
Deep in the dark wood’s hollow;
„Wake, swan-necked Edith, and forthwith”
„Prepare our steps to follow!”

„Fate willed the Duke of Normandy”
„The fatal day should gain,”
„And on the field at Hastings lies”
„King Harold ‘mongst the slain.”

„Come with us now to Hastings — there”
„We’ll seek the corpse of the king,”
„And bring it back to the Abbey-church,”
„As the Abbot bade us bring.”

No word the swan-necked Edith spake;
Her cloak about her cast,
She followed the Monks; her grizzly hair
It fluttered wild in the blast.

Barefooted, poor wretch, she followed o’er marsh,
Through brushwood and briar she flew:
Hastings at day-break already they reached,
With its white chalk-cliff’s in view.

The fog that folded the battle-field,
As t’were in a snow-white shroud,
Rose slowly, the ravens flapped their wings
And horribly croaked and loud.

Some thousand corpses there lay strewn.
In heaps on the red earth grounded,
Stripped-stark, beplundered, mangled and maimed,
With carrion-horse confounded.

The swan-necked Edith waded on
Through blood with unsandalled foot;
Meanwhile like darts from her staring eye
The searchful glances shoot.

She searched to left, she searched to right,
And oft she turned undaunted
To scare the famished ravens off;
The monks behind her panted.

The whole drear Day had watched her search,
The stars still see her seek;
Suddenly from the woman’s lips
Breaks shrill a terrible shriek:

Discovered hath Edith the corpse of the king!
No longer need she seek;
No word she spake, she wept no tear,
She kissed the pale, pale cheek.

She kissed the brow, she kissed the lips,
Her arms about him pressed,
She kissed the deep wound blood-besmeared
Upon her monarch’s breast.

And at the shoulder looked she too —
And them she kissed contented —
Three little scars, joy-wounds her love In
Passion’s hour indented.

Meanwhile the Monks from out the wood
Some twisted branches bring;
This was the leafy bier whereon
They laid their slaughtered king.

They bore him towards the Abbey-church
Whose aisles his bones should cover;
The swan-necked Edith followed close
The pale corpse of her lover.

She sang the Burial-psalm in notes
Of meek and childlike woe;
Dismal it sounded through the night —
The muttering monks prayed low

Schlachtfeld bei Hastings

Der Abt von Waltham seufzte tief,
Als er die Kunde vernommen,
Daß König Harold elendiglich
Bei Hastings umgekommen.

Zwei Mönche, Asgod und Ailrik genannt,
Die schickt’ er aus als Boten,
Sie sollten suchen die Leiche Harolds
Bei Hastings unter den Toten.

Die Mönche gingen traurig fort
Und kehrten traurig zurücke:
»Hochwürdiger Vater, die Welt ist uns gram,
Wir sind verlassen vom Glücke.

Gefallen ist der beßre Mann,
Es siegte der Bankert, der schlechte,
Gewappnete Diebe verteilen das Land
Und machen den Freiling zum Knechte.

Der lausigste Lump aus der Normandie
Wird Lord auf der Insel der Briten;
Ich sah einen Schneider aus Bayeux, er kam
Mit goldnen Sporen geritten.

Weh dem, der jetzt ein Sachse ist!
Ihr Sachsenheilige droben
Im Himmelreich, nehmt euch in acht,
Ihr seid der Schmach nicht enthoben.

Jetzt wissen wir, was bedeutet hat
Der große Komet, der heuer
Blutrot am nächtlichen Himmel ritt
Auf einem Besen von Feuer.

Bei Hastings in Erfüllung ging
Des Unsterns böses Zeichen,
Wir waren auf dem Schlachtfeld dort
Und suchten unter den Leichen.

Wir suchten hin, wir suchten her,
Bis alle Hoffnung verschwunden –
Den Leichnam des toten Königs Harold,
Wir haben ihn nicht gefunden.«

Asgod und Ailrik sprachen also;
Der Abt rang jammernd die Hände,
Versank in tiefe Nachdenklichkeit
Und sprach mit Seufzen am Ende:

»Zu Grendelfield am Bardenstein,
Just in des Waldes Mitte,
Da wohnet Edith Schwanenhals
In einer dürft’gen Hütte.

Man hieß sie Edith Schwanenhals,
Weil wie der Hals der Schwäne
Ihr Nacken war; der König Harold,
Er liebte die junge Schöne.

Er hat sie geliebt, geküßt und geherzt,
Und endlich verlassen, vergessen.
Die Zeit verfließt; wohl sechzehn Jahr’
Verflossen unterdessen.

Begebt euch, Brüder, zu diesem Weib
Und laßt sie mit euch gehen
Zurück nach Hastings, der Blick des Weibs
Wird dort den König erspähen.

Nach Waltham-Abtei hierher alsdann
Sollt ihr die Leiche bringen,
Damit wir christlich bestatten den Leib
Und für die Seele singen.«

Um Mitternacht gelangten schon
Die Boten zur Hütte im Walde:
»Erwache, Edith Schwanenhals,
Und folge uns alsbalde.

Der Herzog der Normannen hat
Den Sieg davongetragen,
Und auf dem Feld bei Hastings liegt
Der König Harold erschlagen.

Komm mit nach Hastings, wir suchen dort
Den Leichnam unter den Toten,
Und bringen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Wie uns der Abt geboten.«

Kein Wort sprach Edith Schwanenhals,
Sie schürzte sich geschwinde
Und folgte den Mönchen; ihr greisendes Haar,
Das flatterte wild im Winde.

Es folgte barfuß das arme Weib
Durch Sümpfe und Baumgestrüppe.
Bei Tagesanbruch gewahrten sie schon
Zu Hastings die kreidige Klippe.

Der Nebel, der das Schlachtfeld bedeckt
Als wie ein weißes Leilich,
Zerfloß allmählich; es flatterten auf
Die Dohlen und krächzten abscheulich.

Viel tausend Leichen lagen dort
Erbärmlich auf blutiger Erde,
Nackt ausgeplündert, verstümmelt, zerfleischt,
Daneben die Äser der Pferde.

Es wadete Edith Schwanenhals
Im Blute mit nackten Füßen;
Wie Pfeile aus ihrem stieren Aug’
Die forschenden Blicke schießen.

Sie suchte hin, sie suchte her,
Oft mußte sie mühsam verscheuchen
Die fraßbegierige Rabenschar;
Die Mönche hinter ihr keuchen.

Sie suchte schon den ganzen Tag,
Es ward schon Abend – plötzlich
Bricht aus der Brust des armen Weibs
Ein geller Schrei, entsetzlich.

Gefunden hat Edith Schwanenhals
Des toten Königs Leiche.
Sie sprach kein Wort, sie weinte nicht,
Sie küßte das Antlitz, das bleiche.

Sie küßte die Stirne, sie küßte den Mund,
Sie hielt ihn fest umschlossen;
Sie küßte auf des Königs Brust
Die Wunde blutumflossen.

Auf seiner Schulter erblickt sie auch –
Und sie bedeckt sie mit Küssen –
Drei kleine Narben, Denkmäler der Lust,
Die sie einst hineingebissen.

Die Mönche konnten mittlerweil’
Baumstämme zusammenfugen;
Das war die Bahre, worauf sie alsdann
Den toten König trugen.

Sie trugen ihn nach Waltham-Abtei,
Daß man ihn dort begrübe;
Es folgte Edith Schwanenhals
Der Leiche ihrer Liebe.

Sie sang die Totenlitanei’n
In kindisch frommer Weise;
Das klang so schauerlich in der Nacht –
Die Mönche beteten leise. –

Edith discovering the body of Harold

Edith discovering the body of Harold

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