Reprinted 2019. All purchases of At Maldon from this page will be sent with a free CD of the author's reading of the poem (see below).
Shortlisted for the 2014 Saltire Society Poetry Book of the Year Award
‘Eyesharp and utter and visceral, so startling yet so empathetic and so lyrical: this is a stunning old-new poem to rival the best of Logue’ – Kevin Crossley-Holland
‘Inventive, striking and memorable. And a reminder that Morgan is one of the most original poets around.’
– Andrew Motion, Guardian ‘Books of the Year’
‘At Maldon, J. O. Morgan’s version of the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, has all the clash and clang of War Music, and the same odd modernism to bring you up short – bin-liners, cricket balls, umbrellas. My ears are still singing with the gurgle of Saxon blood. Morgan is a worth inheritor of Logue’s broadsword.’
– Ferdinand Mount, Times Literary Supplement ‘Books of the Year’
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Exclusively for sale from this website:
Poetry Archive recording of J. O. Morgan reading the whole of At Maldon on a limited edition CD
Helena Nelson on J. O. Morgan's reading of At Maldon at StAnza, 2014:
'He had it by heart. I have never heard anything like it. For the first time in my life I grasped the living concept of the epic – I inhabited it. J. O. Morgan took us inside that terrible, beautiful, ancient story of what men do, and held us there. Time stopped. If I had only heard him when I was reading Virgil at school, or later when I feebly attempted Homer, how different things might have been. But I’ve heard him now. I have heard him now.'
It begins with crows,
black flecks against the blue,
like bits of bin-liner flapping on the wind;
like a mould spreading over the sky.
Two hunded pearl-black eyes,
black tongues in black beaks,
waiting for men to be meat.
In early August 991 a ragtag army of Anglo-Saxons joined battle with a party of Viking raiders on the coast of Essex. The encounter was recorded in a long poem composed in the alliterative style of that era, though only the work’s middle section now survives. Retaining its narrative structure but applying a modern perspective to its heroic ideals, Morgan here uses the original poem as a lens through which to re-imagine that summer’s day on which some men fought, loyal to the end, and some men fled, fearing that the battle was already lost.
At Maldon brings the events of a thousand years ago to the page with the same verve and precision that distinguished Morgan’s prize-winning Natural Mechanical.
‘This is a glorious piece of writing. To tell the truth, it took me a while to sort out quite who was doing what and where, but it was like a film: I could see the landscape and hear all the little sounds. And there was the Anglo-Saxon army “a single solid block of muscle-men, / from which lord Byrthnoth / steps out, one pace forward, / leaving an earl-shaped gap in the leading edge.” It’s vivid. It’s witty. It’s delicate. It’s masterfully paced. It sings.
In the original poem, there are two characters called Godric. One runs away, and survives. The other fights to the death. Morgan’s poem features both men, and concludes with the Godric who stands and fights: “And another man / named Godric fights / for everything he has / or has not loved” … it seemed to me that the Godrics were the key. The great battle happens: the terrible, sad losses, young men and old men, their bodies sinking into the wet earth. They don’t just die – they surrender their whole lives, bit by bit. Morgan creates them as people carrying mental existences with them – their thoughts, whims, memories, impressions. They are real.
But it all happened a long, long time ago. Some say Godric fled. Some say he fought to the death. Maybe there are always two Godrics. There was fighting, there was valour and stupidity and pragmatism and grace and blood. There was, and is, a terrific story here, fabulously well told.’
– Helena Nelson, HappenStance blog
‘The energy never flags, and there is considerable intensity of language. To help carry the reader through sixty pages, Morgan deploys colloquial dialogue and modern conceits . . . There are many passages where the combined forces of old and new are exhilaratingly persuasive.’
– John Greening, Times Literary Supplement
‘The cover is puritanically plain. The author cares so little for publicity that I couldn't even tell you his first name ... And then, there’s the subject, a whole book about an inconsequential battle in 991 on the Essex coast. These are three reasons why J. O. Morgan’s At Maldon mightn’t have come to your attention – and even if it did, why you mightn’t have been particularly interested. You’d be hopelessly, impossibly wrong.
… what Morgan has done is to re-imagine [the battle of Maldon] in a way that makes it as real to the modern mind as, say, Spielberg’s evocation of D-Day in Saving Private Ryan. In fact more real, because while Spielberg might show what modern balttle looked like he couldn’t go beneath the surface of battle to show what it felt like, that swhirl of emotions as the end approached: the shield too heavy with embedded spears, the sticky surprise of blood, the incomprehension of failure as death closes over … At the start, Morgan states that his aim is to break away from the dusty facts by casting ‘the real events in an unreal mould, and in so doing to hope perhaps for accidental truth’. He succeeds superbly.’
– The Scotsman (‘Poetry Book of the Month’)
‘In telling readers what the battle was like as opposed to what it actually was, in giving impressions with which we can identify and connect (yet that we know are anachronisms and fictions), Morgan achieves the triumphant feat of making a distant historical event and a fragmented literary source not only accessible, but also vividly convincing, vital, and full-blooded. As he puts it, by using imaginative touches to cast “real events in an unreal mould”, he hopes to create “accidental truth”. The result is moments that feel startlingly immediate, that straddle history in unexpected images, that shock the archaic up-to-date, and render characters who jump, vital and stark, straight off the page ... By reimagining the poem to appeal to contemporaries, by adopting the open-ended dynamism of Anglo-Saxon storytelling traditions, by aligning himself with the original poem's author and embracing the freedom of not knowing the truth, Morgan goes the same way as his Anglo-Saxon predecessor. The result, as he puts it so neatly, “becomes the history it tries to tell”.’
– Seth Insua, Asymptote (full review here)
From reviews of J. O. Morgan’s Natural Mechanical, which won the 2009 Aldeburgh Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and the Scottish Arts Council First Book Award:
‘Remarkable. A gem of a poem’ – Simon Armitage
‘So vivid it is clearer than prose. If those who never touch poetry tried a few pages of this, they might become converts.’ – Rosemary Goring, Herald
‘A literally fabulous achievement’ – Times Literary Supplement
From reviews of J. O. Morgan’s Long Cuts:
‘It is every bit as startling in its originality as Natural Mechanical.’ – Beverley Bie Brahic, Books of the Year, Times Literary Supplement
‘Long Cuts is a book of human connections and missed connections, of love and missed opportunities to show love, and is as compressed, free-flowing, rambunctious, tender and at times unapologetically unrefined as its predecessor.’ – Rory Waterman, Times Literary Supplement