Cunning and Art: Review of Leásungspell, by Bob Beagrie

Whitby Abbey at sunset
Whitby Abbey at Sunset, by Ackers72 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Set in 657AD, moving between Hartlepool and Whitby, and drawing on Old English, modern English and Northumbrian dialect, Bob Beagrie’s new epic poem, Leásungspell, takes readers on a historical, geographical and literary journey. Reviewer Jamie McKinstry enjoyed the voyage.

A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees

This quotation from William Blake prefaces Part Four of Bob Beagrie’s magnificent Leásungspell, which was recently performed at Durham Book Festival. Bob Beagrie is a poet, playright, and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Teesside University. He has published six collections of poetry, including The Seer Sung Husband and Sampo: Heading Further North.

Front cover of Leasungspell, by Bob BeagrieLeásungspell is a new epic poem which tells the tale of Oswin, a monk from the monastery of Herutea (Hartlepool) travelling to Streonshalh (Whitby), carrying secret letters from the Abbess Hild. This is not an easy journey and he must cross many challenging landscapes and wildernesses. We are not, however, just following a straightforward epic journey of an individual’s struggle against nature. Far from it. Leásungspell also depicts a series of dreamscapes and digressions which then develop into further stories before returning to the journey itself. This is a twisting, turning, sometimes disconcerting, but always beguiling, tale of a journey through a strange world of mystery and mysticism.

The above quotation from Blake is appropriate as this is not strictly an epic poem. By Beagrie’s own admission, the work is deliberately set up as a mock-epic poem or a ‘fool’s yarn’. Yes, Oswin is on an important journey – but actually who is he? He is really just an anonymous figure journeying through a challenging landscape but who feels compelled to share his experiences. In this respect the work has strong similarities with Old English works such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer which, although much shorter than Beagrie’s piece (and certainly not ‘fool’s yarns’),  also depict anonymous individuals battling with the elements, hoping to reach their desired destination.

The comparison with medieval works is entirely appropriate given the languages in which Leásungspell is written. Beagrie has composed his piece in a completely original mixture of Old English, Modern English, and Northumbrian dialect. However, that is perhaps too simplistic a description. These languages are not used in separate parts of the poem; instead, they are combined in a totally new form of poetic expression where in one stanza, or more often than not in the course of one line, we are treated to a mixture of all three. This might sound a little confusing, but such is the skill with which Beagrie has created his piece, all three languages work together very organically, creating a tapestry of sound and meaning. The following is a prime example, taken from the second part of the poem:

An’ oft hæfd I stod up on the strand, eyes strainen te see
yond the narroew paþ hwær swegle an’ brimflod mæte,
myndan the fyrst of wor Weras wið sælt-pitted brues
te sayil the cæld dræd deops, gelic Soemil an’ Sigegar,
draggen thor warscips up on te þese sandes an’ pebblestans.

At first glance this passage might appear totally unintelligible, with perhaps only medieval scholars being able to identify some Old English words, identifiable by the use of specifically medieval letters. However, if we look closely, we see that some familiarity does emerge. The line ‘eyes strainin te see’ is clear enough and the final word ‘pebblestans’ does not take too much of a leap to understand it as ‘pebblestones’. But this is not the way to read Beagrie’s work. This is a poem that demands to be heard. Indeed, this is a performance poem.

Hence if the above passage is read aloud, we see that the full meaning will emerge – words such as ‘warscips’ suddenly become clearer (as ‘warships’, ‘sc’ being pronounced as ‘sh’ in Old English). Now, using that as an example, some might say that one still needs some level of understanding of, specifically, medieval literature in order to fully comprehend the piece. Perhaps a prime example comes with the line ‘te mi sufferen wif Æmma’ which means ‘to my suffering wife Emma’.

This is not a problem, however, given Beagrie’s marvellous performances of the poem himself in which he clears up any such mysteries and possible misunderstandings through his own masterful pronunciations of the medieval, modern, and Northumbrian. As mentioned above, Beagrie showcased his performance skills at a sold-out Durham Book Festival event, but full renditions are also available online where one can get a real sense of how this mock epic all comes together as a coherent and also beguiling piece.

Beagrie’s words are only one aspect of the poem, however. This, as I say, is a performance poem and the piece’s lines are enhanced by a combination of music and voice. Instruments are introduced at key points in the tale, to emphasise certain aspects or to create atmosphere. These additions are combined with singers’ voices who either perform on their own, offering interludes in the poem, or form the background to Beagrie’s lines. The overall effect is initially a little alarming, but once one settles back and the full force of the performance sinks in, it becomes a very mystical and almost metaphysical experience.

This is perhaps one of the most unusual and original works I have encountered in recent years and exemplifies Beagrie’s skills as both a poet and a scholar. I can think of no better way to end than by quoting a line from Robert Graves which Beagrie places at the very beginning of the poem: ‘Cunning and art he did not lack’. Having let the full effect of Beagrie’s Leásungspell take me on this mystical journey, I think that just about encapsulates this poet’s talents.

Leásungspell by Bob Beagrie is published by Smokestack Books. Visit the dedicated Leasungspell website for samples, audio recordings and more.

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