First of a few posts inspired by a trip to the British Museum in London last week. Of the seven million or so items in the Museum’s collection, my favourites include the Lewis Chessmen. These were carved from walrus ivory in Norway (it’s thought) about 1,000 years ago; somehow they ended up buried in a sand dune on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides (off the north-west coast of Scotland) where they were discovered completely by chance in the 19th Century. They’re exquisitely detailed, with wonderfully vital expressions. I hope I’ve done them justice with these two short pieces; the first is written in the Anglo-Saxon style, which would have prevailed at the time they were made.
CHESS PIECES (1)
Lance raised in readiness, the knight rides out to battle
A foot-soldier at his side. He surveys the waiting enemy,
A fierce scowl on his face, unafraid of the king
Who sits, stone-faced, his sword in his lap
One hand on the hilt, one holding the scabbard
For a quick draw. The queen is quiet, the mother’s
Wartime worry in her wide grey eyes,
While beside her, the berserker bites his shield,
Frantic to be flung into the fight and make his end.
On both sides, bishops watch, emboldened by their crosiers
And knowledge that Another will annihilate the foe.
The front ranks have no faces. Their fear will not be shown
As dutiful and defiant, they march to death, unnamed, unknown.
CHESS PIECES (2)
An army worked in walrus tusk:
Weapons from weapons
That saw service in a savage sea;
Commissioned by a king, perhaps,
Crafted on a cold coast
By a Norwegian anonymous,
They took ship for the south
But, foundered or plundered,
They were lost on a lonely island
Halfway to Odin-knows-where.
In every sword, crosier, fold of cloth,
Crown, carved chair and wide round eye
I see a skill that dares me
To call their ages Dark;
Paraded behind museum glass
They look out at me
With familiar, lively faces younger
Than their eight hundred years.
And if I could
I’d make a series of illegal moves
And take every one of them.