Museum pieces (3)

I approached the last of these poems with some trepidation. The Sutton Hoo helmet is among the most famous artefacts in the British Museum, and the centrepiece of what’s widely considered the most important British archaeological find of modern times.
Dating from the 7th Century, the helmet was interred with a (still unknown) East Anglian warrior in a Scandinavian-style ship burial. Its discovery, as part of a hoard of fabulous treasures,  in 1939 completely overturned our perceptions of the Anglo-Saxon period, long dismissed as ‘the Dark Ages’, as a barbarous time devoid of skill and beauty.
For us poets, it also makes a tangible link with one of the foundation-stones of English literature; the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf. In Seamus Heaney’s masterly translation, the poet tells of Beowulf’s ‘glittering helmet…of beaten gold, princely headgear hooped and hasped by a weapon-smith who had worked wonders in days gone by and embellished it with boar-shapes’. When the Sutton Hoo helmet, broken in 500 fragments, was finally reassembled, it was almost exactly as the writer had described, right down to the bronze boars’ heads protecting the wearer’s temples. Surely a case of life imitating art.


It’s just a poem
They sniffed:

A fantastical
Mead-hall tale

Of monsters
And imagined battles

By a poet
Without a name

About a hero
Who never lived.

Till on the eve
Of their own war

They woke the Suffolk sand
From a thousand-year sleep.

The land yawned, casually
Handed them the helmet

And Beowulf’s boars
Winked at them with garnet eyes

As if to say
He told you so.

One thought on “Museum pieces (3)

  1. Although I have been to the British Museum on several occasions, I did not appreciate the helmet that I saw there until reading your post and poem…if I ever get back to your country…I shall look more closely at it…and smile knowing that you provided my new persepective. Cheers!

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