New Old English: The Eric Mottram Archive

by Carl Kears

The King’s College London Archives house the collections of a variety of scholars and writers who spent their careers researching and re-creating the medieval past, including Walter William Skeat, the renowned Anglo-Saxonist, and Maureen Duffy, whose illustrious career in poetry, fiction and scholarship has repeatedly returned to the Middle Ages for its subject matter.

The archive of Eric Mottram (1924-1995), a prestigious poet, editor and academic who established the discipline of American Studies, is not a place one would expect to find a hoard of artifacts, little-press publications, books, posters and photographs concerned with re-imagining medieval texts, places and events. But, as editor of Poetry Review from 1972-1977, Eric Mottram collaborated with and published a number of writers who sought to revive poetry—and build new cultural hubs of creativity—through a fervent rethinking of poetic form and of poetry’s connection to local communities, and, moreover, through imaginative responses to literary survivals from the Anglo-Saxon age.

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Fig 1. Letter from John Porter and Bill Griffiths to Mottram. c. King’s Archives.

The archive demonstrates how Mottram was a key player in the ‘British Poetry Revival’ and also how he corresponded with and edited poets such as Basil Bunting and Bill Griffiths. These correspondents were producing new ‘versions’ (as Griffiths called them) of medieval works during this time. Many illustrious and curious items in the Mottram archive have remained undiscovered and betray a half-hidden history of alternative translation and bookmaking that stemmed from a will to make the distant past accessible, interactive and new. Driving the ‘revival’, Mottram received work that utilised the wrought language of the early medieval period (including new pamphlets of poetry and prose), as well as playful and colourful renderings of and responses to the medieval world. Mottram’s role as a catalyst for exciting new translation projects can also be seen in the personal address found in this copy of John Porter’s Beowulf sent to Mottram in 1975. Published by Bill Griffiths’s Pirate Press, this important translation of Beowulf was Mottram’s suggestion. [Fig. 1]

solstice-poem-eric-mottram-kings-archives
Fig 2. A New Old English poem for the solstice by Bill Griffiths. c. King’s Archives.

Bill Griffiths, Mottram’s protégé, would send his mentor Christmas cards written in Old English. This one here is a ‘New Old English poem on the solstice’ [Fig. 2], sent to Mottram in 1984, and, rather than translating a work of Old English poetry, Griffiths composes a completely new poem in the Old English language. Likewise, this ‘map’ of Kingsbury church Griffiths designed for Mottram contains directions and information written in Old English. [Fig. 3]

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Fig 3. Kingsbury Church by Bill Griffiths. c. King’s Archives.

The archive shows how Mottram nurtured, edited, corresponded with and drove a diverse range of writers who repeatedly returned to the potential of Old English literature not only as an inspiration but also as a body of material that could be the source for rather dramatic re-thinkings of book-making. During the 1960s and 1970s, British poetry underwent a feverish sea-change, propelled by explosive writers and transformative, rebellious voices that looked to the languages, literature and materials of the early medieval past for spark, style and rejuvenation.

Carl Kears is Lecturer in Old and Middle English at King’s College London.

All images are from the King’s College London Archives, an amazing resource open to all. Find them online and on twitter @KingsArchives.

The treasures of the Eric Mottram archive, which include pamphlets and chapbooks of poetry, illustration, and original writing in Old English inspired ‘Playing with medieval visions…’  public workshops for the Arts and Humanities Festival 2016 led by CLAMS postgraduate students. You can see the results of the workshops here.

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