Subverting Early English Poetics

fig2-leninbedeThe title above belongs to a post by the blogger Harper Eliot of the blog (It Girl. Rag Doll). She’s written a beautiful little treatise on Old English poetics. She writes:

“When I was in the upper school I spent a month of each of my four years studying the history of literature. By looking at a variety of texts from Gilgamesh to Oedipus Rex to The Tempest to the Lyrical Ballads to Riddley Walker, I was able to gain a rather comprehensive overview of the evolution of literature, and one of the main things I remember from these classes is writing poetry. Whatever era or subject we were studying, we were encouraged to write poetry in a similar style. So I wrote sonnets and villanelles; I wrote in iambic pentameter and trochees; I wrote quatrains and free-verse; and I often enjoyed the freedom of subject juxtaposed with the structure of the form. I also very much liked the way in which I now, in a contemporary setting, I am free to pick and choose from past forms and find one that will fit whatever poem I would like to write.”

I highly recommend the post: informative and playful. Among other things, she tries her hand at old English verse. (If you need a refresher on the rules of alliterative verse, visit my post The Beautiful Changes.) She what you think. ! Be warned though, Harper’s blog contains erotic content and is intended for grown-ups. If you’re underage, behave yourself. !

The Beautiful Changes

the word exchange

Last week, April 28th, I drove up to Burlington to listen in on a reading by Greg Delanty, Major Jackson, SMC poet/professor Greg Delanty, and SMC Associate Professor of English Kerry Shea. The poets were celebrating the publication of The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. The reading was sponsored by The Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.

The weather worked in their favor. Burlington was beautiful and, at last, showing some signs of spring. Finally, in Vermont, the grass is turning and the first buds are greening the trees. The evening was warm. Any other poetry reading I might have skipped for a date with my longboard, especially in Burlington.

But there’s something I love about Anglo Saxon poetry. It’s beautiful, to my ears, in the same way that some of the earthiest poetry of New England is beautiful. The best Anglo Saxon poetry speaks with a directness and simplicity you won’t often find in the sophisticated and cosmopolitan utterances of the Roman poets. And though stark, the Anglo Saxon temper also comes with a rugged humor and gamefulness typical of poetry in simpler and less self-conscious cultures. You have to go back to Sappho’s time and the earliest Chinese poets to find the same sorrow, laughter, nobility and raw sexual humor. The Anglo Saxons were also avid riddlers and story-tellers, to a degree, perhaps, that is unique to them. (Their riddles keenly interested and influenced J.R.R. Tolkien.) They wrote Beowulf. Many of their shorter poems retell the dealings of Thanes, Kings and Cheiftans – good and bad.

The book orders the poetry into subject matter and content. Here’s what you will find (in order):

  • Poems of  Exile and Longing
  • First Riddle Hoard
  • Poems about Historical Battles, People, and Places
  • Second Riddle Hoard
  • Poems About Living
  • Third Riddle-Hoard
  • Poems About Dying
  • Fourth Riddle Hoard
  • Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints
  • Fifth Riddle-Hoard
  • Prayers, Admonitions, and Allegories
  • Sixth Riddle-Hoard
  • Remedies and Charms
  • Final Riddle-Hoard

Seems to me the table of contents alone could sell the book. Who wouldn’t want to read the Remedies and Charms? — a strange collocation of Christianity, Witchcraft and Paganism. I wonder if our contemporary poet, Annie Finch (self-proclaimed Wiccan), hasn’t read these remedies and charms?

Of all the categories, The Biblical Stories, Lives of Saints, are to me the least interesting or compelling. All the rigor seems to drain out of the Anglo Saxon inkwell when they write about a distant, dysfunctional tribal people, the Israelites, and their obsession with real estate and a fitful God. The whole of it was utterly foreign to the Anglo Saxons and the poems feel pro forma (even if through the lens of their own experience). Better to include them, I suppose. Missionaries were fussily converting the Anglo Saxon pagans, but the poems still feel like book reports. Fortunately (for us and the rest of the poems) the Anglo Saxons get right back to betrayal, rings, sex, swords, a good joke and, above all, grim, hard deaths. They were a people who lived life in the bone and were much better when Christianity was subservient to their own ethos.

old English þrosoðy and translation

Worth noting is that there is no single translator. Each of the poems has been translated by a different poet and this brings up a subject I’ve discussed before. I disagree with the notion that a poem’s form doesn’t need to be translated: it’s rhymes, rhythm, meter, stanzas, etc… There are translators who denigrate such attempts. The results, they say, frequently contort syntax, word order and meaning for the sake of form. However, I find their arguments self-serving. The genius of poetry, up until the 20th century, was not just in its content but also in the patterning and beauty of its language. Like the earliest Chinese poems, many scholars believe Anglo Saxon poetry may have been written to the tune of this or that melody – certainly many believe they were likely to have been sung or chanted. Their poetry doesn’t rhyme, but it is patterned through the use of stress and alliteration.

Anglo Saxon prosody works like this: Each line is called a stich (pronounced stick). And every Anglo Saxon line, or stich, is divided in two – a first half and a second half. Each half is referred to as a hemistich. Each hemistich has two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. (If you’re not sure of the difference between stressed and unstressed syllables, you can check out my guides to Iambic Pentameter.) Each half of the line (each containing two stressed syllables) is divided by a caesura — a pause.

  • Stressed syllables! // Strong verse!
  • Oh stressed syllables // make strong my verse!
  • Stressed will be the syllables // that make strong my verse!

Each line would be permissible, each containing two stressed syllables. There can be any number of unstressed syllables. The second requirement for an Anglo Saxon line is alliteration. Alliteration is when the consonants of each stressed syllable are the same or sound alike. In the lines above, the S sound is repeated in the first and second stressed syllable of the first hemistich and in the first syllable of the second hemistich. One more important rule: the second syllable of the second hemistich never alliterates except in the rarest of circumstances. So, if a is an alliterating syllable and b is a non-alliterating syllable, the possible combinations are as follows (based on The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics):

  • a a // a b
  • a b // a b
  • b a // a b

And that’s that. A commonly referenced modern example from Richard Wilbur, his poem Junk, can be found here. I love the poem, but Wilbur doesn’t follow the rules (the second stressed syllable in the second hemistich alliterates in many of his lines). A fun modern pastiche can also be found at asu.edu, a poem called Beocat. However, this poem, like Wilbur’s, bends the rules by alliterating the second syllable of the second hemistich. So much alliteration just seems too much for the modern poet to resist (not made from the stern stuff of the Anglo Saxon poet).

Anyway, trying to convey the formal aspects of any poem in translation is, indeed, difficult. But if the original poet thought it worthwhile to sweat over and struggle with, then why shouldn’t the translator sweat? Why is the translator exempt? Why do some translators make excuses and rationalizations? In my opinion, the translator who only translates the content of a traditional poem, is only translating half the poem. When Mandelbaum translated Dante’s Divine Comedy, he didn’t try to recreate the rhyming tercets of the original, but he did recreate the feeling of form and structure by writing blank verse. Mandelbaum also used blank verse to translate Ovid. (The accentual-syllabics of blank verse was foreign to the quantitative verse of Latin poetry.) I’m not suggesting that modern poets should always try to recreate the alliterative verse of the Anglo Saxons, but I do think there’s value in recognizing the traditional beauty of the original poem and language by recreating it’s rigor in our own.

At first glance, two poets out of the several dozen contributing poets, Derek Mahon and A.E. Stallings, managed to approximate what an Anglo Saxon might have heard. Here are the opening lines to the poem Durham, translated by Mahon:

Is ðeos burch breome     geond Breotenrice,
steppa gestaðolad,    stanas ymbutan
wundrum gewæxen.     Weor ymbeornad,
ea yðum stronge,       and ðer inne wunað
feola fisca kyn          on floda gemonge.
And ðær gewexen is    wudafæstern micel;
wuniad in ðem wycum    wilda deor monige,
in deope dalum      deora ungerim.

Known throughout Britain, this noble city
Its steep slopes and stone buildings
are thought a wonder; weirs contain
its fast river; fish of all kinds
thrive here in the thrusting waters.
A great forest has grown up here,
thickets throng with wild creatures;
deer drowse in the deep dales. (….)

  • If you want to hear Durham read in the original, Michael D.C. Drout, Prentice Professor of English at Wheaton College is heroically reading the entire corpus of Anglo-Saxon prosody. He reads Durham here.

And here are the opening lines to The Riming Poem, translated by A.E. Stallings (whose opinion on translating are like my own):

Me lifes onlah       se þis leoht onwrah
ond þæt torhte geteoh,    tallice onwrah
Glæd wæs ic gliwum,      glenged hiwum
blissa bleoum,      blostma hiwum
Secgas mec segon,     symbel ne alegon
feohgiefe gefegon;     frætwed wægon

The Lord lavished life on me               I had it all
Blessings were rife for me                    honor in hall,
Clad in the gladsome                               cloth of the looms
Dyed with the handsome                      hues of the blooms,
Men the looked up at me,                      friendship reigned
Filling the cup for me,                            wine never waned.

  • The riming poem is unusual in that it also rhymes in the original Anglo Saxon (which may be why Stallings was asked to translate it). One wonders if the original poet was excited by what he or she had written. By the standards of the day, it’s a tour de force performance. Professor Drout reads the poem here.

While many of the poets in the Word Exchange dispense with formal structure, writing free verse, (words are exchanged but there’s no verse exchange), I was nevertheless pleased to see that equally many tried to honor some sense of the original. (I was disappointed not to see Annie Finch. If she was overlooked, a pity.) However, the benefit of so many contributors, as Greg Delanty likes to stress, is that we are reminded that Anglo Saxon poetry doesn’t consist of one author or voice but of many (whose names have been lost). We are also made aware of the many different ways a poem can be translated, a kind of tour in and of itself, and what different poets value in translation.

the great  variety

One of the poets who read at the The Word Exchange was Major Jackson (someone I was finally able to meet). Jackson opted for free verse (by his own account, he originally attempted to introduce some traditional elements into his translation). Jackson translated The Gifts of Men. I’ve just been reading Walt Whitman and I couldn’t help but be struck by the Whitmanesque breadth of Jackson’s translation and, by extension, the Anglo Saxon original.

Fela bið on foldan    forðgesynra
geongra geofona,   þa þa gæstberend
wegað in gewitte,    swa her weorude god,
meotud meahtum swið,    monnum dæleð
syleð sundorgiefe,      sendeð wide
agne spede,    þara æghwylc mot
dryhtwuniendra     dæl onfon.
Ne bið ænig pæs    earfoðsælig
mon on moldan    ne pæs medspedig,
lytelhydig,      ne þæs læthydig,
þæt hine se argifa   ealles biscyrge
modes cræfta   oþþe mægendæda,
wis on gewitte   oþþe on wordcwidum,
þy læs ormod sy   ealra þinga,
þara þe he geworhte    in woruldlife,
geofona gehwylcre.

Behold God’s prevailing gifts on earth, discernable
to all souls! His unique powers are bestowed
and apportioned widely to every woman and man.
None are so wretched, unfortunate, or feeble-minded
to believe that the Giver of all has not endowed them
at least with a living breath, speech, and a smart mind
to appreciate their wordly abilities in this life.

With this broad-hearted beginning, the poet proceeds to a list of all the peoples and their avocations.

Sum in mæðle mæg modsnottera
folcrædenne   forð gehycgan,
þær witena biþ   worn ætsomne.
Sum mæg wrætlice   weorc ahycgan
heahtimbra gehwæs;   hond bið gelæred,
wis ond gewealden   swa bið wyrhtan ryht,
sele asettan,   con he sidne ræced
fæste gefegan   wiþ færdryrum.
Sum mid hondum mæg   hearpan gretan,
ah he gleobeames   gearobrygda list.
Sum bið rynig,    sum ryhtscytte
sum leoða gleaw,    sum on lande snel,
feþespedig. Sum on fealone wæg
stefnan steoreð…

One is a visionary statesman and effective member of the parliament.
One is a master architect of high-ceilinged buildings, a deft hand, disciplined and judicious, drafting expansive halls that last.
One skillfully plays the harp.
One flies swiftly round the track, one makes a good shot, one is limber, one is swift, first to finish a foot race.
One maneuvers a ship over harrowing waves.

  • Professor Drout reads Gifts of Men here. Drout also provides a complete prose translation.

Jackson’s rendition, for me, conveys some sense of the original poet’s joy and pride in his life and people, again reminding me of Whitman. There is a capaciousness that is unmatched, to my knowledge, by any other poem in any other ancient language: Greek, Latin, Chinese, Japanese.

The Anglo Saxons seemed to love a riddle and, like the rest of us, couldn’t get enough of sex. Put the two together and humor was inevitable. The following poem was read several times, at the meeting, both in Modern English and Old English:

Riddle 25
Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,    wifum on hyte,
neahbuendum nyt;    nængum sceþþe
burgsittendra,     nymþe bonan anum.
Staþol min is steapheah    stonde ic on bedde,
neoþan ruh nathwær.      Neþeð hwilum
ful cyrtenu    ceorles dohtor,
modwlonc meowle,    þæt heo on mec gripeð,
ræseð mec on readne,      reafað min heafod,
fegeð mec on fæsten.     Feleþ sona
mines gemotes,          seo þe mec nearwað,
wif wundenlocc.        Wæt bið þæt eage.

  • Professor Drout’s reading is here.

Call Me Fabulous translated by Gerry Murphy

Call me fabulous,
that rare thing,
a woman’s delight.
Ever ready in the kitchen,
harming none but those
who would harm me.
Standing tall in my own bed,
my talk rigid on its hairy root.
That haughty girl,
the churl’s beautiful daughter,
deigns to take me in hand,
fribbles me to distraction,
stashes me in her sanctum,
weeps at our union.
Not a dry eye in the house.

The following riddle is my personal favorite:

Hyse cwom gangan,  þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele, stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,     hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,     hrand under gyrdels
hyre stondendre    striþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;    wagedan buta.
þegn onnette,      wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,      teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam     strong ær þon hio,
werig þæs weorces.    Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse      þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað      ond mid feo bicgað.

Marcia Karp’s translation begins:

A boy came walking to where he knew
she would stand for what he would do.
He stepped from afar to her in that corner.
…………His hand raised his shirt.
…………He pushed under her skirt
his stiff I-know-not-what and he horned her.

To read the rest of the translation you will have to read the book. Drout’s reading can be found here. The answers to these riddles can be found on line and in the back-matter of the book.

One of the great Old English poems is The Wanderer, a plum among the many and one that Greg Delanty plucks for himself — a substantial poem of loss, grief and the passage of time. We read a poet’s lament from a thousand years ago, thinking of his own sense of loss and how his own life briefly passed, and can’t help wonder at who will read our words a thousand years for now and wonder at the briefness of our own lives.  You can read his translation and hear the poet himself here.  The Ruin, translated by Yusef Komunyakaa, is another poem in a similar vein and puts our own sense of loss and time in perspective. I’m reminded of Frost’s The need to be versed in country things.

For a clear-eyed vision of death and decay, something the Anglo Saxons were well acquainted with,  read The Damned Soul Addresses the Body:

“Listen, mudball, how come you abused me?
You skinbag, all shriveled up at alst,
You paid little heed, in your hunt for pleasure,
To the hard future in store for your soul
Once it had been banished from the body.
Am I the offender? Isn’t it you, worm-fodder?

Or read The Riming Poem:

….The day for me     comes arrow-swift
With deadly aim     as it approaches,
And just the same     the night encroaches
That won’t condone     my tenant’s terms,
Abode of bone.   Wassailing worms
Feast afresh     where limbs lie slain
Devouring flesh:    only bones remain….

It’s humbling to read this passage. From our perspective the poet’s passing was a few words and silence. So were the thousand plus years between us and him; and so will be the next thousand years. That said, there’s a painting in Cornwall-on-Hudson. It might still be at the 2 Alices, one of my favorite cafés when visiting upstate New York. It says something like: Each minute, your life is a minute shorter. I thought about it and decided the minutes were more enjoyable if considered this way: With each minute, your life is a minute longer.

The Anglo Saxons had a word for the wondrous world, it’s Wundorworuld.

In the poem The Song of the Cosmos, not only does the poet convey their joy in the wondrous world, but one can’t help be reminded of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses. The poem begins:

Wilt þu, fus hæle,    fremdne monnan,
wisne woðboran   wordum gretan,
fricgan felageongne   ymb forðgesceaft,
biddan þe gesecge    sidra gesceafta
cræftas cyndelice    cwichrerende,
þa þe dogra gehwam   þurh dom godes
bringe wundre fela    wera cneorissum!

Hard-striving soul, greet  the wayfaring stranger,
To the keen-sighted singer give welcoming words,
Question to the questing one of all the worlds before,
Implore him to tell of incalculable creations,
The innate artful forces forever quickening
That day after day under God’s dominion
Bring wonders laid bare to fairing generations.

When I read Shakespeare, I think that he had more in common with his hard-living and stern-skinned Old English forebears than with the prim and decorous Restoration poets who were to follow. The thing to know about the Anglo Saxons is that they are our poets. They are the first poets of our English language. They loved the same words we love. And if any of your ancestors are from the British Isles, the blood of these poets runs in your veins. When you read the poetry of the Anglo Saxons, you are truly reading the poetry of someone from whom you descend.

In some sense, what the Book of Songs is to the Chinese, the poetry of the Anglo-Saxon poems is to our culture. Read it and know what the first speakers of your language grieved, loved, laughed at, and enjoyed.

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