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Mixing Mystery and Ingenuity

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British Library
Detail from The Ramsey Psalter, Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript, late tenth century

Here are 123 Anglo-Saxon poems, written between the middle of the fifth and the middle of the eleventh century, newly translated by seventy-three poets at the invitation of the poet Greg Delanty and the scholar Michael Matto.1 We can savor immediately one of the kinds of rare thing at this feast. The translator of the following riddle is Gerry Murphy, though the answer is not a potato:


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 stalk 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.

There is the endearing effrontery—given that in Old English seas are “whale-roads”—of opening a riddle instead of an epic with the Melvillean words “Call me fabulous.” (As against the merely flippant wit of the cartooned screen on which are the words “Call me email.”) There is the tacit homage to the twentieth-century poet who extended his hand to the art of the riddle, Robert Graves. “Love Without Hope”: Graves’s title is the key in advance of the lock, an act of realistic courtesy.


Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.

In rendering his riddle, Murphy is good company in his enjoying the decorous improprieties (that “hairy root”), the strange oeillades (“Not a dry eye in the house”), and the tantalizing all-but-spelling-out, with the words “our union,” of the answer to the riddle—an onion. Given all these, which are good to have, how extraordinary it is, then, that this very satisfying poem does not preclude other satisfactions, for later in this collection we come upon another such riddle, a different one bent upon the same object. Duly sad, the voice on this occasion, as though from the Metamorphoses, is heard through the translation of Phillis Levin, with the bitten-off dismay at the end, the victimhood, the muted play with the differently sounded “tears”:


Alive I was—I didn’t speak a bit; even so, I die.
Once I was, I came again: everyone ravages me,
holds me tight and shears my head,
tears into my bare body, breaks my neck.
I wouldn’t bite a man unless he bit me;
so many of them bite me.

Such riddles, nearly a hundred of them, precipitate here an enticing variety of form, of impulse, of tone, of setting, and of reward. The riddles constitute dramatic relief and release, not so much a “heaven-haven” (Ciaran Carson, boldly here, in “The Vision of the Cross,” using a construction borrowed from Gerard Hopkins) as a brave retreat from the great worlds of courage in battle, of kinship in history, of gravity in contemplation, and of honor in society. For my part, I am particularly grateful to Peter Campion (the translator of a riddle whose answer is wind), Patricia McCarthy (a nightingale), Molly Peacock (the moon and sun), Gary Soto (a plow), Gail Holst-Warhaft (a bow or, ah, a harp), and Peter Constantine (the key to whose riddle is a key).

Two other poets mingle mystery and ingenuity. Saskia Hamilton’s riddle is a casket permitting—riddlingly enough—of three keys: a prophetic dream, or death, or time. Here is the opening, making its way toward its secret, with tingling circumspection as to revelation:


It is written in scriptures that this
creature appears plainly to us
when the hour calls,
while its singular power compels
and confounds our knowing.
It seeks us out, one by one,
following its own way; fares on,
with its stranger’s step, never
there a second night, native
to no place; moves according
to its nature. It has no hands,
no feet, has never touched the ground,
no mouth to speak of,
nor mind.

What stealth of gait, inexorably elusive. No mouth to speak of.

The three riddles reconstituted by Marcia Karp are astonishing for how different they are not only in sound but in meaning. “I saw, at foreplaying, two wondrous ones,/at large, laid out for the looking”: this is exquisitely teasing while turning out to be (control yourself!) the model of propriety (a cock and chick), never smudged by what it does not seek to prevent from entering our minds: “Now, we-at-our-wine can name/the foul-minded company we keep.” Quite other in its manner and movement, there is this: “A boy came walking to where he knew/she would stand for what he would do.” Of course one cannot but think… But in due course, shame on us. The rhythms and rhymes did seem to insinuate, but we should have known better and resisted insinuation and realized “she” is a churn.

As for the third of Karp’s riddle-seductions, which incorporates in the body of the poem “One eye for its seeing/Two ears for its sounds/two feet to walk round on around on its rounds,” I’d never have clicked as to this riddle’s key (a one-eyed garlic seller, though the bafflement is itself delightful), even while I took pleasure in the poem’s pleasure in being on the balls of its feet.

The facing pages proffer the poems, riddles and all, in the original Anglo-Saxon. But can we really face reading them in the original? The few of us who had a certain kind of education may recall (less dimly than we might wish) a book published in 1876 and still going strong: Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse. But the Anglo-Saxon reader, is not he or she still growing weak? Not that Anglo-Saxon poetry mostly had readers in its own centuries; sometimes it would have been voiced by someone who could read, but what it enjoyed was listeners, illiterate lovers of literature.

The hope now, at any rate, is that The Word Exchange—open-handed, open-minded—may win friends. Those who, naturally enough, begin by reading the present-day recto page will, some of them at least, be tempted by the prospect of the verse on the facing verso, and are likely to find themselves intrigued or hooked. (But as Robert Pinsky’s “Whale” reminds us, when down the whale goes with all hands, the whale is to be distinguished from Satan-as-a-whale, even as there are fish and “poor fish.”) With luck, some readers may well on occasion find themselves exchanging the words of today for the words that went into the making of England from the fifth to the eleventh century.

Modern languages are well placed in that the elsewhere may present fewer problems than the elsewhen. And you get to hear them and to speak them. Dead languages, provided that they are Latin and Greek, do have class. But Anglo-Saxon?

This is why in the old days those scholar-teachers who were fervid for Anglo-Saxon were all too aware that the study of the language would have to be what studies were permitted to be in the old days: compulsory. Forget demand; force-feed supply. Flash back to Oxford in the 1950s, where for me the weekly college tutorial in Anglo-Saxon, conducted by Alistair Campbell, the greatest grammarian of the language, became a display of his gnomic utterances. “When William the Conqueror comes in, I go out.” “After the fourteenth century there isn’t any literature, there are only books.” “If you let them mention Hamlet, they will mention anything.” Such was the world that brought pain but then its own form of pleasure to the young Kingsley Amis and the young Philip Larkin. So that to find now within one of these translations the question “Isn’t it you, worm-fodder?” is to be transported back to the exam questions of Oxford English. Amis, writing finely in his Memoirs, was flushed with guilty triumph:

Ironically, and for once the term fits, I got my highest marks on the Old English paper; I have never written anything finer in its way than my answer to the question “Why is The Battle of Maldon [a fragment of ‘ape’s bumfodder’ written about the year 1000]2 made much of?”, a positive firework-display of hypocrisy and affectation.
Nobody had a good word to say for Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Dream of the Rood, Cynewulf and Cyneheard. Philip had less than none. If ever a man spoke for his generation it was when, mentioning some piece of what he called in a letter to me “ape’s bumfodder,” he said, “I can just about stand learning the filthy lingo it’s written in. What gets me down is being expected to admire the bloody stuff.”

Well, The Word Exchange expects us, with good cause, to find pleasure in and to admire the bloody strife of “The Battle of Maldon.” Poignancy and power are there from the broken opening:

…was broken.
He had each man abandon his horse
driving it far so he could march
forward unfettered his mind on his hands
and the blade of his sword with its edge of honor.

Here David R. Slavitt wields the power of the space breaks—suggestively apposite in their placing and timing—within a rhythm that yet carries forward a rhyme (“each man abandon”), and then the same again and yet not the same (“driving it far so he could march”), with “march” then marching forward over the line ending into “forward”; all this with a sense of how the thought “forward” is unremittingly the impetus within so many Anglo-Saxon poems, and moving on to press upon us the cryptic riddle “his mind on his hands,” the sense of it then suddenly grasped like the sword that immediately ensues.

To stay for now with the Amis/Larkin hit list, there is “The Wanderer,” in which, in Delanty’s translation, the lines leap immediately into possession of their means, alive in a modern noun, “loner” (in use since 1947), that yet feels ancient and bone-deep, shoulder to shoulder with a turn of phrase that holds fast and holds true: “The loner holds out for grace.” Here are the enduring simplicities of rhyme and alliteration: “having buried my large-hearted lord/ years back in black earth,” and the assonance of “his mien a death mask of grief,” where “mien” commands, registers, a stiff stoicism. Or there is the different coinciding, exactly not of rhyme, where a sharp monosyllable finds itself bound by a word on the grand scale: “ice-bound; each edifice under snow.” The thought of ice is softened within the edifice.

Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew”: the shade of Ezra Pound presides over The Word Exchange, and not only because of his inaugurative translation of “The Seafarer” a century ago (1911):


May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs.
  1. 1

    Many of the translators I know as poets and as friends” (Greg Delanty). Many of the translators I, too, know as poets and as friends; half a dozen of them are in a recent anthology of mine, Joining Music with Reason (Waywiser, 2010). 

  2. 2

    The square brackets are Amis’s characteristic scrupulosity, to make clear that these were not in fact the words of the examiners. Yet Anglo-Saxon moved him to a good sardonic poem, “Beowulf,” which opens: “So, bored with dragons, he lay down to sleep,/Locking for good his massive hoard of words/ (Discuss and illustrate), forgetting now/ The hope of heathens, muddled thoughts on fate.” 

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