Mixing Mystery and Ingenuity

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…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.