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,
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:
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.
Whereas Tennyson read “mouthing out his hollow oes and aes,/Deep-chested music,” Pound read rolling out his rotatory r’s. He may have to be heard to be believed. To hear him read “The Seafarer” is to hear what he meant. Part of this was his need to establish what D.S. Carne-Ross praised as “the alternative mode in which the translator makes no secret of the fact that he is taking us abroad, deliberately letting the foreignness of his original show through.”3 The most penetrating thinker about translation in our time, Carne-Ross called as a witness Charles Tomlinson, who had said of Pound’s Canto LII that he “gives us in magnificent processional rhythms something English and something irreducibly foreign and distant.”
Pound’s achievement makes me wish for a companion volume complementary to The Word Exchange, one that would tense these new translations against earlier and other creations. Old English Poems in English? The revelation would be reciprocal were Pound’s “The Seafarer” to enjoy comparison with Mary Jo Salter’s, especially given the energetic verb to which she has recourse: “For all that, my heart’s thoughts/pound now with the salt/wave’s surging.” Or Tennyson’s “Battle of Brunanburh” (1880) confronting Robert Hass’s: “The men of Wessex/harried them hard while the light lasted,/herded in troops the fugitives fleeing before them.” Michael Alexander’s riddles (1966) would converse amicably with Jane Hirshfield’s reed pen (“tell you what we two alone might hear,/that no one else could spread our conversation further”), and with Richard Wilbur’s dough: “Buried her hands in that boneless body,/Then covered with a cloth the puffed-up creature.” Edwin Morgan’s “The Ruin” (in his Collected Translations, 1996) could stand alongside Yusef Komunyakaa’s: “There are caved-in roofs, towers in shambles.” And Harry Thomas’s “Deor” (2001, with the refrain, “That was endured;/so may this be”) might meet Heaney’s: “That passed over, this can too.”
Pound argued that “the best criticism of any work, to my mind the only criticism of any work of art that is of any permanent or even moderately durable value, comes from the creative writer or artist who does the next job.” In the past there was many a next job well done. Often in a different medium. The deepest criticism of “The Dream of the Rood” known to me is the setting of the poem’s central homage (lines 39–41) as an inscription in watercolors by David Jones (1952).4 To be seen as well as heard in the head.
The senses variously act their obedience within “The Dream of the Rood” or “The Vision of the Cross,” as Ciaran Carson’s translation is called. I prefer “rood,” partly because I was brought up with it but mostly because it is fittingly archaic for a poem in which it is the cross that speaks. It has by our day something of the riddle about it; it resists fluency. And the dream is consonant with T.S. Eliot’s sense of what is at stake. Of the Revelation of Saint John, Eliot wrote: “It belongs to the world of what I call the high dream, and the modern world seems capable only of the low dream.” What higher dream could there be than that of the rood itself, lamenting the part it had been made to play and at the same eternity acknowledging the glory of it?
The Word Exchange does justice to the many kinds of revelation that are realized in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Among the feats is the narrative “Offering of Isaac,” told with simplicity and mystery by David Ferry (for many of us, the truest American poet-translator of our time, as creative as ever in his mid-eighties). “Your own, your only son”: the onward upward impetus is indeflectible, there on “the high//Mountain that the Lord/Had told him they were to go to.”
The son carried the wood,
The father carried the fire,
And was carrying the sword.
Comparably incomparable feats are Eavan Boland’s voicing of “The Wife’s Lament,” where the opening periods reinforce the sense that life is an off-rhyme:
I sing this song full of grief.
Full of sorrow about my life.
Ready to say the cruel state
I have endured, early and late,
And never more I will tell
Than now—now that exile
Has fallen to me with all its pain.
Obdurately, “never more” refuses to be the hope of “nevermore”: no, never more “than now.” Such lamentation has to eschew loveliness of cadence, whereas Michael Schmidt, countering with “The Husband’s Message,” exquisitely avails himself of the stylized grief of a Tennyson song:
Now he has sent me to ask you to come to me
Cross the seas, come to me come here with joy
When to your listening on the steep hillside
First comes the cuckoo’s voice sad in the trees
Don’t pause don’t linger come at that calling
Don’t stay or delay come at that call
Go down to the shore set out to sea then
To the tern’s chilly home go south go south
Over the ragged sea south find your lord…
Princess, Princess you too are his portion
Remember the promises each of you vowed
The sealing silences he made and you made
Tennyson, in The Princess:
O Swallow, Swallow, flying, flying South,
Fly to her, and fall upon her gilded eaves,
And tell her, tell her, what I tell to thee….
Why lingereth she to clothe her heart with love,
Delaying as the tender ash delays
To clothe herself, when all the woods are green?
Bernard O’Donoghue’s “Widsith” brings home what Auden had in mind when he said that if you don’t enjoy lists you won’t enjoy poetry: all those unstoppable names and place names, fanning out and panning out. A.E. Stallings, in a tour de force of holy and unholy mirth, delights in the aerobic acrobatics of “The Riming Poem.” Nick Laird offers his “Field Remedy” in the confidence that snake oil is not the answer to poisoning, and he vaults with demotic immediacy in medias res:
Here’s the thing:
your lands will spring to life again
if blight or curse is set on them through poisoning
or witchery or worse—but only if
you follow me faithfully in this.
Jennifer Grotz grasps that the effective “Charm for Stolen Cattle” has to be repeating the word with maddening perseverance, going on saying cattle till the cows come home:
…so I claim these cattle will be found….
find the cattle and make the cattle move
and take possession of the cattle and guard the cattle
and bring the cattle back home!
“He that hopes to get away with this cattle”: hopeless, for this voice will not cease, let alone desist.
But of the various kinds within Anglo- Saxon poetry it is the maxims that seem to me to have prompted the most remarkable range of accomplishments here, from four very different translators. David Curzon sees and hears the potentiality of the marked pause to make its mark, to suspend the story and ask patience of us (“Scrutinize me with shrewd words”) or to slow our pace to see that we ponder:
…since from the beginning his gifts were life, free will;
He wishes we ponder on those loans.
Brigid Pegeen Kelly loves the cross-currents that protect maxims against their propensity to coerce: “The water will melt, kind weather come again,/days hot with sun; the deep sea will seethe and sway—.” Yet this is never a time for sentimental indiscipline: “The mind must be trained,/as the hand must be trained.” Nothing soft about this, what with many a terminal d supported by a terminal t, and the strict syntax, the scorn for elegant variation. Mark Halliday, whose poetry is always a delight in its understanding of the difference between a relaxed intelligence and relaxing one’s intelligence, will set a simple ease (“If you have a song, sing it”) against the disconcerting necessity for unease:
Be true to your friends. The night will come when you’ll wish
for a friend close by, when the road is dark and dusty
and something moves among the shadowy trees;
when the wolf finds you alone it will not consider
how important you were back in town. In this dark world
gray wolves are forever hungry and they show no mercy.
It is the deep blankness of “important” that refuses to let any of us off.
Finally, of the four translators of maxims, Rachel Hadas knows the score. “Wind is fleetest; thunder roars/When it is thunder’s time of year.” Hear how a four-syllable word supposes itself to trump a monosyllable, however good: “Evil fights good;/Youth struggles with decrepitude.” And do not suppose that the maxim-maker supposes that he or she has the answer:
Of God’s creation none can tell,
Where the conquering heroes dwell,
And God dwells too. No man comes back
To tell us here what Heaven’s like.
“A sword in the lap must lie,/As in its barrow the dragon, sly.” But what about the elephantine dragon in the room? Here are translations of “the finest poetry that has survived” from the Anglo-Saxon period. “The only significant absence,” says the author of the fervent foreword to The Word Exchange, “is the heroic narrative we know as Beowulf, that complete work whose 3,182 lines comprise 10 percent of the total corpus of Old English verse”—the complete work that comprises about 10 percent of Heaney’s own corpus, Beowulf. A heroic undertaking that is also a hymn ancient and modern, of deep respect and wide energies, Heaney’s Beowulf (1999) was not itself to be included, excerpted, in The Word Exchange, for it was not newly commissioned. Understood. But it would have permitted of emulation, one would have thought.
The other editorial decisions are distinctly good, for instance the inclusion of a dozen acute commentaries by the poets on translating Old English poetry. But when it comes or doesn’t come to Beowulf, this one sin of omission and commission is an editorial perversity in this right-minded and full-hearted anthology. “Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation” without any representation of Beowulf has to be Hamlet without the Prince. But then if you let them mention Hamlet, they will mention anything.
“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). ↩
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.” ↩
“Jocasta’s Divine Head: English with a Foreign Accent” (1990), in Classics and Translation: Essays by D.S. Carne-Ross, edited by Kenneth Haynes (Bucknell University Press, 2010), p. 43. ↩
Reproduced in The Anathemata (Faber, 1952), facing p. 240, and in a profoundly beautiful book, The Painted Inscriptions of David Jones, by Nicolete Gray (Gordon Fraser, 1981); see her account on p. 32, where a literal translation of the three lines (by Colin Wilcockson) hews to the Anglo-Saxon and so can best illuminate Jones’s illuminating art: “Stripped himself then the young man, who was God almighty: strong and courageous, climbed he up on the Cross high: proud in the sight of many when he desired to redeem mankind.” Ciaran Carson’s translation in The Word Exchange has a limber muscularity, glimpsing life in some great symbolic attitude (the terms are Yeatsian). ↩