It’s a song. Or a riddle. It’s sorrow.

From Christopher Patton’s Unlikeness Is Us: Fourteen from the Exeter Book. I’d been so impressed a few months back with Patton’s translations of Anglo-Saxon in Curious Masonry (post here) that I’d bought this sequel-expansion right away – but then, in flightiness, failed to open it until yesterday. Patton is considerably more aggressive than most in his translations and since I can’t find a decent way of including his 7 pages of justifying notes here, I’m hoping that Craig Williamson’s more ‘normal’ rendering from his Complete Old English Poems can serve as something like anchoring comparison.

Her Case
It’s a song. Or a riddle. It’s sorrow.
I will lay it out for you, the disorder
I went through as a young woman;
it’s not in the past, nor just for now,
I am always in the dark of this bind,
that started when my lord went off
from home over seaplay; each dawn
me wondering what land he was in.

Then I went to seek and serve him –
bereft of husband, miserable wretch-
his family started to think it through,
in secret, how to divide us, some way
that we should live two worlds apart,
with me here wanting, and him there.

My lord’s told me to hold hard here.
I’ve few friends at this patch of earth.
Few to love, and my thoughts are sad.

When I found a man as fitted as he
was – out of luck, and melancholy,
hoard-thoughted, murder-minded,
our hearts were giddy as we swore
we’d not be parted except by death
– nothing else – that’s been turned
round now thought, as if it’d never
been, our friendship. Near and far
I endure my heartfriend’s hatred.
He said to me, wait in these woods,
under this oak, in an earthhollow.
It’s a hall of old soil. I am all desire.

The hills are high here, valleys dim,
sharp thorns guard the enclosure,
a joyless berth. Often I’m caught
in rage at his going. Earthfriends
live and love in their beds, alone
I dawn in the earth under an oak
alone, abiding the summer’s long
day, bereaved, banished, weeping
for thoughts that give me no rest –

and the desire that seized this life?
that young man, though sad inside
and hard of mind, must bear himself
cheerfully as he suffers breastcares,
endless swarms of sorrow. Whether
all the world’s joys are his, or he sits
in guilt at the hill’s stone foot, rimed
by storm, a tired lord surrounded by
water, in some drear hall abides my
fried. And often he brings to mind
a kindlier hearth – woe to that one
who lives to long for what he loved.

And Williamson:

The Wife’s Lament
I tell this story from my grasp of sorrow—
I tear this song from a clutch of grief.
My stretch of misery from birth to bed rest
Has been unending, no more than now.
My mind wanders—my heart hurts.

My husband, my lord, left hearth and home,
Crossing the sea- road, the clash of waves.
My heart heaved each dawn, not knowing
Where in the world my lord had gone.

I followed, wandering a wretched road,
Seeking some service, knowing my need
For a sheltering home. I fled from woe.

His cruel kinsmen began to plot,
Scheming in secret to split us apart.
They forced us to live like exiles
Wretched, distant lives. Now I lie with longing.

My lord commanded me to live here
Where I have few friends, little love,
And no sense of home. Now my heart mourns.

I had found the best man for me,
My husband and companion, hiding his mind,
Closing his heart, bound in torment,
Brooding on murder beneath a gentle bearing.

How often we promised each other at night
Th at nothing would part us except death.
But fate is twisted—everything’s turned.
Our love is undone, our closeness uncoupled.
The web of our wedding is unwoven.

Something now seems as if it never was—
Our friendship together. Far and near,
I must suffer the feud of my dear lord’s brooding.

I was forced to live in a cold earth- cave,
Under an oak tree in an unhappy wood.
My earth-house is old. I lie with longing.

Here are steep hills and gloomy valleys,
Dark hideouts under twisted briars,
Bitter homes without joy. My lord’s leaving
Seizes my mind, harrows my heart.

Somewhere friends share a lover’s bed,
Couples clinging to their closeness at dawn,
While I sing each morning’s sorrow
Outside my earth-cave, under my oak tree,
Where I spend the summer- long day,
Mourning my exile, the cares of my heart,
Th e wandering of my tormented mind.
My spirit cannot rest, my heart be healed,
My mind be free from this life’s longing.

A young man must surely wake at dawn
With hard-edged sadness in his lonely heart.
He must brook misery beneath a gentle bearing
While he suffers his own stretch of sorrow,
Endless and undoing. May he look for joy
In an empty bed, exiled also in an alien land—
So that my friend sits under stone cliffs,
Pelted by storms, stranded by waves,
Chilled to the bone in his cruel hall.
In the comfort of cold, the embrace of anguish,
He may remember a kinder hearth and home.
Woe waits for the lover who lies longing.

Four Old English riddles

Numbers 44, 47, 73, and 85 from The Exeter Book, in Michael Alexander’s translation from The Earliest English Poems (and following W.S. Mackie’s numbering). His introduction to this section is also worth repeating so it is given in part beneath the riddles. (Proposed) solutions are at the bottom.

Swings by his thigh a thing most magical!
Below the belt, beneath the folds
of his clothes it hangs, a hole in its front end,
stiff-set & stout, but swivels about.

Levelling the head of this hanging instrument,
its wielder hoists his hem above the knee:
it is his will to fill a well-known hole
that it fits fully when at full length.

He has often filled it before. Now he fills it again.

I heard of a wonder, of words moth-eaten;
that is a strange thing, I thought, weird
that a man’s song be swallowed by a worm,
his binded sentences, his bedside standy-by
rustled in the night – and the robber-guest
not one white the wiser for the words he had mumbled.

I was in one hour an ashen crone
a fair-faced man, a fresh girl,
floated on foam, flew with birds,
under the wave dived, dead among fish,
and walked upon land a living soul.

Many were met, men of discretion
wisdom and wit, when in there walked ….

Two ears it had, and one eye solo,
two feet and twelve hundred heads,
back, belly, a brace of hands
a pair of sides and shoulders and arms
and one neck. Name, please.

From Alexander’s introduction:

It will be remembered that in Genesis ‘ the Lord God, having formed out of the ground all the beasts of the earth and all the fowls of the air brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: for whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name.’ This is literally true, for from this primordial Naming all modem nouns and hence the language we speak are descended. Language is the chief means o f human communication, and it is the gift of language that distinguishes us from the beasts. The novelty of the riddle is that by making a beast speak or depriving it of its name we render it unrecognizable. The subject of the riddle, animal, vegetable, or mineral, usurps the human prerogative of speech, and, naturally enough, takes a non-human point of view. The effect of this is a dislocation of perspective similar to that achieved in the modem theatre by the device known as alienation: a good riddle puzzles and can even be mildly frightening, simply because we do not know what it is that is speaking. The feeling o f bafflement grows when we are confronted by a riddle to which no solution has been found. The effect of being asked a riddle by someone who lived eleven hundred years ago is already disconcerting; but not to know the answer is frankly embarrassing. The riddle surprises by presenting the familiar through a non-anthropomorphic lens: the result is strange and beautiful, or delightful, or simply pathetic, but it almost always has the special, rather odd, intensity peculiar to the form.
People in Anglo-Saxon times, living uncomfortably close to the natural world, were well aware that though creation is inarticulate it is animate, and that every created thing, every wiht, had its own personality. Though the forces of earth, air, and water were not regularly propitiated or invoked, an awareness of the old methods of sympathetic identification seems to have lingered on, by habit and instinct, in the arts, and certainly in the art of poetry, as is clearly shown by the few charms that remain, corrupt though their texts may be.
The riddle is a sophisticated and harmless form of invocation by imitation : the essence of it is that the poet, by an act of imaginative identification to which Vernon Lee gave the name ‘empathy,’ assumes the personality o f some created thing – an animal, a plant, a natural force. Some element o f impersonation is involved in any creative act, but by performing this particular ventriloquism the poet extends and diversifies our understanding of – or at least our acquaintance with – the noumenous natural world , of whose life, or even existence, modern men arc becoming progressively more unaware. This operation is salutary, and may be said to have a religious value.

And solutions:
44. a key
47. a bookworm
73. unknown (Alexander proposes a Siren). Here’s commentary from Paull Franklin Baum’s Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter book:

One guess is Siren; another Water. If the latter, one would rather say Rain: a gentle shower, a heavy downpour, in the sea its natural form (its life) is lost; a little imagination can see it as hail walking on the ground. A third solution is offered by Mrs. von Erhardt-Siebold (Medium Ævum xv [1946], 48–54), comparing Frag. 117 of Empedocles:

Once I was a young man, maiden,
plant, bird, and mute fish cast ashore.

This, of course, is not a riddle, but an expression of cyclic metamorphosis. Just how an Anglo-Saxon came to know Empedocles is not clear.

85. a one-eyed garlic seller

And wandered off, bearing a winter sadness over the weft of waves …

Two versions of the Old English The Wanderer. The first – given in full – is Michael Alexander’s from his Earliest English Poems (which was later reprinted in a Penguin edition, though I haven’t seen it to check for changes). It is here for comparison, representing the more straightforward traditional translation. The second – given in part only because I don’t feel like typing 120 lines – is Christopher Patton’s from his Curious Masonry: Three Translations from the Anglo-Saxon. I found it by chance this morning and immediately liked his work on this (which he renders literally as The EarthWalker), The Seafarer, and The Ruin better than any other efforts I’ve seen. He has a site here with posts about this plus a more recent translation of several other Old English works (Unlikeness Is Us: Fourteen from the Exeter Book).

The italicized lines from Alexander’s version are what I’ve given at bottom in Patton’s.

The Wanderer
Who liveth alone longeth for mercy,
Maker’s mercy. Though he must traverse
tracts of sea, sick at heart,
trouble with oars ice-cold waters,
the ways of exile – Wierd is set fast.

Thus spoke such a ‘grasshopper, old griefs in his mind,
cold slaughters, the death of dear kinsmen:

‘Alone am I driven each day before daybreak
to give my cares utterance.
None are there now among the living
to whom I dare declare me throughly,
tell my heart’s thought. Too truly I know
it is in a man no mean virtue
that he keep close his heart’s chest,
hold his thought-hoard, think as he may.

No weary mind may stand against Wierd
nor may a wrecked will work new hope;
wherefore, most often, those eager for fame
bind the dark mood fast in their breasts.

So must I also curb my mind,
cut off from country, from kind far distant,
by cares overworn, bind it in fetters;
this since, long ago, the ground’s shroud
enwrapped my gold-friend. Wretched I went thence,
winter-wearied, over the waves’ bound;
dreary I sought hall of a gold-giver,
where far or near I might find
him who in meadhall might take heed o f me,
furnish comfort to a man friendless,
win me with cheer.
He knows who makes trial

how harsh and bitter is care for companion
to him who hath few friends to shield him.
Track ever taketh him, never the torqued gold,
not earthly glory, but cold heart’s cave.
He minds him of hall-men, of treasure-giving,
how in his youth his gold-friend
gave him to feast. Fallen all this joy.

He knows this who is forced to forgo his lord’s,
his friend’s counsels, to lack them for long:
oft sorrow and sleep, banded together,
come to bind the lone outcast;
he thinks in his heart then that he his lord
claspeth and kisseth, and on knee layeth
hand and head, as he had at otherwhiles
in days now gone, when he enjoyed the gift-stool

Awakeneth after this friendless man,
seeth before him fallow waves,
seabirds bathing, broading out feathers,
snow and hail swirl, hoar-frost falling.
Then all the heavier his heart’s wounds,
sore for his loved lord. Sorrow freshens.

Remembered kinsmen press through his mind;
he singeth out gladly, scanneth eagerly
men from the same hearth. They swim away.
Sailors’ ghosts bring not many
known songs there. Care grows fresh
in him who shall send forth too often
over locked waves his weary spirit.

Therefore I may not think, throughout this world,
why cloud cometh not on my mind
when I think over all the life of earls,
how at a stroke they have given up hall,
mood-proud thanes. So this middle earth
each of all days ageth and falleth.’

Wherefore no man grows wise without he have
his share of winters.
A wise man holds out;
he is not too hot-hearted, nor too hasty in speech,
nor too weak a warrior, not wanting in fore-thought,
nor too greedy of goods, nor too glad, nor too mild,
nor ever too eager to boast, ere he knows alL

A man should forbear boastmaking
until his fierce mind fully knows
which w ay his spleen shall expend itself.

A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be
when all this world ’s wealth standeth waste,
even as now , in many places, over the earth
walls stand, wind-beaten,
hung with hoar-frost; ruined habitations.
The wine-halls crumble; their wielders lie
bereft of bliss, the band all fallen
proud by the wall. War took off some,
carried them on their course hence; one a bird bore
over the high sea; one the hoar wolf
dealt to death; one his drear-cheeked
earl stretched in an earthen trench.

The Maker of men hath so marred this dwelling
that human laughter is not heard about it
and idle stand these old giant-works.
A man who on these walls wisely looked
who sounded deeply this dark life
would think back to the blood spilt here,
weigh it in his wit. His word would be this:
‘ Where is that horse now ? Where are those men? Where is
the hoard-sharer?
Where is the house of the feast? Where is the hall’s uproar?

Alas, bright cup! Alas, burnished fighter!
Alas, proud prince! How that time has passed,
dark under night’s helm, as though it never had been!

There stands in the stead of staunch thanes
a towering wall wrought with worm-shapes;
the earls are off-taken by the ash-spear’s point,
that thirsty weapon. Their Wierd is glorious.

Storms break on the stone hillside,
the ground bound by driving sleet,
winter’s wrath. Then wanness cometh,
night’s shade spreadeth, sendeth from north
the rough hail to harry mankind.

In the earth-realm all is crossed;
Wierd’s will changeth the world.
Wealth is lent us, friends arc lent us,
man is lent, kin is lent;
all this earth’s frame shall stand empty.’

So spoke the sage in his heart; he sat apart in thought.
Good is he who keeps faith: nor should care too fast
be out o f a man’s breast before he first know the cure:
a warrior fights on bravely. Well is it for him who seeks
the Heavenly Father’s solace, in whom all our fastness stands

And starting around line 40 in Patton’s, covering the italicized section above:

Even so, and wretched with sorrow,
far from homeland and noble kinsman,
I have bound heart and mind in chains,
since years ago I covered a goldfriend
in the dark of earth and wandered off,
bearing a winter sadness over the weft
of waves, seeking, homesick, near or
far, some patron who knew my people,
who might in meadhall offer to comfort
a friendless wanderer, to draw him out,
delight him. Sorrow, all know who know,
is cruel companion to the one who holds
none dear, and none hold so. For him no
ring of wrought gold, nor earthly glory,
but an icy heart at the hearth of exile.
Sometimes he calls to mind hallfriends
of his youth, the giving of gifts, feasts
where his gracious patron would lavish
favours on all of them. Joy is a ruin.

As anyone knows who must go long
without the word of his beloved lord.
Then sorrow and sleep together bind
the wretched solitary, in his dream
he embraces and kisses his dear lord
once more, lays in his lap his head
and hands, as once he did in days
gone by, kneeling at the high seat.
Then the friendless one awakens,
sees the fallow waves before him,
seabirds splaying feathers, bathing
as snow falls shot through with hail,
the heart’s wounds are heavier now,
raw with a longing for loved ones
long departed. His sorrow deepens
when remembered kin pass through
his mind, as singing he greets them,
gazing on them in joy as they fly
away, floating spirits that bear no
familiar voices, as sorrow deepens,
to one who sends, across the weft
of waves, a weary spirit after them.

I cannot see, for all the world, why
my mind does not go dark entirely
when I think how the lives of men
give way abruptly, they leave the hall
bold warriors. The great earth itself
falls and decays each day, and no man
may be wise who has not passed many
winters on it…..

Ubi Sunt in Old English

The Ubi Sunt sensibility hovers throughout Old English poetry but only in The Wanderer (92-96) does it take a form  – and rhetorical refrain – so close to the more familiar neiges d’antan of Villon.

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?

Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?

Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!

Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,

genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.


Where has the horse gone? Where the warrior? Where the treasure?

Where the seats of feasts? Where are the hall joys?

Oh, the bright cup! Oh, the mailed warrior!

Oh, the prince’s glory! How that time departed,

grew dark under the night helmet as if it hadn’t been

(tr. Robert E. Bjork)


Tolkien lends a modified version of these lines to Aragorn in the Two Towers as he speaks of Rohan – “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?”

Fate of the mead-mad man

From the Old English poem, Fortunes of Mortals (translated Robert E. Bjork)

Sum sceal on beore     þurh byreles hond
meodugal mæcga;     þonne he gemet ne con
gemearcian his muþe     mode sine,
ac sceal ful earmlice     ealdre linnan,
dreogan dryhtenbealo     dreamum biscyred,
ond hine to sylfcwale     secgas nemnað,
mænað mid muþe     meodugales gedrinc. (51-57)

One through beer from the cupbearer’s hand will
become a mead-mad man; then he will know no measure,
will not give boundary to his mouth with his mind,

but he must very wretchedly yield up his life,
endure great misfortune bereft of joys,
and people will say he killed himself, well decry
the drinking of the mead-mad man with their mouths
Meodugal – here alliteratively rendered mead-mad – is a compound of mead (meodu) and an adjective (gal) defined with the Latin equivalent luxuriosus (immoderate, wanton, self-indulgent).  The root of that adjective is the same that yields geil (lit. horny) in modern german, and I can’t help wanting break the alliteration in favor of the anachronistic ‘mead-horny’ – on parallel with the similar split in sense of French-derived ‘besotted’ (‘madly impassioned for’ and ‘drunk’)
It’s a shame Malcolm Lowry never worked this passage into Under the Volvano as fortune of the mezcal-mad man