What should trouble me? In the face of harsh destiny what can a man do but try?

From Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain’s departure to meet the Green Knight (lines 530-565). I finally watched last year’s film adaptation – The Green Knight. It was beautiful visually but it wasn’t Gawain. But it also didn’t want to be so that’s not a fair statement about the film as executed, only as conceived. Still, what I missed more than anything throughout was the atmosphere and outlook of this passage below, especially its conclusion.

And winter comes back again as the world would have it, in the way of things.

Until the Michaelmas moon
When first the days feel wintry
And Gawain is reminded then
Of his dread journey.

Still he stays until All Saints’ Day with Arthur
And kept that feast with them for the sake of the knights,
With revelry and high spirits at the Round Table.
Noble knights and beautiful ladies
Were all grieving out of love for that knight,
But nevertheless they gave words to nothing but mirth.
Many made jests who were joyless because of that gentle knight.
And after the meal he speaks sadly to his uncle
About his journey, and in plain words he said,
“Now, liege lord of my life, I must ask to take leave of you.
You know the terms of this promise. I do not care
To mention the trouble of it, not a word about that.
But I am bound to set out for that stroke tomorrow without fail,
To search for the Green Knight, as God may guide me.”
Then the best of the knights gathered around:
Ywain and Eric and many others,
Sir Doddinaval de Savage, the Duke of Clarence,
Lancelot and Lionel, and the good Lucan,
Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere, big men both of them,
And many other noble knights, with Mador of the Gate.
All this company of the court crowded close to the King
To counsel the knight, out of the care in their hearts.
There was a great sharp grief passing through the hall
At so noble a one as Gawain going on that errand
To suffer a terrible blow and handle the sword no more.

Still, the knight spoke cheerfully,
Saying, “What should trouble me?
In the face of harsh destiny
What can a man do but try?”

And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez, no fage,

Til Meȝelmas mone
Watz cumen wyth wynter wage;
Þen þenkkez Gawan ful sone
Of his anious uyage.

Ȝet quyl Al-hal-day with Arþer he lenges;
And he made a fare on þat fest for þe frekez sake,
With much reuel and ryche of þe Rounde Table.
Knyȝtez ful cortays and comlych ladies
Al for luf of þat lede in longynge þay were,
Bot neuer þe lece ne þe later þay neuened bot merþe:
Mony ioylez for þat ientyle iapez þer maden.
For aftter mete with mournyng he melez to his eme,
And spekez of his passage, and pertly he sayde,
‘Now, lege lorde of my lyf, leue I yow ask;
Ȝe knowe þe cost of þis cace, kepe I no more
To telle yow tenez þerof neuer bot trifel;
Bot I am boun to þe bur barely to-morne
To sech þe gome of þe grene, as God wyl me wysse.’
Þenne þe best of þe burȝ boȝed togeder,
Aywan, and Errik, and oþer ful mony,
Sir Doddinaual de Sauage, þe duk of Clarence,
Launcelot, and Lyonel, and Lucan þe gode,
Sir Boos, and Sir Byduer, big men boþe,
And mony oþer menskful, with Mador de la Port.
Alle þis compayny of court com þe kyng nerre
For to counseyl þe knyȝt, with care at her hert.
Þere watz much derue doel driuen in þe sale
Þat so worthé as Wawan schulde wende on þat ernde,
To dryȝe a delful dynt, and dele no more wyth bronde.

Þe knyȝt mad ay god chere,
And sayde, ‘Quat schuld I wonde?
Of destinés derf and dere
What may mon do bot fonde?’

W.S. Merwin’s translation above is my favorite but it of course makes some sacrifices along the way. Here’s a comparison of the final three lines from above:

Original – And sayde, ‘Quat schuld I wonde?
Merwin – Saying, “What should trouble me?
Literal – And said, “for what should I hesitate/hold back in fear? (wonden)

Original – Of destinés derf and dere

Merwin – In the face of harsh destiny
Literal – With fate dread and dear (derf and dere, see note below)

Original – What may mon do bot fonde?’

Merwin – What can a man do but try?”
Literal – What can a man do but put it to the test (fonden, with a possible metaphorical sense of ‘take a taste’)

For derf and dere Tolkien’s edition has a note: ‘dere coudl be either ‘dear, pleasant’, OE. deore, or ‘fierce, cruel’, OE. deor. The latter, as a synonym of derf, is possible; and, though not elsewhere in Gawain, is part of the poet’s vocabulary: it occurs in Purity 214. But the former, making an inclusive phrase of a common type (‘young and old’, etc) is more likely: “What can one do but face whatever Fate may send, whether painful or pleasant?’ Gollancz usefully compares 1507 ‘druryes greme and grace’.

And somewhere out before him, the unravelling patience he was wedded to

Odysseus, from W.S. Merwin’s The Drunk in the Furnace

Always the setting forth was the same,
Same sea, same dangers waiting for him
As though he had got nowhere but older.
Behind him on the receding shore
The identical reproaches, and somewhere
Out before him, the unravelling patience
He was wedded to. There were the islands
Each with its woman and twining welcome
To be navigated, and one to call “home.”
The knowledge of all that he betrayed
Grew till it was the same whether he stayed
Or went. Therefore he went. And what wonder
If sometimes he could not remember
Which was the one who wished on his departure
Perils that he could never sail through,
And which, improbable, remote, and true,
Was the one he kept sailing home to?

There is nothing for you to say

Learning a Dead Language, from W.S. Merwin’s Green With Beasts:

There is nothing for you to say. You must
Learn first to listen. Because it is dead
It will not come to you of itself, nor would you
Of yourself master it. You must therefore
Learn to be still when it is imparted,
And, though you may not yet understand, to remember.

What you remember is saved. To understand
The least thing fully you would have to perceive
The whole grammar in all its accidence
And all its system, in the perfect singleness
Of intention it has because it is dead.
You can only learn a part at a time.

What you are given to remember
Has been saved from death’s dullness by
Remembering. The unique intention
Of a language whose speech has died is order
Incomplete only where someone has forgotten.
You will find that that order helps you to remember.

What you come to remember becomes yourself.
Learning will be to cultivate the awareness
Of that governing order, now pure of the passions
It composed; till, seeking it in itself,
You may find at last the passion that composed it,
Hear it both in its speech and in yourself.

What you remember saves you. To remember
Is not to rehearse, but to hear what never
Has fallen silent. So your learning is,
From the dead, order, and what sense of yourself
Is memorable, what passion may be heard
When there is nothing for you to say.

Perhaps in death when the dust is dust, we will be forever this undecipherable root

Alguien / Someone from Borges’ El Otro, El Mismo / The Self and the Other, in the W.S. Merwin translation. At bottom is the commentary from Obras Completas Edicion Critica (v.2 pg 562) quoting Guillermo Sucre’s Borges, el poeta explanation of the poem’s ‘antigua inocencia‘ (pg. 130 there, my translation).

A man worn down by time,
a man who does not even expect death
(the proofs of death are statistics
and everyone runs the risk
of being the first immortal),
a man who has learned to express thanks
for the days’ modest alms:
sleep, routine, the taste of water,
an unsuspected etymology,
a Latin or Saxon verse,
the memory of a woman who left him
thirty years ago now
whom he can call to mind without bitterness,
a man who is aware that the present
is both future and oblivion,
a man who has betrayed
and has been betrayed,
may feel suddenly, when crossing the street,
a mysterious happiness
not coming from the side of hope
but from an ancient innocence,
from his own root or from some diffused god.

He knows better than to look at it closely,
for there are reasons more terrible than tigers
which will prove to him
that wretchedness is his duty,
but he accepts humbly
this felicity, this glimmer.

Perhaps in death when the dust
is dust, we will be forever
this undecipherable root,
from which will grow forever,
serene or horrible,
our solitary heaven or hell.

Un hombre trabajado por el tiempo,
un hombre que ni siquiera espera la muerte
(las pruebas de la muerte son estadísticas
y nadie hay que no corra el albur
de ser el primer inmortal),
un hombre que ha aprendido a agradecer
las modestas limosnas de los días:
el sueño, la rutina, el sabor del agua,
una no sospechada etimología,
un verso latino o sajón,
la memoria de una mujer que lo ha abandonado
hace ya tantos años
que hoy puede recordarla sin amargura,
un hombre que no ignora que el presente
ya es el porvenir y el olvido,
un hombre que ha sido desleal
y con el que fueron desleales,
puede sentir de pronto, al cruzar la calle,
una misteriosa felicidad
que no viene del lado de la esperanza
sino de una antigua inocencia,
de su propia raíz o de un dios disperso.

Sabe que no debe mirarla de cerca,
porque hay razones más terribles que tigres
que le demostrarán su obligación
de ser un desdichado,
pero humildemente recibe
esa felicidad, esa ráfaga.

Quizá en la muerte para siempre seremos,
cuando el polvo sea polvo,
esa indescifrable raíz,
de la cual para siempre crecerá,
ecuánime o atroz,
nuestro solitario cielo o infierno.

The ancient innocence is “the return, not only to his past but to his own origin, to that dimension where evocation is identified with invention, where memory is nourished on oblivion; still more: where oblivion is the non-being that is a form of being. For this reason, at the end of the poem, Borges intuits that this innocence (the “undecipherable root”) will not arise except from death; death, not as negation, but as true revelation of the identity of time

Art is that Ithaca of green eternity, not of marvels

From Borges’ El Hacedor / The Maker. The English translation is W.S. Merwin’s from, most recently, the Viking Selected Poems Borges collection. Merwin truly does pop up in the widest range of places.

Ars Poetica
To look at the river made of time and water
and to remember that time is another river,
to know that we lose ourselves like the river
and that faces pass by like the water.

To feel that wakefulness is another sleep
that dreams of not dreaming and that
the death that our flesh fears is that
death that comes every night,
which is called sleep.

To see in the day or the year a symbol
of the days of man and his years;
to turn the insult of the years
into a music, a murmur and a symbol.

To see sleep in death, in the sunset
a sad gold, such is poetry
that is immortal and poor. Poetry
returns like the dawn and the sunset.

At times in the evenings a face
looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art should be like that mirror
that reveals to us our own face.

They say that Ulysses, sick of marvels,
cried tears of love at the sight of his Ithaca
green and modest. Art is that Ithaca
of green eternity, not of marvels.

It is also like the endless river
that flows and remains and mirrors the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and is another, like the endless river.

Arte Poética
Mirar el río hecho de tiempo y agua
y recordar que el tiempo es otro río,
saber que nos perdemos como el río
y que los rostros pasan como el agua.

Sentir que la vigilia es otro sueño
que sueña no soñar y que la muerte
que teme nuestra carne es esa muerte
de cada noche, que se llama sueño.

Ver en el día o en el año un símbolo
de los días del hombre y de sus años,
convertir el ultraje de los años
en una música, un rumor y un símbolo,

ver en la muerte el sueño, en el ocaso
un triste oro, tal es la poesía
que es inmortal y pobre. La poesía
vuelve como la aurora y el ocaso.

A veces en las tardes una cara
nos mira desde el fondo de un espejo;
el arte debe ser como ese espejo
que nos revela nuestra propia cara.

Cuentan que Ulises, harto de prodigios,
lloró de amor al divisar su Itaca
verde y humilde. El arte es esa Itaca
de verde eternidad, no de prodigios.

También es como el río interminable
que pasa y queda y es cristal de un mismo
Heráclito inconstante, que es el mismo
y es otro, como el río interminable.

And if the song is sung truly

From The Selected Poems of Osip Mandlestam (NYRB edition translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, no.54 of the selection from Stone):

Poison in the bread, the air drunk dry.
Hard to doctor the wounds.
Joseph sold into Egypt
greived no more bitterly for home.

Bedouins under the stars
close their eyes, sitting their horses,
and improvise songs
out of the troubles of the day.

No lack of subject:
one lost a quiver in the sand,
one bartered away a stallion …
the mist of events drifts away.

And if the song is sung truly,
from the whole heart, everything
at last vanishes: nothing is left
but space, the stars, the singer.

I’ll make a song of pure nothing

A poem by Guilhelm de Poitou/Guillaume IX de Poitiers/William IX, Duke of Aquitaine. He’s likely better known now as the grandfather and source of inheritance of Eleanor of Aquitaine but he was also the first of the troubadours (or at least first whose works at all survived). Here first is W.S. Merwin’s translation (from Mays of Ventadourn, pg 99-100).

I’ll make a song of pure nothing,
not about me or another being,
not about love or being young
or anything.
It came to me while I was sleeping
on my horse riding.

The hour I was born is unknown to me.
I am not happy nor unhappy,
neither aloof nor friendly,
and the choice is not mine:
I am what a fairy made me
at night on a mountain.

I cannot say whether I
am asleep or awake. Somebody tell me.
My heart is nearly broken by
a pain I feel
for which I will not even sigh,
by St. Martial.

I’m sick and fear that I will die
and all I know if it is hearsay.
I want a doctor who pleases me
I don’t know who.
He’ll be good if he can cure me;
if it gets worse, no.

I have a lover I don’t know.
Never saw her. No use to.
No good or ill to me did she do
that I could notice
nor ever was Norman or Frenchman who
was in my house.

I never saw her but love her warmly.
I was never right and she never wronged me.
When I don’t see her I manage nicely,
don’t give a rooster.
I know one with more charm and beauty,
and her better.

I’ve made the verse, whose is unknown,
and I’ll give it to that one
who’ll pass it on to someone
going toward Anjou
so she’ll send back a countersign
in his portmanteau.

And here is the original in Occitan, which is far less terrifyingly odd than first appears if you set it alongside a French translation. But I include it more as textual accompaniment to this performance. I imagine the music is an educated approximation.

Farai un vers de dreit nien,
Non er de mi ni d’autra gen,
Non er d’amor ni de joven,
Ni de ren au,
Qu’enans fo trobatz en durmen
Sus un chivau.

No sai en qual hora-m fui natz,
No soi alegres ni iratz,
No soi estranhs ni soi privatz,
Ni no-n puesc au,
Qu’enaisi fui de nueitz fadatz
Sobr’un pueg au.

No sai cora-m fui endormitz,
Ni cora-m veill, s’om no m’o ditz!
Per pauc no m’es lo cor partitz
D’un dol corau,
E no m’o pretz una fromitz,
Per saint Marsau!

Malautz soi e cremi morir,
E re no sai mas quan n’aug dir.
Metge querrai al mieu albir,
E no-m sai cau:
Bos metges er si-m pot guerir,
Mas non, si-m mau.

Amigu’ ai ieu, non sai qui s’es,
C’anc no la vi, si m’aiut fes,
Ni-m fes que-m plassa ni que-m pes,
Ni no m’en cau
C’anc non ac Norman ni Franses
Dins mon ostau.

Anc non la vi et am la fort,
Anc no-n aic dreit ni no-m fes tort;
Quan no la vei, be m’en deport,
No-m prez un jau,
Qu’ie-n sai gensor e belazor,
E que mai vau.

Fait ai lo vers, no sai de cui,
Et trametrai lo a celui
Que lo-m trameta per autrui,
Enves Peitau,
Que-m tramezes del sieu estui
La contraclau.

Read seeds not twigs

From W.S. Merwin’s The Mays of Ventadorn – his meeting Ezra Pound as a young college student (with Pound still locked in St. Elizabeth’s).

He told me he imagined I was serious, and that if I was I should learn languages, “so as not to be at the mercy of translators.” And then I should translate, myself. “If you’re going to be a poet,” he said, “you have to work at it every day. You should write about seventy-five lines a day. But at your age you don’t have anything to write about. You may think you do, but you don’t. So get to work translating. The Provencal is the real source. The poets are closest to music. They hear it. They write to it. Try to learn the Provencal, at least some of it, if you can. Meanwhile, the others. Spanish is all right. The Romancero is what you want there. Get as close to the original as you can. It will make you use your English and find out what you can do with it.”
[afterwards] we managed to maintain a flurry of correspondence for a while. He sent me bits of gnomic instruction on post cards, always scrawled in pencil, the handwriting clearly reflecting his quick impulsiveness. The most memorable of them read, in full, “Read seeds not twigs EP.”

A robe of flowers from Arashiyama

From The Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, translated by W.S. Merwin and Takako Lento. The selection includes a full thirty or so on cherry blossoms, a few of which I give in honor of the approaching season.


Cherry petals float down behind him

Landing on

A monk’s heavy knapsack


A storm of cherry blossoms settles

On a raft pilot’s straw rain cape

A robe of flowers from Arashiyama


Courtesans come out

To see the cherry blossoms

As though they were betting on their next life


I’ve come here to see the flowers

And I nod off among the cherry blossoms

Sleepy for a moment

I left my locked mouth hanging on the wall

Some more of Muso Soseki in W.S. Merwin and Soiku Shigematsu’s translation Sun at Midnight.  

[I’ve discovered that this site reformats my line spacing – indentation on the second and double indentation on the third of every three-line verse – but I haven’t the energy to look into ways of overriding this]


All on my own I’m happy
in the unmapped landscape
inside the bottle
my only friend
is this
wisteria cane
Last night
we stayed up talking
so late
that I’m afraid
I was overheard
by the empty sky

No-Word Hut

I left my locked mouth
on the wall
With the brushwood
door shut tight
I delight in my own freedom
my secret talk resounds
like thunder
Even the bare
posts and the lamps
can’t pretend they don’t hear

Hut in Harmony

When the master
without a word
raises his eyebrows
the posts and rafters
the cross-beams and roof-tree
begin to smile
There is another place
for conversing
heart to heart
The full moon
and the breeze
at the half-open window