“That Came to Pass This Also May”

Anglo-Saxon Court

Anglo-Saxon Court

This blog posting consists of three views of an Anglo-Saxon poem called “Deor.” First I suggest you click here to see the poem being recited aloud in the original language.

Next, here is Seamus Heaney’s translation of the poem in modern English:

Welund himself knew misery by worms.
The brave man knew hardship,
had to himself for company sorrow and longing,
winter-cold misery; He often found woe,
since Nithhad by force laid a thin sinew-bond onto the better man.

That came to pass, this also may!

Beadohilde was not as sorrowful from her brothers’ death
as from her own thing,
that she certainly understood that she was pregnant;
She was never able to think confidently,
about what she should do.

That came to pass, this also may!

We found out that for Maethhilde,
many became the bottomless embraces of the Geat,
that the sorrowful love deprived her of all sleep.

That came to pass, this also may!

Theodric possessed for thirty winters the city of Maeringa;
That was known to many.

That came to pass, this also may!

We discovered the wolfen thought of Ermanaricus;
He occupied widely the people of the kingdom of the Goths.
That was a harsh king.
Many a man lived bound to sorrows,
woe in expectation,
often wishing that this kingdom was overcome.

That came to pass, this also may!

He lived sorrowful, deprived of joy,
he grew dark in his spirit,
it seemed to him that the troubles would be endless.
I might then think that throughout this world the wise Lord changes enough,
shows honour to many a man, true splendor,
a portion of woes to some.

That I by myself wish to tell,
that I once was a scop of the Heodenings,
dear Lord.

The name ‘Deor’ was mine.

I had for many winters a good fellowship, a loyal lord,
until now Heorrenda, a man skilled in poetry,
received a privilege that the protecting lord once gave to me.

That came to pass, this also may!

Finally, here is the written poem in the original Anglo-Saxon:

Welund him be wurman    wræces cunnade.
Anhydig eorl    earfoþa dreag,
hæfde him to gesiþþe    sorge ond longaþ,
wintercealde wræce,    wean oft onfond,
siþþan hine Niðhad on    nede legde
swoncre seonobende    on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Beadohilde ne wæs    hyre broþra deaþ
on sefan swa sar    swa hyre sylfre þing:
þæt heo gearolice    ongieten hæfde
þæt heo eacen wæs—    æfre ne meahte
þriste geþencan,    hu ymb þæt sceolde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We þæt Mæðhilde    monge gefrugnon
wurdon grundlease    Geates frige,
þæt hi seo sorglufu    slæp ealle binom.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Ðeodric ahte    þritig wintra
Mæringa burg—    þæt wæs monegum cuþ.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We geascodan    Eormanrices
wylfenne geþoht;    ahte wide folc
Gotena rices.    Þæt wæs grim cyning.
Sæt secg monig    sorgum gebunden,
wean on wenan,    wyscte geneahhe
þæt þæs cynerice    ofercumen wære.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Siteð sorgcearig    sælum bidæled,
on sefan sweorceð,    sylfum þinceð
þæt sy endeleas    earfoða dæl.
Mæg þonne geþencan    þæt geond þas woruld
witig dryhten    wendeþ geneahhe,
eorle monegum    are gesceawað,
wislicne blæd,    sumum weana dæl.
Þæt ic bi me sylfum    secgan wille,
þæt ic hwile wæs    Heodeninga scop,
dryhtne dyre.    Me wæs Deor noma.
Ahte ic fela wintra    folgað tilne,
holdne hlaford,    oþþæt Heorrenda nu,
leoðcræftig monn    londryht geþah,
þæt me eorla hleo    ær gesealde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!

There are only two letters of the alphabet that are unfamiliar to most of us. There is the thorn (Þ), which is pronounced like the soft th in thick. Next is the edh (ð), pronounced like the hard th in then.

Notice how the poetic line is broken into two fragments, with the additional space indicating a pause.

After a while, the recurring refrain Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!—“That came to pass, this also may”stands out like the heart of Anglo-Saxon philosophy. The gentle fatalism of that refrain is one of the things we lost when Harold Godwinsson died at Hastings in 1066 with a Norman arrow in his eye.

I now know why Jorge Luis Borges was so intent on learning Anglo-Saxon towards the end of his life. It is a beautiful language and lends itself well to poetry.

The Shield Wall

Anglo-Saxon Battle Helmet

Anglo-Saxon Battle Helmet

I am continuing to undergo a period of interest in the Anglo-Saxons. It started with some old poetry, and now I am reading the latest in Bernard Cornwell’s excellent series various called Warrior Chronicles and Saxon Tales. Set in the Tenth Century, we see the half-pagan, half-Christian Uhtred of Bebbanburg and his son of the same name battling internal enemies in the Mercian kingdom as well as Viking raiders.

Warfare among the Anglo-Saxons was a bloody affair. The warriors on each side linked their shields together and proceeded to hack above and below them with swords and axes to bring down their foe. In The Empty Throne, we find the senior Uhtred laid up with battle scars, but pretending to be hurt more than he is.

Reading this description of shield wall battle from Cornwell’s earlier The Pagan Lord, one wonders that he is alive at all:

There is a way of battle. In the end the shield walls must meet and the slaughter will begin and one side will prevail and the other will be beaten down in a welter of butchery, but before the blades clash and before the shields crash, men must summon the nerve to make the charge. The two sides stare at each other, they taunt and insult each other. The young fools of each army will prance ahead of the wall and challenge their enemy to single combat, they will boast of the widows they plan to make and of the orphans who will weep for their fathers’ deaths. And the young fools fight and half of them will die, and the other half strut their bloody victory, but there is still no true victory because the shield walls have not met. And still the waiting goes on. Some men vomit with fear, others sing, some pray, but then at last one side will advance. It is usually a slow advance. Men crouch behind their shields, knowing that spears, axes and arrows will greet them before the shields slam together, and only when they are close, really close, does the attacker charge. Then there is a great bellow of noise, a roar of anger and fear, and the shields meet like thunder and the big blades fall and the swords stab and the shrieks fill the sky as the two shield walls fight to the death. That is the way of battle.

After years of reading Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels of the Napoleonic Wars, which I devoured with great pleasure, I find the Warrior Chronicles to be at least as good.

The Seafarer

Viking Craft

Viking Craft

Several days ago, I quoted an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Wanderer.” Today, I give you a somewhat longer piece, which was translated by Ezra Pound in 1911. According to Wikipedia:

The poem is told from the point of view of an old seafarer, who is reminiscing and evaluating his life as he has lived it. The seafarer describes the desolate hardships of life on the wintry sea. He describes the anxious feelings, cold-wetness, and solitude of the sea voyage in contrast to life on land where men are surrounded by kinsmen, free from dangers, and full on food and wine. The climate on land then begins to resemble that of the wintry sea, and the speaker shifts his tone from the dreariness of the winter voyage and begins to describe his yearning for the sea. Time passes through the seasons from winter — “it snowed from the north” — to spring — “groves assume blossoms” — and to summer — “the cuckoo forebodes, or forewarns.”

Then the speaker again shifts, this time not in tone, but in subject matter. The sea is no longer explicitly mentioned; instead the speaker preaches about steering a steadfast path to heaven. He asserts that “earthly happiness will not endure,” that men must oppose “the devil with brave deeds,” and that earthly wealth cannot travel to the afterlife nor can it benefit the soul after a man’s death.

Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of Ezra Pound, but in this early version, I think he surpasses himself. This is “The Seafarer” by that greatest of Anglo-Saxon poets, Anonymous:

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. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides ‘mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart’s thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind’s lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world’s delight
Nor any whit else save the wave’s slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart’s blood. Burgher knows not —
He the prosperous man — what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood ‘mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.
On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O’er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after —
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth ‘gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, …
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain ‘mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Cæsars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe’er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth’s gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.

“Here Is Man Brief”

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

This was a world that almost seemed to know it wasn’t going to be around long. Anglo-Saxon poetry is not plentiful, but what exists has a sadness that is touching. The following is an excerpt from “The Wanderer” as translated by Clifford Truesdell IV:

Where went the rider? Where went the giver of treasure? Where went the high seats? Where are the halls of feasting? Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the prince’s glory! How time vanishes, darkens under night’s helmet as if it never were. Stands now where stood beloved companions a wall, wondrous high, snake-like mottled. Spears’ might took off the warriors, slaughter-greedy weapons, notorious fate; and storms smite these stone walls; snow falling binds the earth, winter’s tumult. When dark comes night’s shadow deepens, sends from north fierce hail-fall, to harrow men. All is hardship in earth realm, Fate’s course undoes world under heaven. Here are goods brief, here is friend brief, here is man brief, here is kin brief.

Virtually all known Anglo-Saxon poems and fragments can fit into a slim paperback edition. I myself own two such collections, and find myself coming back again and again.