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Deor's Lament: a Modern English Translation

"Deor's Lament" is one of the truly great poems of English antiquity. This modern English translation of one of the very best Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems is followed by footnotes and the translator's comments. Included in the notes are a summary and a detailed analysis of the poem's plot, theme, genre, purpose, context, references and techniques. The original alliterative Anglo-Saxon text appears after the notes. For "deep explorers" of Anglo-Saxon poetry, there is an advanced Language section written by Bob Zisk, followed by a list of sources for further reading.

Deor's Lament (circa the 10th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Weland endured the agony of exile:
an indomitable smith wracked by grief.
He suffered countless sorrows;
indeed, such sorrows were his bosom companions
in that frozen island dungeon
where Nithad fettered him:
so many strong-but-supple sinew-bands
binding the better man.
That passed away; this also may.

Beadohild mourned her brothers' deaths,
bemoaning also her own sad state
once she discovered herself with child.
She knew nothing good could ever come of it.
That passed away; this also may.

We have heard the Geat's moans for Matilda,
his lovely lady, waxed limitless,
that his sorrowful love for her
robbed him of regretless sleep.
That passed away; this also may.

For thirty winters Theodric ruled
the Mćring stronghold with an iron hand;
many acknowledged his mastery and moaned.
That passed away; this also may.

We have heard too of Ermanaric's wolfish ways,
of how he cruelly ruled the Goths' realms.
That was a grim king! Many a warrior sat,
full of cares and maladies of the mind,
wishing constantly that his crown might be overthrown.
That passed away; this also may.

If a man sits long enough, sorrowful and anxious,
bereft of joy, his mind constantly darkening,
soon it seems to him that his troubles are limitless.
Then he must consider that the wise Lord
often moves through the earth
granting some men honor, glory and fame,
but others only shame and hardship.
This I can say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga's scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just king. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors had promised me.
That passed away; this also may.

Other Anglo-Saxon/Old English poems: The Ruin, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, Deor's Lament, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, The Seafarer, The Rhyming Poem, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings

Footnotes and Translator's Comments

by Michael R. Burch

Summary

"Deor's Lament" is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. Often called simply "Deor," it appears in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960-990 AD. However, the poem may be considerably older than the manuscript, since many ancient poems were passed down orally for generations before being written down. The poem is a lament in which someone named Deor, presumably the poet who composed the poem, compares the loss of his job and prospects to seemingly far greater tragedies of the past. Thus "Deor's Lament" may be an early example of overstatement and/or "special pleading." However, it's also possible that the scop was poking fun at himself. The poem could have been intended as tragedy, comedy or tragicomedy.

Author

The author is unknown but may have been an Anglo-Saxon scop (poet) named Deor. Or the poem could have been written by someone else. As noted below under the "Plot" heading, the name Deor could be wordplay, punning on "deer" and "dear." We have no knowledge of a poet named "Deor" outside the poem.

Genre

"Deor's Lament" is, as its name indicates, a lament. The poem has also been classified as an Anglo-Saxon elegy or dirge. If the poet's name "was" Deor, does that mean he is no longer alive and is speaking to us from beyond the grave? "Deor" has also been categorized as an ubi sunt ("where are they now?") poem.

Theme

The poem's theme is one common to Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature: that a man cannot escape his fate and thus can only meet it with courage, resolve and fortitude. And perhaps with resignation as well.

Plot

Doer's name either means or sounds like "dear" and the poet puns on his name in the final stanza: "I was dear to my lord. My name was Deor." The name Deor may also mean or be related to "deer" with connotations of "courageous," "noble" and "excellent." Perhaps the ancient scop meant to invoke the image of a majestic stag. There is an expanded discussion of the name under the "Language" heading. In any case, the primary plot of Deor's poem seems simple and straightforward, at least on the surface: other heroic figures of the past overcame adversity; so Deor may also be able to overcome the injustice done to him when his patron gave his position to a rival. But is it possible that Deor intended the poem to be a spell, incantation, curse or charm of sorts? Did Deor think his fortunes might change because of the spell cast by his poem on those who had done him wrong? This is not so much an educated guess as a hunch on my part. But in any case the poem can be enjoyed for its language and the story it tells without the reader knowing all the poet's intentions. We can speculate but it is probably impossible for us to ever know exactly what the scop was up to.

Techniques

"Deor's Lament" is an alliterative poem; it uses alliteration rather than meter and rhyme to "create a flow" of words. This was typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry. "Deor's Lament" is one of the first Old English poems to employ a refrain, which it does quite effectively. What does the refrain "Thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg" mean? Perhaps something like: "That was overcome, and so may this also." However, the refrain is ambiguous: perhaps the speaker believes things will work out the same way; or perhaps he is merely suggesting that things might work out for the best; or perhaps he is being ironical, knowing they won't.

Interpretation

My personal interpretation of the poem is that the poet is employing irony. All the previously-mentioned heroes and heroines are dead. I believe Deor is already dead, or knows that he is an old man soon to also be dead. "Passed away" maybe a euphemism for "dead as a doornail." But I don't "know" this, and you are free to disagree and find your own interpretation of the poem.

Analysis of Characters and References

Weland/Welund is better known today as Wayland the Smith. (Beowulf's armor was said to have been fashioned by Weland.) According to an ancient Norse poem, Völundarkviđa, Weland and his two brothers came upon three swan-maidens on a lake's shore, fell in love with them, and lived with them happily for seven years, until the swan-maidens flew away. His brothers left, but Weland stayed and turned to smithing, fashioning beautiful golden rings for the day of his swan-wife's return. King Nithuthr, hearing of this, took Weland captive, hamstrung him to keep him prisoner, and kept him enslaved on an island, forging fine things. Weland took revenge by killing Nithuthr's two sons and getting his daughter Beadohild pregnant. Finally Weland fashioned wings and flew away, sounding a bit like Icarus of Greek myth.

Maethhild (Matilda) and Geat (or "the Geat") are known to us from Scandianavian ballads. Magnild (Maethhild) was distressed because she foresaw that she would drown in a river. Gauti (Geat) replied that he would build a bridge over the river, but she responded that no one can flee fate. Sure enough, she drowned. Gauti then called for his harp, and, like a Germanic Orpheus, played so well that her body rose out of the waters. In one version she returned alive; in a darker version she returned dead, after which Gauti buried her properly and made harpstrings from her hair.

The Theodoric who ruled the Maerings for thirty years may have to be puzzled out. A ninth-century rune notes that nine generations prior a Theodric, lord of the Maerings, landed in Geatland and was killed there. In the early sixth century there was a Frankish king called Theoderic. But the connections seem tenuous, at best. Perhaps the thirty year rule is a clue to consider the Ostrogoth Theodoric, born around 451. He ruled Italy for around thirty years, until 526. Toward the end of his reign Theodoric, then in his seventies, named his infant grandson heir. There were rumours that members of his court were conspiring against his chosen successor. Furthermore, the Catholic church was opposing the Arian Theodoric. As a result of these tensions, several leading senators were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy, including Boethius. It was while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution that Boethius wrote his famous Consolation of Philosophy. Theodoric's final years were unfortunately marked by suspicion and distrust, so he may be the ruler referred to by Deor.

Eormenric was another king of the Ostrogoths who died in about 375; according to Ammianus Marcellinus, he killed himself out of fear of the invading Huns. According to other Old Norse Eddic poems (Guđrúnarhvöt and Hamđismál, Iormunrekkr), Eormenric had his wife Svannhildr trampled by horses because he suspected her of sleeping with his son. So he might qualify as a "grim king" with "wolfish ways."

Deor has left no trace of himself, other than this poem. Heorrenda appears as Horant in a thirteenth century German epic Kudrun. It was said that Horant sang so sweetly that birds fell silent at his song, and fish and animals in the wood fell motionless. That would indeed make him a formidable opponent for the scop Deor.

Language

This section has been provided by Bob Zisk, who cited Henry Sweet as a source (then added a few others):

Refrain

"Thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg"

This line is perhaps one of the most debated in Old English verse. Its precise meaning is probably lost. The seemingly insurmountable problems are grammatical, syntactical and semantical.

Because the two demonstratives are genitive and without a stated thing pointed out by them, they cannot be rightly construed as grammatical subjects.

Anne Klinck, in her book The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study, mentions efforts to relate the poem to "Old Testament Pessimism" (Klinck, p. 45). She cites the Vulgate, Wisdom 5:9, "...transierunt omnia illa." However, I think this biblical verse can be more strongly applied to an interpretation of the refrain.

Besides the construction of the two demonstratives previously noted, the verbs ofereode and maegan pose additional linguistic difficulties. Attempts have been made to construe the two pronoun genitives as genitives of respect (Klinck p. 160), but this seems strained because Deor would be the only extant usage recorded in the O.E. corpus.

Maeg is another unruly verb. It is often translated as "may," a rendering which construes it as having an optative force. However, the difficulty again is a lack of testimonia. The verb does not appear to be used as an optative anywhere in surviving O.E. verse. It is more accurately rendered as "will" or "can," which is how Tolkien appears to have construed it when he translated it as "Time has passed since then, and so can this." This rendering neatly resolves the issue of the genitives by supplying a noun to fill the ellipsis, thus giving the line the possible force of a gnomic utterance. "Can" instead of "will" imbues a powerful quality of understatement, of both resignation and resolve.

Since first reading the poem, the refrain has struck me as a possible attenuation of a proverb or gnomic statement that in all likelihood would have been clear to the medieval reader or auditor. I had once thought the missing word might have been "wyrd," but I think now that the resignation in the poem is too mitigated by Christian world view to satisfy an insertion of a notion like "wyrd."

Klincke (p. 160) mentions an interesting speculation of Theodor Grienberger, that the refrain is "an assertion of the range of Deor's art as a minstrel." It would not be unheard of for a poet to do so. We have such proclamations from classical times well into the flourishing of Provencal lyric, so the idea is not far-fetched. Unfortunately Grienberger gets tied up in a restatement of the refrain which requires an understood insertion of a parenthetical nominative demonstrative after the genitive in the a part of the verse. Knud Schisbey (cited by Klinck) interprets ofergan as "to survive," which makes for an interesting reading which is besmirched only by the reality that no such use of ofergan is recorded elsewhere.

Although refrains are not well represented in O.E. verse, the traditions that formed the poet's milieu would have provided ample example. Examples might be Vergil, Eclogue VIII, the Pervigilium Veneris, and several songs recorded in the later Carmina Burana. A commonplace repetition which would probably be recognizable by an author exposed to the Christian liturgy can be found in the numerous types of figures of repetition (e.g., anaphora, epistrophe, epanalepsis) found in scripture, prayer and verse such as hymns and sequences. A simple example is the repetition of Alleluia in a short chant like the Regina Coeli. A more subtle use of repetition can be found in the funerary antiphon "In Paradisum":

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere ćternam habeas requiem.

This little chant, with its skillful repetition of phrase structure and similar vocabulary could have made for a practising poet a fine rhetorical case study in the skillful employment of figures of repetition, a lesson not far removed from either ordinary experience or cultural milieu. In fact, critics have observed in the language of Deor, artifacts of a more sophisticated example of rhetoric and theme, namely the Alfredian rendering of De Consolatio Philosophiae. This is set forth in Klinck's commentary on "Deor."

The refrain (and the questions surrounding it) illustrates the inseparability of grammar and the text for trying to come to terms with old works. It is all too easy for modern readers, especially after the dethronement of Grammar and Memory, to overlook the fact that for medieval and ancient authors, these were noble, laudable and admirable pursuits.

Some of the problems encountered in the refrain are encountered elsewhere in the poem with similar solutions proposed. It becomes an exercise in humility to acknowledge that even when we know the meaning of every word in a passage, the meaning and sense, from which we are separated by over a thousand years, may yet still elude us. We just do not know what the poet and his auditors knew.

Versification

I would like to devote a few sentences to versification, which in years past has evoked its own cascade of controversies.

Deor's versification is unlike that of modern English where, from early Modern English times until the advent of so-called free verse, the foot has been the building block of line and poem.

Jespersen (cf Jespersen, "Notes on English Meter") suggested that the traditional scansion system based on a binary of weak stress and one level of strong stress was faulty because it did not conform to the empirical realities of Modern English. Instead he offered a stress analysis which posited four levels of stress. This  addressed metrical constructs like the spondee, pyrrhic, and Hopkins's "hovering stress," all of which fall short because the language and the English iamb, do not offer a clear stress equivalent to the isochronism of quantitative systems like those of Greek and Latin. The four stress system seemed to offer a framework to address the seeming unevenness perceived in metrical imports such as the spondee and the pyrrhic, and to offer an empirical rationale for the dilemmas posed by substitution/equivalence, promotion and demotion of formally inconvenient syllables and stresses.

However, Old English verse, presuming a language with three levels of stress, is a very different creature, built around word stress, vowel quantity, alliteration, and a line consisting of four primary stresses. The mead bench would tolerate no tightly regulated accentual syllabic organization as in modern English.

The verse (or hemistich) is the primary building block of Old English poetry. With few exceptions (950 lines of a 30,000 line corpus [Diamond]), the four strong beats of a line will fall only on long syllables which, as an editorial and pedagogical preference, may or may not be marked in modern editions.

Alliteration is only on strong beats.

One or two alliterating syllables in the first hemistich will alliterate with one strong stress in the second, for a total of two or three alliterations in a line. In every line at least one stressed syllable and no more than two in the first hemistich must alliterate only on the first stressed syllable in the the second hemistich.

The first and second hemistiches are known as the "on verse" and the "off verse." Starting with the analysis by Sievers in the nineteenth century, classification of the Old English alliterative line has posited divisions into five basic verse types. These are typically designated by upper case letters, A. B, C, D, E. The on and off verses are sometimes referenced by lower case letters a and b.

Stresses are indicated by forward and backward slashes and an x.

/  primary or strong    stress
\  secondary stress
x  weak stress

Vowels alliterate with any vowel. Consonants alliterate with themselves. Consonant clusters like sc, st, sp also alliterate with themselves. Palatized c and g (a ch and yod sound) alliterate with the unpalatized forms of c and g as well as with themselves. Although there are many exceptions, alliteration is usually found with nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. (Diamond, pp 46-47).

In A verses the poet had greater leeway in the construction of the first measure. More constraints were imposed on the second measure.

The basic configurations of the five verse types are:

A:
/x | /x
/xx | /x
/\ | /x
/\x | /x
/xx xx |/x

All these are examples of verses of single or double alliteration with respect to the off verse. The last scheme is a concession to form over the fact of an apparently noncompliant verse. The solution to the puzzle is to treat the first syllable of the two weak as strong, giving it a kind of wrenched accent, or to borrow a newer term, a promotion.

There are certain A verses, called A3 and A4, in which for an A3 a weak stress in the first measure occurs where one would expect a primary stress. For an A4 in the second measure of an on verse, the second measure consists of two weak stresses. This problem is resolved by pronouncing the first weak syllable in each measure as though strong. We see similar phenomena in some hip hop and rap as well as in exaggerated readings of iambic verse that overstress so-called promotions.

Some schemes for A verses with double alliteration are:

/xx | /x
/xx xx | /x
/xxx | /x
/xxx | / \

For B and C verses there is a heavy second measure with a weak first. Pope has advocated that when reading a B or C verse beginning with three, four or five syllables, the reader should pause before beginning the first measure (Diamond, p. 54; Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf). This pause is supposed to stand for a strum of a stringed instrument, but what it really is is an unnecessary imposition of isochronism onto the accentual scheme (Diamond, p. 55).

Some B verses:

xx | /x\
x | /x\
xx/ | /xx\
xx | /xx\

C verses have a close resemblance to B verses. When a C allliterates singly, the alliteration falls on the stress of the second measure:

x(x) | /\x
x(x)| /xx

D verses appear like B or C verses with alliteration on stress in the first measure:

/ | /x\
/ | /xx

If E verses occur with double alliteration, each measure carries an alliterated stress:

/\x | /

A single alliteration falls at the head of the first measure.

The final pattern for consideration is resolved stress, where two weak stresses are allowed to stand for a primary stress. Thus

xxx would resolve into /xx.

That has been the long version. However, in his text and commentary on the Old Saxon Heliand, James Cathey takes a greatly abbreviated approach stripped of most of the jargon. He emphasizes that the four beat accentual-alliterative line of Germanic tradition is older than its written survivors and that along with kennings and formulaic utterances was an additional mnemonic for both composition and recitation. He asserts the octosyllabic four beat line as the parent of all subsequent expansions and variations (Cathey, p.18):

/x/x | /x /x

"Alliteration was superimposed on the pattern of stresses...alliteration (German Stabreim) indicates an initial "rhyme" of consonants or vowels..." He identifies the first strong stress of the second half line as determinative of the alliterative pattern for the entire line
(Cathey, p. 18).

While the Heliand may not be an exemplar of the accentual-alliterative system, it contains many "pure" lines (Cathey, p. 19):

Dopte allen dag druhtfolc mikel (Heliand, 978)
/xxx | / || /x | /x
(All day he baptized a great retinue [BZ]).

By Cathey's stated method for approaching the meter (also given short shrift by Diamond), one could very well approach scansion by identifying the first strong beat of the off verse, which would then provide the key to the structure of the on verse. Exact line types, if and when an important consideration, could then be determined by reference to a table of types. Repetition and increased familiarity would doubtless add some virtuosity to the process.

Was the Deer a Dear?

The name Deor is interesting, apparently related to an old Germanic root referring to a wild animal. It occurs as noun and adjective. As a noun it can mean a wild animal, a reindeer, or a deer. It occurs in numerous compounds such as deorcynn, a species of animal, deorfald, a deer herd, fortune, a park. As an adjective, extant only in poetry, it means courageous, bold, severe, fierce, full of hardship. It too is compounded, e.g., deorlic, brave (referring to a deed or action), deemed, also meaning brave, but in reference to heart or spirit. Deor as deer seems to be part of another semantic cluster, diere, meaning beloved, and compounded to forms like dier(e)borndeor(e)born, meaning of noble birth, and diernes, meaning precious thing or treasure.

It seems that an O.E. reader or informed listener, upon hearing the word Deor, might reasonably call to mind this entire semantic nexus, much of which would have carried heroic and noble connotations. The deer or stag was, in many traditions, an animal of noble and heroic significance. In Beowulf the mead hall is known as Heorot, meaning stag or hart.

I've long thought that in texts which utilize words that seem to sprout seedlings of amplified meanings, the author probably used those words and nuances in a sense that triggered meaning in a reader or hearer, but which does not trigger so fulsome a response in us.
I think the guys (the heroic guys) seated on the meodsehtla chewing on a haunch of wild boar and washing it down with a strong honey beverage, would have ranged in their minds over the full range of cross references and meanings which often for our lack of cultural reference points and perhaps too much sobriety, elude us.

Reference Materials:

Stephen A. Barney, WORD-HOARD AN INTRODUCTION TO OLD ENGLISH VOCABULARY, Yale (1977)
Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Oxford (1898) Electronic version available for free download.
James W. Bright,  AN ANGLO-SAXON READER AND AN OUTLINE OF ANGLO-SAXON  GRAMMAR, Henry Holt & Company (1894)
A. Campbell, Old English Grammar, Oxford (1959)
James Cathey, Heliand TEXT AND COMMENTARY, West Virginia (2002)
Robert E. Diamond, Old English Grammar and Reader, Wayne State (1970)
E.V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse, Oxford (1957)
E.V. Gordon, PEARL, Oxford (1958)
FR. KLAEBER, BEOWULF AND THE FIGHT AT FINNSBURG, Heath (1950)
Anne Klinck, The Old English Elegies: A CRITICAL EDITION AND GENRE STUDY, McGill-Queen's University  (2001)
John C. Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf, New Haven (1942)
Henry Sweet, An Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse, Oxford (1983)
Henry Sweet, An Icelandic Primer with Grammar, Glossary and Notes, Amazon Kindle Public Domain Book (1895)
HENRY SWEET, THE STUDENT'S DICTIONARY OF ANGLO-SAXON, OXFORD (1963)
J.R.R. Tolkien & E. V. Gordon, SIR GAWAIN and the Green Knight, Oxford (1946)
C.L. Wrenn, Beowulf, Harrap (1973)

If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

The Ruin
The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Rhyming Poem
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Tegner's Drapa
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Meleager
Sappho
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Vera Pavlova
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click here: Michael R. Burch Expanded Bio.

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