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Deor's Lament

This loose Modern English translation of the Old English/Anglo Saxon poem, by Michael R. Burch, is followed by footnotes and the translator's comments.

Deor's Lament (circa 10th century AD)

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

Weland knew the agony of exile.
That indomitable smith was wracked by grief.
He endured countless troubles:
sorrows were his only companions
in his frozen island dungeon
after Nithad had fettered him,
many strong-but-supple sinew-bonds
binding the better man.
   That passed away; this also may.

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

We have heard that the Geat's moans for Matilda,
his lady, were 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 knew this and moaned.
   That passed away; this also may.

We have also heard of Ermanaric's wolfish ways,
of how he held wide sway in the realm of the Goths.
He was a grim king! Many a warrior sat,
full of cares and maladies of the mind,
wishing constantly that his kingdom 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 endless.
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 will 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 lord. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors gave me.
   That passed away; this also may.

Footnotes

It seems that the scop (poet) Deor, by linking various heroes and heroines of the past to his own plight, may hope to cause his present problems to pass away just as theirs once did. Thus, the poem may be a spell, curse or charm of sorts.

"Deor's Lament" is one of the first Old English poems to employ a refrain, which it does quite effectively. It was found in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960-990 AD. The poem might be considerably older than the book itself, as many ancient poems were passed down orally for generations before they were finally written down.

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.

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 responds that no one can flee fate. Sure enough, she drowns. Gauti calls for his harp, and, like a Germanic Orpheus, plays so well that her body rises out of the waters. In one version she returns alive; in a darker version she is dead, but Gauti buries her properly and makes new 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.

What does the refrain "Thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg" mean? Perhaps something like, "It was overcome in this way, and so it might be overcome in another respect also." 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.

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. "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch. "Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "How Long the Night" is one of the very best Anglo Saxon lyric poems. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Whoso List to Hunt
Tegner's Drapa
Lament for the Makaris
Robert Burns
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
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
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

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