The HyperTexts

The Best Anglo-Saxon Poems in Modern English Translations

This page collects some of the very best Anglo-Saxon poems in modern English translations by Michael R. Burch. I became a translator of Anglo-Saxon poems, riddles and kennings after falling in love with "Wulf and Eadwacer," a stunning ancient poem from the Exeter Book. One thing led to another, and I began to translate other poems from the same same collection. There are a number of outstanding longer Anglo-Saxon poems, and around 100 riddles and kennings in the Exeter Book, the oldest surviving poetry anthology in the English language. However, the exact number is unknown because some pages are illegible or missing. Unfortunately, from the gouges and round stains on the cover, it appears this precious book was used as a cutting board and coaster for beer mugs!

"Wulf and Eadwacer" is one of the truly great poems of English antiquity. It has been classified as an elegy, a lament, a lover's lament, an early ballad or villanelle, a riddle, a charm, and as a frauenlieder or "woman's song."

Wulf and Eadwacer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My clan's curs pursue him like crippled game;
they'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf's on one island; I'm on another.
His island's a fortress, fastened by fens.    (fastened=secured)
Here, bloodthirsty curs howl for carnage.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

My hopes pursued Wulf like panting hounds,
but whenever it rained—how I wept!
the boldest cur clutched me in his paws:
good feelings, to a point, but the end loathsome!

Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your seldom-comings
have left me famished, deprived of real meat.

Have you heard, Eadwacer? Watchdog!
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.




This is the oldest extant poem in the English language:

Cdmon's Hymn
(Anglo-Saxon/Old English lyric circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now let us honour      heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the might of the Architect      and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father.      First he, the Eternal Lord,
established      the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the Primeval Poet,      created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men,      Holy Creator,
Maker of mankind.      Then he, the eternal Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth:      Master almighty!

"Cdmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD and may be the oldest extant poem in the English language. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735), Cdmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. In the original poem, hardly a word is recognizable as English because Cdmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized form of ancient German. The word "England" harkens back to Angle-land; the Angles were a Germanic tribe. Nevertheless, by Cdmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. Poets were considered to be "Makers" (as in William Dunbar's "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so the poem may express a sort of affinity between the poet and his God.



Bede's "Death Song" is one of the best poems of the fledgling English language now known as Old English or Anglo-Saxon English. Written circa 735 AD, the poem may have been composed by Bede on his death-bed. It is the most-copied Old English poem, with 45 extant versions. The poem is also known as "Bede's Lament." It was glossed by a 13th century scribe known as the Tremulous Hand of Worchester because of the "shaky" nature of his handwriting. Was the celebrated scholar known and revered as the Venerable Bede also one of the earliest Anglo-Saxon poets? The answer appears to be "yes," since Bede was doctus in nostris carminibus ("learned in our song") according to his most famous disciple, Saint Cuthbert. Cuthbert's letter on Bede's death, the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, is commonly taken by modern scholars to indicate that Bede composed the five-line vernacular Anglo-Saxon poem known as "Bedes Death Song." However, there is no way to be certain that Bede was the poem's original author.

Bede's Death Song
(Anglo-Saxon/Old English lyric circa 735 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Facing Death, that inescapable journey,
who can be wiser than he
who reflects, while breath yet remains,
on whether his life brought others happiness, or pains,
since his soul may yet win delight's or night's way
after his death-day.

The original Anglo-Saxon (Old English) text:

Fore m nedfere nnig wiore
onc snottora on him earf si
to ymbhycgenne r his hinionge
hwt his gast godes oe yfles
fter dea dge doemed wiore.




This is a poem I wrote in tribute to Caedmon and Bede after visiting the grave of Caedmon in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England.

At Cdmon’s Grave
by Michael R. Burch

“Cdmon’s Hymn,” composed at the Monastery of Whitby (a North Yorkshire fishing village), is one of the oldest known poems written in the English language, dating back to around 680 A.D. According to legend, Cdmon, an illiterate Anglo-Saxon cowherd, received the gift of poetic composition from an angel; he subsequently founded a school of Christian poets. Unfortunately, only nine lines of Cdmon’s verse survive, in the writings of the Venerable Bede. Whitby, tiny as it is, reappears later in the history of English literature, having been visited, in diametric contrast, by Lewis Carroll and Bram Stoker’s ghoulish yet evocative Dracula.

At the monastery of Whitby,
on a day when the sun sank through the sea,
and the gulls shrieked wildly, jubilant, free,

while the wind and time blew all around,
I paced those dusk-enamored grounds
and thought I heard the steps resound

of Carroll, Stoker and good Bede
who walked there, too, their spirits freed
—perhaps by God, perhaps by need—

to write, and with each line, remember
the glorious light of Cdmon’s ember,
scorched tongues of flame words still engender.

Here, as darkness falls, at last we meet.
I lay this pale garland of words at his feet.

Originally published by The Lyric




This is another version of my tribute poem to Caedmon and Bede:

Cdmon’s Face
by Michael R. Burch

At the monastery of Whitby,
on a day when the sun sank through the sea,
and the gulls shrieked wildly, jubilant, free,

while the wind and Time blew all around,
I paced that dusk-enamored ground
and thought I heard the steps resound

of Carroll, Stoker and good Bede
who walked here too, their spirits freed
—perhaps by God, perhaps by need—

to write, and with each line, remember
the glorious light of Cdmon’s ember:
scorched tongues of flame words still engender.

*

He wrote here in an English tongue,
a language so unlike our own,
unlike—as father unto son.

But when at last a child is grown.
his heritage is made well-known:
his father’s face becomes his own.

*
He wrote here of the Middle-Earth,
the Maker’s might, man’s lowly birth,
of every thing that God gave worth

suspended under heaven’s roof.
He forged with simple words His truth
and nine lines left remain the proof:

his face was Poetry’s, from youth.



This is one of the first Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems to employ a refrain:

Deor's Lament (Anglo Saxon poem, circa 10th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation 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 Mring 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.



"The Wife's Lament" or "The Wife's Complaint" is an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem found in the Exeter Book which is generally considered to be an elegy in the manner of the German frauenlied, or "woman's song," although there are other interpretations of the poem's genre and purpose. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, but of course the poem may have been written earlier.

The Wife's Lament
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I draw these words from deep wells of my grief,
care-worn, unutterably sad.
I can recount woes I've borne since birth,
present and past, never more than now.
I have won, from my exile-paths, only pain.

First, my lord forsook his folk, left,
crossed the seas' tumult, far from our people.
Since then, I've known
wrenching dawn-griefs, dark mournings ... oh where,
where can he be?

Then I, too, left—a lonely, lordless refugee,
full of unaccountable desires!
But the man's kinsmen schemed secretly
to estrange us, divide us, keep us apart,
across earth's wide kingdom, and my heart broke.

Then my lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few friends in this unknown, cheerless
region, none close.
Christ, I felt lost!

Then I thought I had found a well-matched man—
one meant for me,
but unfortunately he
was ill-starred and blind, with a devious mind,
full of murderous intentions, plotting some crime!

Before God we
vowed never to part, not till kingdom come, never!
But now that's all changed, forever—
our friendship done, severed.
I must hear, far and near, contempt for my husband.

So other men bade me, "Go, live in the grove,
beneath the great oaks, in an earth-cave, alone."
In this ancient cave-dwelling I am lost and oppressed—
the valleys are dark, the hills immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!

The injustice assails me—my lord's absence!
On earth there are lovers who share the same bed
while I pass through life dead in this dark abscess
where I wilt, summer days unable to rest
or forget the sorrows of my life's hard lot.

A young woman must always be
stern, hard-of-heart, unmoved,
opposing breast-cares and her heartaches' legions.
She must appear cheerful
even in a tumult of grief.

Like a criminal exiled to a far-off land,
moaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded love, drenched by wild storms
and caught in the clutches of anguish,
is reminded constantly of our former happiness.

Woe be it to them who abide in longing.



"The Husband's Lament" also known as "The Husband's Message" is an Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. "The Husband's Lament" may or may not be a reply to "The Wife's Lament," another poem in the same collection.

The Husband's Message or The Husband's Lament
anonymous Old English poem, circa 960-990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

See, I unseal myself for your eyes only!
I sprang from a seed to a sapling,
waxed great in a wood,
                           was given knowledge,
was ordered across saltstreams in ships
where I stiffened my spine, standing tall,
till, entering the halls of heroes,
                   I honored my manly Lord.

Now I stand here on this ship’s deck,
an emissary ordered to inform you
of the love my Lord feels for you.
I have no fear forecasting his heart steadfast,
his honor bright, his word true.

He who bade me come carved this letter
and entreats you to recall, clad in your finery,
what you promised each other many years before,
mindful of his treasure-laden promises.

He reminds you how, in those distant days,
witty words were pledged by you both
in the mead-halls and homesteads:
how he would be Lord of the lands
you would inhabit together
while forging a lasting love.
 
Alas, a vendetta drove him far from his feuding tribe,
but now he instructs me to gladly give you notice
that when you hear the returning cuckoo's cry
cascading down warming coastal cliffs,
come over the sea! Let no man hinder your course.

He earnestly urges you: Out! To sea!
Away to the sea, when the circling gulls
hover over the ship that conveys you to him!

Board the ship that you meet there:
sail away seaward to seek your husband,
over the seagulls' range,
                          over the paths of foam.
For over the water, he awaits you.

He cannot conceive, he told me,
how any keener joy could comfort his heart,
nor any greater happiness gladden his soul,
than that a generous God should grant you both
to exchange rings, then give gifts to trusty liege-men,
golden armbands inlaid with gems to faithful followers.

The lands are his, his estates among strangers,
his new abode fair and his followers true,
all hardy heroes, since hence he was driven,
shoved off in his ship from these shore in distress,
steered straightway over the saltstreams, sped over the ocean,
a wave-tossed wanderer winging away.

But now the man has overcome his woes,
outpitted his perils, lives in plenty, lacks no luxury,
has a hoard and horses and friends in the mead-halls.

All the wealth of the earth's great earls
now belongs to my Lord ...
                             He only lacks you.

He would have everything within an earl's having,
if only my Lady will come home to him now,
if only she will do as she swore and honor her vow.

The solution to the riddle may seem a bit obscure to modern readers. Rather than sending a mundane love letter to his fiance, the earl has sent a talkative emissary ... in the form of a staff carved with runes, perhaps fashioned of inlaid gems or crystals. This is why the emissary begins by saying he "sprang from a seed to a sapling" and "waxed great in a wood." The emissary began life as a sapling, grew up to be a tree, then was cut down and became a staff. Then runes were affixed with the plan for the young lovers to be reunited at long last. Is this poem related to "The Wife's Lament," in which a woman separated from the man she loves, whom she calls her "Lord," complains bitterly that members of the man's family or tribe have conspired to keep them apart? While there is no way to be sure, it seems very possible to me that "The Husband's Message" is a reply to "The Wife's Lament."



Are these the oldest rhyming poems in the English language? Reginald of Durham recorded four Anglo-Saxon/Old English verses of Saint Godric's: they are the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive.

The first song is said in the Life of Saint Godric to have come to Godric when he had a vision of his sister Burhcwen, like him a solitary at Finchale, being received into heaven. She was singing a song of thanksgiving, in Latin, and Godric renders her song in English bracketed by a Kyrie eleison:

Led By Christ and Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

By Christ and Saint Mary I was so graciously led
that the earth never felt my bare foot’s tread!

Crist and sainte marie swa on scamel me iledde
at ic on is ere ne silde wid mine bare fote itredie


In the second poem, Godric puns on his name: godes riche means “God’s kingdom” and sounds like “God is rich” ...

A Cry to Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I.
Saint Mari Virgin,
Mother of Jesus Christ the Nazaren,
Welcome, shield and help thin Godric,
Fly him off to God’s kingdom rich!

II.
Saint Mari, Christ’s bower,
Virgin among Maidens, Motherhood’s flower,
Blot out my sin, fix where I’m flawed,
Elevate me to Bliss with God!

Saint Mari Virgin,
Moder Iesu Cristes Nazaren,
Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,
Onfong bring hegilich
With the in Gods riche.

Saint Mari Cristes bur,
Maidens clenhad, moders flur;
Dilie min sinn, rix in min mod,
Bring me to winn with the selfd God.


Godric also wrote a prayer to St. Nicholas:

Prayer to St. Nicholas
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Saint Nicholas, beloved of God,
Build us a house that’s bright and fair;
Watch over us from birth to bier,
Then, Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there!

Sainte Nicholaes godes dru
tymbre us faire scone hus
At i burth at i bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel are




"The Rhyming Poem" also known as "The Riming Poem" and "The Rhymed Poem" is perhaps the oldest English rhyming poem. It was included in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to circa 960-990 AD. However this ancient Anglo-Saxon poem may be older than the collection in which it was discovered.

The Rhymed Poem aka The Rhyming Poem and The Riming Poem
anonymous Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, circa 990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

He who granted me life created this sun
and graciously provided its radiant engine.
I was gladdened with glees, bathed in bright hues,
deluged with joy’s blossoms, sunshine-infused.

Men admired me, feted me with banquet-courses;
we rejoiced in the good life. Gaily bedecked horses
carried me swiftly across plains on joyful rides,
delighting me with their long limbs' thunderous strides.
That world was quickened by earth’s fruits and their flavors!
I cantered under pleasant skies, attended by troops of advisers.
Guests came and went, amusing me with their chatter
as I listened with delight to their witty palaver.

Well-appointed ships glided by in the distance;
when I sailed myself, I was never without guidance.
I was of the highest rank; I lacked for nothing in the hall;
nor did I lack for brave companions; warriors, all,
we strode through castle halls weighed down with gold
won from our service to thanes. We were proud men, and bold.
Wise men praised me; I was omnipotent in battle;
Fate smiled on and protected me; foes fled before me like cattle.
Thus I lived with joy indwelling; faithful retainers surrounded me;
I possessed vast estates; I commanded all my eyes could see;
the earth lay subdued before me; I sat on a princely throne;
the words I sang were charmed; old friendships did not wane ...

Those were years rich in gifts and the sounds of happy harp-strings,
when a lasting peace dammed shut the rivers’ sorrowings.
My servants were keen, their harps resonant;
their songs pealed, the sound loud but pleasant;
the music they made melodious, a continual delight;
the castle hall trembled and towered bright.
Courage increased, wealth waxed with my talent;
I gave wise counsel to great lords and enriched the valiant.

My spirit enlarged; my heart rejoiced;
good faith flourished; glory abounded; abundance increased.
I was lavishly supplied with gold; bright gems were circulated ...
Till treasure led to treachery and the bonds of friendship constricted.

I was bold in my bright array, noble in my equipage,
my joy princely, my home a happy hermitage.
I protected and led my people;
for many years my life among them was regal;
I was devoted to them and they to me.

But now my heart is troubled, fearful of the fates I see;
disaster seems unavoidable. Someone dear departs in flight by night
who once before was bold. His soul has lost its light.
A secret disease in full growth blooms within his breast,
spreads in different directions. Hostility blossoms in his chest,
in his mind. Bottomless grief assaults the mind's nature
and when penned in, erupts in rupture,
burns eagerly for calamity, runs bitterly about.

The weary man suffers, begins a journey into doubt;
his pain is ceaseless; pain increases his sorrows, destroys his bliss;
his glory ceases; he loses his happiness;
he loses his craft; he no longer burns with desires.
Thus joys here perish, lordships expire;
men lose faith and descend into vice;
infirm faith degenerates into evil’s curse;
faith feebly abandons its high seat and every hour grows worse.

So now the world changes; Fate leaves men lame;
Death pursues hatred and brings men to shame.
The happy clan perishes; the spear rends the marrow;
the evildoer brawls and poisons the arrow;
sorrow devours the city; old age castrates courage;
misery flourishes; wrath desecrates the peerage;
the abyss of sin widens; the treacherous path snakes;
resentment burrows, digs in, wrinkles, engraves;
artificial beauty grows foul;
the summer heat cools;
earthly wealth fails;
enmity rages, cruel, bold;
the might of the world ages, courage grows cold.
Fate wove itself for me and my sentence was given:
that I should dig a grave and seek that grim cavern
men cannot avoid when death comes, arrow-swift,
to seize their lives in his inevitable grasp.
Now night comes at last,
and the way stand clear
for Death to dispossesses me of my my abode here.

When my corpse lies interred and the worms eat my limbs,
whom will Death delight then, with his dark feast and hymns?
Let men’s bones become one,
and then finally, none,
till there’s nothing left here of the evil ones.
But men of good faith will not be destroyed;
the good man will rise, far beyond the Void,
who chastened himself, more often than not,
to avoid bitter sins and that final black Blot.
The good man has hope of a far better end
and remembers the promise of Heaven,
where he’ll experience the mercies of God for his saints,

freed from all sins, dark and depraved,
defended from vices, gloriously saved,
where, happy at last before their cheerful Lord,
men may rejoice in his love forevermore.



"The Ruin" is one of the 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 analysis of the poem's plot, theme, genre, history, context, references and techniques. The original Anglo-Saxon text appears after the notes. This elegy/lament may have been written by an Anglo-Saxon scop (poet) who admired the long-lasting construction-work of the ancient Romans. The references to bath-houses and a stream gushing forth hot water suggest that the ruins in question are those of Bath, England. "The Ruin" appeared in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960 to 990 AD. Of course the poems in the book could have been written at some earlier date—perhaps considerably earlier.

Note: In Anglo-Saxon poetry the Wyrdes were like the Fates of Greek mythology, and the Fates controlled human destinies. I have interpreted the poem to be a war of sorts between human Giants and the Wyrdes, so I have chosen to capitalize only the two warring parties. While it may seem that the Wyrdes won, the work of the Giants still stands ...

THE RUIN
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

well-hewn was this wall-stone, till Wyrdes wrecked it
and the Colossus sagged inward ...

broad battlements broken;
the Builders' work battered;

the high ramparts ransacked;
tall towers collapsed;

the great roof-beams shattered;
gates groaning, agape ...

mortar mottled and marred by scarring hoar-frosts ...

the Giants’ dauntless strongholds decaying with age ...

shattered, the shieldwalls,
the turrets in tatters ...

where now are those mighty Masons, those Wielders and Wrights,
those Samson-like Stonesmiths?

the grasp of the earth, the firm grip of the ground
holds fast those fearless Fathers
                                                men might have forgotten
except that this slow-rotting siege-wall still stands
after countless generations!

for always this edifice, grey-lichened, blood-stained,
stands facing fierce storms with their wild-whipping winds
because those master Builders bound its wall-base together
so cunningly with iron!
                                 it outlasted mighty kings and their clans!

how high rose those regal rooftops!
how kingly their castle-keeps!
how homely their homesteads!
how boisterous their bath-houses and their merry mead-halls!
how heavenward flew their high-flung pinnacles!
how tremendous the tumult of those famous War-Wagers ...
till mighty Fate overturned it all, and with it, them.

then the wide walls fell;
then the bulwarks buckled;
then the dark days of disease descended ...

as death swept the battlements of brave Brawlers;
as their palaces became waste places;
as ruin rained down on their grand Acropolis;
as their great cities and castles collapsed
while those who might have rebuilt them lay gelded in the ground—
those marvelous Men, those mighty master Builders!

therefore these once-decorous courts court decay;
therefore these once-lofty gates gape open;
therefore these roofs' curved arches lie stripped of their shingles;
therefore these streets have sunk into ruin and corroded rubble ...

when in times past light-hearted Titans flushed with wine
strode strutting in gleaming armor, adorned with splendid ladies’ favors,
through this brilliant city of the audacious famous Builders
to compete for bright treasure: gold, silver, amber, gemstones.

here the cobblestoned courts clattered;
here the streams gushed forth their abundant waters;
here the baths steamed, hot at their fiery hearts;
here this wondrous wall embraced it all, with its broad bosom.

... that was spacious ...



A Proverb from Winfred's Time
anonymous Old English poem, circa 757-786
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

1.
The procrastinator puts off purpose,
never initiates anything marvelous,
never succeeds, and dies alone.

2.
The late-deed-doer delays glory-striving,
never indulges daring dreams,
never succeeds, and dies alone.

3.
Often the deed-dodger avoids ventures,
never succeeds, and dies alone.

Oft daedlata domę foręldit,
sigisitha gahuem, suuyltit thi ana.

Winfrid or Wynfrith is better known as Saint Boniface (c. 675–754). The poem might better be titled "A Proverb Against Procrastination from Winfred's Time." This may be the second-oldest English poem, after "Caedmon's Hymn."



Franks Casket Runes
anonymous Old English poems, circa 700
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The fish flooded the shore-cliffs;
the sea-king wept when he swam onto the shingle:
whale's bone.

Fisc flōd āhōf on firgenberig.
Wear gāsric grorn ǣr hē on grēot geswam.
Hranes bān.

Romulus and Remus, twin brothers weaned in Rome
by a she-wolf, far from their native land.

Rōmwalus and Rēomwalus, twēgen gebrōera:
fēdde hīe wylf in Rōmeceastre, ēle unnēah.




"The Leiden Riddle" is an Old English translation of Aldhelm's Latin riddle Lorica ("Corselet").

The Leiden Riddle
anonymous Old English riddle poem, circa 700
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The dank earth birthed me from her icy womb.
I know I was not fashioned from woolen fleeces;
nor was I skillfully spun from skeins;
I have neither warp nor weft;
no thread thrums through me in the thrashing loom;
nor do whirring shuttles rattle me;
nor does the weaver's rod assail me;
nor did silkworms spin me like skillfull fates
into curious golden embroidery.
And yet heroes still call me an excellent coat.
Nor do I fear the dread arrows' flights,
however eagerly they leap from their quivers.

Solution: a coat of mail.

If you see a busker singing for tips, you are seeing someone carrying on an Anglo-Saxon tradition that goes back to the days of Beowulf ...

He sits with his harp at his thane's feet,
Earning his hire, his rewards of rings,
Sweeping the strings with his skillful nail;
Hall-thanes smile at the sweet song he sings.
—"Fortunes of Men" loose translation by Michael R. Burch



"The Seafarer" is an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem whose author is unknown. The original Anglo-Saxon poem, generally categorized as an elegy or lament, appears on the left. My Modern English translation appears on the right. I have attempted to "grok" (i.e., to understand as intimately and profoundly as possible) what the original poet was trying to communicate. But of course there is no guarantee that I am always correct in my interpretations. At best, this is my personal interpretation of an ancient poem that no one may fully understand today. But I think the essence shines through, thanks to the passion and clarity of the original poet. Or perhaps there was more than one scop involved, as I suggest in my translation notes.Michael R. Burch

The most famous translator of "The Seafarer" was Ezra Pound.

NOTE: There are expanded translation notes after the poem. I have also provided a Synopsis/Summary, a more detailed Analysis, a Glossary/Vocabulary, and notes about Genre, Language, Kennings, Theme and Point of View.

The Seafarer (anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem, circa 990 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I.

Mg ic be me sylfum  This is my self's
sogied wrecan,           true song,                  sogied ~ true tale; wrecan ~ reckoning
sias secgan,                my sea-lay's-saga  sias ~ journey; secgan ~ say, saga
hu ic geswincdagum    of how I endured      geswincdagum ~ days of toil, tribulation
earfohwile                 life's hardships,          earfohwile ~ hardship-time
oft rowade,                wrenching anguish,   rowade ~ suffer, endure
bitre breostceare         bitter breast-cares
gebiden hbbe,[1a]    ... and still do!           gebiden hbbe ~ continue to have

gecunnad in ceole                  Tested at the keel               gecunnad ~ tried; ceole ~ keel
cearselda fela,[1b]                 of many a care-hold,          cearselda ~ care-place; fela ~ many
atol ya gewealc,                   rocked by wild waves'        ya ~ wave; gewealc ~ rolling
r mec oft bigeat                 relentless poundings
nearo nihtwaco                      each anxious night-watch,  nearo ~ narrow, full of hardship
t nacan stefnan,                   soaked at the stern              nacan ~ ship; stefnan ~ stern, prow
onne he be clifum cnossa. when tossed close to cliffs! cnossa ~ pitch, drive

Calde gerungen     Ice-enmassed            gerungen ~ crowded, pressed
wron mine fet,      my fettered feet        wron ~ be, happen
forste gebunden      became frost-bound  gebunden ~ bind, tie
caldum clommum,  cold clumps!             clommum ~ bond, fetter, binding

r a ceare seofedun  There cares seethed       seofedun ~ sigh, lament
hat ymb heortan;           hot in my heart;
hungor innan slat           hunger's pangs pierced  slat ~ slit, tear
merewerges mod.          my sea-weary soul!       merewerges ~ sea-weary; mod ~ mood, soul

t se mon ne wat  How can land-locked men understand,
e him on foldan     for whom Fortune          foldan ~ land, ground
fgrost limpe,       smiles more favorably?  fgrost ~ fairly; limpe ~ happen, befall

hu ic earmcearig                   How I, care-wracked and wretched,  earmcearig ~ wretched-caring
iscealdne s                         borne on the ice-cold sea,
winter wunade                     weathered winter's                 wunade ~ live, dwell, remain
wrccan lastum,                  exile-ways,                            wrccan ~ wretch, exile
winemgum bidroren,[2a]   bereft of wine-brothers,        winemgum ~ wine-kinsmen
bihongen hrimgicelum;[3a]  my beard hung with icicles,  hrimgicelum ~ rime crystals, icicles
hgl scurum fleag.               my body hail-pelted!             hgl ~ hail; scurum ~ shower

r ic ne gehyrde   How I heard nothing           gehyrde ~ heard
butan hlimman s,  but the sea's savage roars,  hlimman ~ roar
iscaldne wg.          its icy-cold rages.

Hwilum ylfete song       Sometimes the swan's song  Hwilum ~ while; ylfete ~ swan
dyde ic me to gomene,  gave me pleasure             gomene ~ pleasure, entertainment
ganotes hleoor             the gannet's cries;                hleoor ~ song, sound
ond huilpan sweg          the curlew's clamor              huilpan ~ curlew; sweg ~ sound
fore hleahtor wera,       rather than men's laughter;
mw singende              the seagull's shrieks              mw ~ mew, gull; singende ~ singing
fore medodrince.          better than mead-drinking.

Stormas r stanclifu beotan,  Storms slammed the stone-cliffs;
r him stearn oncw,          there the tern answered,   stearn ~ tern; oncw ~ answered
isigfeera;                                icy-feathered;
ful oft t earn bigeal,            ever the eagle screeched,  earn ~ eagle; bigeal ~ yell, scream
urigfera;                                 sea-spray-slathered;          urigfera ~ dewey-feathered
nnig hleomga                      but no consoling kinsmen  hleomga ~ protector-kinsman
feasceaftig fer                       came to comfort                 feasceaftig ~ destitute; fer ~ soul
frefran meahte.                       my destitute soul.               frefan ~ cheer, comfort

Foron him gelyfe lyt,  Therefore he takes it lightly,      forbon ~ therefore; gelyfe ~ takes
se e ah lifes wyn           the one who lives easy,              wyn ~ joy
gebiden in burgum,         who abides happily in a burgh
bealosia hwon,              except for a few trifling pains,  bealosia ~ bad experiences; hwon ~ trifle
wlonc ond wingal,[4a]    worldly, wine-flushed.               wlonc ond wingal ~ haughty & wine-flushed

hu ic werig oft          While often I, bone-weary,
in brimlade                had to endure                          brimlade ~ sea-path, sea-lane
bidan sceolde.           scalding sea-paths,
Nap nihtscua,            shadows of night deepening,  nap ~ grow dark, obscure; nihtscua ~ night's cover
noran sniwde,          fierce northern-snows,           noran ~ northern
hrim hrusan bond,     frost binding the ground,        hrim ~ rime, ice; hrusan ~ ground
hgl feol on eoran,  hail flailing the earth,             feol ~ fall, falling on
corna caldast.[5a]     the coldest of crops.               corna ~ grain

II.

Foron cnyssa nu      Indeed, how crushing,                cnyssa ~ beat, strike
heortan geohtas         my heart-cares,                          heortan geohtas ~ heart-thoughts
t ic hean streamas,  that I should strive alone with   hean ~ miserable
sealtya gelac              miserable salt streams' tumults  sealtya ~ salt-wave; gelac ~ tumult, chaos
sylf cunnige[5b]      while exploring                          sylf cunnige ~ self-exploration
mona modes lust       my moody mind's lusts.

mla gehwylce       While always my spirit  gehwylce ~ each, every one, all
fer to feran,           longs to fly forth,           fer ~ mind, soul, spirit
t ic feor heonan  to find, far from here,    feor ~ far
eleodigra               a foreign residence        eleodigra ~ strange, foreign
eard gesece         beyond earth-desires.    gesece ~ desire

Foron nis s modwlonc          Therefore there is none so mood-proud,
mon ofer eoran,                        not a man on earth,
ne his gifena s god,[6a]          none so generous with gifts,       his gifena s god ~ so good in gifts
ne in geogue to s hwt,       none so bold in his youth,           geogue ~ youth; hwt ~ valiant
ne in his ddum to s deor,     none so brave in his deeds,         ddum ~ deeds; deor ~ brave
ne him his dryhten to s hold,  none so beholden to his Master  Dryhten ~ Lord, Master
t he a his sfore                     that he in his seafaring
sorge nbbe,                              has never had to worry               sorge ~ sorrow
to hwon hine Dryhten                about what his Lord                   Dryhten ~ Lord, Master
gedon wille.                                will lay upon him.

Ne bi him to hearpan hyge  Not for him the harp-song
ne to hringege                      nor ring-bringing
ne to wife wyn                       nor wife-winning
ne to worulde hyht                nor world-glory
ne ymbe owiht elles              nor anything else
nefne ymb ya gewealc;       except the numbing motion of the waves;
ac a hafa longunge              but he always has longings
se e on lagu funda.           who strives with the sea.

Bearwas blostmum nima,  Woodlands blossom,
byrig fgria,                      burgs grow fair,
wongas wlitiga,                 meadowlands flower,
woruld onette:                  the world hastens forward:
ealle a gemonia              all these things urge on
modes fusne[7a]                the doom-eager spirit  modes fusne ~ doom-eager mind, death wish
sefan to sie                       the one with a mind to travel,
am e swa ence           the one who imagines
on flodwegas                     venturing far afield
feor gewitan.                     over earth's sea-paths.

Swylce geac mona      Now the cuckoo warns
geomran reorde;           with her mournful voice;
singe sumeres weard,  the guardian of summer sings,
sorge beode                 boding sorrows
bitter in breosthord.      bitter to the breast-hoard.

t se beorn ne wat,     This the normal man knows not,
sefteadig secg,               the warrior lucky in worldly things,
hwt a sume dreoga  unaware of what others endure,
e a wrclastas           those who brave most extensively
widost lecga.               earth's exile-paths.

Foron nu min hyge hweorfe  Now my spirit soars
ofer hreerlocan,                       out of my breast,
min modsefa                              my mind floods
mid mereflode,                          amid the waterways
ofer hwles eel                       over the whale-path;
hweorfe wide,                         it soars widely
eoran sceatas                      over all the earth's far reaches
cyme eft to me                       it comes back to me
gifre ond grdig;                      eager and unsated;
gielle anfloga,                        the lone-flier screams,    anfloga ~ solitary flier, perhaps valkyrie
hwete on hwlweg                urges the helpless heart  hwlweg ~ whale-way
hreer unwearnum                  onto the whale-way        unwearnum ~ helpless, unresisting
ofer holma gelagu.                  over the sea-waves.

III.

Foron me hatran sind  Deeper, hotter for me are
Dryhtnes dreamas         Lord-dreams
onne is deade lif        than this dead life
lne on londe.               loaned on land.

Ic gelyfe no              I do not believe
t him eorwelan  that earth-riches
ece stonda.            will last forever.

Simle reora sum        Invariably,
inga gehwylce           three things
r his tiddege              threaten a man's existence
to tweon weore:      before his final hour:
adl oe yldo              either illness, old age
oe ecghete[8a]        or sword's-edge-malice  ecghete ~ sword's edge hate
fgum fromweardum  ripping out life
feorh oringe.         from the doom-endangered.

Foron bi eorla gehwam  And so for each man
ftercweendra                 the praise of the living,
lof lifgendra                       of those who mention him after life ends,
lastworda betst,                 remains the best epitaph;
t he gewyrce,                such words he must earn
r he on weg scyle,          before he departs ...

fremum on foldan      Bravery in the world
wi feonda ni,          against the enmity of fiends,
deorum ddum          daring deeds
deofle togeanes,        against devils,
t hine lda bearn  thus the sons of men
fter hergen,             will praise him afterwards,
ond his lof sian      and his fame will eternally
lifge mid englum       live with the angels.

Translation Notes by Michael R. Burch

I have divided the poem into three "cantos." The first Canto seems the "eldest" to me. The second Canto begins to seem "Christianized" with the introduction of lust, a desire for heaven, and a Lord who must be pleased.

Expanded Glossary/Vocabulary

[1a] Here, gebiden hbbe suggests that the negative experiences continue.
[1b] Here, cearselda means something like "care-place," "care-hold" or "care-abode."
[2a] Here, winemgum means something like "wine-friend," "wine-brothers" or "dear kinsmen."
[3a] Here, hrimgicelum means something like "rime crystals" or "icicles."
[4a] Here, wlonc ond wingal means something like "haughty/proud and flushed with wine." The phrase also appears in "The Ruin."
[5a] Here, corna means "grain" as maize had yet to be discovered by Europeans.
[5b] Here, sylf cunnige means something like "self-exploration" or "self-discovery."
[6a] Here, his gifena s god may mean something like "so good in his gifts" or "so generous in his gifts."
[7a] Here, modes fusne seems to mean something like "a doom-eager mind" or a "death wish."
[8a] Here, ecghete seems to mean "edge hate" or the hatred of a sword's edge or blade.



This an early Middle English poem that is a "bridge" of sorts between Anglo-Saxon poetry and later Middle English poetry ...

Brut (circa 1100 AD, written by Layamon, an excerpt)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


Now he stands on a hill overlooking the Avon,
seeing steel fishes girded with swords in the stream,
their swimming days done,
their scales a-gleam like gold-plated shields,
their fish-spines floating like shattered spears.

Layamon's Brut is a 32,000-line poem composed in Middle English that shows a strong Anglo-Saxon influence and contains the first known reference to King Arthur in English. The passage above is a good example of Layamon's gift for imagery. It's interesting, I think, that a thousand years ago a poet was dabbling in surrealism, with dead warriors being described as if they were both men and fish.



This is another early Middle English poem that gives a hint of things to come ...

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa 11th century AD)

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour, // Now the rose and the lily skyward flower,
That whilen ber that suete savour // That will bear for awhile that sweet savor:
In somer, that suete tyde; // In summer, that sweet tide;
Ne is no quene so stark ne stour, // There is no queen so stark in her power
Ne no luedy so bryht in bour // Nor any lady so bright in her bower
That ded ne shal by glyde: // That Death shall not summon and guide;
Whoso wol fleshye lust for-gon and hevene-blisse abyde // But whoever forgoes lust, in heavenly bliss will abide
On Jhesu be is thoht anon, that tharled was ys side. // With his thoughts on Jesus anon, thralled at his side.

skruketh = break forth, burst open; stour = strong, stern, hardy; tharled = thralled?, made a serf?, bound?

A similar poem to the one above, in time and language, is "Blow Northerne Wynd," which has been called the "most ancient love poem in the English language," perhaps composed during the reign of King John. But I prefer the lovely poem above, if not the Christian sentiments of the closing couplet.




ANGLO-SAXON RIDDLES AND KENNINGS

Riddle: Water Become Bone
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Wonder-wrought waves: water become bone!

(Solution: Ice on a frozen lake or seashore.)

I call my translations "loose translations" because rather than trying to reproduce each ancient word literally, losing much of the poetry in the process, I try to "ken" what the original poet was thinking and feeling, then turn those feelings and thoughts into modern English. Whether I have succeeded or not is up to you, the reader, since no one can inquire with the original authors. But I think my translation does capture something of the spirit of the original poem: the magic of translucent liquid water somehow becoming solid and white, like bone.

Riddle: A Female Brooding
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I saw a female, solitary, brooding.

(Solution: A hen, and perhaps a human woman left to bear and raise her children alone, because some cocky rooster refused to accept his responsibility as their father.)

The poems of the Exeter Book were written in Anglo-Saxon Englishalso known as Old Englishand thus they exhibit a heavy Germanic influence. (The Angles, from whom England derives its name, were a Germanic tribe, as were the Saxons and Jutes.) While these poems are often grouped together and called "riddles" collectively, some of them are actually kennings, or extended metaphors. Anglo-Saxon scops frequently employed two-word kennings: alliterative metaphors like "whale-way" and "swan-road" for the sea, "sea-steeds" for ships, "tickle-tools" for feathers, and "mead-making" for drunken, rambling speech. When Anglo-Saxon scops constructed poems, they sometimes "extended" such kennings into larger, more elaborate constructions such as grr nagr hrva ("the grey bird of corpses") and j mna stiettar ("the people of the moon's path"). My favorite kenning is wordhord ("word-hoard"), a metaphor for a poet's vocabulary. In some cases, metaphors were extended into poems of considerable length and complexity, anticipating the work of metaphysical poets to come several centuries later, such as John Donne, Andrew Marvell, George Herbert and Henry Vaughan. Modern examples of extended metaphors include Donne's holy sonnets, Marvell's famous carpe diem poem "To His Coy Mistress," and Herbert's devotional poems "The Collar" and "The Pulley." The ancient Anglo-Saxon scops tended to be less "sophisticated" than their poetic descendents; they were coarser, lewder and often wickedly funny! The scops were to the metaphysical poets as Andrew Dice Clay is to Jerry Seinfeld, or Meatloaf to the Three Tenors.

By way of example, here is a wonderfully humorous and ironic kenning, in which the identity of the protagonist is revealed immediately, meaning that the poem is not really a riddle in the modern sense of the word:

Kenning: A Moth Devoured Words
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A moth devoured words!
When I heard about this horrific theft,
I thought it passing strange
that an insect can feast on a man's finest song,
gorge on his grandiloquence,
riddle his most righteous rhetoric.
But then I realized: the wee bookworm
wandered away not one whit the wiser!

(Kenning: A moth is not fooled or impressed by man's rhetoric. Nor is there anything to be learned in foppish nonsense, even by the smallest of bookworms.)

Some of these poems may be described as "gnomic verses," "maxims" and "metrical proverbs" or "alliterative proverbs." 

Anglo-Saxon Gnomic Verses
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Frost shall freeze,
           fire feast on firs,
earth breed blizzards,
           brazen ice bridge,
water wear shields,
          oxen axe frost's fetters,
freeing the grain
          from ice-imprisonment ...

Winter shall wane,
         warm winds return:
spring sunned into summer!

Kings shall win
         wise queens with largesse,
with beakers and bracelets;
         both must be
generous with their gifts.

Courage must create
         war-lust in a lord
while his woman shows
         kindness to her people,
delightful in dress,
         interpreter of rune-words,
roomy-hearted
         at hearth-sharing and horse-giving.

Kenning definition: a compound expression with a metaphorical meaning.
Kenning examples: word-hoard ("vocabulary"), oar-steed ("ship"), sea-steed ("ship"), whale-road ("sea"), whale-way ("sea"), tickle-tools ("feathers")
Kenning etymology: Old Norse kenna "to know, perceive" (related to the Scottish ken, "to know" and the German kennen "to know, be acquainted with")

Riddle definition: a question or statement intentionally phrased to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning, typically presented as a game or challenge.
Riddle examples: What is so delicate that saying its name breaks it? (Answer: Silence) What has four eyes but cant see? (Answer: Mississippi)
Riddle etymology: Old English rǣdels, rǣdelse "opinion, conjecture, riddle" (related to the Dutch raadsel and the German Rtsel)

Gnomic definition: expressed in, or of the nature of, short, concise, pithy maxims or aphorisms, sometimes ambiguous or enigmantic
Gnomic verse example: "water wears shields" (ice protects the unfrozen water beneath it, like a shield)
Gnomic etymology: Greek gnome from the verb gignōskein, meaning "to know"
Gnomic verse history: Early examples of gnomic verse include biblical proverbs and the poetry of Homer, Hesiod, Solon and Simonides

Riddle history: Riddles have been around forever. The oldest extant epic poem, Gilgamesh, contains a riddle: the "Riddle of the Springs of Dilmun." Perhaps the most famous ancient riddle is the "Riddle of the Sphinx" in the Greek play Oedipus Rex. In the Hebrew Bible, the Queen of Sheba asked King Solomon a riddle, which the wisest of men was able to solve. Also in the Bible, the strongman Samson perplexed his friends with a riddle, which they were unable to solve. In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins and Gollum engaged in a riddle contest, which allowed Baggins to escape with his life and the One Ring (although Bilbo may have cheated when he asked Gollum what he had in his pocket!). One of the most famous comic book super-villains is Batman's nemesis, the Riddler: "Riddle me this / Riddle me that / Who's afraid of the big, black Bat?"

Kenning history: Kennings are also ancient, but apparently started further north because some of the oldest kennings appear in the work of the skalds, or Norse poets. Such kennings appear to be closely related to Anglo-Saxon kennings. For instance, the kenning "sea-steed" for "ship" appears in both Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry. Extended kennings of up to seven elements can be found in skaldic verse. One of my favorite Norse kennings is winter-ġewǣde ("winter-raiment" or "snow"). 

The Difference Between Riddles and Kennings: The Anglo-Saxon scops were accomplished riddlers and kenners. For my purposes here, a riddle asks or implies the question: Who or what am I? A kenning or "enigmatic gnomic verse," on the other hand, is an extended metaphor that helps us better understand (through figurative language and/or analogy) something named or known. But sometimes the lines blur, because when we finish a riddle, if we are able to solve it correctly, we may understand the subject better!

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, our word "kenning" derives from the Old Norse cognate verb kenna: "to know, to recognize, to feel or perceive; to call, to name (in a formal poetic metaphor)." So a kenning helps us know something more fully by the way it is named: whale-way, swan-road, sea-steed, tickle-tool, mead-making, etc. According to the Bible, the first act of the first man, Adam, was to name things. And if we want to avoid the fate of the people who built the Tower of Babel, we need to heed the advice of the wisest of the ancient Greeks, Socrates, and agree on the meanings of the words we use. Poetic kennings are one way of grasping such meanings more intimately and profoundly. I am reminded of the word "grok" used by the Mars-born visitor to earth in Robert Heinlein's novel A Stranger in a Strange Land. I think to "grok" and to "ken" are essentially the same: to know and understand something as intimately, profoundly fully as possible.

Kennings were so popular in Anglo-Saxon poetry that around a third of Beowulf, the best-known Anglo-Saxon poem, is comprised of kennings. And "Beowulf" is itself a kenning, meaning "bee-wolf," or bear (bears are famous for robbing bees of their honey, from Winnie the Pooh to fearsome grizzlies). Why did the scops use primarily alliterative kennings? Because the primary sound-device of Anglo-Saxon poetry was alliteration, the repetition of letter sounds. For example, the "Water Become Bone" poem above contains four "w" sounds and two "b" sounds. Also the words "wonder" and "water" sound very similar, as do "become" and "bone." So there can be a lot going on, sonically, in a line of Anglo-Saxon poetry, even though such poetry rarely employs rhyme.

The Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Icelanders and Teutons had a rich riddle-poem tradition, known as enigmata (think "enigma"). During the Dark Ages, people of these cultures frequently played riddle games around hearth-fires, while drinking beer, ale, mead and other inebriating beverages. So the fun was often quite boisterous, and sometimes obscene, because some of the poems compare things that are hard and swell to men's penises. (The word "thing" itself can refer to a penis.) Thanks to the Exeter Book, a good number of these poems have survived. However, the compounding of kennings sometimes resulted in cumbersome confusion, so not all such poems are successful. On this page, I have selected some of the better short poems that in my opinion still "hit on all cylinders."

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Old English word scop is related to our modern word "scoff" through the Old High German scoph ("poetry, sport, jest") and the Old Norse skop ("railing, mockery"). Were the scops scoffers? The clever satires on this page suggest so. The ancient Celtic bards were such accomplished satirists that it was said even kings feared their mockeries!

The Exeter Book was a handwritten manuscript bequeathed to the Exeter Cathedral Library by a bishop named Leofric who died in 1072 A.D., so the book is ancient. Experts have dated the book itself it to around 970 to 990 A.D., but some of the poems could be much older, having been passed down orally before they were written down.

Leofric must have been somewhat tolerant, because some of the poems are slyly lewd and fall into the category of double entendre. Here's one with an interesting twist:

Riddle: The Curious Creature
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I'm a curious creature;
I satisfy women, and sometimes their neighbors!
(After a brief period of anticipation,
in which I offer them hope of pleasures to come.)
No one suffers because of me, except my slayer.
I grow erect in bed.
I'm hairy underneath.
Sometimes a beautiful girl,
the brave daughter of some commoner
who's not above my low station
grabs me eagerly,
manipulates my russet skin,
holds me hard,
cleanses my head,
then keeps me handy, nearby.
But the girl who keeps me confined
will soon feel the effects:
I make her wet.

The poem above is obviously about an onion, but it makes a series of comparisons to a man's penis. An onion makes a cook's eyes water, so the scop drew a clever, provocative parallel in the closing lines.

Here's a similar riddle:

Riddle: A Curious Thing Hangs
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A curious thing hangs,
dangles by a man's thigh,
covered by his clothes.
It has an eye in its head;
it's stiff and hard;
and because it's borne firmly it yields a reward.
The man pulls his clothes above his knee,
in order to poke the head of his hanging thing
into that old familiar hole it fits so well,
and has filled so many times before.

(Solution: A key worn secretly inside a man's clothes, perhaps a priest's robe. If so, the poem could "poke" fun at the clergy, who were supposed to be celibate but often had mistresses.)

Here's another poem in a similar vein:

Riddle: The Swollen Thing
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I heard there's something growing in its nook,
swelling, rising, and expanding,
pushing up against and lifting its covering.
I heard a cocky-minded young woman kneaded that boneless thing with her hands,
then covered its tumescence with a soft cloth.

(Solution: Dough rising.)

Riddle: I Watched Two Wondrous Creatures
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I watched a wondrous creature, a bright unicorn,
bearing away treasure between her white horns,
fetching it home from some distant adventure.
I'm sure she intended to hide her loot in some lofty stronghold
constructed with incredible cunning, her craft.
But then climbing the sky-cliffs a far greater creature arose,
her fiery face familiar to all earth's inhabitants.
She seized all the spoils, driving the albescent creature
with her wrecked dreams far to the west,
spewing wild insults as she scurried home.
Dust rose heavenward. Dew descended.
Night fled, and afterward
No man knew where the white creature went.

(Solution: The sun and the moon.)

Kenning: The Whale
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now, I will sing about this strange fishes' kin,
finned like no flounder, and no friend to men:
The mighty Leviathan.

He floats in the ocean like a regal rock;
men mistake him for an island; some try to dock,
seldom with any luck.

But if they "make land," securing their ship
with great, heavy ropes from which green seaweed drips,
he soon dives to the bottom, taking them for a dip!

The whale is a demon, the siren of the seas;
he lures men and fish with his fragrant ambergris
into his dark gullet, ignoring their pleas!

His father, the Devil, does the same thing as well:
offers "comfort" and "haven" when wild tempests swell,
then drags dull men down to the darkest depths of hell.

(Kenning: The Whale is like his father, the Devil, in tactics, and many unwitting men are their victims.)

Although the Anglo-Saxon language was Germanic in its origins, around a third of its words are preserved in modern English, so the two languages remain closely related. In the poem below, words like "suck" and "suckle" and "sea" come to us from our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, while "slurp" is closely related, deriving from the Middle Dutch slurpen.

Riddle: The Sea Suckled Me
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The sea suckled me; the wild waves washed me;
I was rocked by breakers in my restless cradle.
Footless but fixed, I opened my wordless mouth to the life-giving floods.
But soon some man will come to consume me,
slip the point of his knife savagely into my side,
slide it down, ripping the flesh from my bones,
then slurp me in raw, smiling as he sucks me down.

(Solution: An Oyster.)

I hope you have enjoyed my translations from the dawn of the English language. Although our Anglo-Saxon ancestors lived in very difficult times, experiencing plagues, the wild injustices of church and state, and being attacked by fearsome Norsemen and other invaders, they managed to keep their wits about themselves, and their sense of humor, however dark at times. And I think we can still see that dark humor in ourselves: in the humorous writings of Mark Twain, in the comedy of George Carlin, in political cartoons, and in sitcoms like Married With Children.

Here is a somewhat more modern English riddle-poem that may have been influenced by the older Anglo-Saxon scops and their riddle-poems:

I Have a Yong Suster (Anonymous Medieval English Riddle-Poem, circa 1430)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have a yong suster                               I have a young sister
Fer biyonde the see;                              Far beyond the sea;
Manye be the druries                             Many are the keepsakes
That she sente me.                                 That she sent me.

She sente me the cherye                         She sent me the cherry
Withouten any stoon,                             Without any stone;
And so she dide the dove                       And also the dove
Withouten any boon.                              Without any bone.

She sente me the brere                           She sent me the briar
Withouten any rinde;                              Without any skin;
She bad me love my lemman                  She bade me love my lover
Withoute longinge.                                 Without longing.

How sholde any cherye                          How should any cherry
Be withoute stoon?                                 Be without a stone?
And how sholde any dove                       And how should any dove
Be withoute boon?                                  Be without a bone?

How sholde any brere                             How should any briar
Be withoute rinde?                                  Be without a skin?
How sholde I love my lemman                 And how should I love my lover
Withoute longinge?                                  Without longing?

Whan the cherye was a flowr,                  When the cherry was a flower,
Thanne hadde it no stoon;                        Then it had no stone;
Whan the dove was an ey,                       When the dove was an egg,
Thanne hadde it no boon.                         Then it had no bone.

Whan the brere was unbred,                     When the briar was unborn,
Thanne hadde it no rinde;                          Then it had no skin;
Whan the maiden hath that she loveth,       And when a maiden has her mate,
She is withoute longinge.                           She is without longing!

That is a wickedly funny ending!

How Long the Night
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong
now grieve, mourn and fast.

This World's Joy
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Winter awakens all my care
as leafless trees grow bare.
For now my sighs are fraught
whenever it enters my thought:
regarding this world's joy,
how everything comes to naught.

[MS. Harl. 2253. f. 49r]

Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.

I Have Labored Sore

(anonymous medieval lyric circa the fifteenth century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have labored sore          and suffered death,
so now I rest           and catch my breath.
But I shall come      and call right soon
heaven and earth          and hell to doom.
Then all shall know           both devil and man
just who I was               and what I am.

I haue laborede sore and suffered deyeth
and now I Rest and draw my [b]reyght
But I schall com and call Ryght sone
heuen and erthe and hell to dome
and than schall know both devyll and man
what I was and what I am

Pity Mary
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now the sun passes under the wood:
I rue, Mary, thy face—fair, good.
Now the sun passes under the tree:
I rue, Mary, thy son and thee.

In the poem above, note how "wood" and "tree" invoke the cross while "sun" and "son" seem to invoke each other. Sun-day is also Son-day, to Christians. The anonymous poet who wrote the poem above may have been punning the words "sun" and "son." The poem is also known as "Now Goeth Sun Under Wood" and "Now Go'th Sun Under Wood." Here's another poem from the same era:

Fowles in the Frith
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The fowls in the forest,
the fishes in the flood
and I must go mad:
such sorrow I've had
for beasts of bone and blood!

Sounds like an early animal rights activist! The use of "and" is intriguing ... is the poet saying that his walks in the wood drive him mad because he is also a "beast of bone and blood," facing a similar fate?

I am of Ireland
(anonymous Medieval Irish lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I am of Ireland,
and of the holy realm of Ireland.
Gentlefolk, I pray thee:
for the sake of saintly charity,
come dance with me
in Ireland!

Ich am of Irlaunde,
Ant of the holy londe
Of Irlande.
Gode sire, pray ich the,
For of saynte charit,
Come ant daunce wyth me
In Irlaunde.

The poem above still smacks of German, with "Ich" for "I." But a metamorphosis was clearly in progress: English poetry was evolving to employ meter and rhyme, as well as Anglo-Saxon alliteration. And it's interesting to note that "ballad," "ballet" and "ball" all have the same root: the Latin ballare (to dance) and the Italian ballo/balleto (a dance). Think of a farm community assembling for a hoe-down, then dancing a two-step to music with lyrics. That is apparently how many early English poems originated. And the more regular meter of the evolving poems would suit music well.

This is a splendid little poem that may predate Chaucer. Please note the introduction of end rhyme ...

Westron Wynde
(anonymous Middle English lyric, found in a partbook circa 1530 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Western wind, when will you blow,
bringing the drizzling rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
and I in my bed again!

NOTE: The original poem has "the smalle rayne down can rayne" which suggests a drizzle or mist, either of which would suggest a dismal day.

"Sumer is icumen in" (also known as the "Summer Canon" and the "Cuckoo Song") is a medieval English round, or rota, or rondel, of the mid-13th century. "Rondel" means round or circular. The title translates approximately to "Summer Has Come In" or "Summer Has Arrived." The song was apparently composed in the Wessex dialect of Middle English and came complete with a musical score and instructions for the singing of rounds, in Latin, making it also a rondellus. Many scholars believe the "Cuckoo Song," one of the earliest English lyrics about the coming of spring and summer, was probably composed between 1240 and 1310, although some think it may date back earlier, to the 12th century. It was written down in a commonplace book kept over a number of years by the monks of Reading Abbey. The rondel is preceded by two lines that ask or command the cuckoo to sing (the first two lines below).

Sumer is icumen in
anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1260 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sing now cuckoo! Sing, cuckoo!
Sing, cuckoo! Sing now cuckoo!

Summer is a-comin'!
Sing loud, cuckoo!
The seed grows,
The meadow blows,
The woods spring up anew.
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe bleats for her lamb;
The cows contentedly moo;
The bullock roots;
The billy-goat poots ...
Sing merrily, cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo,
You sing so well, cuckoo!
Never stop, until you're through!

ALTERNATE OPENING LINES:

Sing it new, cuckoo!

Summer is a-comin'!
Summer has come in again!
Summer has arrived again!
Summer has arrived!

ALTERNATE CLOSING LINES:

Never stop making things new!

This is a lighthearted modern take on the ancient poem, for those of us who suffer with hay fever and other allergies:

Sumer is icumen in
a modern English translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sumer is icumen in
Lhude sing achu!
Groweth sed
And bloweth hed
And buyeth med?
Cuccu!

Excerpt from “Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt?”
(anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1275)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Where are the men who came before us,
who led hounds and hawks to the hunt,
who commanded fields and woods?
Where are the elegant ladies in their boudoirs
who braided gold through their hair
and had such fair complexions?

Once eating and drinking gladdened their hearts;
they enjoyed their games;
men bowed before them;
they bore themselves loftily ...
But then, in an eye’s twinkling,
they were gone.

Where now are their laughter and their songs,
the trains of their dresses,
the arrogance of their entrances and exits,
their hawks and their hounds?
All their joy has vanished;
their “well” has come to “oh, well”
and to many dark days ...

A Lyke-Wake Dirge
(anonymous medieval lyric circa the sixteenth century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The Lie-Awake Dirge is “the night watch kept over a corpse.”

This one night, this one night,
every night and all;
fire and sleet and candlelight,
and Christ receive thy soul.


When from this earthly life you pass
every night and all,
to confront your past you must come at last,
and Christ receive thy soul.

If you ever donated socks and shoes,
every night and all,
sit right down and slip yours on,
and Christ receive thy soul.

But if you never helped your brother,
every night and all,
walk barefoot through the flames of hell,
and Christ receive thy soul.

If ever you shared your food and drink,
every night and all,
the fire will never make you shrink,
and Christ receive thy soul.

But if you never helped your brother,
every night and all,
walk starving through the black abyss,
and Christ receive thy soul.

This one night, this one night,
every night and all;
fire and sleet and candlelight,
and Christ receive thy soul.



Adam Lay Ybounden
(anonymous Medieval English lyric, circa early 15th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Adam lay bound, bound in a bond;
Four thousand winters, he thought, were not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerics now find written in their book.
But had the apple not been taken, or had it never been,
We'd never have had our Lady, heaven's queen and matron.
So blessd be the time the apple was taken thus;
Therefore we sing, "God is gracious!"

The poem has also been rendered as "Adam lay i-bounden" and "Adam lay i-bowndyn." Here is the original poem in one of its ancient forms:

Adam lay i-bounden, bounden in a bond;
Foure thousand winter thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerkes finden written in theire book.
Ne hadde the apple taken been, the apple taken been,
Ne hadde never our Lady aye been heavene queen.
Blessed be the time that apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen, "Deo gracias!"


I Sing of a Maiden
(anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa early 15th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless.
The King of all Kings
For her son she chose.
He came also as still
To his mother's breast
As April dew
Falling on the grass.
He came also as still
To his mother's bower
As April dew
Falling on the flower.
He came also as still
To where his mother lay
As April dew
Falling on the spray.
Mother and maiden?
Never one, but she!
Well may such a lady
God's mother be!

Here is the original poem in one of its ancient forms:

I sing of a maiden (virgin)
That is makeles: (matchless / mateless / spotless)
King of alle kinges
To her sone she chees. (for her son she chose)
He cam also stille (He came as silently)
Ther his moder was (where his mother was)
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the gras.
He cam also stille
To his modres bowr (mother's bower, perhaps meaning both bedroom and leafy nest)
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the flowr.
He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the spray (blossom and/or budding twig)
Moder and maiden (Mother and virgin)
Was nevere noon but she:
Well may swich a lady (such a lady)
Godes moder be.


Fairest Between Lincoln and Lindsey
(anonymous Middle English poem, circa late 13th century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When the nightingale sings, the woods turn green;
Leaf and grass again blossom in April, I know,
Yet love pierces my heart with its spear so keen!
Night and day it drinks my blood. The painful rivulets flow.

I’ve loved all this year. Now I can love no more;
I’ve sighed many a sigh, sweetheart, and yet all seems wrong.
For love is no nearer and that leaves me poor.
Sweet lover, think of me — I’ve loved you so long!

When the nyhtegale singes, the wodes waxen grene;
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes in Averyl, Y wene,
Ant love is to myn herte gon with one spere so kene!
Nyht ant day my blod hit drynkes. Myn herte deth me tene.

Ich have loved al this yer that Y may love namore;
Ich have siked moni syk, lemmon, for thin ore.
Me nis love never the ner, ant that me reweth sore.
Suete lemmon, thench on me — Ich have loved the yore!

A cleric courts his lady
(anonymous Middle English poem, circa late 13th century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My death I love, my life I hate, because of a lovely lady;
She's as bright as the broad daylight, and shines on me so purely.
I fade before her like a leaf in summer when it's green.
If thinking of her does no good, to whom shall I complain?

“My deth Y love, my lyf Ich hate, for a levedy shene;
Heo is brith so daies liht, that is on me wel sene.
Al Y falewe so doth the lef in somer when hit is grene,
Yef mi thoht helpeth me noht, to wham shal Y me mene?

The "Song of Amergin" and its origins remain mysteries for the ages. The ancient poem, perhaps the oldest extant poem to originate from the British Isles, or perhaps not, was written by an unknown poet at an unknown time at an uncertain location. The unlikely date 1268 BC was furnished by Robert Graves, who translated the "Song of Amergin" in his influential book The White Goddess (1948). Graves remarked that "English poetic education should, really, begin not with Canterbury Tales, not with the Odyssey, not even with Genesis, but with the Song of Amergin." Recounted in the Leabhar Gabhla (The Book of Invasions), the poem has been described as an invocation, as a mystical chant, as an affirmation of unity, as sorcery, as a creation incantation, and as the first spoken Irish poem. I have also seen it titled "The Rosc of Amergin" with a rosc being a war chant or incantation. A sort of magical affirmation to give one power over ones enemies.

The Song of Amergin (I)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I am the sea blast
I am the tidal wave
I am the thunderous surf
I am the stag of the seven tines
I am the cliff hawk
I am the sunlit dewdrop
I am the fairest of flowers
I am the rampaging boar
I am the swift-swimming salmon
I am the placid lake
I am the summit of art
I am the vale echoing voices
I am the battle-hardened spearhead
I am the God who inflames desire
Who gives you fire
Who knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen
Who announces the ages of the moon
Who knows where the sunset settles

In my translation above, I have deliberately worded the last four lines so that they can be either affirmations, or questions, or both. There are longer versions of the poem, but this is the version that strikes me as having the strongest ending, so I'm going to stick with it as my personal favorite. I will follow this translation with a second translation, then with an original poem I wrote under the influence of the ancient song.

The original poem:

Am gaeth i m-muir,
Am tond trethan,
Am fuaim mara,
Am dam secht ndirend, [dam = ox, deer, stag?]
Am sig i n-aill, [sig = hawk, eagle or vulture?]
Am dr grne,
Am cain lubai,
Am torc ar gail,
Am he i l-lind,
Am loch i m-maig,
Am br a ndai,
Am bri danae,
Am bri i fodb fras feochtu,
Am d delbas do chind codnu,
Coiche nod gleith clochur slbe?
Cia on co tagair aesa scai?
Cia du i l-laig fuiniud grne?



The Song of Amergin (II)
a more imaginative translation by Michael R. Burch, after Robert Bridges

I am the stag of the seven tines;
I am the bull of the seven battles;
I am the boar of the seven bristles;

I am the flood cresting plains;
I am the wind sweeping tranquil waters;
I am the swift-swimming salmon in the shallow pool;

I am the sunlit dewdrop;
I am the fairest of flowers;
I am the crystalline fountain;

I am the hawk harassing its prey;
I am the demon ablaze in the campfire; 
I am the battle-hardened spearhead;

I am the vale echoing voices;
I am the sea's roar;
I am the surging sea wave;

I am the summit of art;
I am the God who inflames desires;
I am the giver of fire;

Who knows the ages of the moon;
Who knows where the sunset settles;
Who knows the secrets of the unhewn dolmen.

Translator's Notes:

I did not attempt to fully translate the longer version of the poem. I have read several other translations and none of them seem to agree. I went with my grokked impression of the poem: that the "I am" lines refer to God and his "all in all" nature, a belief common to the mystics of many religions. I stopped with the last line that I felt I understood and will leave the remainder of the poem to others. Amergin's ancient poem reminds me of the Biblical god Yahweh/Jehovah revealing himself to Moses as "I am that I am" and to Job as a mystery beyond human comprehension. If that's what the author intended, I tip my hat to him or her, because despite all the intervening centuries the message still comes through splendidly. If I'm wrong, I have no idea what the poem is about, but I still like it.



The Song of Amergin
an original poem by Michael R. Burch

He was our first bard
and we feel in his dim-remembered words
the moment when Time blurs . . .

and he and the Sons of Mil
heave oars as the breakers mill
till at last Ierne—green, brooding—nears,

while Some implore seas cold, fell, dark
to climb and swamp their flimsy bark
. . . and Time here also spumes, careers . . .

while the Ban Shee shriek in awed dismay
to see him still the sea, this day,
then seek the dolmen and the gloam.

Who wrote the poem? That's a good question and all "answers" seem speculative to me. Amergin has been said to be a Milesian: one of the sons of Mil who allegedly invaded and conquered Ireland sometime in the island's deep, dark, mysterious past. The Milesians were (at least theoretically) Spanish Gaels. According to the Wikipedia page:

Amergin Glingel ("white knees"), also spelled Amhairghin Glngheal or Glnmar ("big knee"), was a bard, druid and judge for the Milesians in the Irish Mythological Cycle. He was appointed Chief Ollam of Ireland by his two brothers the kings of Ireland. A number of poems attributed to Amergin are part of the Milesian mythology. One of the seven sons of Ml Espine, he took part in the Milesian conquest of Ireland from the Tuatha D Danann, in revenge for their great-uncle th, who had been treacherously killed by the three kings of the Tuatha D Danann: Mac Cuill, Mac Cecht and Mac Grine. They landed at the estuary of Inber Scne, named after Amergin's wife Scne, who had died at sea. The three queens of the Tuatha D Danann, (Banba, riu and Fdla), gave, in turn, permission for Amergin and his people to settle in Ireland. Each of the sisters required Amergin to name the island after each of them, which he did: riu is the origin of the modern name ire, while Banba and Fdla are used as poetic names for Ireland, much as Albion is for Great Britain. The Milesians had to win the island by engaging in battle with the three kings, their druids and warriors. Amergin acted as an impartial judge for the parties, setting the rules of engagement. The Milesians agreed to leave the island and retreat a short distance back into the ocean beyond the ninth wave, a magical boundary. Upon a signal, they moved toward the beach, but the druids of the Tuatha D Danann raised a magical storm to keep them from reaching land. However, Amergin sang an invocation calling upon the spirit of Ireland that has come to be known as The Song of Amergin, and he was able to part the storm and bring the ship safely to land. There were heavy losses on all sides, with more than one major battle, but the Milesians carried the day. The three kings of the Tuatha D Danann were each killed in single combat by three of the surviving sons of Ml, Eber Finn, rimn and Amergin.

It has been suggested that the poem may have been "adapted" by Christian copyists, perhaps monks. An analogy might be the ancient Celtic myths that were "christianized" into tales of King Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad and the Holy Grail.


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
The Ruin
Anglo-Saxon Poems
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Middle English Poems
Whoso List to Hunt
Tegner's Drapa
Lament for the Makaris
Robert Burns
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Sappho
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Mikls Radnti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Rene Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky

The HyperTexts