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The Rhyming Poem: Modern English Translation, Summary, Analysis, Theme, Tone, Quotations, Authorship and Review

"The Rhyming Poem"also known as "The Riming Poem" and "The Rhymed Poem"―is an Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes and the poem is generally considered to be an elegy or lament in the Germanic tradition. The poem's main theme is the impermanence of human joy, accomplishments and life. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than the tenth century, and perhaps earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the truly revolutionary poems of English antiquity.

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.

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, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings

Prose Summary/Analysis/Theme/Plot: A man recounts a life that was full of honor, prestige and wealth. But something went wrong. One interpretation is that the speaker describes some sort of cancerous tumor. My interpretation is that he is describing a betrayal by a bosom friend. But in any case his life fell apart and he was left with only death to look forward to. In the final stanza he looks forward to heaven. Was the original composition hopeful, or was the hopeful ending added by an enterprising Christian monk? I suspect the latter, but that is just my educated guess.

Authorship: The poem's author remains unknown.

History and Importance: "The Rhyming Poem" has been called "the first resolute metrical experiment in English literature." The poem is contained in the Exeter Book, pp. 94a to 95b. Except for three brief lacunae (lines 55, 66, 77) it seems to be complete.

Language and Dialect: The poem appears to be a late West Saxon translation of an Anglian original poem.

Tone: The tone of the poem and the speaker's voice can be described as positive in the beginning, then much more negative with the betrayal, then optimistic as the speaker discusses his faith and hope of heaven.

Style: "The rhymes are the author's chief interest, and he riots in them in a super-Swinburnian manner." In some cases it seems the poet has sacrificed sense for sound. In some cases it seems the poet has coined words and/or used existing words in unconventional ways.

Narrative Structure: "The Rhyming Poem" has similarities to the soliloquies of Shakespeare and the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning. In lines 1-42 the speaker describes the pride of his youth; in lines 43-54 he describes the sorrows of getting older; in lines 55-69 he generalizes about the human lot; in lines 70 to 79 he contemplates his personal fate and meditates on death and the grave; in lines 80-87 he concludes with optimism about faith, salvation and heaven.

Similar/Related Poems: "The Rhyming Poem" is similar to "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" in that they are three Old English laments spoken in the first person with considerable anguish.


How can we interpret "The Rhyming Poem"? Here are some possibilities:

(1) It has been suggested that the poem was inspired by chapters 29 and 30 of the biblical book of Job. If so, the poem could have been originally written as Christian from beginning to end. 

(2) Another possibility is that the poem was originally composed as a more typical Anglo-Saxon lament, without the highly optimistic ending and other Christian elements, which could have been added by someone, perhaps a Christian monk, as the poem was copied.

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

The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
Adam Lay Ybounden
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Charles d'Orleans
Whoso List to Hunt
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Native American Poetry Translations
Tegner's Drapa
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
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
Poetry by Michael R. Burch
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch
Doggerel by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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