Old English Poems
And Riddles
Chris McCully, Editor
The period of what we call Old English runs roughly from the seventh century to the first decades of the eleventh. McCully says that verse from that period is "aural architecture."

He spends considerable time describing his translation technique, in which "metrical closure interacts with other constraints on structure which, in concert, help to generate a well-structured (half-)line."

He is concerned with patterns, and metrics, and kennings, those double-nouns so beloved of Old English folk, strange conjoinings which may, serve to defeat the modern reader ... words that McCully translates as "Æsair-wound," "sea-crawler," "swart-edged" or "wind-song." Strange images --- along with strange tales of dwarf monsters, swords with names, undersea battles that may strain present-day readers.

A major problem, at least for this bespectacled critic, lies in the design of this volume from Fyfield. On each page, we have two sets of text, justified: one on the left-hand side of the page, another in the middle of the page.

As I looked through it, I had assumed that the publisher had tried to cram two separate parts of the poems on each page. This worked fine for my first few minutes with Old English Poems. For example, this riddle from the Exeter Book,

    He had only one eye,
    and was two-footed,
    Hunch-back he was...
    with shoulders, arms,
    atop his two sides.
    Many sat runing,
    whose courage was wise.
    but ears .. Yes, two,
    but with twelve-hundred heads.

But, as it got too strange, even for Middle English, I finally made the connection; I was to jump the gutter (in printspeak):

    A man walked in          Many sat runing,
    careful in counsel,          whose courage was wise.
    He had only one eye,          but ears ... Yes, two,
    and was two-footed,          but with twelve-hundred heads.
    Hunch-backed he was ...           ... with two hands, a belly,
    with shoulders, arms,          and with one long neck
    atop his two sides.          Say what he's called.

The way I have laid it out here (if your computer doesn't lay an egg) you can see that the spacing between the left and the right is consistent. In McCully's version it is not.

This particular poem is a riddle ... and McCully tells us that the answer is "a one-eyed onion-seller." Hello?

§     §     §

McCully is not very taken with Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf. He says that many people, "often, kind and even educated people,"

    seem to think that Old English literature consists of Seamus Heaney's translation ...

Not long ago, in this magazine, we reviewed Heaney's translation of Beowulf, found it to be outstanding. We found there what we called "one of the finest passages ever composed in Anglo-Saxon (or modern English, for that matter)." It is known as the "Father's Lament."

It is a man contemplating the recent death of his son that, Heaney says, "rises like emanations from some fissure in the bedrock of the human capacity to endure." This is his translation, and we challenge McCully --- or anyone else for that matter --- to do it better:

    The wisdom of age is worthless to him.
    Morning after morning, he wakes to remember
    that his child has gone; he has no interest
    in living on...
    Alone with his longing, he lies down on his bed
    and sings a lament, everything seems too large,
    the steadings and the fields.

--- Carlos Amantea
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