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Michael R Burch Jun 2020
Caedmon's Hymn: a Modern English Translation of the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Poem

"Cædmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD and appears to be the oldest extant poem in the English language. Information follows the poem for anyone who’s interested.

Cædmon's Hymn (circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Humbly now we honour heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the Measurer's might and his mind-plans,
the goals of the Glory-Father. First he, the Everlasting Lord,
established earth's fearful foundations.
Then he, the First Scop, hoisted heaven as a roof
for the sons of men: Holy Creator,
mankind's great Maker! Then he, the Ever-Living Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth: Master Almighty!

Translator's Notes: "Cædmon's Hymn" is one of the oldest surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. By way of illustration, in the first line I have capitalized the repeating sounds:

Humbly Now we HoNour HeaveN-kiNGDom's GuarDiaN

In defense of my interpretation that Caedmon may have regarded God as a fellow Poet-Creator, please let me point out that the original poem employs the words scop and haleg scepen. Anglo-Saxon poets were called scops. The term haleg scepen seems to mean something like "Holy Poet" or "Holy Creator/Maker" because poets were considered to be creators and makers. Also the verb tīadæ has been said to mean something like "creatively adorned." So I don't think it's that much of a stretch to suggest that a Christian poet may have seen his small act of creation as an imitation of the far greater acts of creation of his Heavenly Father.

As in the original poem, each line of my translation has a caesura: a brief pause denoted by extra white space (which may not show up in some browsers). In each line, there are repeated vowel/consonant sounds. This alliteration gives alliterative verse its name. The original poem is also accentual verse, in that each line has four strong stresses, and the less-stressed syllables are not counted as they are in most other forms of English meter (such as iambic pentameter). My translation is not completely faithful to the original rules. For instance, I have employed a considerable amount of internal alliteration (which gives me more flexibility in the words I can employ). And some of my lines contain more than four stresses, although I think there are still four dominant stresses per line. For instance, in the first line: HONour, HEAVen, KINGdom's GUARDian. In the second line: MEASurer’s, MIGHT, MIND-PLANS. And so on. I don't think the technique is all-important. The main questions are whether the meaning is clear, and whether the words please the ear. Only you, the reader, can decide that, and you don't need a high-falutin' critic to tell you what you like!

I believe the poem is "biblical" in its vision of creation. According to the Bible, the earth was set on an immovable foundation by the hand of God. (Little did the ancient writers know that the earth is actually a spinning globe whizzing through space at phenomenal speeds!) We see this foundation in line four. Next, in line five, we see the hand of God creating the heavens above, where according to the Bible he then set the sun, moon and stars in place. (The ancient writers again got things wrong, saying that the earth existed first, in darkness, and that the sun, moon and stars were created later; we now know that the earth's heavier elements were created in the hearts of stars, so the stars existed long before the earth. The writers of Genesis even said that plants grew before the sun was formed, but of course they had never heard of photosynthesis.) The poem's last line sounds a bit more Germanic or Norse to me, since Middle Earth is a concept we hear in tales of Odin and Thor (and later in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien). But that makes sense because when Saint Augustine of Canterbury became the first Christian missionary to evangelize native Britons, I believe it was the policy of the Roman Catholic Church to incorporate local beliefs into the practice of Christianity. For instance, because sun gods were worshiped in Rome, the Sabbath day became Sun-day, and the birth of Christ became December the 25th (the day the winter sun is "resurrected" and the days begin to lengthen, heralding spring). So in northern climes we should expect to see some "fusion" of Norse and Germanic myths with Christianity. For instance, there was never a mention of "hell" in the Hebrew Bible; the Hebrew language did not even have a word that meant "hell" at the time the books of the Old Testament were written. The closest Hebrew word, Sheol, clearly means "the grave" and everyone went there when they died, good and bad. The Greek word Hades also means the grave, and likewise everyone went there when they died. Hades had heavenly regions like the Elysian Fields and Blessed Isles and thus was obviously not hell! "Hell" is a Norse term. If this subject interests you―for instance if someone has said you are in danger of "hell" and need to be "saved" from it―you many want to read my simple, logical proof that There Is No Hell in the Bible.

Keywords/Tags: Caedmon, Hymn, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation, God, religion, religious, praise, worship, oldest poem, first poem
Michael R Burch Jun 2020
Deor's Lament

(Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem circa the 10th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes and Translator's Comments
by Michael R. Burch

Summary

"Deor's Lament" appears in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960-990 AD. The poem may be considerably older than the manuscript, since many ancient poems were passed down ****** for generations before they were finally written down. The poem is a lament in which someone named Deor, presumably the poet who composed the poem, compares the loss of his job and prospects to seemingly far greater tragedies of the past. Thus "Deor's Lament" may be an early example of overstatement and/or "special pleading."

Author

The author is unknown but may have been an Anglo-Saxon scop (poet) named Deor. However it is also possible that the poem was written by someone else. We have no knowledge of a poet named "Deor" outside the poem.

Genre

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

Theme

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

Plot

Doer's name means "dear" and the poet puns on his name in the final stanza: "I was dear to my lord. My name was Deor." The name Deor may also has connotations of "noble" and "excellent." The plot of Deor's poem is simple and straightforward: other heroic figures of the past overcame adversity; so Deor may also be able to overcome the injustice done to him when his lord gave his position to a rival. It is even possible that Deor intended the poem to be a spell, incantation, curse or charm of sorts.

Techniques

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

Interpretation

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

Analysis of Characters and References

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

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

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

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

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

Keywords/Tags: Deor, Lament, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation, scop, mrbtr, Weland, Wayland, smith, exile, fetters, dungeon
Michael R Burch Apr 2020
Caedmon’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 Caedmon’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.

“Cædmon’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, Cædmon, 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 Cædmon’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. Keywords/Tags: Caedmon, hymn, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, oldest English poem, Whitby, Bede, Carroll, Stoker
Michael R Burch Apr 2020
At Caedmon’s Grave
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 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 Cædmon’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. “Cædmon’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, Cædmon, 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 Cædmon’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. Keywords/Tags: Caedmon, hymn, first English poem, Anglo-Saxon, Bede, cowherd, monk
Michael R Burch Feb 2020
Wulf and Eadwacer
anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem, circa 960 AD
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; we’re on another.
His island’s a fortress fastened by fens.
Here, bloodthirsty curs howl for carnage.
They’ll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained—how I wept!—
the boldest cur grasped me in his paws.
Good feelings for him, but for me, loathsome!
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Watchdog!
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

Originally published by Measure

"Wulf and Eadwacer" may be the oldest poem in the English language written by a female poet. It has been classified as an elegy, a lament, an early ballad or villanelle, a riddle, a charm, and a frauenlieder or "woman's song." This famously ambiguous poem is hard to pin down!

Keywords/Tags: Wulf, Eadwacer, Anglo-Saxon, Old English, translation, wolf, pack, ****, whelp, baby, child, dogs, curs, hounds, island, fens, woods, sacrifice, song, sever, severed
Sharon Talbot Sep 2017
Sere and yellow,
Rough and round, [bright pebbles in a mound]
Pitted and mellow,
Winding our necks round,
We wore them.

Amber beads unearthed from clay,
Fashioned by my artist love,
Glowing yellow, filled with day,
Captures sunbeams from above.
I still love them.

Some say gods have made these,
To ensnare the light of Sun,
But we women saved these,
In memory & hope of sons,
We keep them.

Fat & smooth as butter,
We turned them in our hands.
The bone beads scraped with madder,
The amber just with sand.

Those of shadowy carnelian
Embedded like a shield,
We treasure as we fear them,
Like wounds on battlefields.

The others soaked with brownish earth,
Sere and yellow,
Rough and round, [bright pebbles in a mound]
Pitted and mellow,
Winding our necks round,
We wore them.

So, when we are dead, take not from us,
These rounded, golden suns,
But bury them with us, with sword and severed buss,
To revere the slaughtered ones,
Who never returned to us.

Revised November 15, 2016
This poem was inspired by several photos taken by poet/photography and historian, Giles Watson, of amber and other beads unearthed at an Anglo-Saxon dig site in England. I was struck by the way the amber still glowed after hundreds of years beneath the earth, and the artistry of them.

— The End —