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'The Word Exchange' book review: Old English poetry isn't lost in translation

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, February 17, 2011

JR.R. Tolkien once described "Beowulf" - and by extension much of Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, poetry - as "a drink dark and bitter: a solemn funeral-ale with the taste of death." He further emphasized - in his scholarly essay "The Monsters and the Critics" - what he called the "unrecapturable magic" of ancient English verse. In poems like "The Seafarer," "The Wanderer" and "The Battle of Maldon," "profound feeling, and poignant vision, filled with the beauty and mortality of the world, are aroused by brief phrases, light touches, short words resounding like harpstrings, sharply plucked."

Note that Tolkien calls this poetry's magic "unrecapturable." Because of "The Word Exchange," that's no longer entirely true. Nonetheless, a little of this bleakly dour alliterative verse - even in superb modern English versions - goes a long way. This isn't gaily ribboned Camelot or Merrie Olde England. This is a wintry February world of cold iron, gray dawns, stoicism and lonely exile, with little brightness to life apart from an occasional cup of mead in a thane's household or a shining ring bestowed by some noble lord to an honored warrior.

When these poems aren't about the epic defense of a narrow place against odds, they frequently give Christian dogma and story a distinctive Dark Age twist. For example, "The Dream of the Rood" - called "The Vision of the Cross" in Ciaran Carson's translation - presents the Crucifixion from the Cross's point of view. "This man of mettle - God Almighty - then stripped off/for battle; stern and strong, he climbed the gallows." Eventually, "battle-weary," the "dear warrior" is taken down by His followers. In the future, the Cross becomes God's army's banner so that none need fear God's wrath "who bear upon their breast" this "brightest emblem."

Anglo-Saxon phrases, as Tolkien observes, often resound "like harp strings, sharply plucked." In his preface, Seamus Heaney points to a supreme example of such resonance. Although "The Battle of Maldon" - about a bloody encounter between native Anglo-Saxons and invading Norsemen - stands among the half-dozen greatest old English poems, it is still a fragment, one that tellingly opens with the words "brocen wurde," that is "[it] was broken." Those two words, Heaney writes, "could almost function as a very condensed history of Anglo-Saxon poetry." For the Anglo-Saxon hegemony was shattered in 1066, when the Norman French conquered England and brought with them their softer, more flowing tongue. The resulting hybrid, Middle English, while still sometimes hard going, is recognizably a language we still speak. It is Chaucer's dialect: "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote."

But Anglo-Saxon remains alien.

"The Word Exchange" includes original poems - 123 of them - on its left-hand pages and the English versions on the right. "Caedmon's Hymn," traditionally viewed as the oldest surviving example of such poetry, opens this way: "Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard." With effort one can make out that the words mean roughly: Now we shall praise the heavenly kingdom's guardian. It's relatively easy to see the English word "heaven" joined to the German word "Reich," while "weard" calls to mind the old phrase "watch and ward." But things grow more difficult in the second line with "meotodes meahte and his modgethanc."(I've used "th" to represent the Old English letter called a thorn.) Harvey Shapiro renders these two lines this way: "Guardian of heaven whom we come to praise/who mapped creation in His thought's sinews."

The more than 70 poets called upon by the anthology's editors, Greg Delanty and Michael Matto, are certainly distinguished. The roster includes Heaney himself ("Deor"), Paul Muldoon ("Wulf and Eadwacer"), David R. Slavitt ("The Battle of Maldon"), Derek Mahon ("Durham"), Robert Hass ("The Battle of Brunanburh") and Yusef Komunyakaa ("The Ruin"). Much Anglo-Saxon verse takes the form of riddles, charms, prayers and maxims, and scores of these are Englished by Billy Collins, Carol Muske-Dukes, Michael Collier, Molly Peacock, Dennis O'Driscoll, Jane Hirshfield and others equally notable. Many of the poets were assisted by Matto, who provided "cribs, glossaries, and interpretive direction." In an appendix, David Ferry, Eamon Grennan, Rachel Hadas and nine other contributors offer mini-essays on their experience of turning Anglo-Saxon into modern English.

Mary Jo Salter's was perhaps the most daunting task, as she had not only to translate "The Seafarer" but also to resist the influence of a powerful precursor: Ezra Pound's classic (if slightly truncated) version, a masterpiece of sinewy diction and syntax. Adopting a smoother line, Salter opens: "I can sing my own true story/of journeys through this world,/how often I was tried/by troubles." The narrator goes on to contrast loneliness at sea and life on the land, with Salter at one point employing language that seems to echo the depiction of spring in Horace's famous "Diffugere nives" ode: "Groves break into blossom,/the towns and fields grow fair/and the world once more is new." She ends with the maximlike observations: "A man must steer his passions,/be strong in staying steady/. . . . Let us ponder where our true/home is, and how to reach it."

Anyone who has been put off Anglo-Saxon poetry because of the stiffness or academese of older translations will discover much to enjoy in "The Word Exchange." Almost everything is here, with the exception of the book-length "Beowulf." Still, bear in mind that the softer passions are seldom mentioned, and this is definitely not a book for a late Valentine's Day present. But there is wonderful stuff here, as in these closing lines from Bernard O'Donoghue's translation of "Widsith," the reflections of a wandering poet:

So the minstrels of men go wandering

by the dictates of fate through many lands.

They express what is needed and compose thanks.

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