Ivory in the Rust: Reading the Old English “Ruin” in South Bend

As a medievalist studying at the University of Notre Dame, I am afforded many luxuries. The university’s resources for research in my field are exceptional, and I can honestly say that from my personal experience both the Medieval Institute and my home English Department have proven to be places where intellectual curiosity flourishes and where the spirit of generosity pervades. It has been a wonderful place to pursue my graduate studies, and of course the campus is absolutely beautiful, as the university’s collection of scenic images affirms. But when I decided to move off campus my second year, out of the gilded bubble surrounding the university and into the rust belt of South Bend, I met with some starkly different and rather unsettling imagery.

University of Notre Dame’s Golden Dome and Main Building

The juxtaposition between the two spheres which I came to inhabit—between the gorgeous Neo-Gothic architecture that adorns the picturesque campus and the industrial ruins scattered throughout the cityscape of South Bend—became repeatedly reinforced by my regular journey between these worlds on each morning commute and then again each night as I returned home. Every evening, I would leave the Golden Dome behind and drive by boarded up houses and businesses, like this one on Sample Street, which I routinely passed on my way home.

Ruined Building on Sample Street, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Below is a closer view from the front of the building. I pause on this particular structure, because it became engrained in my mind over time—the beautiful green decay and broken bricks—the state of disrepair. To me, this building came to represent the rust belt ruins of South Bend. My wife—artist and graduate of Massachusetts College of Art & Design, Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey—photographed the rotting building and describes experiencing an overwhelming stench of mildew and mold wafting from the broken windows upon approaching the structure.

Sample Street Ruin, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

In my opinion, there is a certain beauty in the haunting imagery of this broken down building, which recalls a time before the place fell into ruin while simultaneously emphasizing its current dilapidation. This theme is well known to Anglo-Saxonists, as the question of ubi sunt “where are (they now)?” pervades the so-called Old English elegies, which reflect on the transitory nature of human existence, noting the decay of great civilizations passed. As I read these medieval poems in the ivory tower of Hesburgh Library, I found myself thinking about South Bend and the many other rust belt cities across the country, weathered by similar economic decay. More than any other Old English elegy, the Exeter Book Ruin prompted me to meditate on the industrial remnants of a former time in South Bend.

Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501, f. 124r, all rights reserved Dean & Chapter Exeter Cathedral

The Old English Ruin is itself a ruin—appearing on fire-damaged folia in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). Fittingly, the poem bears its own marks from the wear of time and circumstance, and at first sounds almost like a riddle—beginning with one of the lexical markers scholars have used identify riddles (wrætlic meaning “wondrous” or “marvelous”). Moreover, in its manuscript context, the Old English Ruin is embedded within the two major collections of riddles found in the Exeter Book, amongst some stray riddles and the more enigmatic “elegies” in the codex, including The Wife’s Lament and The Husband’s Message. The Exeter Book Ruin demonstrates an interest in contemplating the destructive and the inevitable—crushing—passage of time, particularly on monumental manmade structures.

As Rajuli and I were discussing the poem and pockets of dilapidation throughout the city, she suggested that we drive around the city and take a family tour to document some of the ruins of South Bend, which I use here to complement sections of my translation of the Old English Ruin.

Ruined wall-stones in South Bend, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Wrætlic is þes wealstan wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston brosnað enta geweorc
Hrofas sind gehrorene hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen (1-4).

“Wondrous are these wall-stones,
broken by fortune, the citadels crumbled,
the work of giants ruined.
The roofs are collapsed,
the towers tumbled, the pillars bereft.”

Ruined South Bend factories, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

wurdon hyra wigsteal westen staþolas,
brosnade burgsteall (27-28).

  “their fortification became deserted places,
their strongholds crumbled.”

Ruined factory near Western Ave, South Bend, photograph by Richard Fahey and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Forþon þas hofu dreorgiað,
ond þæs teaforgeapa  tigelum sceadeð
hrostbeages hrof (29-31).

“Therefore these houses have decayed,
and this gabbled structure sheds its tiles,
the roof of ringed-wood.”

Red’s abandoned business on Indiana Ave, South Bend, photograph taken and edited by Rajuli (Khetarpal) Fahey

Sadly, the descriptions of desolation and structural decay in the poem reflects a bit too closely the current state of disrepair which still plagues certain parts of South Bend. This deserted business located on Indiana Avenue, once both Red’s Appliance Repair Center and Southside Electric, still bears obsolete information etched on the brick wall, whispering to us from the past. Reminding us that things were not always as they are today, and begging for renewal. Nevertheless, the enduring dilapidation that decorates the city stands as a reminder of how South Bend, and places like it, became collateral damage—destroyed by the tides of economic fluctuation.

Greeting sign upon entering the city of South Bend

As the sign suggests, South Bend is a city on the rise, racing to catch up to 21st century, and doing quite well in this effort. During my tenure at the University of Notre Dame, I have seen the city of South Bend improve tenfold—drawing new and thriving businesses, expanding campus infrastructure, renovating depressed neighborhoods, and even beginning to cultivate and encourage artistic movements within the city. Many rust belt cities do not have the advantage of housing such a vibrant university community which generates innovation and economic growth, and those cities have far greater challenges to overcome. Both the campus and the city at large often seem as if they are one enormous construction site: demolishing, repairing and rebuilding. Still, amidst citywide growth and revitalization lies the skeletal ruins of the rust belt economy.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Text and translation of the Old English Ruin

Collection of images “Rust Belt Ruins of South Bend

 

The Wanderer

Bodleian_DOrville77_f100r_cropped
A map of the world, showing the various cold, temperate, and hot zones; Macrobius, Commentary on the Somnium Scipionis; Germany, 10th cent.; Oxford, Bodleian Library, D’Orville MS 77, f. 100r

The latest in the Chequered Board‘s ongoing series of poetic translations is one of the most famous, and most haunting, poems in Old English literature.

The Wanderer, contained in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501), is one of a group of nine Old English poems known as the elegies, poems characterized by “a contrasting pattern of loss and consolation, ostensibly based on a specific personal experience or observation, and expressing an attitude towards that experience.”1 In The Wanderer, a litany of loss which extends throughout nearly the entirety of the poem comes to an abrupt halt in its final lines. These concluding moments assure the reader that it shall go well for those who seek consolation with the “father in heaven,” returning to the opening lines of the poem in which we are confronted with a lone traveler seeking to find some kind of favor or honor with his maker. The poem seems to give us resolution, though not one to be enjoyed in the present.

Early in college, long before I had remotely considered the idea of becoming an Anglo-Saxonist, I gave my heart to a very different poem, T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I loved the poem’s frustration with futility, its questions left unanswered, and its dips into existential crisis. The poem impressed me with its lament for the mundaneness of life and concern with ever-passing time: “I shall grow old… I grow old… / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled” (ll. 120-121). The speaker of The Love Song is keenly aware of his status and absurdity – “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker” (l. 84), “Almost, at times, the Fool” (l. 118) – and also of the difficulty of conveying meaning in the modern world – “That is not it at all, / That is not what I meant, at all” (ll. 109-110). The poem leaves us in the dreamscape of mermaids singing on the sea, “and we drown” (l. 131). It is not a happy poem.

Strangely, The Wanderer, written perhaps a thousand years before Eliot penned his Love Song, strikes some of these same chords. The poem begins with the image of a lone traveler with calloused hands, wandering over the seas and on land with a burdened mind. While Prufrock fears the future, the speaker of The Wanderer grieves for a past in which he enjoyed the company of kinsmen and the secure status of servitude to a lord. Images of a golden past, along with the faces of friends, “float” away from the speaker, and he reflects upon the death of all things of this world, offering a rather ordered catalogue of unfortunate events produced by a failing world. To say the least, it is not a happy poem. But it is extremely powerful poetry responding to the same concerns with which modern poets wrestle. Its world of mead-halls and thanes and warrior-glory is inexplicably also our world of suffering and futility and stagnation.

My main goal in offering this translation is to do some measure of justice to the beauty and depth of the original. I have stayed as close to the original language as possible, hopefully creating a work which sounds poetic to the modern ear while retaining some of its strangeness. C.S. Lewis famously wrote of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart.”2 Whether or not one believes these words are true of The Lord of the Rings, I hope you will agree that they are true of The Wanderer. The world of The Wanderer may be grey and rimmed with frost, but it is also a world of exquisite beauty, a world where the grief of the human soul is laid bare – the soul fully exposed in all of its wretchedness, yet not wholly defeated.

Maj-Britt Frenze
PhD Student
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

1 S.B. Greenfield, “Old English Elegies,” in Continuations and Beginning: Studies in Old English Literature, ed. Eric Gerald Stanely (London: Nelson, 1996), 143.
2 C.S. Lewis, in Time and Tide, August 14, 1954, and October 22, 1955. Reprinted in Lesley Walmsley, ed., C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces (London: HarperCollins, 2000).

Resurrecting the Phoenix

Fahey_Harley4751_f45r
Phoenix; bestiary, England, 2nd quarter of the 13th century; BL Harley MS 4751, f. 45r

Few mythological creatures have remained as present in Western cultural imagination as the fabulous and fiery phoenix. Phoenix mythology quickly became a poetic muse for classical authors from Ovid (Metamorphoses 15) to Lactantius (De ave phoenice). This mythographic and poetic tradition is later adapted in the Old English Phoenix, a poem found in the Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501). For my contribution to The Chequered Board’s ongoing series on Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation, I selected to translate a section from the Exeter Book Phoenix poem (lines 1-49), which I have titled “Æþelast Lond,” and which describes the heavenly home of the mythological phoenix.

My translation of the Exeter Book Phoenix is—first and foremost—a “creative” adaption of the Old English original. As a translation, “Æþelast Lond” is an interpretive rendition of the Exeter Book poem and should not be taken as a literal translation of the Old English, but rather as an experiment with artistic translation as a means of interpreting Anglo-Saxon verse. Throughout the piece I try to remember the certain poetics specific to the Exeter Phoenix, in addition to the literary traditions of phoenix mythology and the mysterious paradise in which the phoenix bird lives.

Hæbbe ic gefrugnen  þætte is feor heonan
eastdælum on  æþelast londa,
firum gefræge.  Nis se foldan sceat
ofer middangeard  mongum gefere
folcagendra,  ac he afyrred is
þurh meotudes meaht  manfremmendum.
Wlitig is se wong eall,  wynnum geblissad
mid þam fægrestum  foldan stencum.

I have heard that hence in faroff dales
Are Eastern fabled fields,
A fay realm known yet impossible and impassible
To human folk of earthen mold,
Guarded and disguised and determined,
Purged of evil and impurity.
A place of winsome wonder, blessed with edenic bliss
And the fairest fragrance of paradise.
(“Æþelast Lond,” ll. 1-8)


The Exeter Book Phoenix is itself a translation of Lactantius’ De ave phoenice—from Latin hexameter into Old English alliterative verse—which I have here translated into modern English free verse. Anglo-Saxon poetic and homiletic styles work in tandem throughout the Exeter Book poem, as Janie Steen and others have long noticed. It can be noted that the first line of my translation “I have heard that hence in faroff dales” (1), metrically echoes, even mimics, the Old English alliterative verse structure. While there is a somewhat contrived, mechanical quality to this line, I wanted to begin by paying metrical homage to the original poetics, before swiftly departing from any strict metrical parameters. However, despite that only this line attempts to slavishly resurrect Old English metrics, alliterative adornment remains a consistent stylistic feature throughout “Æþelast Lond”.

I attempt to resurrect the homiletic style of the Exeter Book Phoenix in my rather literal rendition of the ne…ne formulaic sections of this Old English “translation” (such as lines 15-19 and 22-25), which is in part an expansion on the nec…nec formula from Lactantius’ De ave phoenice. These formulae, Latin and Old English, are also popular in contemporaneous Old English and Anglo-Latin homilies. The cadence of this section in the original produces a masterful blend of Old English homiletic style and alliterative verse. For this reason, I felt this section deserved a more literal translation, with as much attention and adherence to metrics, style and diction as possible, in order to reproduce the rhythm and rhetorical effect produced by this simple, formulaic repetition.

Moreover, diction—for any poet or translator—is a point that merits some brief discussion. Again, I begin with a higher frequency of words etymologically derived from Old English, such as “hence” (1), “folk” (4), “mold” (4), “winsome” (7), etc. However, by the ninth line of the poem, my diction shifts toward the Latinate and ecclesiastical, and terms such as “celestial” (9), “creation” (11), revelation” 12), “angelic” (13), etc., in order to reflect the spiritual concerns and homiletic tone of the Exeter Book original poem.

The eastern wong or “plain” where the phoenix lives is heofon “heaven” in the Old English original, and thus in my translation, I focus my attention on the mystical space and mysterious home of the phoenix, central to this section of the poem. In the Exeter poem, two traditions of phoenix lore come together regarding where this mythical bird originates. The classical description of the phoenix as coming from the East (usually Egypt—at times India or Arabia) derives from Herodotus’ famous Greek account in his Histories, which lays the foundation for much of classical phoenix mythography. The Old English echoes this origin for the bird’s home: Hæbbe ic gefrugnen þætte is feor heonan/ eastdælum on  æþelast londa (1-2) “I have heard that there is the best of lands far hence in the eastern parts.” The other tradition, which becomes syncretized with the classical accounts, comes from the Abrahamic tradition, and describes the phoenix as a bird of paradise.

M. R. Niehoff has noted commentaries on the Midrash and Talmud, which describe the phoenix (chol) as refusing to eat the forbidden fruit and thereafter gaining everlasting life along with the chance to remain in paradise. The paradisal quality is present also in the Old English, as the phoenix’s home is a place not of this world: wlitig is se wong eall,  wynnum geblissad/ mid þam fægrestum  foldan stencum. “The plain is all shimmering, blessed with joys and with the fairest smells of the earth” (7-8). As Christianity developed during the late classical and early medieval periods, phoenix mythology became assimilated into Christianity, often recast in allegorical association with Christ and his resurrection. These allegories are often coupled with the Abrahamic interpretation of the phoenix as a bird of paradise, featured prominently in the Old English Phoenix.

“Æþelast Lond” highlights Old English homiletic and poetic styles, combines Abrahamic and classical traditions of phoenix mythography, and raises questions about semantical versus literal translation. It is my hope that, rather than simply offering another slavish translation of the Old English, “Æþelast Lond” encourages others to engage their creativity when reading and translating Anglo-Saxon poetry.

Stay tuned for additional forthcoming translations from the Exeter Book Phoenix, reborn as modern English poems!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

 

Works Cited

Hill, John Spencer. “The Phoenix.” Religion and Literature 16.2 (1994): 61-66.

Niehoff, M. R. “The Phoenix in Rabbinic Literature” The Harvard Theological  Review 89.3 (1996).]: 245-265.

Petersen, Helle Falcher. “The Phoenix: The Art of Literary Recycling” NM 101 (2000): 375–386.

Steen, Janie. Verse and Virtuosity: the adaptation of Latin rhetoric in Old English         poetry. University of Toronto Press Inc.: Toronto, ON, 2008.