Poetic Translation and The Wife’s Lament

Eddy Bodleian_Junius11_p59_cropped
Mourning in the Anglo-Saxon imagination: the death of Malalehel, mourned by his daughters; Genesis A, England, late 10th century; Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius MS 11

The Wife’s Lament is a poem about a zombie. It is also a riddle about a sorrowful woman who has been separated from her husband and exiled into the wilderness. Or is it a song about a vengeful nun’s curse? This spellbinding piece of Anglo-Saxon verse from the Exeter Book does not allow us to settle upon any of the above scenarios, and neither does it allow us to rule any of them out. The poem is remarkable as a rare example of a first-person narrative in a female voice, and its enigmatic quality brings scholars and translators back to it perennially in order to appreciate the beauty and significance of the poem and shed more light on its mysteries. The ambiguity of the poem also makes it a joy to translate, as it opens a space for unfettered creativity. For my contribution to The Chequered Board’s ongoing series on Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation, I have taken on The Wife’s Lament as an exploratory exercise in order to experiment with creative translation as a way of interpreting Old English poetry.

In his introduction to The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, Greg Delanty notes that “We tend to think of Anglo-Saxon poetry as issuing from the uniform voice of the great poet Anonywulf, especially once the poems are translated by the learned Master Olde English” (xv). The uniformity of many Old English poems in translation is due to the collective goal of many translators in producing as accurate a translation as possible. While this style of rendering an ancient poem into modern English is essential for learners of Old English to grasp the sense of the original language, it does not leave much room for the creative or interpretive voice of the translator. In the hands of modern poets like Burton Raffel and Eavan Bolan, however, an Old English poem can take on a new life of its own. When Raffel sets the woman’s exile in “a convent / Of wooden nuns” (15-16) he draws a comparison between the claustrophobic feeling of the woman and practices of enclosure surrounding Anglo-Saxon nuns. Boland highlights the possibility that the poem’s conclusion is an aggressive speech act by translating the wife’s speech as an explicit curse: “Let him be cast from his land alone/ By an icy cliff in a cold storm” (64-65). These versions of The Wife’s Lament add welcome voices to the conversation surrounding the poem, and show that poetic translation that experiments beyond a literal interpretation of the poem can be a legitimate way to approach its complexities from a fresh and intellectually productive perspective.

In my own approach, I wanted to address Delanty’s complaint by using a form that diverged from the imitation of alliterative verse often found in translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry. I settled on the ballad stanza because its regular and repeated rhyme scheme allowed me to approximate some of the sonic effects of alliteration, while also referencing other aspects of the Wife’s Lament that makes it stand out from other Old English poems. An example of a few ballad stanzas from the translation is excerpted below, as well as a reading of the original Anglo-Saxon verse:

I sadly sing this song of mine,
Of my journey of misery.
I tell the tale as I grow old
True now as will ever be.

My exile-journey is full of woe
Since my lord went out to the deep,
My dawn-cares have been full of him
And all I have done is weep.               (1-8)

Though the late medieval and early modern ballad stanza seems like an anachronistic fit with an Anglo-Saxon poem, the musical verse form represents a centuries-old tradition of female narratives of sorrow, from “Bonny Barabara Allan” to Dorothy Parker’s “The Dark Girl’s Rhyme.” Instead of simply categorizing the Wife’s Lament with all other Anglo-Saxon poems or Old English elegies, the ballad encourages readers to consider the poem in a more thematic genre category.

I also wanted to do homage to Raffel’s brilliant translation by imagining this song as the tale of a woman who is forced into a religious community when her husband leaves on a long sea journey, and is not recalled upon his return. She feels exiled and alone because she has been separated from her kin, and the religious life seems foreign to her. The final section of the text constitutes advice for others in her situation to cope with the monastic way of life. Though the translation is still left open to a variety of scenarios, I have made allusions to Raffel’s “convent of wooden nuns” through the use of “cloister” (17) and the notion of spending one’s time in enclosure in contemplation of heaven (the “Joyous House” [53]) and Christ (“Love” [56]).

The resulting translation is by no means an accurate or aesthetically comparable rendering of the original piece, but I hope it can encourage others to flex their creativity when approaching the translation of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The corpus of Old English poetry is a rich and diverse group of poems, and we can only enhance our appreciation of these works by hearing them retold in a multiplicity of voices that highlight the zombies, nuns, wilderness, and curses in each of them.

Leanne MacDonald
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Boland, Eavan. “The Wife’s Lament.” The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, ed. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Delanty, Greg and Michael Matto, The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.

Raffel, Burton. “A Woman’s Message and the Husband’s Message.” Prairie Schooner 32.2 (1958): 125-127. Print.

What’s in a line?: Harley’s Horn and the significance of mise-en-page, Part 2

This entry picks up from my last, in which I reflected on the potential of mise-en-page to communicate something about the genre or tenor of a text, and on the oddity of King Horn in Harley MS 2253 being written uniquely in aabb rhyming long lines. Below are my thoughts on what the poem gains from such mise-en-page:

Klein Harley 2253 f.83
BL Harley MS 2253, fol. 83r, King Horn, aabb, two verses to a line

While it could never be said that King Horn is a strictly alliterative poem, it undeniably exhibits a conscious amount of alliteration throughout, frequently to great effect,[1] putting it in good company with the majority of the English lyrics in the Harley manuscript which characteristically alliterate to some degree, some very strongly. In fact Henry West, in an old study, bases his entire theory of a two-stress scansion for Horn on the poem’s alliterative qualities.[2] Because of its particularly English reliance on heavy stresses, reminiscent of Horn’s Anglo-Saxon predecessors, one can effectively hear even the slight alliteration of the short lines that form the poem’s couplets. Horn is usually considered the earliest Middle English romance we have, and it is likely that the original composer of the poem, working from their probable Anglo-Norman source material, was an early adapter of the new genre into English, experimenting with a combination of the inherited rhymes of French romance and with the alliterative line of Anglo-Saxon and early Middle English poetry.[3] Moreover, in its Harley context, with its somewhat sporadic alliterative techniques and rhythms with simple rhymes, the poem falls nicely alongside the lyrics attempting a marriage between rhyme and alliteration in precisely the same way, all the while clearly drawing from a continental lyrical tradition as well.[4]

If we take into account the preceding, and thus if we see the line as our scribe did or–rather–hear it as its audience would have, it bears some small resemblance to the traditional four-stress line. The following “four” lines from Horn, arranged as they are in Harley, demonstrate this tendency at its strongest:

swerd hy gonne gripe // & to gedere smyte
hy smyten vnder shelde // þat hy somme yfelde
(ll. 55-58) [5]

In these lines we have three alliterative staves over a traditional four stress line. Detecting such examples suggests a conception of Horn in which the features of alliteration and the long line layout mutually affirm the poem’s indebtedness to and are evocative of an earlier English tradition. Of course, if we read Horn in the Harley manuscript, we can see that the scribe at least felt that the poem was suited to the long line and wrote it in that way, seeing Horn in much the same light that we now see Laȝamon’s Brut, perhaps its closest true poetic precursor. Let us take a few exemplary lines from the Brut:

And seoððen, vmbe stunde, // he ferde to Lunden;
he wes þere an Æstre // mid aðele his uolke;
bliðe wes þe Lundenes tun // for Vthere Pendragun.
He sende his sonde // ȝeond al his kinelonde;
he bæd þa eorles, // he bæd þa cheorles,
he bæd þa bischopes, // þa boc-ilærede men
þat heo comen to Lunden // to Vðer þan kingen,
into Lundenes tun // to Vðer Pendragun.
(ll. 9229-36)[6]

So we have in the above example, in eight long lines, six lines with internal rhyme (or near-rhyme), and six with alliteration of an irregular sort. The erratic rhyme and alliteration here is somewhat surprising, given that Laȝamon is often thought to be writing in a way intended to be evocative of his Anglo-Saxon forebears, but Elizabeth Salter suggests such surprise at Laȝamon’s prosody ignores the historic context of the poet, a context which “allowed for the coming-together of diverse but essentially traceable literary influences: French, Anglo-Norman, English and Latin.”[7] In some ways, then, editors of Laȝamon overemphasize the poet’s dedication to old forms in their choice to lay Laȝamon out in long line—no extant manuscript of poem does so. Instead, in manuscripts, the poem is written in block columns with verses separated by virgules.

The choice to print the text in long lines merely emphasizes the shakily consistent alliterative qualities of the poem over its similarly consistent leonine rhyming. One could print the poem as successfully in rhyming couplets. Recognizing that the layout of a poem’s lines can alter on which literary tradition emphasis falls, I see modern editors of Horn and Laȝamon struggling with the very same choices as medieval scribes regarding mise-en-page. The problem is, with the emphasis on silent reading today, what we see on the page crystalizes a poem’s form in a way which the medieval listener would not have experienced.

W.R.J. Barron and S.C. Weinberg describe Laȝamon’s prosody, his “constant variation,” thusly:

For [Laȝamon] alliteration seems no longer an essential organizational principle; in nearly one line in three it is entirely absent. Yet it is too frequent to be merely ornamental and, in some passages, so regularly associated with stress as to echo its classical usage. Similarly, though the majority of half-lines are of two stresses only, some have three or even four; others half-lines are rhythmically so uncertain as to leave the determination of the stress pattern to the individual reader. (xlix-l)

Barron and Weinberg, not to mention Salter, might as well be describing Horn. In its sporadic, yet persistent alliteration, its constant, though clumsily regulated two-stress line, its semi-competent rhyme scheme, and its obvious indebtedness to multilingual literary traditions, Horn is the near twin to the Brut.[8] And yet, modern editors are not alone in uncertainty regarding Horn’s metrical status. Our medieval compilers too must have struggled with how to present Horn in a manuscript, as the other two manuscripts of the poem suggest. While Oxford Bodleian MS Laud, Misc. 108 maintains a regular, if cramped, short-line throughout, Cambridge MS Gg. 4.27.2 tells a different story, with two short lines frequently written as one, with no discernible agenda—the long lines emphasize nothing special in alliteration, rhythm, or rhyme—as though copied by a scribe who could not make up his mind, or who habitually and unconsciously heard the long line in his copying only to be set straight by his short-line exemplar upon glancing back. Horn in Harley 2253 (see figure), however, is written in long line, a choice that consciously sets Horn back into an English tradition all the more emphasized by its manuscript’s co-inhabitants, many of which were consistently written in alliterative long lines with rhymes at their caesura.[9]

Klein Bodleian_LaudMisc108_f219v
King Horn; Oxford, Bodleian, MS Laud. Misc 108, f.219v

Additionally, there is little reason to suppose that, as Elizabeth Solopova suggests, “the reason for [the use of the long line in Horn] could have been the scribe’s wish to save space through an economic layout of a long text.”[10] As I observed in my last post, the Harley scribe used a variety of ordinatio in his manuscript, writing pages of one, two, or three columns, and at times his choices in mise-en-page were guided by artistic rationale.[11] If the Harley scribe were really intent on saving space, writing in short line would have been ideal,[12] as it would have allowed for the writing of a three-column page, which was in fact precisely what the scribe did only a page earlier (fol. 82) when copying “Maximian.” Furthermore, while Ker supposes that Horn may have been copied this way because of the scribe’s exemplar,[13] the scrupulous care with which the Harley scribe is often thought to have set out his texts suggests a motive behind the rare exception.[14] The inclusion of Horn in long line form allows the poem to inhabit the manuscript in a way that is less intrusive to its surrounding texts and more meaningful in establishing Horn as a particularly English brand of literature drawn from a pool of influence as varied as that from which Salter would have the Brut drawn.

Despite the suggestiveness of its mise-en-page in Harley, Horn is invariably edited as a short-line poem in all of its editions excepting its 1901 EETS publication,[16] even Hall’s parallel one, an editorial decision that unavoidably pushes aside associations with certain types or genres of poetry and foregrounds the poem’s associations with other genres. The end result of editions like Hall’s[17] is to create the illusion of stasis for a poem that can be looked to as a fascinating example of the transitional nature of the developing English poetic tradition, an instability highlighted by the poem’s gestures to orality and older traditions. By the time the Harley scribe copied Horn (1331-41), after all, the poem was quite old.[18] Perhaps our scribe signified, in his mise-en-page, that he saw in Horn a poem of a more historical, ancient, and epic character than those of the romance boom being copied contemporaneously in volumes like the Auchinleck manuscript, coming out of the flourishing book industry in London.

Andrew Klein
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


[1] Henry S. West, The Versification of King Horn: A Dissertation (Baltimore: J.H. Furst Company, 1907), 33, 36.
[2] West’s theory, in turn, finds much of its impetus in Theodor Wissmann’s 1881 critical edition of Horn. Wissmann uses the Cambridge MS as his base text, using alliteration and metre to restore an original reading of Horn. See Theodor Wissman, ed., Das Lied von King Horn (Strassburg: K.J. Trübner, 1881) and for introductory material see Theodor Wissman, Untersuchungen zur mittelenglischen sprach- und litteraturgeschichte (Strassburg: K.J. Trübner, 1876
[3] Barron, Romance, 67.
[4] A fine example of this is the lyric traditionally called “The Lover’s Complaint,” in which the lyricist combines English alliterative technique and tail-rhyme form with the love-longing of French trouvères like Gace Brulé:

Wiþ longyng y am lad,
on molde y waxe mad,
a maide marreþ me;
y grede, y grone, vnglad,
for selden y am sad
þat semly forte se. (1-6)

Many examples of such blending exist in Harley. Poems frequently play with English forms while relying on the French tradition for themes and motifs.
[5] While Cambridge MS Gg. 4.27 (2) is usually the preferred text for editors of King Horn, I have opted to use the text found in Harley 2253 for obvious reasons. All line references, therefore, are to the old text edited by Joseph Hall: King Horn (Oxford: Clarendon P), 1901, a parallel edition of all three versions of King Horn. I have here arranged four lines from Hall as two, adding the caesural markers. The 1901 EETS parallel text edition of Horn does arrange its Harley text in long line, but Hall’s is universally preferred as the more accurate text.
[6] Layamon’s Arthur: the Arthurian section of Layamon’s Brut, ed. W.R.J. Barron and S.C. Weinberg (Exeter: U of Exeter P, 2001).
[7] Elizabeth Salter, English and International: Studies in the Literature, Art, and Patronage of Medieval England, ed. Derek Pearsall and Nicolette Zeeman (New York: Cambridge UP, 1988), 61. We might recall as well the macaronic character of the Harley MS as a whole, which suggests our scribe was drawing from a similarly diverse cultural background as Laȝamon.
[8] Though it is not usually remarked upon today, the earliest editors and scholars of Horn often drew attention to a developmental relationship between the Brut and Horn. See, for instance, George H. McKnight, King Horn, Floriȝ and Blauncheflur, The Assumption of our Lady (New York: Oxford UP, 1901), xx-xxii; see also Hall, King Horn, xlv-xlvi.
[9] Elizabeth Solopova, “Layout, Punctuation, and Stanza Patterns in the English Verse,” in Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253, ed. Susanna Fein (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 377-89. Solopova asserts that long lines in Harley “never have leonine rhyme” (378), but this is only because she refuses to grant that Horn’s long line counts as such.
[10] Ibid., 387. This is an echo of Ritson’s very early suggestion: “The present poem, for the salvation of parchement, is writen with two lines in one” (264). Joseph Ritson, ed., Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës, vol. 3 (London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1802).
[11] A well-known example can be found on fol. 128r, where the Harley scribe places two poems, “The Way of Woman’s Love” and “The Way of Christ’s Love,” in clear juxtaposition. See Fein, “A Saint ‘Geynest under Gore,’” 351; Michael P. Kuczynski, “An ‘Electric Stream’”: The Religious Contents,” in Studies in the Harley Manuscript: The Scribes, Contents, and Social Contexts of British Library MS Harley 2253, ed. Susanna Fein (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 154-55.
[12] In reference to Horn’s spacing, Rosamund Allen notes, “Usually the scribe writes short lines in two columns.” See Rosamund Allen, ed., King Horn: An Edition Based on Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.27 (2) (New York: Garland, 1984), 13. For an example of how closely our scribe paid attention to arrangement of texts in Harley, see Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, “Major Middle English Poets and Manuscript Studies, 1300–1450,” in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2012), 50-54. Kerby-Fulton observes that the apparent cramming in of two poems next to one another, “In the Ecclesiastical Court” and “The Labourers in the Vineyard” over three pages in fact sets the poems in a juxtaposition that allows the latter poem to comment upon the first.
[13] N.P. Ker, Facsimile of British Museum MS. Harley 2253 (New York: Oxford UP, 1965), xvii; Solopova, “Layout, Punctuation, and Stanza Patterns,” 378, also draws attention to scribe’s “highly conscious approach to [the manuscripts] layout and punctuation.”
[14] Ibid., xviii.
[15] Stemmler, “Miscellany or Anthology?,” 121.
[16] This parallel EETS edition, “now re-edited from the manuscripts” (iii) by George H. McKnight, displays all three manuscript transcriptions on a page, with the Harley edition in long-line form. Unfortunately, Hall’s edition was published that same year and, having been deemed the superior parallel text, quickly overshadowed McKnight’s. Hall’s parallel text regularized Harley with the other two manuscripts, formatting it in short lines.
[17] By this I mean parallel editions especially, but all editions of Horn (of which there are eleven, and many more selections for anthologies) other than the 1901 EETS print Horn in short lines, a tradition inaugurated by Ritson in the earliest edition of Horn. Ritson printed Horn exclusively from the Harley manuscript in 1802, and, while he adopted the title from that manuscript (“The Geste of Kyng Horn”), he did not follow the lineation.
[18] The poem has been dated between 1225-75, though the story itself was told in Anglo-Norman even earlier (late twelfth century).

What’s in a Line?: Harley’s Horn and the significance of mise-en-page, Part 1

class noir image
A classic noir image. You know what kind of movie you’re looking at based not on narrative or dialogue, but on the camera angle, lighting effects, costume, and colour — all visual cues of mise-en-scène.

The study of medieval poetics and literature has begun to benefit immensely from the boom in manuscript studies. We’ve seen, even in past entries on this blog, how the layout of a poem in a manuscript can affect the way it is read. It is worth considering as well how the layout of a manuscript page can affect the way we interpret a text even before we begin reading it. In the same way directors signal and elicit particular responses from viewers of film or theatre with mise-en-scène, a scribe attuned to the potential of mise-en-page (also ordinatio) employs different page layouts to ask readers to begin understanding a text in a generic fashion a priori to any close engagement with the text.

A sterling example of the power of mise-en-page is London MS Harley 2253, which offers a smorgasbord of literary treasures from medieval England matched by few manuscripts. A number of scholars have observed how certain choices related to layout point to ways of reading the manuscript. Kerby-Fulton, for instance, observes the speech-markers in Gilote et Johanne, making a text “ready for performance” (54). The mise-en-page in the Harley MS serves as a visual entrée for many of these texts (after all, we are often told that we eat first with our eyes, not our stomachs), asking a reader to consider how they will read before they begin to do so. Because its contents are varied, the manuscript gives us the chance to see how one scribe employed mise-en-page with different types of texts. Of these various genres, languages, and layouts in that manuscript, one text, King Horn, stands as an anomaly of both genre and layout that can go some way in suggesting how layout can influence our reading of a text.

This is not to suggest that the Harley scribe was absolutely consistent, but he was consistent enough to show that his choices in layout were not dictated by whim. For instance, the vast majority of texts with a rhyme scheme of abab or abababcc (with a bob) were written out in a long-line form, with two verses to a line. Poems with an aabb scheme were, with the sole exception of King Horn, written in short lines, usually in two or three columns to a page.

BL Harley MS 2253, fol. 73r, showing at top a two-column aaabcccb poem and at bottom a single column abab poem in long lines.

Tail-rhyme poems of various sorts are also usually written in short lines, with a verse to a line (e.g. 71v-72). Poems with more complex rhyme schemes, such as that on fol. 76 (abababddb) or fol. 63v. (aabaabbaab) are written in a block of text, with virgules separating verses. Prose texts are written out in blocks as one would expect, and such is the case with the Anglo-Norman biblical material following Horn in the manuscript. On the rare occasion where space has apparently become an issue, as on fols. 82v-83 Maximian, the scribe does change layout to suit his needs, switching from a three-column layout to prose form with virgules separating verses at the top of 83r.

Harley Manuscript King Horn

BL Harley MS 2253, fol. 83r, showing at top the final lines of Maximian, written in prose form with verses separated by virgules. Below that is Mayden moder milde, abababab, and finally, King Hornaabb, two verses to a line.

While there is much to say about the various genres and rhyme schemes and their respective mise-en-page, suffice it to say here then that there was a method to the scribe’s ostensible madness. Elizabeth Solopova has given a useful overview of several features of mise-en-page, but she frequently stops short of offering reasons for selecting particular layouts, except to observe the dominance of the rhyming couplet as a guiding principle in line arrangements (e.g. 381). In her assessment, there is much consistency in layout throughout the manuscript. So why does Horn, a poem written in aabb rhyming couplets and the longest text in the manuscript, appear in long lines with two verses to a line, violating the principles of ordinatio that the scribe had been follows elsewhere?

It might seem a trivial question, but it is one that can be explored to give us some sense of how one of the earliest poems of the “romance genre” was thought of by its audiences. Come by next week to read my take on the connection between Horn‘s genre and its layout.

Andrew W. Klein
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Kerby-Fulton, Kathryn. Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2012).

Solopova, Elizabeth. “Layout, Punctuation, and Stanza Patterns in the English Verse” in Studies in the Harley Manuscript, ed. Susanna Fein (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).