Poetic Translation and The Wife’s Lament

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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.

Beginning with Almsgiving

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The Virgin Mary, at the crucifixion; the Ramsey Psalter, last quarter of the 10th century, England; BL Harley 2904, f. 3v

Translating a poem is a tall order. There are many factors to consider and issues which must be negotiated in the process. Which is better—literal accuracy or stylistic approximation? We have asked modern translators from the Medieval Institute and English departments at University of Notre Dame to share translations of their favorite Old English poems, digitally displayed alongside their medieval counterparts. Recitations, both in Old and modern English, will likewise be featured as complementary audio files, accompanying both versions of each respective poem translated.

Today, we’d like to draw your attention to the first of these translations, which is now available on our site.  Almsgiving is contained in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English poetry copied c. 970, and thus the oldest surviving collection of English literature in the world.  Jacob Riyeff, a PhD candidate in Notre Dame’s Department of English, has translated this beautiful poem, and you can read it below, as well as hear recordings of him reciting the Old English text and his own modern English translation.  We hope you enjoy!

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame

Almsgiving
from the Old English Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501)

 Translation and Recitations by Jacob Riyeff

OLD ENGLISH ORIGINAL POEM:

Wel bið þam eorle þe him on innan hafað,
reþehydig wer, rume heortan;
þæt him biþ for worulde weorðmynda mæst,
ond for ussum dryhtne doma selast.
Efne swa he mid wætre þone weallendan
leg adwæsce, þæt he leng ne mæg
blac byrnende burgum sceððan,
swa he mid ælmessan ealle toscufeð
synna wunde, sawla lacnað.

ASPR III, 223.

MODERN ENGLISH TRANSLATION by Jacob Riyeff:

That disciple is blest whose spirit burns
with generosity, renovating the inner room
of her heart. The world rejoices at her worthiness
and the Lord glories in the welcome glow of her light.

Jesus ben Sirach says a surging
flame will be snuffed, raging fires
put down with welling water—no longer
able to damage dwellings with burning—
when that disciple douses sin, healing souls
with the gracious gift of her alms.

Previously published in Dappled Things 9.3 (2014) and “Lofsangas: Poems Old and New,” a chapbook by Jacob Riyeff (Franciscan University of Steubenville Press, 2015).

Jacob Riyeff
PhD in English
University of Notre Dame

Buried Alive?

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Late medieval anchorhold at All Saints Church, King’s Lynn, Norfolk, England; photo by Megan J. Hall.

Have you heard of medieval anchoresses? Most people haven’t. Anchoritism was a fascinating (and odd) phenomenon that happened all across Western Europe and has roots in the early Christian desert hermit tradition. An anchoress was a laywoman who wanted to withdraw from secular life and live instead in solitude, enclosed in a small room attached to an exterior wall of a church or castle, devoting the rest of her earthly life to Christian devotion and such works of service as she could perform from her cell (embroidering liturgical cloths is one example). She would have required a patron or an income from landholdings or other source to support her needs, such as food, water, and clothing. Among women this phenomenon was first documented in England in the twelfth century and became an increasingly popular choice that continued well into the sixteenth. Several handbooks were written for these women, at first in Latin and then in English. Arguably the most famous is the Ancrene Wisse, composed in the early thirteenth century, of which an impressive seventeen manuscripts survive.

This lifestyle choice seems very strange to us today. Who among us would choose to confine herself to a one-room cell for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you get claustrophobic, or addled by cabin fever, or die from lack of exposure to sunlight? Wouldn’t you just get bored? Not to mention the deeper and off-putting mythologies that have grown up about anchoresses: rites of the dead were said over them at enclosure, they were bricked into their cells, they dug their graves in their cell floors with their hands a little bit every day, they never saw anyone, and their cells were always on the north side of the church so they’d suffer more from cold (they were just that penitential).

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A bishop blesses an anchorite as she enters her cell; Pontifical, England, 1st quarter of the 15th century; London, British Library, Lansdowne MS 451, fol. 76v.

Perhaps the most chilling myth is that anchoresses were all walled up in their cells, like Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In fact, while sometimes the exterior door of the cell was bricked in, that was not always the case. Further, the ceremony happened with great solemnity and was a voluntary commitment on the part of the anchoress. Various medieval pontificals, service books for Church bishops, record these rites. The office in the fifteenth-century pontifical of Bishop Lacy calls for the door of the cell to be built up. Others, like the sixteenth-century pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge directs the anchoress’s door to be firmly shut from the outside. The image above, from an early fifteenth-century Pontifical held at the British Library, accompanies an enclosure rite that begins “Ordo ad recludendum reclusum et anaco/ritam,” or “Ordo [a book containing the rites, sacraments, and other liturgical offices of the Church] for enclosure of a recluse and anchorite.” The bishop makes the sign of the cross above an anchoress entering her cell before enclosing her.

As part of the research for my dissertation-in-progress, a study of lay English women’s literacy in the thirteenth century, I’m visiting a number of medieval English churches that hosted anchorholds (or are rumored to have done so) and chronicling it on my blog. Two of the sites still retain their medieval anchorholds, one pictured at the top of the post and the other below. Interestingly, both have exterior doors.

The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window; photo by Megan Hall
The Church of St. Mary and St. Cuthbert, Chester-le-Street, Durham, England: the late medieval anchorhold is pictured at the far left, sporting a door and a window. Photo by Megan J. Hall.

There is, of course, much more to be said about the exterior fabric of these cells and what has changed over the course of five or six hundred years than is room for here. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that anchoresses’ access to the world was a more complex matter than myth would have you believe.

Megan J. Hall, Ph.D. Candidate
Department of English, University of Notre Dame


Sources

The Pontifical of Bishop Lacy: Exeter, Cathedral Library of the Dean and Chapter, MS 3513

The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS F. vi. 1

F. M. Steele, “Ceremony of Enclosing Anchorites,” in Anchoresses of the West (London, 1903), pp. 47-51.

Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, Methuen 1914).