The language that led me to fall in love with old literature for real and to finally go to university (because you couldn’t just Google how to read it back then!) is Old English. And lots of my work over the last decade has been on this medieval Germanic language. But I was only in my first Old English class at UW-Madison in 2005 because I wasn’t able to take the Old Norse class that term. After experiencing Old English in the classroom, I went that route and rarely looked back.
Every once in awhile I did look back, though, and remember wanting to devote my life to the study, translation, and (yes) performance of Old Norse verse. Well, that train left the station, but over the summer I started reading the Old Norse Elder Edda again, and felt compelled to finally try my hand at translating something.
Given my recent fixation on burial mounds and effigy mounds and mounds of all sorts, I decided to translate the final scene of the second “kviða” (or “lay”) of Helgi Hundingsbane, a member of the Volsung line. It’s a long, knotty story, but all you need to know is that Helgi marries Sigrun and is then killed. In the scene I translate, Helgi has been buried in a mound and Sigrun can’t let his memory go, so she meets him at the mound for a little talk—no big deal.
It’s an honor and a pleasure to share that the literary journal Presencehas nominated my translation of the Old English poem “The Ruin” for the 2021 Pushcart Prize.
“The Ruin” is a poem composed in Old English and copied down in the tenth-century Exeter Book, the first anthology of English poetry. My translation brings the poem into Present Day English but also “translates” the poem’s scene (an Anglo-Saxon looking at Roman ruins in Britain) to a modern one (a Midwesterner looking at the Middle Woodland mound in Lake Park, Milwaukee).
It’s good fun, if a bit morose, and I’m so pleased to have it nominated. Thanks, Presence, anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet and scribe, and Woodlanders!
On this big feast for Benedictine and Cistercian monastics and their oblates and associates, I thought I’d post some new audio of Benedictine poetry I’ve translated or edited over the last few years.
Today’s first installment: a short poem from Swami Abhishiktananda (aka Dom Henri Le Saux, OSB; 1910-1973). “OM Wholly Burnt” is a dense little poem with lots of pathos included in a letter to Swamiji’s disciple, Swami Ajatananda (Marc Chaduc) written toward the end of his life.
This coming Tuesday, November 26th at 7 pm, anyone in the Milwaukee area who wants to support translators and/or the literary arts in general should come on down to Boswell Book Company on Downer Ave. (more details on their homepage).
I’ll be talking about and reading from my translation of Swami Abhishiktananda’s French poems (In the Bosom of the Father), along with Dr. Lorena Terando of UW-Milwaukee and former Boswellian Caroline Froh.
After brief readings from each of us, we’ll have a Q&A about translation in general and the works themselves.
I am very grateful to the selection committee, especially because this was Cistercian Publications‘ first foray into the Old English textual world and because the volume attempts to find a somewhat new audience for Old English literary culture. I was also pleasantly surprised because there are especially so many solid and important editions of Old English and Anglo-Latin texts being done by respected scholars every year.
Thank you, ISAS, Cistercian Publications, and Saint Æthelwold!
St. Æthelwold’s Day is upon us again! On this day in 984, St. Æthelwold passed on to his eternal reward, as the saying goes. I’m currently teaching two classes and in the midst of writing three different books, so unfortunately I am not able to post a translation of a hymn in honor of Æthelwold today as I did last year, but I will post at least another collect and translation below.
But I will make one Æthelwold-related suggestion: anyone interested in Æthelwold’s legacy, the English Benedictine Reform generally, and especially their influence on English culture and literature would do well to check out John D. Niles’s new book out from Exeter University Press, God’s Exiles and English Verse, an excellent new and comprehensive study of the tenth-century Exeter Book. The Exeter Book is the first anthology of English poetry, and it contains some of the great poems that have come down to us from Anglo-Saxon England. As it was made in the cultural orbit of the Benedictine Reform, Niles reads the whole manuscript in light of this movement, and when I read his book last month I was both impressed and delighted.
Next year, I’m hoping to have a translation of the Middle English verse Life of St. Æthelwold done for his day. As I assume I won’t find a publisher in a journal for that one, I’ll likely publish it here. Stay tuned.
Anyhow, for today, here’s my translation of a collect for Æthelwold’s feast, found in Alencon Bibl. mun. 14 and edited in Lapidge and Winterbottom, The Life of St. Æthelwold, p. cxv:
Deus, qui preclari sideris sancti pontificis Adeluuoldi illustratione nouam populis Anglorum tribuisti lucem hodierna die clarescere, tuam suppliciter imploramus clementiam ut cuius magisterio totius religionis documenta cognouimus illius et exemplis informemur et patrociniis adiuuemur. Per [Dominum nostrum Christum. Amen.]
O God, who by the illumination of the bright star of the bishop Æthelwold have today made a new light to shine upon the English people, we humbly implore your mercy that we might be formed by the example and aided by the protection of him by whose teaching we have found the model of all religious observance. Thru [Christ our Lord. Amen.]
My wife and I just returned from the Big Sur coast where I led a retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage with Fr. Cyprian Consiglio on Swami Abhishiktananda‘s life and wonderful legacy. The weekend was filled with deep conversation and joy in the Spirit.
The Hermitage offers nourishment for soul and body, with a tremendous view of the Pacific (and attendant cloudscapes) from its mountain perch. The liturgy, meditation, and space for silence and presence of mind and spirit were all exactly what my wife and I needed after a busy school year and the recent publishing push and . . . everything!
My sincerest thanks to the Camaldolese monks at New Camaldoli, and especially to all the retreatants who came along for the ride–I hope our paths cross again soon!
In continued celebration of Swamiji’s work, here is a translation of a poem from Swami Abhishiktananda’s journal that is in my collection; I read this at the retreat during a session on Swamiji’s use of poetry to gesture at his profound advaitic and mystical experiences.
“You have seen the lightning” addresses its own author and all those who have glimpsed the root unity of things beyond appearance, with a kind of fatherly caution. It speaks to the intimacy of such experience and the inadequacy of words in its face–and yet our desire to speak or sing of it despite this. Enjoy!
It is my great pleasure to share that Dr. David Grubbs of the Christian Humanist Radio Network recently invited me to sit down and talk about my work with St. Aethelwold’s Old English translation of the Rule of St. Benedict (and other Anglo-Saxon things), and the interview is now available here.
We had a great time, and while we geeked out over all kinds of Anglo-Saxon things, we also wanted to keep the conversation grounded in order to invite folks into a relatively specialized topic. That is to say: you don’t need to be a student of medieval history or literature to follow the interview, so please do give a listen!
Thanks again to Dr. Grubbs and everyone there at The Christian Humanist!
While my first literary love is Old English poetry, I am a fan of Middle English too. In my new collection, I have a few translations of poems from Geoffrey Chaucer. I like to remind folks in general, my students, and myself from time to time that Chaucer did things aside from The Canterbury Tales (as great as they are).
So here’s one of his shorter lyric poems, “Truth,” done in the forme fixe of the ballade, a French verse form that was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries. Contemporary English poets (Chaucer himself and John Lydgate preeminent among them) liked to use it too, and later English-language poets have continued the tradition. I’ve retained the verse form over literal meaning, to preserve the musicality of Chaucer’s original. (In my translation I also omit the “envoy,” the final stanza that is addressed to a particular person, to “universalize” the poem–for better or worse.)
I like especially his image of the futility of “kicking the point of an awl.”
The texts follow the audio file of my reading of the Middle English and translation.
Truth: Balade de Bon Conseyl
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee fro the prees and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thing, though it be smal,
For hord hath hate, and climbing tikelnesse,
Prees hath envye, and wele blent overal.
Savour no more than thee bihove shal,
Reule wel thyself that other folk canst rede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
Tempest thee noght al croked to redresse
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal;
Gret reste stant in litel besinesse.
Be war therfore to sporne ayeyns an al,
Stryve not, as doth the crokke with the wal.
Daunte thyself, that dauntest otheres dede,
And trouthe thee shal delivere, it is no drede.
That thee is sent, receyve in buxomnesse;
The wrastling for this world axeth a fal.
Here is non hoom, her nis but wildernesse:
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beste, out of thy stal!
Know thy contree, look up, thank God of al;
Hold the heye wey and lat thy gost thee lede,
And trouthe thee shall delivere, it is no drede.
Truth: A Middle English Ballade of Good Counsel by Geoffrey Chaucer
Flee the crowd and dwell securely in trueness.
Let your own suffice, though it not be much,
for greed leads to hate and grasping to coldness;
the crowd leads to envy, and wealth deceives such
as hold too tightly everything they touch.
Rule yourself well, that others clearly see,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Don’t try to amend all that is amiss,
trusting that Lady who spins like a ball;
true rest lies in spurning busyness.
There’s no sense in kicking the point of an awl
nor in the crock’s struggle against a wall.
Rule yourself, you who rule others’ deeds,
and have no doubt: the truth shall set you free.
Take what is sent to you in obedience;
struggle, for this world surely begs a fall.
We have no home here, only wilderness.
Go forth, pilgrim! Go forth, beast, from your stall!
Quick follow-up post: my translation of a classic Middle English lyric, “Adam Lay Ybounden,” has just appeared in the Benedictine magazine Spirit & Life. It’s a delightful short poem from c. 1400 that describes the paradoxical benefits of the Fall in Genesis 3. Plot twist!
Special thanks to Sr. Sarah Schwartzberg of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration for publishing this. Check out the sisters’ daily podcast of their chanting of the Liturgy of the Hours at their monastery in Clyde, MO here.