Sweet William and the Wanderer

Despite my radically reduced surfing speed, I’ve been keeping up with my favorite blogs as best I can (mostly with the help of my Google Reader-generated Smorgasblog substitute), and I want to tell you about two really exciting new blogging projects. (Yes, the bloggers are both friends of mine, but I think I’d be equally excited if I didn’t know them from Adam’s off ox.)

First, Dale at mole began an annotated translation of the great Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer:

Often I have told my trouble to the dawn;
There is no living creature now
That I can talk to freely. I know for a fact
It is a better habit to keep your heart’s cage locked —
To keep your mind’s wallet closed — think what you will.
A worn out heart cannot withstand Wyrd
And a disordered mind mends nothing.
Someone who wants to be thought well of
Binds his unhappiness up tight in his breast.

I happen to know that Dale once studied Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature at a prestigious graduate school, so I imagine his accompanying commentary is as trustworthy as his translation — for which, by the way, there is a crying need. With the exception of Heaney’s Beowulf, most of the Anglo-Saxon corpus has yet to find its Edward Snow (Rilke’s definitive translator into English, for those who don’t know). I also remember, a year or so back, Dale holding forth somewhere or another about the impossibility of translating Anglo-Saxon poetry into modern English. That was before he read Heaney’s Beowulf, I think.

It’s not that big a corpus, Dale. Shouldn’t take you more than a year, I’m figuring.

Another first installment of a projected series appeared last night at Dick Jones’ Patteran Pages: a re-imagining of the story behind the old English ballad, Fair Eleanor and Sweet William. By way of background, Dick says, “it occurred to me that it might be interesting to […] write a poem that moved back through the formalised structures of the rhyming ballad towards the immediacy of the events that inspired the song in the first place.” There aren’t too many poets of Dick’s caliber in the blog world who are willing to share what he calls “the rawest of material in its earliest form” — though I must say, it read awfully smoothly to me. The contrast between the starkness of the action and the beauty of the description raised the hairs on the back of my neck — and if you’ve ever seen the back of my neck, you know that’s no idle accomplishment.

But my baby moves in my arms;
he shifts his thick body
inside the plaid shawl that wraps him,
cranes his head to see our visitors
so as to smile his two small pearly teeth
at them, so as to fix his round
sea-blue eyes on them, so as
to welcome them to our hearth
with his two precious first words.

And he cuts him down.
With skill. It must be said,
with skill for his black blade
passes my face in a whisper,
a thing half seen, half-imagined —
the swift parabola of a bird
glanced through a window,
or a leaf blown in a hard wind.
I feel its dangerous breath;
I feel its voice deep within
my cage of bones.
(I must feel it always).


Also deserving of mention: Chris Clarke has been channeling Robinson Jeffers.

This is not the time to retreat into nature poetry. This is not
the time to withdraw from dim-lit rooms
into the wild bright world, to hide one’s head
beneath the wide sky’s broad blanket. The real world,
the important world flickers on these screens
and all the sunlit trivial expanse outside
mere glare to interfere, to mask our reading
of true poetry, the gutted mockery
and feeble seething, the plodding litanies of martyrs,
the toothless rage of impotent Barakas.
The only imperative is the imperative of my scream.

Poems and translations like these really make me proud to be a blogger.

4 Replies to “Sweet William and the Wanderer”

  1. Many thanks, Dave. But no way am I translating Genesis or Guthlac or The Christ :-)

    But yes, the corpus of Old English poetry worth reading for its own sake (rather than out of linguistic or historical interest) is very small — excluding Beowulf it’s very small indeed, one book’s worth. I might very easily get to all of it. Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. thanks for these…I’ve been reading dale’s recent work. Funny, I pass through Old English poetry’s stacks neighborhood almost daily but would rather get it from Dale than sit down and dig in to it meself…lazy mind, I suppose

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