Archive for translation

Heort of the Matter

Posted in Old English Poetry with tags , , , , , , on July 16, 2011 by mm

It occurs to me that this talk of Old English poets and what-not may strike some as rather cryptic. I hope not, but there it is. In light of this, I’ll take the time to give an example of just what kind of material I hold near and dear: namely Old and Middle English poetry. Having studied these topics (the former more than the latter) somewhat beyond superficial levels, I’ve gained a deep-set, passionate appreciation for the art, history, and meaning of them.

The study of the Old English (henceforth “OE”) language has also been one of my principle passions since, uh, “early life”. No word on how long ago that was.

So! I’m going to start by making some observations on a passage of OE poetry. Taken from the text of Beowulf (Klaeber, 4th ed., if you want to know), here’s a description of the scop in his natural environment: reciting poetry. Please open your books. That’s it. I know it’s been a while since you’ve glanced through this stuff, but isn’t it just awesome? Let’s read.

                                                        Hwīlum cyningas þegn,

                        guma gilphlæden,      gidda gemyndig,

                        sē ðe eal fela      ealdgesegena

                        worn gemunde,      word ō‏þer fand

                        sōðe gebunden;      secg eft ongan

                        sīð Bēowulfes      snyttrum styrian

                        ond on spēd wrecan     spel gerāde,

                        wordum wrixlan;

Ah, the downright epicness that is Old English verse. Wonderful, isn’t it? Look, we’ve got the classic Alliterative Line: one line split into two half-lines, with alliteration binding the two halves together across the gap (that’s the caesura, for you Latinites). Look at that second line: guma gilphlæden // gidda gemyndig. Doesn’t that just ring? Hm? Ah, well, I suppose I’d better give a quick translation:

                                                  “Sometimes the thane of the king,

                        A man laden-with-praising-words,   mindful of songs,

                        He who remembered      many a multitude

                        Of old-sagas;      he found other words

                        Bound with truth;      the man afterward began

                        To stir with wisdom      the journey of Beowulf

                        And recite with speed     the skillful story,

                        Weaving with words.”

I’ll admit I’ve taken some liberties in rendering this. The last half-line, for example, wordum wrixlan, ought to be more like “varying words”. . .But that just doesn’t cut it for me. Also the modifier gilphlæden in the second line. . .there’s a lot of meaning bound up in this word. It’s a compound, you see: gilphlæden. The second element is pretty straightforward (“laden”, you know?), but gilp is special. This is actually the origin of our modern “yelp”, but in OE it carries connotations of “boasting, singing, praising”, roughly. This is what the scop does. This is how he composes poetry: he weaves the old sagas together, finding “other words”, weaving and binding them together. It just so happens that, at this point in the poem, he’s singing the praises of Our Hero Beowulf. Who could be more deserving?

In essence, this poetic passage is a description of the making of poetic passages. Yeah, you like that? The old Beowulf-poet—whoever he was, we don’t know—sure has a way with things like that. Think of a blog-post about making blog-posts: same thing. So take note—if you ever do that, you’re doing it in the spirit of Beowulf.

I hope to examine more of such stuff here in the future. For now, though, I think that should suffice, so I’ll let it stand. Hopefully I’ve been able to convey some of the concepts I’m trying to convey.

As a parting note: scōp him Heort naman, the byline for this blog, translates to “He himself shaped it the name Heorot“. The He is Hroþgar, king of the Danes, whose aid Beowulf comes to in the first 2/3 of the poem. In the beginning, Hroþgar orders a grand hall to be built as the seat of his throne, and when it is built, he “shapes” it (referencing the “creation” etymology of the word scop) the name Heorot , or “Hart”, a beast signifying royalty. And there you have it. The moral of this story is that Old English is just. plain. awesome.