December 2010

Paul Holler


The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto

If you have ever read the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf, you may have been left with a question. How is it that a work often thought to mark the beginning of the English literary tradition is largely set in Scandinavia? In case your high school English teacher never answered that question, here is a brief history lesson.

The Celtic peoples dominated the British Isles through the time of the Roman Empire. As Rome lost its hold on Europe and the Roman Army withdrew from Great Britain, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes from Northern Europe and Scandinavia made incursions into the island, driving the Celtic peoples into what is now Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. Descendents of the Celts live there to this day and speak languages that have their roots in the Celtic Britain. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the Norman Conquest of 1066, the culture and language of the Anglo-Saxons dominated the island of Great Britain. The language of the Anglo-Saxons is now known as Old English.

The literary tradition of the Anglo-Saxons is the subject of a new anthology titled The Word Exchange. The anthology includes accounts of historical events rendered in verse, philosophical and religious meditations and many riddles translated by some of the finest poets of our time. Some of the translators know the Anglo-Saxon language and approach the translations from a scholarly perspective. Others do not and approach the work from an artist’s point of view. The anthology includes a section with comments from the participants on the experience of translating these works. The end result is an anthology representing a variety of voices that provide the modern reader with a fresh look at this old and very rich tradition.

Like many ancient verse forms, Anglo-Saxon stories were passed down orally. The intent of the poet was to transmit stories from one person to another and one generation to another. As with the Homeric tradition, telling stories in verse allowed them to be committed to memory and passed on through performance. Anglo-Saxon poets, known as scops, used alliteration to both give music to their words and as a mnemonic device. While the tradition is often associated with legends of heroes and battles, the poems of this time reflect a broad range of subjects, characters and experiences.

For example, “The Wanderer,” a well known Anglo-Saxon narrative translated here by one of the anthologies editors, Greg Delanty, tells the story of a man alone on the ocean, at the mercy of the elements and left with only his own internal strength to survive. The tone of the piece is less heroic than reflective and philosophical. The speaker conquers no one. But he does not allow the elements to conquer his soul. Other pieces, such as X.J. Kennedy’s rendering of “The Battle Of Finsburgh,” tell stories based on historical events. The reader can imagine this story being passed down the generations to enable people to know their own culture and the deeds of their ancestors.

The poems here differ widely in tone and style, but there are common threads that run through many of the pieces. One of those threads is the language, which features concise, concrete imagery. As editor Michael Matto notes in his introduction, “To express the abstract through the physical is to create metaphor, but in Old English, the stress always seems to circle back to the physical.” Compared to the allegory which often characterizes poetry of the middle ages, this imagery can be surprisingly modern.

Brigit Pegeen Kelly, for example, uses this imagery in her translation of this Anglo-Saxon maxim:

Frost must freeze, fire melt wood,
earth bear fruit, ice build bridges,
and, most wonderful, water put on a glass helmet
to protect the earth’s sprouts.

Likewise, Yusef Komunyakaa renders this description of a ruined city:

Look at the elaborate crests chiseled into this stone wall
shattered by fate, the crumbled city squares,
and the hue and cry of giants rotted away.

William Carlos Williams once wrote that there “are no ideas but in things.” This is twentieth century notion, but it could easily be applied to these two fragments. What do Kelly’s glass helmet and the Komunyakaa’s ruined city represent? They represent themselves. But their existence says something about our existence. This is a very modern use of imagery but, even though words in these examples come from contemporary poets, the sensibility they embody is an echo of the Anglo-Saxon originals.

The Word Exchange is not so much a modern rendering of ancient poetry as it is a continuing of a tradition that spans centuries, nations and languages. The fact that this tradition still lives in our time and place is something to be celebrated. In a time when modern language is often reduced to text messages and tweets, it is important to take the time to consider the words that are a part of us. We still remember the ancient storytellers and their words. We can only hope our own words will be remembered and regarded so well.   

The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393079015
557 Pages