Monthly Archives: August 2014

That came to pass, this also may!

As I continue to finalize my reading lists, I want to make sure I regularly read from all my lists, in order to form connections and keep my ideas flowing over the course of my exam process. I also want to keep practicing my Old English translation, so I have been concentrating on a poem that I have been turning over in my head since I read it for the first time several months ago in Seamus Heaney’s haunting translation: Deor. Much of its ear-worm quality comes from the fact that it has a repeating refrain – this makes it rather rare amongst Anglo-Saxon poems, as Bradley points out (362). It also particularly appeals to me because it involves a correspondence of lived experience between the speaker and figures from the past, as all are human with the capacity for suffering and triumph. Moreover, there is no distinction between the suffering of men and women – the anguish of a pregnant rape victim is depicted alongside a crippled and enslaved hero. What follows is my very rough translation of the poem, for which I consulted Murray MacGillivray’s notes and glossary, as well as several different translations. I intend to do a more poetic translation at some point in time, but this version will help provide a sense of what the poem is about before I dive any further into it.



Ed. Murray McGillivray. Online Corpus of Old English Poetry (OCOEP).

Welund him be wurman    wræces cunnade.
Anhydig eorl    earfoþa dreag,
hæfde him to gesiþþe    sorge ond longaþ,
wintercealde wræce,    wean oft onfond,

siþþan hine Niðhad on    nede legde
swoncre seonobende    on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Beadohilde ne wæs    hyre broþra deaþ
on sefan swa sar    swa hyre sylfre þing:

þæt heo gearolice    ongieten hæfde
þæt heo eacen wæs—    æfre ne meahte
þriste geþencan,    hu ymb þæt sceolde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We þæt Mæðhilde    monge gefrugnon

wurdon grundlease    Geates frige,
þæt hi seo sorglufu    slæp ealle binom.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Ðeodric ahte    þritig wintra
Mæringa burg—    þæt wæs monegum cuþ.

Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We geascodan    Eormanrices
wylfenne geþoht;    ahte wide folc
Gotena rices.    Þæt wæs grim cyning.
Sæt secg monig    sorgum gebunden,

wean on wenan,    wyscte geneahhe
þæt þæs cynerice    ofercumen wære.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Siteð sorgcearig    sælum bidæled,
on sefan sweorceð,    sylfum þinceð

þæt sy endeleas    earfoða dæl.
Mæg þonne geþencan    þæt geond þas woruld
witig dryhten    wendeþ geneahhe,
eorle monegum    are gesceawað,
wislicne blæd,    sumum weana dæl.

Þæt ic bi me sylfum    secgan wille,
þæt ic hwile wæs    Heodeninga scop,
dryhtne dyre.    Me wæs Deor noma.
Ahte ic fela wintra    folgað tilne,
holdne hlaford,    oþþæt Heorrenda nu,

leoðcræftig monn    londryht geþah,
þæt me eorla hleo    ær gesealde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!


My Translation

Welund himself knew misery by worms.
The brave man knew hardship,
had to himself for company sorrow and longing,
winter-cold misery; He often found woe,
since Nithhad by force laid a thin sinew-bond onto the better man.

That came to pass, this also may!

Beadohilde was not as sorrowful from her brothers’ death
as from her own thing,
that she certainly understood that she was pregnant;
She was never able to think confidently,
about what she should do.

That came to pass, this also may!

We found out that for Maethhilde,
many became the bottomless embraces of the Geat,
that the sorrowful love deprived her of all sleep. 

That came to pass, this also may!

Theodric possessed for thirty winters the city of Maeringa;
That was known to many. 

That came to pass, this also may!

We discovered the wolfen thought of Ermanaricus;
He occupied widely the people of the kingdom of the Goths.
That was a harsh king.
Many a man lived bound to sorrows,
woe in expectation,
often wishing that this kingdom was overcome. 

That came to pass, this also may!

He lived sorrowful, deprived of joy,
he grew dark in his spirit,
it seemed to him that the troubles would be endless.
I might then think that throughout this world the wise Lord changes enough,
shows honour to many a man, true splendor,
a portion of woes to some.

That I by myself wish to tell,
that I once was a scop of the Heodenings,
dear Lord.

The name ‘Deor’ was mine.

I had for many winters a good fellowship, a loyal lord,
until now Heorrenda, a man skilled in poetry,
received a privilege that the protecting lord once gave to me.

That came to pass, this also may!

Upon the first few readings of the poem, Deor seems like a poem of hope and determination in the face of adversity. The speaker relates various hardships of figures from Gothic legend, many details of which have been obscured by time, and insists in a recurring refrain that if their troubles came to an end, his lot likewise has a chance of improving: “þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.” (l. 7, 13, 17, 20, 27, 42). There has been a great deal of consistency in translators’ approaches to this seemingly simple line – Seamus Heaney renders it with his characteristic simple elegance by having his speaker reassure himself that “That passed over, this can too” (Heaney 7). S.A.J. Bradley, known for his linguistically accurate prose translations, gives “That passed away: so may this” (7). Even Burton Raffel, who has been known to approach Old English translation with poetic creativity (such as his insertion of ‘a convent of wooden nuns’ into his version of “A Woman’s Message” (Raffel 36)), employs the phrase “That passed, and so may this” (7). Closer philological examination of the poem shows, however, that this short phrase may not be so easy to render into modern English as it seems. While one of the meanings given in Bosworth-Toller’s dictionary for “ofereode” is indeed “to pass, pass off or away, be over, come to an end,” another is “to come upon, attack (of disease, sleep, etc. ),” “to conquer,” or “to pass a moral limit, to transgress.” While all of these meanings might indicate that an event has happened, not all of them are a reassuring statement that since the mythological figures that the speaker has depicted have ended happily. The ambiguity is heightened by the fact that the poet often leaves the end of his mytho-historical vignettes unsaid, presumably relying on his audience’s cultural knowledge of the characters depicted within – knowledge that has in many cases not survived.

 An exception to this dearth of backstory concerns the story of Weland the Smith, which provides material for the vignettes in the first part of the poem. He is well-known in Germanic mythology, and Raffel uses Weland’s story to begin his translation on a triumphant note, letting readers know that the sorrow had indeed passed. He writes: “Wayland, a legendary smith whom Nithad had crippled and enslaved, forged himself metal wings, killed Nithad’s sons, drugged and violated Nithad’s daughter, Beadhild, and flew to safety. Nithad’s kingdom was Wermland, now Western Sweden” (Raffel 57). This backstory sounds triumphant enough, if one ignores the fact that the second character that Deor compares himself to is Beadhild, the drugged and violated. Furthermore, none of this triumph is related in the poem – only Weland’s maiming and enslavement in Nithad’s “wintercealde” kingdom is poetically rendered. We hear of cruel kings, raped and abandoned women, and a city that endured the occupation of a tyrant for thirty years. Yes, these happenings pass away, but this does not mean that those to whom they happen survive them with any sense of wholeness. Rather than taking solace in the fact that the men and women of old made it through their sorrows that passed over, the speaker may be preparing himself for the horror that may be visited upon him, now that he has lost the favour of his “holdne hlaford.” In this light, it might be more accurate to translate “ofereode” as “come to pass” in the dictionary definition of “to come upon, attack” rather than simply “pass over.” This robs the poem of its hopeful outlook, but I think it might restore some of the melodrama to Deor’s narrative – he does, after all, compare the loss of his job to some of the worst hardships imaginable. We will never know if Deor’s plight passed over, but my exams also may!


I would welcome other perspectives on Deor translation – anyone have a favourite translation or way of rendering the refrain?


Works Cited


Bradley, S. A. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: Dent, 1982.

Heaney, Seamus. “Seamus Heaney reads Deor.” Poems Out Loud. W.W. Norton & Company. 24 August 2014                  <;.

Raffel, Burton, trans. Poems from the Old English. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.


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A Vibrant, Variegated, and Vivacious Revival


I begin the official portion of my exam reading with a seminal book by a man whose name is one of the most magnificent in all of medieval studies: Thorlac Turville-Petre. His 1977 volume titled The Alliterative Revival aims to introduce the alliterative poetic movement of the fourteenth century as well as make it clear to his readers that there is one thing that this alliterative revival lacks – homogeneity. According to Turville-Petre, many readers have assumed for one reason or another that the poems of this period (including Langland’s Piers Plowman, the works of the Gawain-Poet, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, and a number of other romances, histories, and moral poetry) are stylistically uniform. He goes as far to refer to an early twentieth century theory that many of these texts were written by the same man “one of the most absurd literary hypotheses of all time” (28), which fell out of vogue when “it was pointed out that none of the proofs adduced in favour of the hypothesis had any substance and that the poems, being written in a variety of styles, with different metrical patterns and different dialects, could hardly be the work of one man” (28). While Turville-Petre rejects this theory as utterly ridiculous, he is slightly more patient, but still in disagreement, with those that assume an unbroken oral connection between that alliterative style of the Anglo-Saxon poets and the alliterative revival several centuries later. Overall, his argument depicts the poems of the alliterative revival as a movement of great creativity and diversity whose works resist any attempt to be reduced to derivatives of Anglo-Saxon poetry or one another.

One of the more intricate parts of Turville-Petre’s argument is his assertion that there is no good reason to believe that there was an unbroken line of oral alliterative tradition between the Anglo-Saxons and the alliterative poets of the fourteenth century. While there are many similarities between the poetry of the alliterative revival and Anglo-Saxon poetry, a closer examination of the English poetry of the intervening centuries, which has oft been neglected in literary studies (See Elaine Treharne’s Living Through Conquest), suggests that this sense of continuity may be misleading. Turville-Petre reasons that if such an oral tradition was in existence all along with no written trace, it would be difficult to reconcile this with the distinct and “loose” (8) style of Early Middle English alliterative works like Laȝamon’s Brut. Instead, he offers an alternative explanation for the most striking similarity between Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and that of the fourteenth-century – the fact that the standard pattern of lines is based on the alliteration of all stressed syllables except for the last of the line. Turville-Petre argues that the reason that two different (albeit related) traditions might land upon this same practice is that the alliteration is a functional element designed to mark out the stressed syllables, and that “the last stressed syllable of the line is very seldom in an ambiguous position” (17). In addition, maintaining a difference between the last stress and other stresses allows it to “signal[…] the completion of a metrical unit” (17). While the author makes a convincing case both for the lack of evidence for an invisible oral tradition and the logical functionality of the alliterative style, the reader is still required to make a leap of faith to assume that two heterogeneous groups of poets separated by centuries might independently realize the efficiency of such a pattern. It seems more prudent to posit a more moderate view that the fourteenth century poets managed to revive some distantly version of alliterative verse, without necessarily requiring a robust oral tradition.

After establishing diachronic heterogeneity between Anglo-Saxon and fourteenth-century alliterative verse, Turville-Petre turns to celebrate the synchronic diversity of the later movement. His sentiments are echoed by Greg Delanty in the preface to the 2010 anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation titled The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, in which Delanty muses that “we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon poetry as issuing from the uniform voice of the great poet Anonywulf” (Delanty xv). In reality, the poetry of both traditions is full of diversity and originality, as Turville-Petre notes in prose worth quoting in its entirety:

It is the flexibility of the alliterative line that makes it so valuable to a writer of a long and diverse narrative poem full of action, description, argument, reflection and any number of topics demanding variations of pace and emphasis. In Morte Arthure and The Wars of Alexander the form proves suitable for the excitement and turmoil of the careers of those two great heroes; in Piers Plowman and Wynnere and Wastoure it can accommodate the niceties of theological discussion and political debate; in Patience and Purity[1] it can re-vivify Old Testament history. Nothing is more mistaken than the belief that alliterative style is a homogenous one. (Turville-Petre 50)

Despite the richness of the tradition extolled by Turville-Petre and several others since, many poems of the alliterative revival have not reached the ‘mainstream’ of Middle English literary studies in the same way as the work named authors such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Malory. Turville-Petre ends his book by musing on the beauty and suitability of alliterative verse for a variety of topics, and ventures that “it may be time for a second alliterative revival” (128). Though it may be some time before contemporary poets take up the call to write in alliterative verse, it is certainly time for a revival of the study and teaching of this work.

[1] Purity is more commonly known today as Cleanness, the second poem in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript. None of the poems in this manuscript have original titles, but have been given the names Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by modern editors. It was once pointed out to me by Dr. David Coley that if one retains the title of Purity, the four titles make up an alliterative line, with the first three titles alliterating and the fourth differing.

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