Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Old English Poetry

One of my favorite things from college is a fuzzy memory of learning Old English - how to pronounce it, what some of it means, how the phrases are put together. Old English poetry is recognizably poetry, but it is put together very differently than modern English poetry. Instead of rhyming, it uses alliteration (sometimes very heavily); the lines are two parts that balance each other in one way or another. Some of the words are almost reconizable as English: earth is "eorþan" (or "eorthan"), heaven is "heofonum". My favorite Old English device is the kennings, the compact word pictures that replace "sea" with "swan road" or "whale road", "sword" with "bane of the shields" or "helmet destroyer".

It may be a trick of spotty preservation, but many of the surviving poems are riddles. One of my favorites is Number 27 (or 25 in some lists):

Ic wiht geseah wundorlice
hornum bitweonum huþe lædan,
lyftfæt leohtlic, listum gegierwed,
huþe to þam ham of þam heresiþe;
walde hyre on þære byrig bur atimbran,
searwum asettan, gif hit swa meahte.
ða cwom wundorlicu wiht ofer wealles hrof,
seo is eallum cuð eorðbuendum,
ahredde þa þa huþe ond to ham bedraf
wreccan ofer willan, gewat hyre west þonan
fæhþum feran, forð onette.
Dust stonc to heofonum, deaw feol on eorþan,
niht forð gewat. Nænig siþþan
wera gewiste þære wihte sið.

No, I can't read that, although I can pick out some words; and "deaw feol on eorþan" will make anyone feel pretty good about translating. (þ and ð are both versions of "th".)

Translated, this is:

I saw a wonderful creature carrying
Light plunder between its horns.
Curved lamp of the air, cunningly formed,
It fetched home its booty from the day's raid
And plotted to build in its castle if it could,
A night-chamber brightly adorned.
Then over the east wall came another creature
Well known to earth-dwellers. Wonderful as well,
It seized back its booty and sent the plunderer home
Like an unwilling wanderer. The wretch went west,
Moved morosely and murderously on.
Dust rose to the heavens, dew fell on earth—
Night moved on. Afterwards no one
In the world knew where the wanderer had gone.

And the answer to the riddle is: the sun and the moon.

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