Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Forerunners)

Many thanks to David Cooke for contributing this week’s Forerunner, and it’s quite a treat. Below he has recorded a good portion of two Anglo-Saxon poems, “The Ruin” and “The Seafarer” in the original Old English. Also included is the original text, an English translation and, following “The Ruin,” David Cooke’s response to the poem, “Ruins.” These doomed, mournful poems have remained vivid for more than a thousand years, and we’ll be lucky if anything from our own day lasts half as long.

You can read David Cooke’s other poetry at Underfoot here.


The Ruin

Wrætlic is þes wealstan,   wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston,   brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene,   hreorge torras,
hrimgeat berofen,   hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge   scorene, gedrorene,
ældo undereotone.   Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan   forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan,   oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan.   Oft þæs wag gebad
ræghar ond readfah   rice æfter oþrum,
ofstonden under stormum;   steap geap gedreas…
                              … hygerof gebond
weallwalan wirum   wundrum togædre.
Beorht wæron burgræced,   burnsele monige,
heah horngestreon,   heresweg micel,
meodoheall monig   mondreama full,
oþþæt þæt onwende   wyrd seo swiþe.


Well-wrought this wall, though fate destroyed it.
The city buildings fell apart, the works of giants crumble.
Their roofs in ruins, their towers have tumbled.
The barred gate is broken, frost has flaked plaster.
The ceilings gape, torn down, collapsed,
eaten up by age. The earth holds in its grip
the master builders who have long since disappeared
until one hundred generations have passed.  
Often this wall, stained red and scabbed in lichen,
has stood by, surviving storms,
while kingdoms rose and fell
just as the lofty arch has fallen…

                                              … and the mason,
skilled in round-building, bound the wall-base,
wondrously with iron.
Bright were the halls, many the baths,
High the gables, great the joyful noise,
many the mead-hall full of pleasures.
Until fate the mighty overturned it all.
Slaughter spread wide, pestilence arose,
and death took the valiant away.
Their bulwarks were broken, their halls laid waste,
the city wrecked, the cunning wrights
laid in the earth. And so these halls are empty;
and the curved arch sheds its tiles,
torn from the roof. Decay has brought it down,
broken it to rubble. Where once warriors,
high of heart, gold-bright, shone in armour.
Gleaming in splendour, proud and wine-flushed,
they looked on a treasure of silver, on precious gems,
on riches of pearl…

in that bright city of broad rule.
Stone courts once stood there, and hot streams gushed forth,
wide floods of water, surrounded by a wall,
in its bright bosom, there where the baths were,
hot in the middle.
Hot streams ran over hoary stone
into the ring …

(Version unattributed)

by David Cooke

                                      brosnað enta geweorc

Across an unbridgeable distance who will say
for sure how long we thrived or bumbled on,
before distracted gods or dim-witted giants
failed to keep a grip?      
                                      Our visionary towers
have crumbled, their cladding dispersed
by simooms effacing our hapless sway,
with daily highs blazing
beyond smart control and night chills
pitiless beneath cloudless sky.  

If standing still had been our way, we might
have lived at ease, accepting taboos.  
Ingenuous and free, we might have ceased
our striving and spread the love around:
our inoffensive malls, our muzak,
our touching faith in brands.

With their enlightened views, those to come
will never know the bad luck
or foolishness that triggered our demise:
the planetary shocks we couldn’t absorb
or lack of give and take,
till all we had was slogans, flags, rubble;
our streets scoped by snipers.

Where now are the talking heads
who spelled out our choices,
while others gaped slavishly
at those whose names, splashed in lights,
still signal vaguely to the inaccessible stars?


The Seafarer

Mæg ic be me sylfum   soðgied wrecan,
siþas secgan,   hu ic geswincdagum
earfoðhwile   oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare   gebiden hæbbe,
gecunnad in ceole   cearselda fela,
atol yþa gewealc,   þær mec oft bigeat
nearo nihtwaco   æt nacan stefnan,
þonne he be clifum cnossað.   Calde geþrungen
wæron mine fet,   forste gebunden,
caldum clommum,   þær þa ceare seofedun
hat ymb heortan;   hungor innan slat
merewerges mod.   þæt se mon ne wat
þe him on foldan   fægrost limpeð,
hu ic earmcearig   iscealdne sæ
winter wunade   wræccan lastum,
winemægum bidroren,
bihongen hrimgicelum;   hægl scurum fleag.
þær ic ne gehyrde   butan hlimman sæ,
iscaldne wæg.   Hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene,   ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg   fore hleahtor wera,
mæw singende   fore medodrince…


Translation by W.S. Mackie
I can tell a true tale about myself,
narrate my adventures, how in days of toil
I often endured a time of hardship,
have suffered bitter anxiety of heart,
have explored in my ship many halls of care,
the fierce surging waves. There the anxious night-watch
often troubled me at the prow of the ship
beating along the cliffs. My feet
were nipped with cold, frost-bound
in chill fetters, while cares sighed
hot around my heart, and hunger tormented my soul
till I was weary of the sea. The man to whom falls
a most fortunate life on land, does not know
how, wretched and anxious, I remained an exile
during the winter on the ice-cold sea,
separated from my friendly kinsmen,……
hung about with icicles amid flying showers of hail.
There I heard nothing but the roar of the sea,
of the ice-cold wave, and sometimes the song of the wild swan;
I had for my amusement the cry of the gannet
and the sound of the whale instead of the laughter of men,
the sea-mew singing instead of the drinking of mead.
Storms beat on the rocky cliffs, where the tern, ice on its wings, gave answer;
very often the dewy-winged eagle screamed.
No near kinsman …..
could comfort my desolate soul.
Truly he who has led a joyous life in the cities,
and has had but few calamities,
proud and flushed with wine, little believes how often
I had wearily to remain upon the ocean path.
The shadow of night darkened; there came snow from the north;
frost fettered the ground; hail fell on the earth,
the coldest of grain.
Now indeed there press
thoughts upon my heart, that I myself should explore
the high seas, the dancing salt waves.
Heart’s desire ever urges
my soul towards departing, that far from here
I should visit the home of strangers.
Truly there is on earth no man so proud of heart,
or so generous in his gifts, or so active in youth,
or so brave in his deeds, or with a prince so gracious to him,
that is not, in his voyage on the sea, always fearful
of what the Lord will bring upon him.
He has no mind for the harp, or for the receiving of treasure,
or love towards a woman, or delight in the world
or in anything else but the surge of the waves,
for he whom the sea calls has the longing always.
The woods blossom forth, the cities become fair,
the fields are beautiful, the world breaks into life —
everything urges towards adventure
the eager mind in him who thinks
of departing far upon paths of the sea.
Then too the sad-voiced cuckoo warns him,
the harbinger of summer sings, but bitterly forebodes
sorrow to the heart. He does not know,
the man happy and prosperous, what some of those endure
who print their tracks of exile furthest.
Truly now my heart is restless within my breast,
my thoughts range with the ocean flood
over the home of the whale, range far and wide
over the broad world, and return to me
full of fierce desire. The lone bird screams
and irresistibly incites my heart to the whale’s path
upon the ocean plains.
Truly I love more ardently
the joys of the Lord than this dead life
transitory upon earth; I do not believe
that it keeps its worldly riches everlastingly.
In every case one of three things,
before the span of his days reaches its limit,
disease or old age or sword’s hate,
takes away life from the man doomed and dying.
So to every man it brings praise from those who live
and speak about him after his death, the best of posthumous fame,
that he succeed, before he must depart,
in prevailing, in this world, against the enmity of fiends
by means of valiant deeds against the devil,
so that the sons of men may afterwards extol him
and his praise then live among the angels
for ever and ever, the glory of eternal life,
bliss amid the hosts of heaven.
Gone are the days of old,
all the pomps of the kingdom of the world.
There are not now kings or emperors
or givers of gold such as once there were,
when they wrought among themselves the greatest of glorious deeds
and lived in the most princely splendour.
All this lordliness has perished, its joys have passed away,
weaker men remain and occupy this world,
subsist upon it by toil. Glory is laid low,
the grandeur of the earth grows old and sere;
as now also every man throughout the world;
old age comes upon him, his face grows pale,
gray-haired he mourns, knows that his former friends,
children of earls, have been given to the grave.
Then when life has gone, his body
cannot swallow what is sweet, or feel pain,
or stir a hand, or think with the mind.
Though a brother will strew with gold
his brother’s grave, and bury him among the dead
with various treasures, it will not go with him.
To the soul that is full of sins
gold cannot be an aid before the terror of God
when he has hoarded it during his lifetime here.
Great is the terror of the Judge; because of it the world changes;
He established the solid lands, the broad earth and the sky above.
Foolish is he who does not fear his God; death comes on him unawares.
Blessed is he who lives humble, to him comes grace from the heavens;
the Lord makes that disposition of mind steadfast in him, because he trusts in His might.
One should restrain a stubborn mind and hold it within bounds
and constant towards men and pure in its ways.
Let every man keep moderation
in love towards a friend and enmity towards a foe.
Though he will … him full of fire …
or burnt upon the funeral pyre,
the friend whom he has gained. Fate is stronger,
the Lord more mighty, than any man can suppose.
Let us think where we have a home,
and then devise how we may come there,
and let us then also endeavour that we may attain
to that eternal blessedness
where life springs from the love of the Lord
and there is joy in the heavens. Let there be thanks to the holy God
because He, the Prince of glory, the eternal Lord,
has honoured us for all time. Amen.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Anand Bose says:

    Interesting poetry. Anand Bose from Kerala

    Liked by 1 person

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