The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 14 (November 2010)  |   Issue Editors: Eileen A. Joy & Andrew Rabin

The Shock of the Old:1 Early English and its Modern Re-Tellings

Elaine Treharne

Department of English, Florida State University

© 2010 by Elaine Treharne. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  This essay considers the issue of adapted and new Old English poetry, as it is manifested through modern translations and poems 'after' the originals, and it also evaluates contemporary responses to new versions of the old, and contemplates how Anglo-Saxonists might exploit the popular interest in Creative Writing, particularly among graduate students. There is a wide and enthusiastic audience for Old English, who might appreciate both the original verse and its adaptations in university courses that emphasize translation and rewriting. Appended to the essay are poems by Florida State University Creative Writing graduate students, which showcase excellent translation skills influenced by a semester of learning traditional Old English literature and literacies.

§1.  In his innovative and important book, Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry (2006), Chris Jones simultaneously symphonizes two, ostensibly antithetical, poetic movements: Old English verse, and the modernist and modern endeavors of poets, such as Ezra Pound, Geoffrey Hill and Seamus Heaney. Jones's sensitive and detailed analyses insist on the validity of Old English poetry in its adaptation, reclamation, echo, and imitation, but also in and of itself. Making readers more aware of the debt of excellent, informed modern poets to earlier traditions, Jones is nevertheless keenly aware of the nuanced and sophisticated turns and conversions that these traditions effect. Jones, for example, celebrates Heaney as "the Cædmon of the North" (Jones 2006, 182–237)2 rather than seeing Heaney's translation-poetry as a source of irritation, alleviated on occasion by his supposedly more truthful, or faithful, retelling. Howell Chickering, in a response not untypical of those in other reviews of Heaney's Beowulf in print and on list-servs like ANSAXNET, forecasts that Heaney's Beowulf,

after its day in the sun as a publishing phenomenon, [will be treated by] future critics of contemporary poetry . . . as part of his own corpus, just as he hopes. As a translation of Beowulf, it will be assigned out of the Norton Anthology by foot-soldiering non-specialists teaching required survey courses. At the same time, other translations of Beowulf will continue to appear as the 2000s roll along, and among them English teachers will find good translations, of mixed success, to choose from. In turn, those translations will annoy students who have learned Old English and have read the poem in the original. Some few of them will always have the chutzpah to think they have enough poetic talent to render the original into Modern English verse. And Beowulf will go on being newly translated for the foreseeable future. (Chickering 2002, 178).

The somewhat grumpy tone of the finale to Chickering's review of Heaney's Beowulf is worth quoting in length, because it foregrounds all of the issues I want to cover here, and some that are touched upon in Jones's Strange Likeness: the shock that is registered by those encountering the "Old" of Old English; the privileging by Anglo-Saxon literary scholars of the "original" texts (as if there could ever be such a thing); the supposedly unfortunate predicament of pedagogic infantry and those not specialized enough to know better in having to use Heaney's translation; and the skill, and skillful deceit, practiced by those with the "chutzpah" ("brazen impudence, gall," says the OED3) and the know-how to have a bash at churning out some, apparently, inferior simulacrum. There is, it needs to be said, a far more positive way to regard Heaney's great success with Beowulf, and the enthusiasm and skill of those who carefully craft new readings of Old English verse and prose. No literary work, whether it is a poem or a sermon, is static, fixed and determined by unambiguous lexis and a univalent interpretation. This is as true of Alexander Pope's Epistles, or of Billy Collins's Marginalia, as it is of Old English poetry, which, however, demands an additional layer of careful scrutiny to relocate the sense into an approximate modern idiom. The continued vitality of early literature, through its translation, its reworking, its adaptation, is testimony to its dynamism both within the classroom and without. Anglo-Saxonists need not doubt the appropriateness and validity of the resultant "new" Old English any more than did the users of a twelfth-century re-working of one of Ælfric's Catholic Homilies.

§2.  Perhaps all professional Anglo-Saxonists secretly think that any translation is second-best, and regard survey courses in universities, Medieval Literature in Translation courses, and courses that include a nod to YouTube excerpts and Zemeckis clips as a betrayal of the cause of some notional pedagodic and intellectual purity. Certainly, not being able to teach Old English in Old English makes particular kinds of close reading, stylistic analysis and interpretative nuance potentially problematic, but translation en face with text in the 'original' (it's hardly 'original' in edited form, after all) allows these problems of access to be openly discussed. Students who have no experience with early English can appreciate the sound, the sometimes-familiar word or phrase. But beyond this, there is a whole new world for Old English, and it's one given credence by writers, such as Seamus Heaney, Steve Glosecki, Kevin Crossley-Holland, and Raffael Burton—each of whom are poets in their own right, as well as 'translators,' a credence that isn't about the sudden modernity and relevance of Old English once translated into intelligible poetry; instead, authority and a new confidence might fruitfully be given to the merits of the contemporary pursuit of the ancient psyche and to the value of the attempt to re-capture the essence of excellent poetry by those who also know what excellent poetry can be.

The Creative Writer and Old English

§3.  The introduction of Old English to professional creative writers at the graduate level is (or is it?) a peculiarly North American curricular consideration. The way that doctoral and master's programs function often insists upon requirements and electives where students with different majors are thrown together to create a smörgåsbord of expertise and talent. This variety of students makes for a challenging classroom experience: some are already quite skilled medievalists; others have never taken an Early English course, but really want to learn about the language and culture; and others resent having to participate, radiating hostility and pessimism at the outset. Of course, what students don't like is neither the literature, nor the language, but the parsing; and frankly, it's not even the parsing, it's the linguistic terminology that Old English teachers rightly insist is part of the process of honest understanding. The placating words I offer—that doing Old English will reveal to students how all English works; will facilitate an understanding of the potential polysemy in all language; and thus expose the opacity that inheres in all expression—insist that participating in this course will make us, and even the writers, better writers. I'm not sure if I could prove this, but I do know that teaching creative writers makes me a more proficient and aware Old English specialist.

§4.  It's the process of translation in the broadest sense, "to carry across," and perhaps "to convey from one person to another,"4 that appeals to modern poets. The appropriation of Beowulf by Heaney seems to cause Chickering consternation, but making early literature our own is all we can do, since we are not Anglo-Saxons, do not share their unrecoverable frames of reference, and can never access the "true" meaning of early literary texts. In the graduate classroom (as in many undergraduate classrooms across the academic world), students brought their completed translations to every seminar, but we focused not only on the nominative, the present participle, the syntax, but also on the literary and cultural aspects of the text, and especially wider questions relating to textual production and composition, and the knotty issue of poetic ownership.

§5.  In three separate semesters, with three different groups of graduate students, discussions in the classroom that generated the most intellectual energy centered on precisely these issues (coarsely and provocatively put): "The best translations are the fluent, poetic ones" versus "The best translations are the literal, accurate ones" (as if fluency and poeticism cannot be accurate). For writers and poets studying early literature from the preposition up, these aspects of poetic (re)composition signify a challenge that generates wonderful, curious, evocative, original work. In their assessed work, students were asked to translate with sharp-eyed philological attention to the parsing, but more, to provide a translation that was fully idiomatic (or in a visually poetic form). The effort that resulted, the thoughtful and thought-provoking effort to capture something of the earlier text, can be seen in some of the poems appended to this article. Each of these students is a professional creative writer, each will make their career through the teaching of writing, but one or two have added 'medieval' to their skills, even taking minor examinations in Old English poetry.5 Whether or not some constructed audience of early medievalists is prepared to accept the validity of the contemporary literature produced by these students "after," "adapted from," or "translated from" Old English, there is no doubt in my mind that it reflects and contributes to the dynamism of a foundational literary tradition, and one that, once encountered, is never forgotten.

§6.  Moreover, there's a growing recognition, both among professional writers and within groups in the early literary academy, of the process of translation, adaptation and transformation as bearing a legitimate testimony to its source—becoming part of that long-lived tradition itself. Creative fields contemporising early literature and validating translation are flourishing; witness Poetry magazine's special issues on translation (April 2009, for example) or the successive issues of the Birmingham Poetry Review carrying hundreds of lines of Steve Glosecki's stunning translation of Beowulf (Glosecki 2000, 9–15).6

§7.  Moreover, there is newer media, now with global potential, such as YouTube, that permit the proliferation of poetic rendition through mash-ups of film, still images, music, recitation, and interpretative words; one of the most visually and acoustically striking is the version of The Ruin by Stuart Lee.7 In this short video, a student (Jonathan Miller) dressed in Anglo-Saxon-like clothing wanders through and around a disused industrial site, a primary visual that is overlaid with images of the Exeter Book; of early twentieth-century black and white photographs of men drinking, or marching in the 1926 General Strike; of fragments of the site from unusual angles. The witness in the short film might himself be engaged in a dramatic monologue, observing the scene before him—a bleak wasteland, with graffiti-daubed walls and rusted, burnt-out cars. Lee reads the poem in Old English in a slow-paced staccato, while the modern sub-titles appear in time at the bottom of the screen, accompanied in places by the singing of Gregorian chant. This poetic rendition, melding sound and image, is at once the original and an innovative re-presentation, one that viewers find compelling and identifiable, particularly in an age of technological transformation to which this video itself pays important testimony.

§8.  In addition, weblogs8 and other social networking sites are also changing the scope of early literature, making demotic what has long been hieratic. Now, in principle, anyone can edit, revise, translate and publish. Evidence of this comes from the many videos invoking Beowulf on YouTube, one performed by teenaged boys in their back garden, arriving at 'Denmark' in the back of their pick-up truck, recreating the fight between Beowulf and Grendel (in a green gorilla mask) in the meadhall of their sitting room.9 This video may not be the most poetic rendition of the text, but the references to Æschere, Grendel's mother's mere, and the framework of the 'scop' telling the story illustrate a careful reading of the text, and an understanding of the Anglo-Saxon poem's oral-performative nature. A less entertaining, and more prosaic reading of the Old English, occurs in a video where the declared non-expert simply reads from a computer screen showing the poem in its edited half-lines. Anglo-Saxonists might occasionally wince at the pronunciation (though I have heard painful performances at the most professional conferences, too), but many comments from curious viewers in response to the reading express gratitude.10 Old English, the poetry and the prose, effectively belongs to any interested party through this process of networked democratization, and while these instances are at one end of the spectrum of expertise, there should be joy for Old English specialists that the subject can reach new audiences in new ways: textual mouvance in action.

§9.  These various forms of recreation illustrate a desire on the part of many to work with Old English in some form to make it something new, whether it's a private reading made public through the internet, a staged dramatic re-enactment, a translation proper, or a poem written "after" the original (like Auden's Wanderer). Heaney's Beowulf may not be the be-all and end-all (the so-called and mainly elusive "perfect" translation), but it—together with the work of many other poets—is a start: the beginning of a widespread acceptance that one doesn't need to be an Anglo-Saxonist to work with Old English (academics who teach Old English do not own it, after all), that all translation is subjective, and that poetry can open doors to earlier periods, evoke a shared moment a millennium apart, perhaps more than any other form of human expression. For Anglo-Saxonists, it is often the "shock of the new," the "translation," that alarms; for the students, it is always the "shock of the old," Old English. In either case, when these shocks become more familiar, there is curiosity at the new manifestation, and the accompanying sense of relief that we recognized it all along.

The Students' Poems

Riddle 4711

Moððe word fræt; me þæt þuhte
wrætlicu wyrd, þa ic þæt wundor gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs
wihte þy gleawra þe he þam wordum swealg.

Bookmoth12 (by Timothy Welch)

The word-gnawing moth.
            How odd.

                        I heard he ate a man's poetry
            with a dark fluttering—

thing strange, the event too;

            the mind's great work wormed-through,
                        its lyrical jest a pest's
                                                stolen meal.

Why does he eat what he cannot learn

            from the taste of words?

Metrical Charm 12: Against a Wen (by Tana Jean Welch)

Wart, wart, warty little wart,
here you must not build nor keep a bungalow—
instead you must go north and away to the nearby hill
where you, wretched being, have a brother.
He must lay a leaf at your head.
Under a wolf's paw, under an eagle's wing,
under an eagle's claw, wither away forever.
Weaken like wood on a hearth,
shrink like shit on a wall,
wane like water in a pail—
so you may become as little as a linseed grain
and smaller than a hand-worm's hipbone—
smaller and smaller until you become nothing.

After The Dream of the Rood (by Frank Giampietro)

I have wandered away
from my front yard
of mature pines,
wandered away
from my sun dressed wife,
ticklish children.
Now I live in a shelter,
tell of my vision
to the evangelizing volunteer
who spoons the glory onto my plate.
But she doesn't look up
from her green beans to see
that it's me, anymore. Instead,
as she digs down
with her flashing spoon,
sighs, scratches her head
through the stiff black hair net,
God gives me another taste,
and she is Peter
after fishing all night without,
and of course I am Jesus on the bank
saying, as if it was nothing,
to cast your net not there
but here, here, here.

Heir Apparent (by Kara Candito)

Hello, again. I live among family.
How do you say, panopticon?
In the restaurant, my grandmother asks:
Can't we just taka the whole pie home with us?
O, Nonna of the bottomless café, Nonna
of goat-cheese and novenas. I mean this
like it sounds. You can't conjure
the villagers of Sicilia from a lakeshore
in Georgia. Across the Atlantic, they play
dominoes and sing, dolce far niente!

Once, during a blackout in Palermo,
I could feel them shrugging
and sweating. They forgot about
honor killings and rode their red Vespas
into the gulf. My cousin Matteo showed me
the mythos of groping in olive groves,
how oil will anoint anything—
sunburns and chaffing, a sea urchin's spine
plucked from the pad of a foot.
Goats and owls have no souls, he said.
The liberty bell cracked the first time it rang.
Once this sort of incest starts, it's hard
to extinguish
, I whispered.

I was as bleak as a fart then. I was
a girl and a godless city. I was a girl
and a space-time portal on Via Roma.
The ones who feared me
laid traffic cones around my sore
center. I was rapidly expanding
through the shrill hush of rush hour—
a stack of bloated oranges, taller
than the Cross. I was complex
and incorrigible as that stack.

The wordy Word! The shrugging
and the sweating! The carabinieri
poured nectar in my hair. The iris
of my left eye filled the street with
its fleshy banner: Alternate Inheritance
Parking In Effect Until Further Notice
The beautiful thing is that family
exists. Or, omnia tuta timens—woe
to those who adore friendly fire
and the rustling, the horny rustling
that brings on the damp dreams of daughters.


1.   From Jones's Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry: "for modern poets there is in Old English something of the shock of the old" (Jones 2006, 6).  [Back]

2.   And this shows how much more indebted to Old English Heaney is than just his Beowulf translation indicates.  [Back]

3.   Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v chutzpah.  [Back]

4.   Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. translation.  [Back]

5.   Four poems by Florida State University creative writers are appended to this piece: all are original, but varied in their adherence to their Old English inspiration. In the case of "Bookmoth" by Timothy Welch (see also Note 14 below), I have provided the original Old English riddle, since Welch was purposefully working in more direct relation to that poem.  [Back]

6.   For example, Birmingham Poetry Review 23 (Fall/Winter 2001), which published Glosecki's "Merewife." Other poetry magazines, such as Mantis and Circumference, are devoted solely to poetry and translation.  [Back]

7.   See Stuart Lee's short digital film "The Ruin":  [Back]

8.   Such as Early Medieval Britain (, which links to other, related sites.  [Back]

9.   See "Beowulf Video Project":  [Back]

10.   See "The wifes lament old English":  [Back]

11.   Based on "Riddle 48" (Tupper 1968, 37).  [Back]

12.   A note from Timothy Welch: A literal translation of Riddle 47 begins, "Moth word devoured/ate." I took the liberty of altering the temporal aspect of the riddle from the past action, "ate" or "devoured," to the gerund, "gnawing," in order to focus on the moth's continuous hunger and tendency to eat words as a characteristic trait. I also find the strangeness of the word "gnaw" to be better than "consume" or "eat" or even "chew", and it fits musically with "moth" and "word." Furthermore, "word-gnawing" is a compound (or kenning)—as is the later "wormed-through"—and fits sufficiently with Old English literature as it does now in contemporary poetry. The next line I changed, from the literal, "It seemed to me a curious event," to "How odd" and returned to the event later in line five: "strange thing, the event too." The prosody of the literal did not fit with the immediacy of the opening line and I wanted to make a poem out of it and sought a disjointed fragmentation to add to the post-modern "eater of words" conceit, as you can see from my choice of form—its special use of the page as a field to simulate the erratic uneaten words of the moth; similarly the long vowels fit musically: "gnaw," "moth," "word," "how," and "odd." The final idiomatic decision for the riddle came from my idea that, unlike other riddles, this one did not ask the reader what it is since it is clearly stated in the first line—a moth. I decided to make it a riddle after all, to ask the underlying metaphysical question, one that doesn't necessarily have an answer but one that nonetheless challenges the reader and maintains a paradoxical perspective on this text.  [Back]

Works Cited

Chickering, Howell. 2002. Review: Beowulf and "Heaneywulf." Kenyon Review 24: 160–78.  [Back]

Glosecki, Steve. 2000. Merewife. Birmingham Poetry Review 23: 9–15.  [Back]

Jones, Chris. 2006. Strange likeness: The use of Old English in twentieth-century poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Lee, Stuart, dir. The Ruin.  [Back]

Tupper, Frederick, ed. 1968 (1910). The riddles of the Exeter Book. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.  [Back]

YouTube. Beowulf Video Project.  [Back]

YouTube. The wife's lament old English.  [Back]