This week's theme: a brief history of poetry.
(Poem #326) The Seafarer
May I for my own self song's truth reckon, Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days Hardship endured oft. Bitter breast-cares have I abided, Known on my keel many a care's hold, And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted, My feet were by frost benumbed. Chill its chains are; chafing sighs Hew my heart round and hunger begot Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not That he on dry land loveliest liveth, List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea, Weathered the winter, wretched outcast Deprived of my kinsmen; Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew, There I heard naught save the harsh sea And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries, Did for my games the gannet's clamour, Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter, The mews' singing all my mead-drink. Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed With spray on his pinion. Not any protector May make merry man faring needy. This he little believes, who aye in winsome life Abides 'mid burghers some heavy business, Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft Must bide above brine. Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north, Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now The heart's thought that I on high streams The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone. Moaneth alway my mind's lust That I fare forth, that I afar hence Seek out a foreign fastness. For this there's no mood-lofty man over earth's midst, Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed; Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare Whatever his lord will. He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world's delight Nor any whit else save the wave's slash, Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water. Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries, Fields to fairness, land fares brisker, All this admonisheth man eager of mood, The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks On flood-ways to be far departing. Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying, He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow, The bitter heart's blood. Burgher knows not --- He the prosperous man --- what some perform Where wandering them widest draweth. So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock, My mood 'mid the mere-flood, Over the whale's acre, would wander wide. On earth's shelter cometh oft to me, Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer, Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly, O'er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow My lord deems to me this dead life On loan and on land, I believe not That any earth-weal eternal standeth Save there be somewhat calamitous That, ere a man's tide go, turn it to twain. Disease or oldness or sword-hate Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body. And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after --- Laud of the living, boasteth some last word, That he will work ere he pass onward, Frame on the fair earth 'gainst foes his malice, Daring ado, ... So that all men shall honour him after And his laud beyond them remain 'mid the English, Aye, for ever, a lasting life's-blast, Delight mid the doughty. Days little durable, And all arrogance of earthen riches, There come now no kings nor Caesars Nor gold-giving lords like those gone. Howe'er in mirth most magnified, Whoe'er lived in life most lordliest, Drear all this excellence, delights undurable! Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth. Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low. Earthly glory ageth and seareth. No man at all going the earth's gait, But age fares against him, his face paleth, Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions, Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven, Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth, Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry, Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart, And though he strew the grave with gold, His born brothers, their buried bodies Be an unlikely treasure hoard.
Translated by Ezra Pound. As a joint theme for the week, Martin and I have decided to run a selection of poems from various points in time (and more importantly, various poetic movements). We'll start with a style that's one of my personal favourites, Old English alliterative verse. thomas. [Definitions] Alliteration: Also called head rhyme or initial rhyme, the repetition of the initial sounds (usually consonants) of stressed syllables in neighboring words or at short intervals within a line or passage, usually at word beginnings, as in 'wild and woolly'. Alliteration has a gratifying effect on the sound, gives a reinforcement to stresses, and can also serve as a subtle connection or emphasis of key words in the line, but alliterated words should not 'call attention' to themselves by strained usage. [My favourite piece of alliteration is this: "To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock, In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock, Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock, From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!" from 'The Mikado', lyrics by W. S. Gilbert - t.] Alliterative Verse: Poetry in which alliteration is a formal structural element in place of rhyme; it was prevalent in a number of old literatures prior to the 14th century, including Anglo-Saxon. In alliterative verse, the first half-line is united with the second half by alliterating stressed syllables; in the first half-line generally two (but sometimes three) syllables alliterate, while in the second half usually only one. Sometimes one alliterating sound is carried through successive lines: In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne, I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were, In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes, Wente wide in this world wondres to here. -- William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, 1330?-1400? To facilitate maintaining the alliterative pattern, poets made frequent use of a specialized vocabulary, consisting of many synonymous words seldom encountered outside of alliterative verse. By the 14th century, rhyme and meter displaced alliteration as a formal element, although alliterative verse continued to be written into the 16th century and alliteration retains an important function as one of a poet's sound devices. -- Robert Shubinski Glossary of Poetic Terms: [broken link] http://shoga.wwa.com/~rgs/glossary.html Brittanica has this to say: Alliterative Verse: early verse of the Germanic languages in which alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or stressed syllables, is a basic structural principle rather than an occasional embellishment. Although alliteration is a common device in almost all poetry, the only Indo-European languages that used it as a governing principle, along with strict rules of accent and quantity, are Old Norse, Old English, Old Saxon, Old Low German, and Old High German. The Germanic alliterative line consists of two hemistichs (half lines) separated by a caesura (pause). There are one or two alliterating letters in the first half line preceding the medial caesura; these also alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second half line. Alliteration falls on accented syllables; unaccented syllables are not effective, even if they begin with the alliterating letter. The introduction of rhyme, derived from medieval Latin hymns, contributed to the decline of alliterative verse. In Low German, pure alliterative verse is not known to have survived after 900; and, in Old High German, rhymed verse was by that time already replacing it. In England, alliteration as a strict structural principle is not found after 1066 (the date of the Norman-French conquest of Britain), except in the western part of the country. Although alliteration was still very important, the alliterative line became freer: the second half line often contained more than one alliterating word, and other formalistic restrictions were gradually disregarded. The early 13th-century poetry of Layamon and later poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, and The Pearl use end rhyme extensively. Sometimes all the verses rhyme; sometimes the succession of alliterative verses is broken by rhymed verses grouped at roughly regular intervals. The last alliterative poem in English is usually held to be "Scottish Fielde," which deals with the Battle of Flodden (1513). and this: Virtually all Old English poetry is written in a single metre, a four-stress line with a syntactical break, or caesura, between the second and third stresses, and with alliteration linking the two halves of the line; this pattern is occasionally varied by six-stress lines. The poetry is formulaic, drawing on a common set of stock phrases and phrase patterns, applying standard epithets to various classes of characters, and depicting scenery with such recurring images as the eagle and wolf, which wait during battles to feast on carrion, and the ice and snow, which appear in the landscape to signal sorrow. In the best poems such formulas, far from being tedious, give a strong impression of the richness of the cultural fund from which poets could draw. Other standard devices of this poetry are the kenning, a metaphorical name for a thing, usually expressed in a compound noun (e.g., "swan-road" used to name the sea); and variation, the repeating of a single idea in different words, with each repetition adding a new level of meaning. That these verse techniques changed little during 400 years of literary production suggests the extreme conservatism of Anglo-Saxon culture. -- EB [Glossary] 12. mere-weary: sea-weary. 17. scur: storm. 20. gannet: sea-bird. 22. mews: seagulls. 34. Nathless: nevertheless. 39. fastness: stronghold. 49. bosque: thicket, small wood. 81. doughty: brave. Note that Pound's translation isn't always perfectly faithful to the original (though on the other hand, he does capture the _mood_ of the anonymous Seafarer far better than do other more pedantically precise translators. In this I'm sure Pound's own poetic skill played a not inconsiderable role; see 'The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter', poem #70, for another, equally brilliant example of Pound's 'translation without translating'.). [Endnote] Keep in mind that alliterative verse belongs to what was essentially an oral tradition, propagated by bards and skalds and wandering minstrels <grin>; hence the emphasis on sound/word pictures; hence, indeed, the alliteration itself. As the availability of written material spread, so the popularity of the old sagas waned... more's the pity.