Word for word; sense for sense


I am a wandering poet, which is a kind way of saying a bum.

Currently traveling around the country with no clear plan, I found myself in Irving on the invitation of University of Dallas graduate student Adam Cooper, my co-editor on the forthcoming academic journal The Beautiful Changes, honoring the poet Richard Wilbur, where he and some fellow students at Spiotta House were reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy” as a form of spiritual penance for Lent.

But it was no sad reading. Delighted was I to join them through pains of Hell, the labors of Purgatory and the ascent into Paradise. We read in turn aloud, each from different translations, which had me not only pondering the eternal things, but also how words wind through time, such that forgotten language becomes again present.

As if brought about by what the Anglo-Saxons would have called Wyrd, Anthony Esolen, professor at my Alma Mater, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts — a program inspired, like the Liberal Arts at UD, by Louise and Donald Cowan — presented at the spring Galbraith Lecture on “Dante and Liturgical Time,” supported by his own translation, which brought both words and versification to life in our Modern English. I stumped him with a question about “the ardent soul” who inhabits the realm of the Sun along with Thomas Aquinas, Good Saint Bede the Venerable.

“What have Wearmouth and Jarrow to do with Jerusalem?” I pondered that night, as I pondered my own role in the transmission of forgotten words and thoughts.

So, on Palm Sunday afternoon, I returned to the UD campus, and translated my favorite Old English poem as St. King Alfred the Great advised me in his preface to the translation of Gregory’s “Pastoral Care:” “sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense.”

And because this campus has offered me the peaceful setting in which I could render these lines, I present them to you in thanks.


Welund knew pain wrought by wyrms;

The single-minded hero toiled in labor;

He had for himself as sibling sorrow and longing.

Through winter-cold wreckage, he found woe often

Since Nithad laid force upon him,

Slicing the better man’s sinew-bonds.

That passed away. So this may.

Beadohilde was not so sore in heart

For her brothers’ death as for her own thing:

She had seen certainly

That she was pregnant. Nor might she ever

Think boldly how that should come to be.

That passed away. So this may.


We learned of Mathhild’s rape.

The Geat’s fright became bottomless,

Such that horrible love took away all sleep.

That passed away. So this may.

Theodric ruled the Marings’ stronghold

For thirty winters; that was known to many.

That passed away. So this may.

We sought Eormanric’s

Wolfish thought; widely, he ruled the folk

Of the Goths’ race. That was a grim king.

Many a warrior sat, bound by sorrow,

Woe in waiting, wishing earnestly

That this royal realm were overcome.

That passed away. So this may.

Bereft of joy, the sorrow-chested one sits,

Clouds his heart, and thinks to himself

That his dole of labors might be endless.

Then he may think that around the world

The wise warlord winds earnestly

For many a man. He shows honor,

And certain success, along with that dole of woes.

I will say this about myself:

That I was for a while the Hoedenings’ scop,

Dear to the warlord. My name was Deor.

I held a courtly title for many a winter

As a liege-lord. Now, however, Heorrenda,

A lay-crafty man, gets the land-right,

That ere gave me the heroes’ warmth.

That passed away. So this may.

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 cynerices 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.


    • Thank you Jim!

      Could you give me an example of a word or phrase which you found surprising?

      And what do you think of this stanza?

      We learned of Mathhild’s rape.
      The Geat’s fright became bottomless,
      Such that horrible love took away all sleep.
      That passed away. So this may.

  1. A pleasure to read, think you! Sorrow left those situations, and so it may from this, ac “gæð á wyrd swa heo sceal.”

  2. 1) I would never prefer Heaney’s translation.
    2) I like the repetition of ‘that passed away. So this may.’ Þæs ofereode. þisses swa mæg.

  3. “I pondered my own role in the transmission of forgotten words and thoughts” — love this! I contend that all OE literature could and should be published under the title ‘The ORIGINAL Sense and Sensibility’ — each translator needs both, and you’ve demonstrated yours here in your article and translation. Well-done!

    • My own role in this transmission has continued to develop, Dean. I have begun writing words with the sun.

      Please go to my website and check out my other work…


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