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15.10.26, Love, trans., The Caedmon Poems

The Medieval Review

15.10.26, Love, trans., The Caedmon Poems

This collection of verse stands alongside a number of recent editions and translations of Old English biblical poetry that attest to the continuing interest of scholars and poets in Anglo-Saxon renderings of Old Testament stories. For instance, the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library published the now popular Old Testament Narratives, edited and translated by Daniel Anlezark, in 2011. Such editions provide more accessible and classroom-friendly versions of these old poems.

Given the inevitable comparisons with the Dumbarton Oaks text that any subsequent translation of Old English biblical poetry invites, new work in this area must offer a fresh perspective, or some kind of original take on the material. Damian Love's interest in this poetry goes back some way, of course (he published a fine poetic rendering of the Old English Exodus, also included in this book, in Neophilologus 86.4 [2002]), but this collection of translations does attempt to advance the work of its forerunners by emphasizing that Love's versions can be read as poems in their own right (the conservative Dumbarton Oaks translation was in prose). This emerges from Love's attempt to link the Old English biblical poems, as well as his own, more directly to the "first English poet whose name survives," the illiterate cowherd Cædmon of Whitby, who is famed for having turned biblical subject matter into vernacular poetic song.

Love's informative introduction briefly covers the nature of the oral poetic tradition of the Germanic peoples (namely, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) who arrived on the British Isles and "carved out" the kingdoms that eventually constituted Anglo-Saxon England. He goes on to observe how this tradition and its tales synthesized with Christianity and its stories (Cædmon is immediately conceived of as the figure in whom this fusion begins). Following a discussion of the major manuscript of Old English biblical poetry (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11) and an overview of Old English poetic alliteration and meter, Love begins his project with a prose translation of Cædmon's moment of divinely inspired poetic awakening from Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica. This sets up the verse translations, which run in the following order: segments of the Old English Genesis A, then the entirety of Exodus, Daniel, Genesis B, and Judith. Each poem comes with its own section of notes that demonstrate Love's in-depth research and considered word choices, but there is no facing-page Old English text accompanying the translations themselves.

A glance at the book's contents begins to raise (or intentionally provoke) questions about the kind of argument the arrangement intends to make about the origins and authorship of Old English biblical verse. This collection, then, would certainly succeed in piquing the interest of early medievalists, and would garner the attention of poets interested in Anglo-Saxon culture. However, those expecting sufficient reasoning behind this arrangement, or looking for convincing new (or reprised old) theories about Cædmon's relation to these poems, may well feel short-changed.

Love elevates Cædmon as a poet representative of many foundational moments. Around the cowherd, the beginnings of poetry, of Genesis, and of England have their orbit. Love writes that Cædmon's creation of his "Hymn," inspired by the visit of a mysterious angelic being, is "nothing less than the baptism of the heathen word-hoard [...]: it was another Genesis, a distant echo of the biblical Genesis that Cædmon so fittingly sings of first, aligning the miraculous birth of English literature with the miraculous birth of the cosmos" (3). Viewing the famed early medieval song-crafter in this manner, Love attempts to "liberate the poetry in Cædmon and his legacy" (39). The collection often grabs and excites the reader with such an endearing and spirited voice.

While one is certainly enthused enough to subscribe to these fanciful takes on the origins of English poetry, they are not always sustained. Indeed, when it comes to providing an overview of the poems within Junius 11, the manuscript in which most of the poems translated here are found in Old English, Love does not attempt to give new life to the early scholarship that viewed this codex as "the Cædmon MS" (so titled because the sequence of verse within it corresponded roughly with those episodes from salvation history that Bede tells us were the subjects of Caedmon's vernacular songs). Instead, Love becomes cautious, and adopts the common modern (and, yes, correct) view that these poems are not the work of Cædmon. So, although Love writes that the "presiding artistic genius of the [Junius 11] codex resides firmly in the genre of Old Testament poetry, with which Cædmon's name has thus become nearly synonymous, and it is in this broad sense that (despite the inclusion of Judith and the omission of Christ and Satan) he supplies the title of this book" (11), he also states that "there is no evidence that the surviving corpus of Old English poetry includes any works at all by Cædmon besides the first nine lines of the Hymn [...], the claim [that the Junius 11 poems are by Cædmon] is untenable given their stylistic diversity, and has long since been abandoned by scholars" (47). As these two quotations illustrate, there is no strong, central, continuous argument put forward about how or why these are "Cædmon poems"--the note of caution is seemingly at odds with the title of this project and with the speculation and creativity Caedmon's legend allows modern poetry to delight in.

The inclusion and omission mentioned in the quotation above also require more reasoning and justification. Judith, for instance, is not usually associated with Cædmon, despite being an Old Testament poem, found as it is in the Beowulf Manuscript. Christ and Satan, it could be argued, should be included in a collection based on the premise of the "Cædmon poems." As the final poem in the manuscript as it stands, Christ and Satan contains some of the major, climactic moments in Junius 11's cycle of fall and redemption, but also some of the events that Bede tells us were covered by Cædmon throughout his poetic career, such as the Last Judgment. The poem is somewhat brushed aside as "indifferent in the quality of its verse," which is a matter of opinion, and it would have offered Love the chance to break more fresh ground: despite containing some dramatic and stunning depictions of the angelic fall, the landscape of hell, and an original description of Satan measuring the expanse of his abode, Christ and Satan is yet to be fully tackled in a poetic translation.

Still, Love's translations are vibrant, rhythmic, and powerful. As mentioned earlier, a facing-page Old English text could have offered an easier or more useful reading experience for the "students and non-specialist readers" at whom this book is aimed, but that should not be allowed to dampen the artistry of what is found here. Love's poetry brings us very close to the drama and atmosphere of the original Old English.

The intention to maintain the dramatic flavor of the Old English poems seems to have influenced the decision to translate only episodes from Genesis A. That poem is almost three thousand lines long, so Love's selections are also considerate of readers new to this material. Love suggests that his chosen selections are those sequences "where the biblical story meshes particularly well with traditional Germanic tropes," where "the verse takes on greater energy and hints at a deeper synthesis" (13). These episodes (Creation, Cain and Abel, the War of Kings, and the Destruction of Sodom) allow Love to evoke the Genesis A poet's own extraordinary ability to adorn, refashion, and intensify his biblical source material. One of many memorable instances is Love's own take on Genesis A's original concept of the "branches of sin" spreading throughout the earth following Cain's fratricide, in which he details "the crime's tendrils" that "broke out and lashed / the children of men, stinging and cruel and spreading far, as they still do" (ll. 135-38). Beginning this episodic translation with the Creation ties the poem to Cædmon's own Hymn, with which it shares some intriguing resemblances, including "architectural" vocabulary, which is deftly and subtly explored by Love in his notes to the text. Presumably, these resemblances are why Love has not translated the prologue to Genesis A, which details the fall of the angels and the construction of hell.

The complete translations of Exodus and Daniel are the most ambitious and striking pieces of work in this collection. Love delights in "one of the most vigorously dramatic passages in medieval literature"--the intense "bloody apocalypse" (100) in the Red Sea--and manages to recreate the pulse and overwhelming kinetic energy of the Old English account:

"Wæron beorhhliðu blode bestemed, holm heolfre spaw, hream wæs on yðum, wæter wæpna ful, wælmist astah" (Exodus, ll. 449-51).

"Blood swirled through the sloping waters, the sea spat gore, the seething waves were a cauldron of weapons, streaming with carnage" (Love, 88).

Love occasionally employs his poetic license in order to infuse his "translation" (and, perhaps paradoxically, to do justice to the tenor of the original Old English) with added intensity. This is not necessarily a bad thing in terms of the resulting new poem, though Anglo-Saxonists may frown. In the lines above, for instance, wælmist astah is perhaps best translated "the slaughter-mist ascended/climbed up" (astah being the preterite form of astigan, meaning "to rise/ascend/mount up"), but few could argue that Love's rendering does not evoke the devastation of those falling waves effectively.

In Daniel, the poem that follows Exodus in Junius 11 and in this edition, Love's take on the "wolf-hearted king" Nebuchadnezzar allows for an interesting psychological portrait of tyranny that is faithful to the source text and yet speaks to our own moment. Love describes clearly Nebuchadnezzar's search for the answers to the mysteries, rising from his dreams, which plague his inquisitive and yet unsettled psyche: "His mind was unsettled: / the dream's tumult troubled and stirred him. / But he could not recall what its matter had been" (ll. 115-17, p. 107). The excesses of the king of Babylon, and the devilry of the Chaldeans associated with him (Love's poetry conjures up their dark lore perfectly), lead to and connect with the final two translations in Love's arrangement. Placing Genesis B and Judith at the end of the book certainly has its benefits (and Judith is "last according to the best guess we can make about the poem's date" [36]): readers will be able to trace the connections between Nebuchadnezzar, Satan (who, in Genesis B, provides some delicious monologues, ideal for poetic treatment, allowing Love and the reader to delve into his mentality and cunning propagations), and Holofernes, the beastly tyrant who, drunkenly animalistic, is beheaded by Judith following his attempt to rape her. Furthermore, these connections will also allow readers to get a sense of the ways in which Old English poets expanded biblical narratives and delved into the psychological and emotional lives of men, women, and monsters from Christian history. The removal of Genesis B from Genesis A, the poem into which it was interpolated some time before it came to Junius 11, has its good points and bad: it allows us to appreciate the "interpolation," Genesis B, as part of a different translation history (it was translated into Old English from the Old Saxon) than other poems in Junius 11, but Love does not offer any detailed insights into why this translated piece of verse is re-placed between his own versions of Daniel and Judith, leaving the reader wondering why the poem has been detached, and pondering what, if anything, this says about the manuscript contexts of the Old English biblical poetry.

This "verse translation" is sure to rouse interest and, more importantly, the poems here are stirring enough to give us a memorable reading experience. Those new to these poems will be engrossed: the cosmic scale of the narratives and the fervor of Love's poetic rhythms open a doorway to the wonders of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Scholars with a good knowledge of the material may well puzzle over the structure and arrangement of this sequence of extracts and full-length translations, however. The title of this book is also open to questioning and some may be left enquiring about the purpose of it all. Yet the passion and energy resonating from Love's poetry leave one inclined to stop asking and submit to the stirring scenes of worlds coming into being and then falling away, all in the language of someone inspired by Old English verse, whose words make the poetic voices of the distant past speak anew.