Deor's Lament: a Modern English Translation
"Deor's Lament" is one of the truly great poems of English antiquity.
This modern English translation of one of the very best Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems is followed by footnotes and the translator's comments. Included in the
notes are a summary and a detailed analysis of the
poem's plot, theme, genre, purpose, context, references and techniques. The original
text appears after the notes. For "deep explorers" of Anglo-Saxon poetry, there
is an advanced Language section written by Bob Zisk, followed by a list of
sources for further reading.
Deor's Lament (circa the 10th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Weland endured the agony of exile:
an indomitable smith wracked by grief.
He suffered countless sorrows;
indeed, such sorrows were his bosom companions
in that frozen island dungeon
where Nithad fettered him:
so many strong-but-supple sinew-bands
binding the better man.
That passed away; this also may.
Beadohild mourned her brothers' deaths,
bemoaning also her own sad state
once she discovered herself with child.
She knew nothing good could ever come of it.
That passed away; this also may.
We have heard the Geat's moans for Matilda,
his lovely lady, waxed limitless,
that his sorrowful love for her
robbed him of regretless sleep.
That passed away; this also may.
For thirty winters Theodric ruled
the Mćring stronghold with an iron hand;
many acknowledged his mastery and moaned.
That passed away; this also may.
We have heard too of Ermanaric's wolfish ways,
of how he cruelly ruled the Goths' realms.
That was a grim king! Many a warrior sat,
full of cares and maladies of the mind,
wishing constantly that his crown might be overthrown.
That passed away; this also may.
If a man sits long enough, sorrowful and anxious,
bereft of joy, his mind constantly darkening,
soon it seems to him that his troubles are limitless.
Then he must consider that the wise Lord
often moves through the earth
granting some men honor, glory and fame,
but others only shame and hardship.
This I can say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga's scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just king. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors had promised me.
That passed away; this also may.
Other Anglo-Saxon/Old English poems:
Wulf and Eadwacer,
The Wife's Lament,
Bede's Death Song,
The Rhyming Poem,
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Footnotes and Translator's Comments
by Michael R. Burch
"Deor's Lament" is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem. Often called simply
"Deor," it appears in the Exeter Book, which has been dated
to around 960-990 AD. However, the poem may be considerably older than the manuscript,
since many ancient poems were passed down orally for generations before being written down. The poem is a lament in which someone named Deor,
presumably the poet who composed the poem, compares
the loss of his job and prospects to seemingly far greater tragedies of the past.
Thus "Deor's Lament" may be an early example of overstatement and/or "special
pleading." However, it's also possible that the scop was poking fun at
himself. The poem could have been intended as tragedy, comedy or tragicomedy.
The author is unknown but may have been an Anglo-Saxon scop (poet) named Deor.
Or the poem could have been written by someone else. As noted below under the
"Plot" heading, the name Deor could be wordplay, punning on "deer" and "dear."
We have no knowledge of a poet named "Deor" outside the poem.
"Deor's Lament" is, as its name indicates, a lament. The poem has also been
classified as an Anglo-Saxon elegy or dirge. If the poet's name "was" Deor, does
that mean he is no longer alive and is speaking to us from beyond the grave?
"Deor" has also been categorized as an ubi sunt ("where are they now?")
The poem's theme is one common to Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature: that a man
cannot escape his fate and thus can only meet it with courage, resolve and fortitude.
And perhaps with resignation as well.
Doer's name either means or sounds like "dear" and the poet puns on his name in the final stanza: "I
was dear to my lord. My name was Deor." The name Deor may also mean or be
related to "deer" with connotations
of "courageous," "noble" and "excellent." Perhaps the
ancient scop meant to invoke the image of a majestic stag. There is an expanded discussion of the name
under the "Language" heading. In any case, the primary plot of Deor's poem seems simple and
straightforward, at least on the surface: other heroic figures of the past overcame adversity; so Deor may
also be able to overcome the injustice done to him when his patron gave his
position to a rival. But is it possible that Deor intended the poem to be a spell,
of sorts? Did Deor think his fortunes might change because of the spell cast by
his poem on those who had done him wrong? This is not so much an educated guess
as a hunch on my part. But in any case the poem can be enjoyed for its language and the
story it tells without the reader knowing all the poet's intentions. We can
speculate but it is probably impossible for us to ever know exactly what the
scop was up to.
"Deor's Lament" is an alliterative poem; it uses alliteration rather
than meter and rhyme to "create a flow" of words. This was typical of
Anglo-Saxon poetry. "Deor's Lament" is one of the first Old English poems to employ a refrain, which
it does quite effectively.
What does the refrain "Thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg" mean? Perhaps something
like: "That was overcome, and so may this also." However, the refrain is ambiguous: perhaps the
speaker believes things will work out the same way; or perhaps he is merely
suggesting that things might work out for the best; or perhaps he is
being ironical, knowing they won't.
My personal interpretation of the poem is that the poet is employing irony. All
the previously-mentioned heroes and heroines are dead. I believe Deor is already
dead, or knows that he is an old man soon to also be dead. "Passed away"
maybe a euphemism for
"dead as a doornail." But I don't "know" this, and you are free to
disagree and find your own interpretation of the poem.
Analysis of Characters and References
Weland/Welund is better known today as Wayland the Smith. (Beowulf's armor was
said to have been fashioned by Weland.) According to an ancient Norse poem, Völundarkviđa, Weland and his two brothers came upon three
swan-maidens on a lake's shore, fell in love with them, and lived with them happily for
seven years, until the swan-maidens flew away. His brothers left, but Weland
stayed and turned to smithing, fashioning beautiful golden rings for the day of
his swan-wife's return. King Nithuthr, hearing of this,
took Weland captive, hamstrung him to keep him prisoner, and kept him enslaved
on an island, forging fine things. Weland took revenge by
killing Nithuthr's two sons and getting his daughter
Beadohild pregnant. Finally Weland fashioned wings and flew away, sounding a bit
like Icarus of Greek myth.
Maethhild (Matilda) and Geat (or "the Geat") are known to us from Scandianavian ballads. Magnild (Maethhild)
was distressed because she foresaw that she would
drown in a river. Gauti (Geat) replied that he would build a bridge over the
river, but she responded that no one can flee fate. Sure enough, she drowned. Gauti
then called for his
harp, and, like a Germanic Orpheus, played so well that her body rose out
of the waters. In one version she returned alive; in a darker version she
dead, after which Gauti buried her properly and made harpstrings from her
The Theodoric who ruled the Maerings for thirty
years may have to be puzzled out. A ninth-century rune
notes that nine generations prior a Theodric, lord of the Maerings, landed in
Geatland and was
killed there. In the early sixth century there was a Frankish king called Theoderic. But
the connections seem tenuous, at best. Perhaps the thirty year rule is a clue to
consider the Ostrogoth Theodoric, born around 451. He ruled Italy for around
thirty years, until 526. Toward the end of his reign Theodoric, then in
his seventies, named his infant grandson heir. There were rumours that members
of his court were conspiring against his chosen successor. Furthermore, the Catholic church was
opposing the Arian Theodoric. As a result of these tensions, several leading senators were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy, including
Boethius. It was while he was imprisoned and awaiting execution that Boethius wrote
his famous Consolation of Philosophy. Theodoric's final years
were unfortunately marked by suspicion and distrust, so he may be the ruler
referred to by Deor.
Eormenric was another king of the Ostrogoths who
died in about 375; according to Ammianus Marcellinus, he killed himself out of
fear of the invading Huns. According to other Old Norse Eddic poems (Guđrúnarhvöt
and Hamđismál, Iormunrekkr), Eormenric had his wife Svannhildr trampled by
horses because he suspected her of sleeping with his son. So he might qualify as
a "grim king" with "wolfish ways."
Deor has left no trace of himself, other than this poem. Heorrenda appears as Horant in a thirteenth century German epic Kudrun. It was said that Horant sang so sweetly that birds fell
silent at his song, and fish and animals in the wood fell motionless. That would
indeed make him a formidable opponent for the scop Deor.
This section has been provided by Bob Zisk, who cited Henry Sweet as a source
(then added a few others):
"Thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg"
This line is perhaps one of the most debated in Old English verse. Its precise
meaning is probably lost. The seemingly insurmountable problems are grammatical,
syntactical and semantical.
Because the two demonstratives are genitive and without a stated thing pointed
out by them, they cannot be rightly construed as grammatical subjects.
Anne Klinck, in her book The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre
Study, mentions efforts to relate the poem to "Old Testament Pessimism" (Klinck,
p. 45). She cites the Vulgate, Wisdom 5:9, "...transierunt omnia illa." However,
I think this biblical verse can be more strongly applied to an interpretation of
Besides the construction of the two demonstratives previously noted, the verbs
ofereode and maegan pose additional linguistic difficulties. Attempts have been
made to construe the two pronoun genitives as genitives of respect (Klinck p.
160), but this seems strained because Deor would be the only extant usage
recorded in the O.E. corpus.
Maeg is another unruly verb. It is often translated as "may," a rendering which
construes it as having an optative force. However, the difficulty again is a
lack of testimonia. The verb does not appear to be used as an optative anywhere
in surviving O.E. verse. It is more accurately rendered as "will" or "can,"
which is how Tolkien appears to have construed it when he translated it as "Time
has passed since then, and so can this." This rendering neatly resolves
the issue of the genitives by supplying a noun to fill the ellipsis, thus giving
the line the possible force of a gnomic utterance. "Can" instead of "will"
imbues a powerful quality of understatement, of both resignation and resolve.
Since first reading the poem, the refrain has struck me as a possible attenuation
of a proverb or gnomic statement that in all likelihood would have been clear to
the medieval reader or auditor. I had once thought the missing word might have
been "wyrd," but I think now that the resignation in the poem is too mitigated
by Christian world view to satisfy an insertion of a notion like "wyrd."
Klincke (p. 160) mentions an interesting speculation of Theodor Grienberger,
that the refrain is "an assertion of the range of Deor's art as a minstrel." It
would not be unheard of for a poet to do so. We have such proclamations from
classical times well into the flourishing of Provencal lyric, so the idea is not
far-fetched. Unfortunately Grienberger gets tied up in a restatement of the
refrain which requires an understood insertion of a parenthetical nominative
demonstrative after the genitive in the a part of the verse. Knud Schisbey
(cited by Klinck) interprets ofergan as "to survive," which makes for an
interesting reading which is besmirched only by the reality that no such use of
ofergan is recorded elsewhere.
Although refrains are not well represented in O.E. verse, the traditions that
formed the poet's milieu would have provided ample example. Examples might be
Vergil, Eclogue VIII, the Pervigilium Veneris, and several songs recorded in the
later Carmina Burana. A commonplace repetition which would probably be
recognizable by an author exposed to the Christian liturgy can be found in the
numerous types of figures of repetition (e.g., anaphora, epistrophe, epanalepsis)
found in scripture, prayer and verse such as hymns and sequences. A simple
example is the repetition of Alleluia in a short chant like the Regina Coeli. A
more subtle use of repetition can be found in the funerary antiphon "In
In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et
perducant te in civitatem sanctam Jerusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et
cum Lazaro quondam paupere ćternam habeas requiem.
This little chant, with its skillful repetition of phrase structure and similar
vocabulary could have made for a practising poet a fine rhetorical case study in
the skillful employment of figures of repetition, a lesson not far removed from
either ordinary experience or cultural milieu. In fact, critics have observed in
the language of Deor, artifacts of a more sophisticated example of rhetoric and
theme, namely the Alfredian rendering of De Consolatio Philosophiae. This is
set forth in Klinck's commentary on "Deor."
The refrain (and the questions surrounding it) illustrates the inseparability of
grammar and the text for trying to come to terms with old works. It is all too
easy for modern readers, especially after the dethronement of Grammar and
Memory, to overlook the fact that for medieval and ancient authors, these were
noble, laudable and admirable pursuits.
Some of the problems encountered in the refrain are encountered elsewhere in the
poem with similar solutions proposed. It becomes an exercise in humility to
acknowledge that even when we know the meaning of every word in a passage, the
meaning and sense, from which we are separated by over a thousand years, may yet
still elude us. We just do not know what the poet and his auditors knew.
I would like to devote a few sentences to versification, which in years past has
evoked its own cascade of controversies.
Deor's versification is unlike that of modern English where, from early Modern
English times until the advent of so-called free verse, the foot has been the
building block of line and poem.
Jespersen (cf Jespersen, "Notes on English Meter") suggested that the
traditional scansion system based on a binary of weak stress and one level of
strong stress was faulty because it did not conform to the empirical realities
of Modern English. Instead he offered a stress analysis which posited four
levels of stress. This addressed metrical constructs like the spondee,
pyrrhic, and Hopkins's "hovering stress," all of which fall short because the
language and the English iamb, do not offer a clear stress equivalent to the isochronism of quantitative systems like those of Greek and Latin. The four
stress system seemed to offer a framework to address the seeming unevenness
perceived in metrical imports such as the spondee and the pyrrhic, and to offer
an empirical rationale for the dilemmas posed by substitution/equivalence,
promotion and demotion of formally inconvenient syllables and stresses.
However, Old English verse, presuming a language with three levels of stress, is
a very different creature, built around word stress, vowel quantity,
alliteration, and a line consisting of four primary stresses. The mead bench
would tolerate no tightly regulated accentual syllabic organization as in modern
The verse (or hemistich) is the primary building block of Old English poetry.
With few exceptions (950 lines of a 30,000 line corpus [Diamond]), the four
strong beats of a line will fall only on long syllables which, as an editorial
and pedagogical preference, may or may not be marked in modern editions.
Alliteration is only on strong beats.
One or two alliterating syllables in the first hemistich will alliterate with
one strong stress in the second, for a total of two or three alliterations in a
line. In every line at least one stressed syllable and no more than two in the
first hemistich must alliterate only on the first stressed syllable in the the
The first and second hemistiches are known as the "on verse" and the "off
verse." Starting with the analysis by Sievers in the nineteenth century,
classification of the Old English alliterative line has posited divisions into
five basic verse types. These are typically designated by upper case letters, A.
B, C, D, E. The on and off verses are sometimes referenced by lower case letters
a and b.
Stresses are indicated by forward and backward slashes and an x.
/ primary or strong stress
\ secondary stress
x weak stress
Vowels alliterate with any vowel. Consonants alliterate with themselves.
Consonant clusters like sc, st, sp also alliterate with themselves. Palatized c
and g (a ch and yod sound) alliterate with the unpalatized forms of c and g as
well as with themselves. Although there are many exceptions, alliteration is
usually found with nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. (Diamond, pp 46-47).
In A verses the poet had greater leeway in the construction of the first
measure. More constraints were imposed on the second measure.
The basic configurations of the five verse types are:
/x | /x
/xx | /x
/\ | /x
/\x | /x
/xx xx |/x
All these are examples of verses of single or double alliteration with respect
to the off verse. The last scheme is a concession to form over the fact of an
apparently noncompliant verse. The solution to the puzzle is to treat the first
syllable of the two weak as strong, giving it a kind of wrenched accent, or to
borrow a newer term, a promotion.
There are certain A verses, called A3 and A4, in which for an A3 a weak stress
in the first measure occurs where one would expect a primary stress. For an A4
in the second measure of an on verse, the second measure consists of two weak
stresses. This problem is resolved by pronouncing the first weak syllable in
each measure as though strong. We see similar phenomena in some hip hop and rap
as well as in exaggerated readings of iambic verse that overstress so-called
Some schemes for A verses with double alliteration are:
/xx | /x
/xx xx | /x
/xxx | /x
/xxx | / \
For B and C verses there is a heavy second measure with a weak first. Pope has
advocated that when reading a B or C verse beginning with three, four or five
syllables, the reader should pause before beginning the first measure (Diamond,
p. 54; Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf). This pause is supposed to stand for a strum
of a stringed instrument, but what it really is is an unnecessary imposition of isochronism onto the accentual scheme (Diamond, p. 55).
Some B verses:
xx | /x\
x | /x\
xx/ | /xx\
xx | /xx\
C verses have a close resemblance to B verses. When a C allliterates singly, the
alliteration falls on the stress of the second measure:
x(x) | /\x
D verses appear like B or C verses with alliteration on stress in the first
/ | /x\
/ | /xx
If E verses occur with double alliteration, each measure carries an alliterated
/\x | /
A single alliteration falls at the head of the first measure.
The final pattern for consideration is resolved stress, where two weak stresses
are allowed to stand for a primary stress. Thus
xxx would resolve into /xx.
That has been the long version. However, in his text and commentary on the Old
Saxon Heliand, James Cathey takes a greatly abbreviated approach stripped of
most of the jargon. He emphasizes that the four beat accentual-alliterative line
of Germanic tradition is older than its written survivors and that along with
kennings and formulaic utterances was an additional mnemonic for both
composition and recitation. He asserts the octosyllabic four beat line as the
parent of all subsequent expansions and variations (Cathey, p.18):
/x/x | /x /x
"Alliteration was superimposed on the pattern of stresses...alliteration (German
Stabreim) indicates an initial "rhyme" of consonants or vowels..." He identifies
the first strong stress of the second half line as determinative of the
alliterative pattern for the entire line
(Cathey, p. 18).
While the Heliand may not be an exemplar of the accentual-alliterative system,
it contains many "pure" lines (Cathey, p. 19):
Dopte allen dag druhtfolc mikel (Heliand, 978)
/xxx | / || /x | /x
(All day he baptized a great retinue [BZ]).
By Cathey's stated method for approaching the meter (also given short shrift by
Diamond), one could very well approach scansion by identifying the first strong
beat of the off verse, which would then provide the key to the structure of the
on verse. Exact line types, if and when an important consideration, could then
be determined by reference to a table of types. Repetition and increased
familiarity would doubtless add some virtuosity to the process.
Was the Deer a Dear?
The name Deor is interesting, apparently related to an old Germanic root
referring to a wild animal. It occurs as noun and adjective. As a noun it can
mean a wild animal, a reindeer, or a deer. It occurs in numerous compounds such
as deorcynn, a species of animal, deorfald, a deer herd, fortune, a park. As an
adjective, extant only in poetry, it means courageous, bold, severe, fierce,
full of hardship. It too is compounded, e.g., deorlic, brave (referring to a
deed or action), deemed, also meaning brave, but in reference to
heart or spirit. Deor as deer seems to be part of another semantic cluster,
diere, meaning beloved, and compounded to forms like dier(e)born, deor(e)born,
meaning of noble birth, and diernes, meaning precious thing or treasure.
It seems that an O.E. reader or informed listener, upon hearing the word Deor,
might reasonably call to mind this entire semantic nexus, much of which would
have carried heroic and noble connotations. The deer or stag was, in many
traditions, an animal of noble and heroic significance. In Beowulf the mead hall
is known as Heorot, meaning stag or hart.
I've long thought that in texts which utilize words that seem to sprout
seedlings of amplified meanings, the author probably used those words and
nuances in a sense that triggered meaning in a reader or hearer, but which does
not trigger so fulsome a response in us.
I think the guys (the heroic guys) seated on the meodsehtla chewing on a haunch
of wild boar and washing it down with a strong honey beverage, would have ranged
in their minds over the full range of cross references and meanings which often
for our lack of cultural reference points and perhaps too much sobriety, elude
Stephen A. Barney, WORD-HOARD AN INTRODUCTION TO OLD ENGLISH VOCABULARY, Yale
Bosworth-Toller, An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Oxford (1898) Electronic version
available for free download.
James W. Bright, AN ANGLO-SAXON READER AND AN OUTLINE OF ANGLO-SAXON
GRAMMAR, Henry Holt & Company (1894)
A. Campbell, Old English Grammar, Oxford (1959)
James Cathey, Heliand TEXT AND COMMENTARY, West Virginia (2002)
Robert E. Diamond, Old English Grammar and Reader, Wayne State (1970)
E.V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse, Oxford (1957)
E.V. Gordon, PEARL, Oxford (1958)
FR. KLAEBER, BEOWULF AND THE FIGHT AT FINNSBURG, Heath (1950)
Anne Klinck, The Old English Elegies: A CRITICAL EDITION AND GENRE STUDY,
McGill-Queen's University (2001)
John C. Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf, New Haven (1942)
Henry Sweet, An Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse, Oxford (1983)
Henry Sweet, An Icelandic Primer with Grammar, Glossary and Notes, Amazon Kindle
Public Domain Book (1895)
HENRY SWEET, THE STUDENT'S DICTIONARY OF ANGLO-SAXON, OXFORD (1963)
J.R.R. Tolkien & E. V. Gordon, SIR GAWAIN and the Green Knight, Oxford (1946)
C.L. Wrenn, Beowulf, Harrap (1973)
If you want to learn more about the origins of English poetry, please check out
English Poetic Roots: A Brief History of Rhyme.
The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
The Rhyming Poem
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
This World's Joy
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You"
Whoso List to Hunt
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Rainer Maria Rilke
Ono no Komachi
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch
For an expanded bio, circum vitae and career timeline of the translator, please click
Burch Expanded Bio.