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How Long the Night

"Merry it is, while summer lasts with the birds' song ..."

"How Long the Night" has been described as the oldest surviving secular song in the English language. It is an anonymous Anglo-Saxon (Old English) lyric, written by an unknown scop or minstrel, circa the early 13th century AD. However, while the poem/song may be construed to be primarily secular, it has a decided Christian "feel," because the speaker tells us that some grievous sin or error has caused him (or her) to suffer, mourn and fast. The poem's language is as close to ancient German as it is to modern English, which you can see by reading the original text below my translation.

How Long the Night

loose translation by Michael R. Burch

It is pleasant, indeed, while the summer lasts
with the mild pheasants' song ...
but now I feel the northern wind's blast—
its severe weather strong.
Alas! Alas! This night seems so long!
And I, because of my momentous wrong,
now grieve, mourn and fast.

The poem above is my modern English "interpretation" or "loose translation" of one of the very best lyrics written in the then-fledgling English language. This brief but magnificent poem displays both Anglo-Saxon and Christian sensibilities: the speaker sounds simultaneously pagan German and Christian, with perhaps a touch of Norse thrown in. Here is the original Anglo-Saxon poem ...

Myrie it is while sumer
ylast with fugheles song.
Oc nu neheth windes blast
and weder strong. Ei, ei!
what this nicht is long. And
ich with wel michel wrong
soregh and murne and
fast.

TRANSLATION KEYS: myrie=merry/pleasant; sumer=summer; fugheles=birds (probably related to the German word vogel); oc=? (I have gone with "but"); nu=now;  neheth=? (I have gone with "north" but perhaps "near" or "nether" or necheth=draw near/descend); weder=weather; nicht=night; ich=I; michel=great/enormous (similar to the Old Norse mikill and Middle English mikel); soregh=? (I have gone with "sorrow" or "grieve"); murne=mourn

TRANSLATOR'S NOTES: Did I take any poetic liberties in my translation? Yes, I believe I did, with "mild pheasant's song," but I don't think that changes the tone or tenor of the poem. Here are other translations that may be a bit closer to the original ...

Prose paraphrase, by Michael R. Burch: "Merry it is, while summer lasts, with the birds' song. But now I feel the northern wind's blast, its weather strong. Alas! Alas! How this night is long! And I, with my momentous wrong, now sorrow, mourn and fast." An alternate interpretation is that the winter weather is causing the speaker to sorrow, mourn and go without food: "Merry it is, while summer lasts, with the birds' song. But now I feel the northern wind's blast, its weather strong. Alas! Alas! This night is so long! It does me a terrible wrong: I grieve, mourn and fast."

The two oldest surviving English songs are both about weather. The other song is "Sumer is icumen in" also known as the "Cuckoo Song."

I believe the source text is the Oxford Bodleian Manuscript, housed at the University of Oxford library. My translation of "How Long the Night" (above) was published by Measure, Volume VIII, Issue 1 in 2013.

How Long the Night

a possibly more precise translation by Michael R. Burch

Merry it is, while summer lasts,
with the birds' song.
But now I feel the descending wind's blast,
its weather so strong.
Alas! Alas! How this night drags on!
And I, because of my momentous wrong,
now grieve, mourn and fast.

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" may be the oldest extant poem in the English language written by a female poet. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" is a modern English translation of a truly great poem by the early Scottish master William Dunbar. "Caedmon's Hymn" may be the oldest poem in the English language.

Wulf and Eadwacer
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Basho
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Sappho
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Tegner's Drapa
Robert Burns
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel

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