The HyperTexts

The Best Medieval Poems in Modern English Translations

This page includes modern English translations of Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems and Middle English poems by Caedmon, Geoffrey Chaucer, Deor, William Dunbar, Charles D'Orleans, Layamon and the greatest of the ancient poets, Anonymous.

For explanations of how he translates and why he calls his results "loose translations" and "interpretations" please click here: Michael R. Burch Translation Methods and Credits to Other Translators

How Long the Night (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation 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.

Three Roundels by Geoffrey Chaucer

I. Merciles Beaute ("Merciless Beauty")
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Unless your words heal me hastily,
my heart's wound will remain green;
for your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain.

By all truth, I tell you faithfully
that you are of life and death my queen;
for at my death this truth shall be seen:
your eyes slay me suddenly;
their beauty I cannot sustain,
they wound me so, through my heart keen.

Original text:

Your yėn two wol sle me sodenly,
I may the beaute of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit through-out my herte kene.

And but your word wol helen hastily
My hertes wounde, whyl that hit is grene,
Your yėn two wol sle me sodenly;
may the beaute of hem not sustene.

Upon my trouthe I sey yow feithfully,
That ye ben of my lyf and deth the quene;
For with my deth the trouthe shal be sene.
Your yėn two wol sle me sodenly,
I may the beaute of hem not sustene,
So woundeth hit through-out my herte kene.

II. Rejection
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

I'm guiltless, yet my sentence has been cast.
I tell you truly, needless now to feign,—
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain.

Alas, that Nature in your face compassed
Such beauty, that no man may hope attain
To mercy, though he perish from the pain;
Your beauty from your heart has so erased
Pity, that it’s useless to complain;
For Pride now holds your mercy by a chain.

Original text:

So hath your beaute fro your herte chaced
Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;
For Daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

Giltles my deth thus han ye me purchaced;
I sey yow soth, me nedeth not to feyne;
So hath your beaute fro your herle chaced
Pilee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne

Allas! that nature hath in yow compassed
So gret beaute, that no man may atteyne
To mercy, though he sterve for the peyne.
So hath your beaute fro your herte chaced
Pitee, that me ne availeth not to pleyne;
For daunger halt your mercy in his cheyne.

III. Escape
by Geoffrey Chaucer
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

He may question me and counter this and that;
I care not: I will answer just as I mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean.

Love strikes me from his roster, short and flat,
And he is struck from my books, just as clean,
Forevermore; there is no other mean.
Since I’m escaped from Love and yet still fat,
I never plan to be in his prison lean;
Since I am free, I count it not a bean.

Original text:

Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;
Sin I am fre, I counte him not a bene.

He may answere, and seye this or that;
I do no fors, I speke right as I mene.
Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene.

Love hath my name y-strike out of his sclat,
And he is strike out of my bokes clene
For ever-mo; [ther] is non other mene.
Sin I fro love escaped am so fat,
I never thenk to ben in his prison lene;
Sin I am fre, I counte him not a bene.
Explicit.


Rondel: Your Smiling Mouth
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains,
Your hands so smooth, each finger straight and plain,
Your little feet—please, what more can I say?

It is my fetish when you’re far away
To muse on these and thus to soothe my pain—
Your smiling mouth and laughing eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains.

So would I beg you, if I only may,
To see such sights as I before have seen,
Because my fetish pleases me. Obscene?
I’ll be obsessed until my dying day
By your sweet smiling mouth and eyes, bright gray,
Your ample breasts and slender arms’ twin chains!

Spring
by Charles d’Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Young lovers,
greeting the spring
fling themselves downhill,
making cobblestones ring
with their wild leaps and arcs,
like ecstatic sparks
struck from coal.

What is their brazen goal?

They grab at whatever passes,
so we can only hazard guesses.
But they rear like prancing steeds
raked by brilliant spurs of need,
Young lovers.

The original French poem:

Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx
En la nouvelle saison,
Par les rues, sans raison,
Chevauchent, faisans les saulx.
Et font saillir des carreaulx
Le feu, comme de cherbon,
Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx.
Je ne sēay se leurs travaulx
Ilz emploient bien ou non,
Mais piqués de l’esperon
Sont autant que leurs chevaulx
Jeunes amoureux nouveaulx.


Oft in My Thought
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

So often in my busy mind I sought,
    Around the advent of the fledgling year,
For something pretty that I really ought
    To give my lady dear;
    But that sweet thought's been wrested from me, clear,
        Since death, alas, has sealed her under clay
    And robbed the world of all that's precious here―
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

For me to keep my manner and my thought
    Acceptable, as suits my age's hour?
While proving that I never once forgot
    Her worth? It tests my power!
    I serve her now with masses and with prayer;
        For it would be a shame for me to stray
    Far from my faith, when my time's drawing near
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Now earthly profits fail, since all is lost
    And the cost of everything became so dear;
Therefore, O Lord, who rules the higher host,
    Take my good deeds, as many as there are,
    And crown her, Lord, above in your bright sphere,
        As heaven's truest maid! And may I say:
    Most good, most fair, most likely to bring cheer
         God keep her soul, I can no better say.

When I praise her, or hear her praises raised,
I recall how recently she brought me pleasure;
    Then my heart floods like an overflowing bay
And makes me wish to dress for my own bier—
    God keep her soul, I can no better say.

Winter has cast his cloak away
by Charles d'Orleans (c. 1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

Winter has cast his cloak away
of wind and cold and chilling rain
to dress in embroidered light again:
the light of day—bright, festive, gay!
Each bird and beast, without delay,
in its own tongue, sings this refrain:
"Winter has cast his cloak away!"
Brooks, fountains, rivers, streams at play,
wear, with their summer livery,
bright beads of silver jewelry.
All the Earth has a new and fresh display:
Winter has cast his cloak away!

Note: This rondeau was set to music by Debussy in his Trois chansons de France.

The year lays down his mantle cold
by Charles d’Orleans (1394-1465)
loose translation/interpretation/modernization by Michael R. Burch

The year lays down his mantle cold
of wind, chill rain and bitter air,
and now goes clad in clothes of gold
of smiling suns and seasons fair,
while birds and beasts of wood and fold
now with each cry and song declare:
"The year lays down his mantle cold!"
All brooks, springs, rivers, seaward rolled,
now pleasant summer livery wear
with silver beads embroidered where
the world puts off its raiment old.
The year lays down his mantle cold.



The following are some of the best Old English (i.e., Anglo Saxon) poems ...

Wulf and Eadwacer (Old English circa 960-990 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My people pursue him like crippled prey.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different!

Wulf's on one island; I'm on another.
His island's a fortress, fastened by fens.
Here, bloodthirsty curs roam this island.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
We are so different!

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained, as I wept,
the bold warrior came; he took me in his arms:
good feelings for him, but their end loathsome!
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Watchdog!
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

What an earthy, dirty, brutally honest poem written from a female perspective about what sounds like war, a family being split apart, and perhaps rape, sex slavery and child abduction and/or infanticide. Much remains in doubt: did Wulf abduct the child, perhaps thinking the child was his, or did the the mother, the rapist or perhaps the rapist's wife get rid of the child? In my opinion the original poem is one of the truly great poems in the English language, so my translation seems like a worthwhile endeavor, especially if other people like what I've done.

There was another poem that also vexed me because I didn't really care for the translations of it that I had read, and it was perhaps the first poem to be written in the then-fledgling English language:

Cędmon's Hymn (Old English circa 658-680 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Come, let us honour      heaven-kingdom's Guardian,
the might of the Architect      and his mind-plans,
the work of the Glory-Father.      First he, the Everlasting Lord,
established      the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the Primeval Poet,      created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men,      Holy Creator,
Maker of mankind.      Then he, the Eternal Entity,
afterwards made men middle-earth:      Master Almighty!

"Cędmon's Hymn" was composed sometime between 658 and 680 AD and may be the oldest extant poem in the English language. According to the Venerable Bede (673-735), Cędmon was an illiterate herdsman who was given the gift of poetic composition by an angel. In the original poem, hardly a word is recognizable as English because Cędmon was writing in a somewhat Anglicized form of ancient German. The word "England" harkens back to Angle-land; the Angles were a Germanic tribe. Nevertheless, by Cędmon's time the foundations of English poetry were being laid, particularly in the areas of accentual meter and alliteration. Poets were considered to be "Makers" (as in William Dunbar's "Lament for the Makaris"), and poetry was considered to have a divine origin, so the poem may express a sort of affinity between the poet and his Creator.

Here's one of the first Old English/Anglo-Saxon poems to employ a refrain:

Deor's Lament (Anglo Saxon poem, circa 10th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Weland knew the agony of exile.
That indomitable smith was wracked by grief.
He endured countless troubles:
sorrows were his only companions
in his frozen island dungeon
after Nithad had fettered him,
many strong-but-supple sinew-bonds
binding the better man.
   That passed away; this also may.

Beadohild mourned her brothers' deaths
but even more, her own sad state
once she discovered herself with child.
She predicted nothing good could come of it.
   That passed away; this also may.

We have heard that the Geat's moans for Matilda,
his lady, were limitless,
that his sorrowful love for her
robbed him of regretless sleep.
   That passed away; this also may.

For thirty winters Theodric ruled
the Męring stronghold with an iron hand;
many knew this and moaned.
   That passed away; this also may.

We have also heard of Ermanaric's wolfish ways,
of how he held wide sway in the realm of the Goths.
He was a grim king! Many a warrior sat,
full of cares and maladies of the mind,
wishing constantly that his kingdom 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 endless.
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 will 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 lord. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors gave me.
   That passed away; this also may.

"The Wife's Lament" or "The Wife's Complaint" is an Old English (Anglo Saxon) poem found in the Exeter Book which is generally considered to be an elegy in the manner of the German frauenlied, or "woman's song," although there are other interpretations of the poem's genre and purpose. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, but of course the poem may have been written earlier.

The Wife's Lament
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I draw these words from deep wells of my grief,
care-worn, unutterably sad.
I can recount woes I've borne since birth,
present and past, never more than now.
I have won, from my exile-paths, only pain.

First, my lord forsook his folk, left,
crossed the seas' tumult, far from our people.
Since then, I've known
wrenching dawn-griefs, dark mournings ... oh where,
where can he be?

Then I, too, left—a lonely, lordless refugee,
full of unaccountable desires!
But the man's kinsmen schemed secretly
to estrange us, divide us, keep us apart,
across earth's wide kingdom, and my heart broke.

Then my lord spoke:
"Take up residence here."
I had few friends in this unknown, cheerless
region, none close.
Christ, I felt lost!

Then I thought I had found a well-matched man –
one meant for me,
but unfortunately he
was ill-starred and blind, with a devious mind,
full of murderous intentions, plotting some crime!

Before God we
vowed never to part, not till kingdom come, never!
But now that's all changed, forever –
our friendship done, severed.
I must hear, far and near, contempt for my husband.

So other men bade me, "Go, live in the grove,
beneath the great oaks, in an earth-cave, alone."
In this ancient cave-dwelling I am lost and oppressed –
the valleys are dark, the hills immense,
and this cruel-briared enclosure—an arid abode!

The injustice assails me—my lord's absence!
On earth there are lovers who share the same bed
while I pass through life dead in this dark abscess
where I wilt, summer days unable to rest
or forget the sorrows of my life's hard lot.

A young woman must always be
stern, hard-of-heart, unmoved,
opposing breast-cares and her heartaches' legions.
She must appear cheerful
even in a tumult of grief.

Like a criminal exiled to a far-off land,
moaning beneath insurmountable cliffs,
my weary-minded love, drenched by wild storms
and caught in the clutches of anguish,
is reminded constantly of our former happiness.

Woe be it to them who abide in longing.

"The Husband's Message" is an Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. "The Husband's Message" may or may not be a reply to "The Wife's Lament," another poem in the same collection. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes and the poem is generally considered to be an Anglo-Saxon riddle (I will provide the solution), but its primary focus is on persuading a wife or pledged fiancée to join her husband or betrothed and fulfill her promises to him. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than the tenth century, and perhaps earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the earliest poems of English antiquity. There are links to other translations below the poem, including the evocative Anglo-Saxon classic "Wulf and Eadwacer." The latter is perhaps the first English poem by a female poet that remains known to us today ... unless "The Wife's Lament" is even more ancient!

The Husband's Message
anonymous Old English poem, circa 960-990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

See, I unseal myself for your eyes only!
I sprang from a seed to a sapling,
waxed great in a wood,
                           was given knowledge,
was ordered across saltstreams in ships
where I stiffened my spine, standing tall,
till, entering the halls of heroes,
                   I honored my manly Lord.

Now I stand here on this ship’s deck,
an emissary ordered to inform you
of the love my Lord feels for you.
I have no fear forecasting his heart steadfast,
his honor bright, his word true.

He who bade me come carved this letter
and entreats you to recall, clad in your finery,
what you promised each other many years before,
mindful of his treasure-laden promises.

He reminds you how, in those distant days,
witty words were pledged by you both
in the mead-halls and homesteads:
how he would be Lord of the lands
you would inhabit together
while forging a lasting love.
 
Alas, a vendetta drove him far from his feuding tribe,
but now he instructs me to gladly give you notice
that when you hear the returning cuckoo's cry
cascading down warming coastal cliffs,
come over the sea! Let no man hinder your course.

He earnestly urges you: Out! To sea!
Away to the sea, when the circling gulls
hover over the ship that conveys you to him!

Board the ship that you meet there:
sail away seaward to seek your husband,
over the seagulls' range,
                          over the paths of foam.
For over the water, he awaits you.

He cannot conceive, he told me,
how any keener joy could comfort his heart,
nor any greater happiness gladden his soul,
than that a generous God should grant you both
to exchange rings, then give gifts to trusty liege-men,
golden armbands inlaid with gems to faithful followers.

The lands are his, his estates among strangers,
his new abode fair and his followers true,
all hardy heroes, since hence he was driven,
shoved off in his ship from these shore in distress,
steered straightway over the saltstreams, sped over the ocean,
a wave-tossed wanderer winging away.

But now the man has overcome his woes,
outpitted his perils, lives in plenty, lacks no luxury,
has a hoard and horses and friends in the mead-halls.

All the wealth of the earth's great earls
now belongs to my Lord ...
                             He only lacks you.

He would have everything within an earl's having,
if only my Lady will come home to him now,
if only she will do as she swore and honor her vow.

A Proverb from Winfred's Time
anonymous Old English poem, circa 757-786
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

1.
The procrastinator puts off purpose,
never initiates anything marvelous,
never succeeds, and dies alone.

2.
The late-deed-doer delays glory-striving,
never indulges daring dreams,
never succeeds, and dies alone.

3.
Often the deed-dodger avoids ventures,
never succeeds, and dies alone.

Oft daedlata domę foręldit,
sigisitha gahuem, suuyltit thi ana.

Winfrid or Wynfrith is better known as Saint Boniface (c. 675–754). The poem might better be titled "A Proverb Against Procrastination from Winfred's Time." This may be the second-oldest English poem, after "Caedmon's Hymn."

Franks Casket Runes
anonymous Old English poems, circa 700
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The fish flooded the shore-cliffs;
the sea-king wept when he swam onto the shingle:
whale's bone.

Fisc flōd āhōf on firgenberig.
Wearž gāsric grorn žǣr hē on grēot geswam.
Hranes bān.

Romulus and Remus, twin brothers weaned in Rome
by a she-wolf, far from their native land.

Rōmwalus and Rēomwalus, twēgen gebrōšera:
fēdde hīe wylf in Rōmeceastre, ēšle unnēah.


"The Leiden Riddle" is an Old English translation of Aldhelm's Latin riddle Lorica ("Corselet").

The Leiden Riddle
anonymous Old English riddle poem, circa 700
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The dank earth birthed me from her icy womb.
I know I was not fashioned from woolen fleeces;
nor was I skillfully spun from skeins;
I have neither warp nor weft;
no thread thrums through me in the thrashing loom;
nor do whirring shuttles rattle me;
nor does the weaver's rod assail me;
nor did silkworms spin me like skillfull fates
into curious golden embroidery.
And yet heroes still call me an excellent coat.
Nor do I fear the dread arrows' flights,
however eagerly they leap from their quivers.

Solution: a coat of mail.

If you see a busker singing for tips, you are seeing someone carrying on an Anglo-Saxon tradition that goes back to the days of Beowulf ...

He sits with his harp at his thane's feet,
Earning his hire, his rewards of rings,
Sweeping the strings with his skillful nail;
Hall-thanes smile at the sweet song he sings.
—"Fortunes of Men" loose translation by Michael R. Burch



Here's an early Middle English poem that is a "bridge" of sorts between Anglo-Saxon poetry and later Middle English poetry ...

Brut (circa 1100 AD, written by Layamon, an excerpt)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch


Now he stands on a hill overlooking the Avon,
seeing steel fishes girded with swords in the stream,
their swimming days done,
their scales a-gleam like gold-plated shields,
their fish-spines floating like shattered spears.

Layamon's Brut is a 32,000-line poem composed in Middle English that shows a strong Anglo-Saxon influence and contains the first known reference to King Arthur in English. The passage above is a good example of Layamon's gift for imagery. It's interesting, I think, that a thousand years ago a poet was dabbling in surrealism, with dead warriors being described as if they were both men and fish.

Are these the oldest rhyming poems in the English language? Reginald of Durham recorded four verses of Saint Godric's: they are the oldest songs in English for which the original musical settings survive.

The first song is said in the Life of Saint Godric to have come to Godric when he had a vision of his sister Burhcwen, like him a solitary at Finchale, being received into heaven. She was singing a song of thanksgiving, in Latin, and Godric renders her song in English bracketed by a Kyrie eleison:

Led By Christ and Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

By Christ and Saint Mary I was so graciously led
that the earth never felt my bare foot’s tread!

Crist and sainte marie swa on scamel me iledde
žat ic on žis erše ne silde wid mine bare fote itredie


In the second poem, Godric puns on his name: godes riche means “God’s kingdom” and sounds like “God is rich” ...

A Cry to Mary
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I.
Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Mother of Jesus Christ the Nazarenė,
Welcome, shield and help thin Godric,
Fly him off to God’s kingdom rich!

II.
Saintė Mariė, Christ’s bower,
Virgin among Maidens, Motherhood’s flower,
Blot out my sin, fix where I’m flawed,
Elevate me to Bliss with God!

Saintė Mariė Virginė,
Moder Iesu Cristes Nazarenė,
Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,
Onfong bring hegilich
With the in Godės riche.

Saintė Mariė Cristes bur,
Maidenės clenhad, moderės flur;
Dilie min sinnė, rix in min mod,
Bring me to winnė with the selfd God.


Godric also wrote a prayer to St. Nicholas:

Prayer to St. Nicholas
by Saint Godric of Finchale (1065-1170)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Saint Nicholas, beloved of God,
Build us a house that’s bright and fair;
Watch over us from birth to bier,
Then, Saint Nicholas, bring us safely there!

Sainte Nicholaes godes druš
tymbre us faire scone hus
At ži burth at ži bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel žare



Another candidate for the first rhyming English poem is actually called "The Rhyming Poem" and is also known as "The Riming Poem" and "The Rhymed Poem." This is an Old English (i.e. Anglo-Saxon) poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. The Angles and Saxons were Germanic tribes and the poem is generally considered to be an elegy or lament in the Germanic tradition. The poem's main theme is the impermanence of human joy, accomplishments and life. The Exeter Book has been dated to 960-990 AD, so the poem was probably written no later than the tenth century, and perhaps earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the truly revolutionary poems of English antiquity.

The Rhymed Poem aka The Rhyming Poem and The Riming Poem
anonymous Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem from the Exeter Book, circa 990 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

He who granted me life created this sun
and graciously provided its radiant engine.
I was gladdened with glees, bathed in bright hues,
deluged with joy’s blossoms, sunshine-infused.

Men admired me, feted me with banquet-courses;
we rejoiced in the good life. Gaily bedecked horses
carried me swiftly across plains on joyful rides,
delighting me with their long limbs' thunderous strides.
That world was quickened by earth’s fruits and their flavors!
I cantered under pleasant skies, attended by troops of advisers.
Guests came and went, amusing me with their chatter
as I listened with delight to their witty palaver.

Well-appointed ships glided by in the distance;
when I sailed myself, I was never without guidance.
I was of the highest rank; I lacked for nothing in the hall;
nor did I lack for brave companions; warriors, all,
we strode through castle halls weighed down with gold
won from our service to thanes. We were proud men, and bold.
Wise men praised me; I was omnipotent in battle;
Fate smiled on and protected me; foes fled before me like cattle.
Thus I lived with joy indwelling; faithful retainers surrounded me;
I possessed vast estates; I commanded all my eyes could see;
the earth lay subdued before me; I sat on a princely throne;
the words I sang were charmed; old friendships did not wane ...

Those were years rich in gifts and the sounds of happy harp-strings,
when a lasting peace dammed shut the rivers’ sorrowings.
My servants were keen, their harps resonant;
their songs pealed, the sound loud but pleasant;
the music they made melodious, a continual delight;
the castle hall trembled and towered bright.
Courage increased, wealth waxed with my talent;
I gave wise counsel to great lords and enriched the valiant.

My spirit enlarged; my heart rejoiced;
good faith flourished; glory abounded; abundance increased.
I was lavishly supplied with gold; bright gems were circulated ...
Till treasure led to treachery and the bonds of friendship constricted.

I was bold in my bright array, noble in my equipage,
my joy princely, my home a happy hermitage.
I protected and led my people;
for many years my life among them was regal;
I was devoted to them and they to me.

But now my heart is troubled, fearful of the fates I see;
disaster seems unavoidable. Someone dear departs in flight by night
who once before was bold. His soul has lost its light.
A secret disease in full growth blooms within his breast,
spreads in different directions. Hostility blossoms in his chest,
in his mind. Bottomless grief assaults the mind's nature
and when penned in, erupts in rupture,
burns eagerly for calamity, runs bitterly about.

The weary man suffers, begins a journey into doubt;
his pain is ceaseless; pain increases his sorrows, destroys his bliss;
his glory ceases; he loses his happiness;
he loses his craft; he no longer burns with desires.
Thus joys here perish, lordships expire;
men lose faith and descend into vice;
infirm faith degenerates into evil’s curse;
faith feebly abandons its high seat and every hour grows worse.

So now the world changes; Fate leaves men lame;
Death pursues hatred and brings men to shame.
The happy clan perishes; the spear rends the marrow;
the evildoer brawls and poisons the arrow;
sorrow devours the city; old age castrates courage;
misery flourishes; wrath desecrates the peerage;
the abyss of sin widens; the treacherous path snakes;
resentment burrows, digs in, wrinkles, engraves;
artificial beauty grows foul;
the summer heat cools;
earthly wealth fails;
enmity rages, cruel, bold;
the might of the world ages, courage grows cold.
Fate wove itself for me and my sentence was given:
that I should dig a grave and seek that grim cavern
men cannot avoid when death comes, arrow-swift,
to seize their lives in his inevitable grasp.
Now night comes at last,
and the way stand clear
for Death to dispossesses me of my my abode here.

When my corpse lies interred and the worms eat my limbs,
whom will Death delight then, with his dark feast and hymns?
Let men’s bones become one,
and then finally, none,
till there’s nothing left here of the evil ones.
But men of good faith will not be destroyed;
the good man will rise, far beyond the Void,
who chastened himself, more often than not,
to avoid bitter sins and that final black Blot.
The good man has hope of a far better end
and remembers the promise of Heaven,
where he’ll experience the mercies of God for his saints,
freed from all sins, dark and depraved,
defended from vices, gloriously saved,
where, happy at last before their cheerful Lord,
men may rejoice in his love forevermore.



This is another early Middle English poem that gives a hint of things to come ...

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa 11th century AD)

loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now skruketh rose and lylie flour, // Now the rose and the lily skyward flower,
That whilen ber that suete savour // That will bear for awhile that sweet savor:
In somer, that suete tyde; // In summer, that sweet tide;
Ne is no quene so stark ne stour, // There is no queen so stark in her power
Ne no luedy so bryht in bour // Nor any lady so bright in her bower
That ded ne shal by glyde: // That Death shall not summon and guide;
Whoso wol fleshye lust for-gon and hevene-blisse abyde // But whoever forgoes lust, in heavenly bliss will abide
On Jhesu be is thoht anon, that tharled was ys side. // With his thoughts on Jesus anon, thralled at his side.

skruketh = break forth, burst open; stour = strong, stern, hardy; tharled = thralled?, made a serf?, bound?

A similar poem to the one above, in time and language, is "Blow Northerne Wynd," which has been called the "most ancient love poem in the English language," perhaps composed during the reign of King John. But I prefer the lovely poem above, if not the Christian sentiments of the closing couplet.



Now here are four splendid but little-known poems from the early 13th century that may predate Chaucer. Please note the introduction of end rhyme ...

Westron Wynde (anonymous Middle English lyric, found in a partbook circa 1530 AD, but perhaps written much earlier)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Western wind, when will you blow,
bringing the drizzling rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
and I in my bed again!

NOTE: The original poem has "the smalle rayne down can rayne" which suggests a drizzle or mist, either of which would suggest a dismal day. 

This World's Joy (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Winter awakens all my care
as leafless trees grow bare.
For now my sighs are fraught
whenever it enters my thought:
regarding this world's joy,
how everything comes to naught.

[MS. Harl. 2253. f. 49r]
 
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.


Pity Mary (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa early 13th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Now the sun passes under the wood:
I rue, Mary, thy face—fair, good.
Now the sun passes under the tree:
I rue, Mary, thy son and thee.

In the poem above, note how "wood" and "tree" invoke the cross while "sun" and "son" seem to invoke each other. Sun-day is also Son-day, to Christians. The anonymous poet who wrote the poem above may have been been punning the words "sun" and "son." The poem is also known as "Now Goeth Sun Under Wood" and "Now Go'th Sun Under Wood." Here's another poem from the same era:

Fowles in the Frith (anonymous Middle English lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The fowls in the forest,
the fishes in the flood
and I must go mad:
such sorrow I've had
for beasts of bone and blood!

Sounds like an early animal rights activist! The use of "and" is intriguing ... is the poet saying that his walks in the wood drive him mad because he is also a "beast of bone and blood," facing a similar fate?

I am of Ireland (anonymous Medieval Irish lyric, circa 13th-14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I am of Ireland,
and of the holy realm of Ireland.
Gentlefolk, I pray thee:
for the sake of saintly charity,
come dance with me
in Ireland!

Ich am of Irlaunde,
Ant of the holy londe
Of Irlande.
Gode sire, pray ich the,
For of saynte charité,
Come ant daunce wyth me
In Irlaunde.

The poem above still smacks of German, with "Ich" for "I." But a metamorphosis was clearly in progress: English poetry was evolving to employ meter and rhyme, as well as Anglo-Saxon alliteration. And it's interesting to note that "ballad," "ballet" and "ball" all have the same root: the Latin ballare (to dance) and the Italian ballo/balleto (a dance). Think of a farm community assembling for a hoe-down, then dancing a two-step to music with lyrics. That is apparently how many early English poems originated. And the more regular meter of the evolving poems would suit music well.

Is this the oldest carpe diem poem in the English language?

Whan the turuf is thy tour
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa the 13th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

1.
When the turf is your tower
and the pit is your bower,
your pale white skin and throat
shall be sullen worms’ to note.
What help to you, then,
was all your worldly hope?

2.
When the turf is your tower
and the grave is your bower,
your pale white throat and skin
worm-eaten from within ...
what hope of my help then?

NOTE: The second translation leans more to the "lover's complaint" and carpe diem genres, with the poet pointing out to his prospective lover that by denying him her favors she make take her virtue to the grave where worms will end her virginity in macabre fashion. This poem may be an ancient precursor of poems like Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress."

Whan the turuf is thy tour,
And thy pit is thy bour,
Thy fel and thy whitė throtė
Shullen wormės to notė.
What helpėth thee thennė
Al the worildė wennė?

Ech day me comėth tydinges thre
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa the 13th to 14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Each day I’m plagued by three doles,
These gargantuan weights on my soul:
First, that I must somehow exit this fen.
Second, that I cannot know when.
And yet it’s the third that torments me so,
Because I don't know where the hell I will go!

Ech day me comėth tydinges thre,
For wel swithė sore ben he:
The on is that Ich shal hennė,
That other that Ich not whennė,
The thriddė is my mestė carė,
That Ich not whider Ich shal farė.

Ich have y-don al myn youth
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa the 13th to 14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have done it all my youth:
Often, often, and often!
I have loved long and yearned zealously ...
And oh what grief it has brought me!

Ich have y-don al myn youth,
Oftė, ofte, and ofte;
Longe y-loved and yerne y-beden –
Ful dere it is y-bought!

This is my translation of a wonderful poem by an early Scottish master, William Dunbar. "Sweet Rose of Virtue" has been one of my favorite poems since I first read it. I decided to translate it myself, to make it more accessible to modern readers:

Sweet Rose of Virtue
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sweet rose of virtue and of gentleness,
delightful lily of youthful wantonness,
richest in bounty and in beauty clear
and in every virtue that is held most dear―
except only that you are merciless.

Into your garden, today, I followed you;
there I saw flowers of freshest hue,
both white and red, delightful to see,
and wholesome herbs, waving resplendently―
yet everywhere, no odor but rue.

I fear that March with his last arctic blast
has slain my fair rose of pallid and gentle cast,
whose piteous death does my heart such pain
that, if I could, I would compose her roots again―
so comforting her bowering leaves have been.

The original poem by William Dunbar:

Sweit rois of vertew and of gentilnes,
Delytsum lyllie of everie lustynes,
Richest in bontie and in bewtie cleir
And everie vertew that is deir,
Except onlie that ye are mercyles.

Into your garthe this day I did persew.
Thair saw I flowris that fresche wer of hew,
Baithe quhyte and rid, moist lusty wer to seyne,
And halsum herbis upone stalkis grene,
Yit leif nor flour fynd could I nane of rew.

I dout that Merche with his caild blastis keyne
Hes slane this gentill herbe that I of mene,
Quhois petewous deithe dois to my hart sic pane
That I wald mak to plant his rute agane,
So that confortand his levis unto me bene.

Adam Lay Ybounden
(anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa early 15th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Adam lay bound, bound in a bond;
Four thousand winters, he thought, were not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerics now find written in their book.
But had the apple not been taken, or had it never been,
We'd never have had our Lady, heaven's queen.
So blesséd be the time the apple was taken thus;
Therefore we sing, "God is gracious!"

The poem has also been rendered as "Adam lay i-bounden" and "Adam lay i-bowndyn." Here is the original poem in one of its ancient forms:

Adam lay i-bounden, bounden in a bond;
Foure thousand winter thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple, an apple that he took,
As clerkes finden written in theire book.
Ne hadde the apple taken been, the apple taken been,
Ne hadde never our Lady aye been heavene queen.
Blessed be the time that apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen, “Deo gracias!”


I Sing of a Maiden
(anonymous Medieval English Lyric, circa early 15th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I sing of a maiden
That is matchless.
The King of all Kings
For her son she chose.
He came also as still
To his mother's breast
As April dew
Falling on the grass.
He came also as still
To his mother's bower
As April dew
Falling on the flower.
He came also as still
To where his mother lay
As April dew
Falling on the spray.
Mother and maiden?
Never one, but she!
Well may such a lady
God's mother be!

Here is the original poem in one of its ancient forms:

I sing of a maiden (virgin)
That is makeles: (matchless / mateless / spotless)
King of alle kinges
To her sone she chees. (for her son she chose)
He cam also stille (He came as silently)
Ther his moder was (where his mother was)
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the gras.
He cam also stille
To his modres bowr (mother's bower, perhaps meaning both bedroom and leafy nest)
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the flowr.
He cam also stille
Ther his moder lay
As dewe in Aprille
That falleth on the spray (blossom and/or budding twig)
Moder and maiden (Mother and virgin)
Was nevere noon but she:
Well may swich a lady (such a lady)
Godes moder be.

IN LIBRARIOS
by Thomas Campion

Impressionum plurium librum laudat
Librarius; scortum nec non minus leno.

Novelties
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Booksellers laud authors for novel editions
as pimps praise their whores for exotic positions.



Now here's a poem whose second line enthralled C. S. Lewis. I'm not sure about the source of the original poem, but my "translation" is based on a poem of the same name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ...

Tegner's Drapa
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the beautiful lies dead, lies dead . . .”
a voice like the flight of white cranes
intent on a sun sailing high overhead—
but a sun now irretrievably setting.

Then I saw the sun’s corpse
—dead beyond all begetting—
borne through disconsolate skies
as blasts from the Nifel-heim rang out with dread,
“Balder lies dead, our fair Balder lies dead! . . .”

Lost—the sweet runes of his tongue,
so sweet every lark hushed its singing!
Lost, lost forever—his beautiful face,
the grace of his smile, all the girls’ hearts wild-winging!
O, who ever thought such strange words might be said,
as “Balder lies dead, gentle Balder lies dead! . . .”



Now here's my translation of a another poem by an early Scottish master, William Dunbar. My translation of Dunbar's "Sweet Rose of Virtue" appears toward the top of this page.

Lament for the Makaris [Makers, or Poets]
by William Dunbar [1460-1525]
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

i who enjoyed good health and gladness
am overwhelmed now by life’s terrible sickness
and enfeebled with infirmity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

our presence here is mere vainglory;
the false world is but transitory;
the flesh is frail; the Fiend runs free ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

the state of man is changeable:
now sound, now sick, now blithe, now dull,
now manic, now devoid of glee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

no state on earth stands here securely;
as the wild wind shakes the willow tree,
so wavers this world’s vanity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

Death leads the knights into the field
(unarmored under helm and shield)
sole Victor of each red mźlée ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

that strange, despotic Beast
tears from its mother’s breast
the babe, full of benignity ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He takes the champion of the hour,
the captain of the highest tower,
the beautiful damsel in her tower ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

He spares no lord for his elegance,
nor clerk for his intelligence;
His dreadful stroke no man can flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

artist, magician, scientist,
orator, debater, theologist,
must all conclude, so too, as we:
“how the fear of Death dismays me!”

in medicine the most astute
sawbones and surgeons all fall mute;
they cannot save themselves, or flee ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i see the Makers among the unsaved;
the greatest of Poets all go to the grave;
He does not spare them their faculty ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

i have seen Him pitilessly devour
our noble Chaucer, poetry’s flower,
and Lydgate and Gower (great Trinity!) ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

since He has taken my brothers all,
i know He will not let me live past the fall;
His next prey will be — poor unfortunate me! ...
how the fear of Death dismays me!

there is no remedy for Death;
we all must prepare to relinquish breath
so that after we die, we may be set free
from “the fear of Death dismays me!”



Johann Scheffler (1624-1677), also known as Johann Angelus Silesius, was a German Catholic priest and physician, known as a mystic and religious poet. He's a bit later than most of the other poets on this page, but seems to fit in ...

Unholy Trinity
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Man has three enemies:
himself, the world, and the devil.
Of these the first is, by far,
the most irresistible evil.

True Wealth
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

There is more to being rich
than merely having;
the wealthiest man can lose
everything not worth saving.

The Rose
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The rose merely blossoms
and never asks why:
heedless of her beauty,
careless of every eye.

The Rose
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The rose lack “reasons”
and merely sways with the seasons;
she has no ego
but whoever put on such a show?

Eternal Time
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Eternity is time,
time eternity,
except when we
are determined to "see."

Visions
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Our souls possess two eyes:
one examines time,
the other visions
eternal and sublime.

Godless
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

God is absolute Nothingness
beyond our sense of time and place;
the more we try to grasp Him,
The more He flees from our embrace.

The Source
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Water is pure and clean
when taken at the well-head:
but drink too far from the Source
and you may well end up dead.

Ceaseless Peace
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Unceasingly you seek
life's ceaseless wavelike motion;
I seek perpetual peace, all storms calmed.
Whose is the wiser notion?

Well Written
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Friend, cease!
Abandon all pretense!
You must yourself become
the Writing and the Sense.

Worm Food
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

No worm is buried
so deep within the soil
that God denies it food
as reward for its toil.

Mature Love
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

New love, like a sparkling wine, soon fizzes.
Mature love, calm and serene, abides.

God's Predicament
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

God cannot condemn those with whom he would dwell,
or He would have to join them in hell!

Clods
by Angelus Silesius
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

A ruby
is not lovelier
than a dirt clod,
nor an angel
more glorious
than a frog.




Fairest Between Lincoln and Lindsey
(anonymous Middle English poem, circa late 13th century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

When the nightingale sings, the woods turn green;
Leaf and grass again blossom in April, I know,
Yet love pierces my heart with its spear so keen!
Night and day it drinks my blood. The painful rivulets flow.

I’ve loved all this year. Now I can love no more;
I’ve sighed many a sigh, sweetheart, and yet all seems wrong.
For love is no nearer and that leaves me poor.
Sweet lover, think of me — I’ve loved you so long!

When the nyhtegale singes, the wodes waxen grene;
Lef ant gras ant blosme springes in Averyl, Y wene,
Ant love is to myn herte gon with one spere so kene!
Nyht ant day my blod hit drynkes. Myn herte deth me tene.

Ich have loved al this yer that Y may love namore;
Ich have siked moni syk, lemmon, for thin ore.
Me nis love never the ner, ant that me reweth sore.
Suete lemmon, thench on me — Ich have loved the yore!

A cleric courts his lady
(anonymous Middle English poem, circa late 13th century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My death I love, my life I hate, because of a lovely lady;
She's as bright as the broad daylight, and shines on me so purely.
I fade before her like a leaf in summer when it's green.
If thinking of her does no good, to whom shall I complain?

“My deth Y love, my lyf Ich hate, for a levedy shene;
Heo is brith so daies liht, that is on me wel sene.
Al Y falewe so doth the lef in somer when hit is grene,
Yef mi thoht helpeth me noht, to wham shal Y me mene?

Sumer is icumen in
anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1260 AD
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sing now cuckoo! Sing, cuckoo!
Sing, cuckoo! Sing now cuckoo!

Summer is a-comin'!
Sing loud, cuckoo!
The seed grows,
The meadow blows,
The woods spring up anew.
Sing, cuckoo!

The ewe bleats for her lamb;
The cows contentedly moo;
The bullock roots;
The billy-goat poots ...
Sing merrily, cuckoo!

Cuckoo, cuckoo,
You sing so well, cuckoo!
Never stop, until you're through!



The original poem below is based on my teenage misinterpretation of a Latin prayer ...

Elegy for a little girl, lost
by Michael R. Burch

. . . qui laetificat juventutem meam . . .
She was the joy of my youth,
and now she is gone.
. . . requiescat in pace . . .
May she rest in peace.
. . . amen . . .
Amen.

NOTE: I was touched by this Latin prayer, which I discovered in a novel I read as a teenager. I later decided to incorporate it into a poem. From what I now understand, “ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” means “to the God who gives joy to my youth,” but I am sticking with my original interpretation: a lament for a little girl at her funeral. The phrase can be traced back to Saint Jerome's translation of Psalm 42 in the Vulgate Latin Bible (circa 385 AD).

Whew ... that's quite a bit of work for someone who was damn sure he'd never translate a line of poetry in his life! I certainly hope you found something worth the time you spent here, especially if you read this far.

Related Pages in Chronological Order: Song of Amergin, Caedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song, Deor's Lament, Wulf and Eadwacer, The Wife's Lament, Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings, How Long the Night, Ballads, Sumer is Icumen in, Fowles in the Frith, Ich am of Irlaunde, Tom O'Bedlam's Song, Now Goeth Sun Under Wood, Pity Mary, Sweet Rose of Virtue, Lament for the Makaris, Adam Lay Ybounden, This World's Joy, Michael R. Burch Free Verse, Charles Baudelaire Translations by Michael R. Burch, Rabindranath Tagore Translations by Michael R. Burch, Yosa Buson Haiku Translations by Michael R. Burch, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles d'Orleans, Poetry by Michael R. Burch

The HyperTexts