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.

Please note that I call my translations "loose translations" and "interpretations" because they are not literal word-for-word translations. I begin with my personal interpretation of a poem and translate accordingly. To critics who object to variations from the original texts, my response is that there are often substantial disagreements among even the most accomplished translators. Variations begin with the readings because different people receive different things from different poems. And a strict word-for-word translation will seldom, if ever, result in poetry. In my opinion translation is much closer to an art than a perfect science and I side with Rabindranath Tagore, who said he needed some leeway in order to produce poetry in another language when he translated his Hindi poems into English.—MRB

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 yn 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 yn 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 yn 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 say se leurs travaulx
Ilz emploient bien ou non,
Mais piqus 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.

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:

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

Now 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 Eternal Lord,
established      the foundation of wonders.
Then he, the First Poet,      created heaven as a roof
for the sons of men,      Holy Creator,
Maker of mankind.      Then he, the eternal Lord,
afterwards made men middle-earth:      Master almighty!

"Cdmon'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), Cdmon 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 Cdmon 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 Cdmon'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 God.

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 charit,
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 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 white throat and skin
worm-consumed from within ...
what hope of help then?

Whan the turuf is thy tour,
And thy pit is thy bour,
Thy fel and thy whit throt
Shullen worms to not.
What helpth thee thenn
Al the worild wenn?

Ech day me comth 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 comth tydinges thre,
For wel swith sore ben he:
The on is that Ich shal henn,
That other that Ich not whenn,
The thridd is my mest car,
That Ich not whider Ich shal far.

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,
Oft, 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.

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 skyward the rose and the lily flower,                               skruketh = break forth, burst open
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                                  stour = strong, stern, hardy
Ne no luedy so bryht in bour                                                         Nor no lady so bright in her bower
That ded ne shal by glyde:                                                             That dead shall not glide by:
Whoso wol fleshye lust for-gon and hevene-blisse abyde               Whoever will forgo 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.                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.

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 blessd 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.

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.


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! . . .”

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 Mring 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.

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 mle ...
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.

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