Year: 
2021

These are my modern English translations of some of the very best Middle English poems.

 

This World's Joy
anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1300
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.

“This World’s Joy” or “Wynter wakeneth al my care” is one of the earliest surviving winter poems in English literature and an early rhyming poem as well.  Edward Bliss Reed dated the poem to around 1310, around 30 years before the birth of Geoffrey Chaucer, and said it was thought to have been composed in Leominster, Herefordshire. I elected to translate the first stanza as a poem in its own right. Keywords/Tags: Middle English, translation, anonymous, rhyme, rhyming, medieval, lament, lamentation, care, cares, sighs, winter, trees, leafless, bare, barren, barrenness, emptiness, isolation, alienation, joy, joys

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I Have Labored Sore
anonymous medieval lyric (circa the fifteenth century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have labored sore     and suffered death,
so now I rest     and catch my breath.
But I shall come     and call right soon
heaven and earth     and hell to doom.
Then all shall know     both devil and man
just who I was     and what I am.

Published by Formal Verse and LiederNet

I haue laborede sore and suffered deyeth
and now I Rest and draw my [b]reyght
But I schall com and call Ryght sone
heuen and erthe and hell to dome
and than schall know both devyll and man
what I was and what I am

***

A Lyke-Wake Dirge
anonymous medieval lyric (circa the sixteenth century)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The Lie-Awake Dirge is “the night watch kept over a corpse.”

This one night, this one night,
     every night and all;
fire and sleet and candlelight,
     and Christ receive thy soul.

When from this earthly life you pass
     every night and all,
to confront your past you must come at last,
     and Christ receive thy soul.

If you ever donated socks and shoes,
     every night and all,
sit right down and slip yours on,
     and Christ receive thy soul.

But if you never helped your brother,
     every night and all,
walk barefoot through the flames of hell,
     and Christ receive thy soul.

If ever you shared your food and drink,
     every night and all,
the fire will never make you shrink,
     and Christ receive thy soul.

But if you never helped your brother,
     every night and all,
walk starving through the black abyss,
     and Christ receive thy soul.

This one night, this one night,
     every night and all;
fire and sleet and candlelight,
     and Christ receive thy soul.

Published by Formal Verse

***

Excerpt from “Ubi Sunt Qui Ante Nos Fuerunt?”
anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1275
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Where are the men who came before us,
who led hounds and hawks to the hunt,
who commanded fields and woods?
Where are the elegant ladies in their boudoirs
who braided gold through their hair
and had such fair complexions?

Once eating and drinking gladdened their hearts;
they enjoyed their games;
men bowed before them;
they bore themselves loftily ...
But then, in an eye’s twinkling,
they were gone.
         
Where, now, are their laughter and their songs,
the trains of their dresses,
the arrogance of their entrances and exits,
their hawks and their hounds?
All their joy has vanished;
their “well” has come to “oh, well”
and to many dark days ...

***

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 and matron.
So blesséd be the time the apple was taken thus;
Therefore we sing, "God is gracious!"

Published by LyricsTranslate.com

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!”

***

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

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

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 unto you, then,
was all your worldly hope?

Whan the turuf is thy tour,
And thy pit is thy bour,
Thy fel and thy whitë throtë
Shullen wormës to notë.
What helpëth thee thennë
Al the worildë wennë?

“Whan the turuf is thy tour” may be one of the oldest carpe diem (“seize the day”) poems in the English language, and an ancestor of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” with its virginity-destroying worms. Keywords/Tags: Middle English, translation, anonymous, rhyme, rhyming, medieval, lament, lamentation, complaint, turf, tower, pit, bower, skin, throat, worms, note, help, worldly, hope

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."

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Ech day me comëth 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 comëth tydinges thre,
For wel swithë sore ben he:
The on is that Ich shal hennë,
That other that Ich not whennë,
The thriddë is my mestë carë,
That Ich not whider Ich shal farë.

Keywords/Tags: Middle English, rhyme, medieval, epigram, lament, complaint, weight, soul, burden, burdened, heaviness, plague, plagued, exit, death, manner, fen, torment, hell, when, where, how, why

***

Ich have y-don al myn youth
“I have done it all my youth”
(anonymous Middle English poem, circa the 13th to 14th century AD)
loose translation 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,
Oftë, ofte, and ofte;
Longe y-loved and yerne y-beden –
Ful dere it is y-bought!

Keywords/Tags: Middle English, translation, medieval, rhyme, lament, complaint, youth, love, grief, oft, often, zeal, zealous, zealously, desire, lust, longing, passion, yearn, yearned, yearning

***

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

Keywords/Tags: Middle English, translation, translations, modern English, anonymous, rhyme, rhyming, medieval, lament, lamentation

Author of original: 
Unknown Middle English poets
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