Year: 
2021

These are my modern English translations of Middle English poems by mostly anyonymous authors. 

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

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!

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

Published by Rural Wonca, The Museum of Camp and The HyperTexts

These notes were taken from the poem's Wikipedia page ...

"Sumer Is Icumen In" (also called the Summer Canon and the Cuckoo Song) is a medieval English round or rota of the mid-13th century. The title translates approximately to "Summer Has Come In" or "Summer Has Arrived". The song is composed in the Wessex dialect of Middle English. Although the composer's identity is unknown today, it may have been W. de Wycombe, also identified as W de Wyc, Willelmus de Winchecumbe, Willelmo de Winchecumbe or William of Winchcomb. He appears to have been a secular scribe and precentor employed for about four years at the priory of Leominster in Herefordshire during the 1270s. He is also thought to have been a sub-deacon of the cathedral priory as listed in the Worcester Annals or possibly a monk at St Andrew's in Worcester. But it is not know if he composed the song, or merely preserved it by copying it.

***

Fowles in the Frith
anonymous Medieval English poem, circa 13th century
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

1.
The warblers in the wood,
the fishes in the flood
and I must go mad: ...
such sorrow I've had
for beasts of bone and blood!

2.
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!

***

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
þat ic on þis erðe 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.
Saintë Marië Virginë,
Mother of Jesus Christ the Nazarenë,
Welcome, shield and help thin Godric,
Fly him off to God’s kingdom rich!

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

Original

Saintë Marië Virginë,
Moder Iesu Cristes Nazarenë,
Onfo, schild, help thin Godric,
Onfong bring hegilich
With the in Godës riche.

Saintë Marië Cristes bur,
Maidenës clenhad, moderës flur;
Dilie min sinnë, rix in min mod,
Bring me to winnë 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 druð
tymbre us faire scone hus
At þi burth at þi bare
Sainte nicholaes bring vs wel þare

***

The Rhymed Poem aka The Rhyming Poem and The Riming Poem
anonymous Old English 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.

Reference: the translation by W. S. Mackie

***

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 domâ forâldit,
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

1.
The fish flooded the shore-cliffs;
the sea-king wept when he swam onto the shingle:
whale's bone.

2.
Romulus and Remus, twin brothers weaned in Rome
by a she-wolf, far from their native land.

***

"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.

***

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

***

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!

***

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?

***

"The Husband's Message" is an Old English (Anglo-Saxon) poem from the Exeter Book, the oldest extant English poetry anthology. The poem may or may not be a reply to "The Wife's Lament," another poem in the same collection. The poem is generally considered to be an Anglo-Saxon riddle (I will provide the solution), but its primary focus is persuading a wife or fiancé 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 written by then or earlier. The version below is my modern English translation of one of the oldest extant English poems.

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.

***

How Long the Night
anonymous Middle English poem, 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.

Published by Measure, Setu (India), A Long Story Short, Glass Facets of Poetry, Better Than Starbucks, Chanticleer, Poetry Brevet, Deviant Art, The Unsung Anthology, SAAD Mustafa Community, and Society of Classical Poets; also set to music by the composer Seth Wright

Middle English text:

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

***

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.

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

***

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.

***

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."

***

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, anonymous, rhyme, rhyming, medieval, lament, lamentation, care, cares, sighs, winter, trees, leafless, bare, barren, barrenness, emptiness, isolation, alienation, joy, joys, Old English, translations, reading, rota, round, partsong, summer, cuckoo, cuckold

Author of original: 
Saint Godric and Anonymous Authors
Forums: