Middle English Translations

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]

Crossing the Yangtze River

Crossing the Yangtze River

Du Shenyan (645-708)
Late afternoon, this garden grove, where ancient sorrow roams;
It’s spring, but birds and blossoms too do fill the edge with dread.
Alone, expelled, down south in savage lands, my homeland far—
The Yangtze River water flow shows not its northern tread.

At Yi River, Seeing Off a Friend

In ancient times a troubled king did send,
Along this very spot, a hero bold—
And though those men have drowned in time’s lost flood,
These waters now are just as dark and cold.
Yú Yì Shuǐ Sòng Rén
Luò Bīn wáng
Cǐ dì bié yān dān
Zhuàng shì fà chōng guān

Witch’s Brew

A fern surrounds my life like a hollow maze
In the intricate lattice of love’s first gaze;
Following a pattern that guides me on this road
I reach for her lips beneath the mistletoe.
My love comes forth with the apple of desire,
A tangled taste that takes a life to acquire;
Magic and nightshade in a mandrake stew,
I drink the nighttime herbs in a witch’s brew.
Seared in my skin like a tattoo of her name,
My cry has faded to a touch without shame;
Pulled by a thread that stains the earth and sky

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