Playing with medieval things: Ezra Pound

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops.

exeter-book-at-british-library-writing-britain

I first saw the Exeter Book at ‘Writing Britain’, a 2012 exhibition at the British Library. This 1000 year old handwritten book was propped open at folios 81b-82a: at the poem we call the ‘Seafarer’.

I’d been looking forward to seeing this book for weeks. I’d rushed through the rest of the exhibition just so I could spend time with it. I made fingerprints on the glass as I attempted to trace over the pristine, inked script, sounding-out rusty Old English in a whisper, stumbling over the strange letter forms: ‘s’s that look like elongated ‘r’s, ‘w’s rendered as pointed ‘p’s. I wished I could reach through the glass case and turn the pages: the vellum looked so thick, it didn’t seem fragile enough for something supposed to be so old.

oldenglish_abc

Hanging next to the Exeter Book case was a pair of headphones. I hadn’t seen them at first, but the faint buzz escaping from the cans prompted me to slip them over my ears. It’s not an exaggeration to say that what I heard is responsible for getting me into a medieval/ism studies PhD.

I must’ve listened to that reading at least twenty times. Leaning against the vitrine, the awe-inspiringly old manuscript forgotten, I puzzled over one hundred questions all at once.

Who was this Ezra Pound and what on earth was he saying? Was this even English? Yes, it seemed so… But what sort of English and what sort of England was he imagining in this reading? And why the drums? And why the tremulous, exaggerated voice? And why wasn’t there another, ‘closer’, ‘real’ translation of the poem available? Was he trying to be funny? Or was he being serious?

And so began my research into how the medieval exists today: my obsession with translation, interpretation, and the social lives of poems.

since the first appearance of Pound’s completely bogus ‘poetic version’ of The Seafarer – from the Anglo-Saxon – there has existed a growing and increasingly trendy body of opinion which holds that even a rudimentary understanding of the source language is quite unnecessary when ‘translating’ a poem…[1]

‘The Seafarer: From the Anglo-Saxon’ by Ezra Pound was first published in 1911 in trendy modernist magazine, The New Age [2]. An editorial note explained that ‘under this heading Mr Pound will contribute expositions and translations in illustration of ‘The New Method’ in scholarship’. Reading this made me wonder: is this ‘Seafarer’ a new poem, or a scholarly exercise?

The first time I read Pound’s poem, I didn’t have much experience with ‘modernist’ poetry. I thought that modernist meant, well, modern, new, bang up to date. But from the first line of Pound’s ‘Seafarer’ we’re assaulted with a ye-olde-esque tongue-twister.

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,

Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days

Hardship endured oft….
(Read the full poem here, p. 107)

I scribbled in my old notebook, ‘it sounds like someone who is unfamiliar with Shakespeare trying to write like Shakespeare’.

screen-shot-2016-09-23-at-16-47-33
Ezra Pound’s ‘Philological Note’ which followed his poem in The New Age, 1911.

At first, I was further alarmed to find out that Ezra Pound’s translation is, arguably, incomplete. As he wrote in his ‘philological note’ printed at the foot of the poem, he ‘stopped translating before the passage about the soul and address to the Diety’. He had decided (following a Victorian fashion in editing Old English vernacular poems)[3] that the poem belonged to a pagan age, and so references to God were out of place. He imagined a ‘monk with literary ambitions’ ruined the poem in adding in Christian lines at the end.

I’ve wondered about this decision a lot. Maybe the ‘original poem’ was some spoken song heartily sung by pagans. But the original, if it ever existed, is lost. all we have now is the manuscript, so I am resigned to take the poem as it is written there, ‘Amens’ and all.

But, having spent more time with Ezra Pound’s poem, I’ve actually grown pretty fond of its weird words and choice reimagining of the medieval world. As Donald Carne-Ross was moved to write in a 1954 Times Literary Supplement following the poem’s republication by Faber, Ezra Pound’s text is ‘as moving and exciting in its way as the Anglo-Saxon’[4]: in other words, his poem can give us the feel of the Anglo-Saxon past, although it might not teach us facts.

I’ve also come to realise how much influence Ezra Pound’s ‘Seafarer’ has continued to have in shaping translations from Old English, and our ideas of ‘The Anglo-Saxon World’.

Chris Jones, lecturer in poetry and medieval literature, has called Ezra Pound ‘the inventor of Anglo-Saxon poetry for the modern age’,[5] and in so many ways this is accurate. At least 35 new translations of the ‘Seafarer’ poem have been published in the last 100 years, and many of them seem to follow in Pound’s footsteps: playing with funny old-fashioned sounds, enjoying the opportunity to mess around with word-order, and choosing to ignore the Christian lines of the poem. Ezra Pound’s booming voice brings to mind a terrifying warrior, the drums and the chanting conjure up a pagan ceremony. Ask someone on the street to describe an Anglo-Saxon to you, and the image would probably fit. The Anglo-Saxon past is thought of more in terms of the Dark Ages than a golden age of cosmopolitan trade, craft, and inter-religious development.

sutton-hoo-belt
The Gold Buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial. c. The British Museum. Relic of the Dark Ages or a golden age?

But Ezra Pound’s poem, and the translations it has led me to read ever since, have taught me to not to obsess over whether translations from Old English are ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘accurate’ or ‘fantasy’.

For a Radio 4 programme about the ‘Seafarer’ poem, medieval literature lecturer Jennifer Neville explained how in the Anglo-Saxon world, poets would compose poems using ‘building blocks’ of ideas, and that ‘every time he performed the poem it would be new and different’, and so therefore ‘poems are the living memory of the people… a written copy of a performance’ [6]. And her remarks explain why new medieval, or modern medieval poems are my passion.

Every translation, whether textual or in another media, participates in a new performance of memories. Every translation captures the memory and the imagination of some long-lost Anglo-Saxon poet and of each new writer and reader. That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing what our participants come up with during our Arts and Humanties Festival workshops. How will you make medieval memories your own?

Fran Allfrey, organiser Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations


[1] Wallace, Letters, The Times Literary Supplement (London, England), March 2, 2007, Issue 5422, p. 17.

[2] Ezra Pound, ‘I Gather the Limbs of Osiris: The Seafarer, From the Anglo-Saxon’, The New Age, Volume 10, Number 5, 1911-11-30, (p. 107). <http://dl.lib.brown.edu/mjp/render.php?id=1165305072968750&view=mjp_object&gt;.

[3] As editor of Old English poetry Henry Sweet wrote in 1894, ‘the first difficulty is that in the manuscript the poem does not end at line 108, but continues as follows […] these verses could not have formed part of the original poem. If we stop just before the text becomes corrupt, we get a conclusion, which, in form as well as spirit, bears the closest resemblance to that of other Old English poems’, Henry Sweet, An Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse, (Oxford: Clarendon), 1894, p. 222.

[4] Donald Carne-Ross, ‘leading article’, TLS, October 1954, Issue 2748, p. 625.

[5] Chris Jones, ‘Recycling Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Richard Wilbur’s ‘Junk’ and a Self Study, in Sarah Salih and Julian Weiss eds., Locating the Middle Ages: The Spaces and Places of Medieval Culture, King’s College London Medieval Studies XXIII, (King’s College London Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies, 2012).

[6] Jennifer Neville, speaking for The Seafarer, BBC Radio 4, prod. Isabel Sutton at Just Radio, first broadcast Sunday 19 Aug 2012 at 4:30pm. Archive programme page <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01m0f2g&gt; [14:49 – 15:20].

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