"Dum Diane vitrea" – in Full!

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Closing

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{A stained glass window from The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, also known simply as Seville Cathedral. Image from the Wikipedia.}

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Abstract

The complete translation of “Dum Diane vitrea” complete with recordings!

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Translation

“When Diana’s glassy torch rises late
And is kindled by her rosy brothers,
A pleasant breath of wind lifts
the etheric cloud from all couples;
Thus she softens emotive power
And immoveable hearts, which
Towards the pledge of love she sways.

As the light of the evening star fades,
Charm’s humour is given to
The drowsy dew of fleeting passion.

Oh how fruitful is that remedy of drowsiness,
Which tempestuous cares and sorrows sedates!
So long as it steals up to sore open eyes,
themselves a sweet joy of love to have.

“Morpheus then draws forth
an urge in the mind
Like gentle wind over mature corn,
clear shoreside river murmurings,
the circuitous orbit of mill arms,
he who steals sleep from clear eyes.

After the smooth-tongued dealings of Venus
fatigue the mind’s wealth.
This wonderful new mist swims
and settles in the eyelids.
Oh, how favourable the shift from love to slumber,
Yet how a kiss gives new rise to love!

The deadly fume evaporates from the womb,
As its three little rooms are bedewed;
These lovers eyes and eyelids are then filled
With the fog of sleepiness,
Yet vision veers not away.
Whence through the eyes are we bound
By animal power, as they are the will’s helpers.

As beneath a leafy canopy of trees,
it is so sweet to cease when the nightingale sings.
How sweet to play in the meadow grass
with a bright beauty of a maid,
if there be many fragrant herbs to breath
if there be a bed of roses on which to lay,
oh how sweet the nourishment of sleep
after being exhausted by the chase of Venus’ trade,
which instills such sleepiness.

Oh how great the unreliable varying
of the spirit of love!
It is as a wandering raft upon the seas,
when free from anchor,
In flux between hope and fear, both dubious;
So goes the battle of Venus.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” [Complete])

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Recordings

Latin:

Modern English:

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Closing

That’s it for the medieval Latin poem “Dum Diane vitrea”! That’s also it for my translations of Latin. From here on in, it’s Old English all the way!

Also, though this blog’s name and layout will stay the same for the rest of December, watch for a new name and design come the new year.

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Of Sleep, Nature, and Maidens Bright ["Dum Diane vitrea" Seventh Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Euphemisms and Implications
So What
Transformations
Closing

{Edmund Spenser’s Una with the lion and the lamb, a maiden bright indeed. Image found on Wikipedia}

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Abstract

Pure nature comes alive in this penultimate stanza.

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Translation

“As beneath a leafy canopy of trees,
it is so sweet to cease when the nightingale sings.
How sweet to play in the meadow grass
with a bright beauty of a maid,
if there be many fragrant herbs to breath
if there be a bed of roses on which to lay,
oh how sweet the nourishment of sleep
after being exhausted by the chase of Venus’ trade,
which instills such sleepiness.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 7)

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Recordings

The entire poem will be recorded once it’s all been translated and posted.

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Euphemisms and Implications

Where stanza four offered us a look at some quasi-natural imagery, this stanza brings it all back to pure nature. And, as was the case with previous stanzas, the poet’s lingering obsession seems to be on sleepiness after sex.

But, more importantly, the reference to sex is never made directly. “Venus’ trade” (“Veneris commercia”) appears as it did in stanza five, but that is, after all, a euphemism. However, the romp described throughout this stanza can be likened to a sort of Edenic experience, and things that have made their way into modern romance (such as the “bed of roses” (“torum rosa”), make the association between this sort of natural play and sex quite clear.

But so what? The connections are there, but why are they there? Matters of who wrote this poem aside, the question to tackle now is why this poem – up to this stanza – has been written quite clearly about sex in such an indirect way.

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So What?

The lack of direct reference to sex is definitely not suspect considering the poem’s medieval origin. It was only the most bawdy of broadsheets that would refer to sex directly, and even when Chaucer wants to emulate the style of the basest of the base with his Cook he doesn’t reference sex directly but uses the contemporary equivalent of our “fuck” (“swyve” (The Canterbury Tales, l.4422 (or II.iv.98, depending on your edition))).

So the euphemism via natural imagery and the idyllic setting are certainly not out of place. The connection to sex is essentially there because it’s how medieval poets spoke of such things.

After all, the last thing sex was supposed to be then (and some would no doubt argue still is to be in the eyes of the Catholic Church) was fun or pleasurable. People who shared the opinion of the Wife of Bath, that human genitals are there to use, come kids or not, were definitely in the vocal minority. Hence, the need for this sort of natural imagery to create an allegorical window between the subject of a poem like this and readers.

It could be argued that as readers themselves, writers and poets like the composer of “Dum Diane vitrea” would be aware of these sorts of double meanings, but things like poetry and fiction could be dismissed as frivulous entertainments with no deeper meanings (hence there being so much lewdness couched within them).

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Transformations

And what imagery it is! the poet here definitely describes something as any poet should: with brevity, depth, and affect. More importantly, however, is the fact that the image of a forest and a bright maid definitely contrast with the dusk and night imagery from poem’s first stanza.

This shift in tone reflects a shift in the poem’s subjects, from worn out daily toilers to rested and enraptured lovers. And, perhaps that is the poet’s point. That in the eye of the storm that is the everyday, there is to be found a moment of calm, quiet, sunshiny love that inspires poetry, frolics, and fine words.

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Closing

Check back here Thursday for Beowulf!

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The Fallen Hero and the Fleeing Thanes [ll.2836-2852a] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Reflection amidst Grief
Joining the Two
The Battle-Leaving
Closing

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Abstract

Today’s excerpt is very clearly in two parts. In the first we see the wrapping up of explicit mourning for Beowulf, and in the second the return of the cowardly thanes who fled when the dragon grew fierce.

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Translation

“Indeed few mighty men on earth
have so succeeded, as I have heard,
though every deed they did was daring,
few of them would make a rush against the breath of the
fierce ravager or could disturb a hall of rings by hand,
if he discovered the ward awakened
dwelling in the barrow. Beowulf had paid
for his share of the noble treasures with his death;
each had reached the end of
their loaned lives. It was not long then
before the laggards in battle left the wood,
ten cowardly traitors together,
those that dared not fight by the spear when
their liege lord was in greatest need;
but they were ashamed when they came bearing shields,
dressed in war garments to where their lord lay;
they gazed on Wiglaf. ”
(Beowulf ll.2836-2852a)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Reflection amidst Grief

The first half of this excerpt clearly expresses closure for Wiglaf, whether directly or indirectly.

Where the earlier meditation on the dragon might seem more like the poet/scribe’s own musing on death, it’s much easier to relate these lines about Beowulf’s sacrifice and his grand deeds to Wiglaf’s own thoughts. Yet, at the same time, having had a hand in defeating the dragon, it’s fair to say that Wiglaf may also have marvelled at the dragon’s corpse.

In fact, it could well be that Wiglaf first had to marvel at the corpse in order to really register the magnitude of Beowulf’s deed. And, as one of the poem’s audience proxies (since the warriors in the audience – of any skill level – could probably relate to Wiglaf’s facing a major, brand new challenge), it’s fair to say that he may have been so shocked by Beowulf’s death that it takes the meditation on the dragon to make him realize that its corpse was his and Beowulf’s doing.

Victory seemed impossible, but together they achieved it – though they can never be together again.

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Joining the Two

What’s interesting about the way the poet/scribe transitions between the meditation on Beowulf and the thanes’ return is that he uses a statement involving both parties. It’s not that Beowulf had reached the end of his loaned days, nor that the dragon did, but that both did. In death all things are just creations of the god that the poet/scribe may have been trying to tell his audience about.

Or, all things are ultimately and equally the toys of fate, depending on a person’s outlook. The fact that both the dragon and Beowulf reached the end of their loaned days, though, points to a deeper connection than anything implied by a mere whim like that so often associated with fate or wyrd.

After the transition to the thanes’ return we aren’t given much in the way of juicy material. They wend their way back to see the aftermath of the fight, and we’re not given any solid reason why aside from implications of feeling guilty and ashamed. However, what the poet/scribe chooses to point out in his description of the thanes is very telling.

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The Battle-Leaving

After describing them as cowards they’re described as “ashamed when they came bearing shields,/dressed in war garments.” This fits in nicely with the idea of hypocrisy, and may also touch on a distrust of any consciously known dissonance in a person’s appearance.

It’s important for the poet/scribe to mention this here because it underlines a concern with a mismatch of appearance and essence. The thanes that fled are ashamed to be wearing the garb that marks them as warriors since these things were to help them become warriors but their own essences weren’t up to the task.

Further, since the majority of the thanes fled it’s implied that the old ways have failed the Geats. As a result of this, they’ve all gone soft in the face of new challenges, save for one. And, after nearly 100 lines of being without it, he is outfitted once more with his proper name: Wiglaf.

Renaming Wiglaf at this point may seem strange, but I think that it’s a positive example of the exterior matching the interior.

As mentioned in a previous entry, his name literally means battle-leaving or battle-heirloom. Since Wiglaf is the one left after the battle with the dragon, it seems almost as though he has fulfilled his name. Since he is indeed now a battle-leaving, he has achieved its proper meaning and is now a figure of authority that not just the thanes, but that the rest of the Geats will look to for guidance.

Unlike the cowardly thanes who are ashamed of the dissonance between their equipment and their conduct, through his courage Wiglaf has transcended into a perfect alignment between his name and his being which leads to his becoming as major a figure as Beowulf was, though his part of the story is much shorter.

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Closing

All the same, check back next week for the continuation of that story on Thursday as Wiglaf lays into the thanes. Also, don’t miss verse four of “Dum Diane vitrea,” which will be posted come next Tuesday.

A little more immediately, go over to A Glass Darkly tomorrow for Part Two of Shocktober: a look at Leprechaun in the Hood

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Two Fallen Greats [ll.2821-2835] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Showing Mourning
Seeking Meaning
Closing

{A dramatic rendition of the dragon battle that gives it an intense, resonant scope. Image found on Zouch Magazine & Miscellany.}
 

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Abstract

A reflection on Beowulf’s death dwells on the dragon.

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Translation

“That which had happened was painfully felt
by the young man, when he on the ground saw
that dearest one pitiably suffering
at his life’s end. The slayer also lay so,
the terrible earth dragon was bereaved of life,
by ruin overwhelmed. In the hoard of rings no
longer could the coiled serpent be on guard,
once he by sword edge was carried off,
hard, battle-sharp remnant of hammers,so
that the wide flier by wounds was still and
fallen on earth near the treasure house. Never
after did he move about through the air by flight
in the middle of the night, in his rich possession
glorying, never could he make more appearances,
since he fell to earth at the war leader’s deed of the
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsphand.”
(Beowulf ll.2821-2835)

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Recordings

Old English:

Modern English:

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Showing Mourning

The first question to surface here, like the hideous sea beasts pulled from Grendel’s Mother’s mire, is why a section of the poem that’s showing Wiglaf’s grief for Beowulf immediately after his death dwells so long on the dragon rather than Beowulf.

It could be that the poet/scribe went this way because so much of the rest of the poem is given over to Beowulf. Or it could be that Wiglaf’s attention is simply drawn to the dragon because of the sheer spectacle of the sight. Though, it could also be that Wiglaf looks over to the dragon for the sake of contrast, to put off the reality of Beowulf’s death for just a short time so that he, as all but Beowulf’s named successor, can have a brief respite before he must coldly go forth and fulfil his duty as the new Geatish leader.

Of course, it could also be the poet’s own voice that pulls away from Wiglaf at this point, leaving his perspective behind for a time to turn a little more omniscient, and to give us, the listers/readers a view of the dragon as it lay dead so that we can contrast it with Beowulf.

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Seeking Meaning

Germanic culture widely held that dragons were symbols of the greed that would undermine the gift-centric Germanic society. So perhaps the focus on the dragon and the recounting of how it can no longer do anyone any harm suggests that greed itself has been defeated, and by one so noble as to sacrifice his own good for going against the advice of his counsel and fighting the dragon.

Maybe even the defeat of greed and the destruction of the Geats themselves that is an almost inevitable result (since they’re now kingless and sitting on all of this gold) are related.

If this version of the poem is as Christian as some believe, then this shift over to the dragon shouldn’t be read as Wiglaf’s or the poet/scribe’s attempt to contrast a death with a death, but instead as a way to show that the perfection of a society through the defeat of its greatest evil leaves that society at its end.

If Beowulf was ever used as a missionary tale, then this part of the poem could well be that which attempts to sooth potential converts into the belief that in becoming Christian their previous beliefs die off and they enter into something more perfect.

Or, again, their physical being ends, but just as Beowulf persisted up until he defeats his society’s major evil, so too would the spirit of the assimilated society persist in its people. Plus, missionaries would probably say the new converts were all imbued with the spark of life that, in the Christian tradition, is generally regarded as a spoken thing – just as this story itself would’ve been at the time, even after having been written out.

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Closing

So could this episode in the Beowulf saga be another key moment in the use of the poem as missionary propaganda, or is it just the poet/scribe’s representation of Wiglaf’s mourning? Leave a comment in the box to let me know your thoughts!

Next week, stanza three of “Dum Diane vitrea” will drop, and Wiglaf meets the cowardly thanes as they slink onto the scene.

And you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Fading Light, Rising Passion ["Dum Diane vitrea" Second Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Sleeping on It
Setting Speculation in a Bed of Structure
Closing

{The evening star, shining bright within the embrace of coming night. Image found on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day webpage.}

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Abstract

Some action parallel to that of the previous stanza occurs, as the evening star fades.

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Translation

“As the light of the evening star fades,
Charm’s humour is given to
The drowsy dew of fleeting passion.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 2)

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Recordings

Watch for the recordings of the whole poem once its translation is fully posted (around November 20).

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Sleeping on It

Time is a tricky thing to pin down when it’s not referred to with a clock reference.

All the same, this brief stanza looks like it’s about the point in a typical night when people would rise from sleep for a brief period to do some night activities. This dual-phase sleep practice goes back to the pre-artificial light days, when people would go to bed around sunset, wake around midnight and then go back to bed two hours later until day break.

It might sound a little useless to sleep in bursts like this, but aside from the practical purposes (like guard shifts), sleeping in two phases seems to make the mind more perceptive and to really help cognition (just ask any regular napper).

More to the point for our poem, with this bi-phasal sleeping pattern in mind this stanza describes the influence of Venus, the evening star (“Hesperus”) on the people as they sleep. This stirs their passions and their loins as “the drowsy dew of fleeting passion” (“roris soporiferi
mortalium generi”) falls upon them.

To be more direct, the couples in the poem have sex – one of the many things that people would do during their nightly two hour vigil. And an activity that’s quite perfectly suited to that time between sleeps. After all, you’d be out working all day and probably a little to weary and weighted to be in the mood for sex before sunset, but after that initial rest, your mind would be relaxed, your loins would be fired,and you’d be ready for it.

So perhaps the action of last week’s stanza wasn’t so much about the power of palour to assauge the woes of a person’s public life and to soothe them as it was simply about the moon rising (since it would be the middle of the night) when people woke after their first shift of sleep.

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Setting Speculation in a Bed of Structure

As per how these two stanzas work together, this one doesn’t seem to be moving anything forward, rather it just describes another act that goes on during the action of the first stanza.

As Diana rises in the moon and the stars come out, the evening star fades and its influence over the sleepers is complete as they awake and are ready to consummate the desire of their hearts.

Structurally, it’s also likely that this stanza would work as the first chorus of this poem as a song. After all, it is from the “Carmina Burana” – a collection of such songs. Further, this stanza’s brevity also suggests that it’s a chorus.

Yet, however “Dum Diane vitrea” develops from verse to chorus to verse to chorus and onwards will need to be seen next week.

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Closing

Leave your thoughts on my theories in the comments for today’s entry, and check back here on Thursday for how the poet portrays Wiglaf’s immediate reaction to Beowulf’s death.

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Moon Love ["Dum Diane vitrea" First Stanza] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
Liminal Evening
Sister to the Stars
Lifting the Cloud of Unloving
Closing

{The moon and stars looking ready for a night out. Image found on NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” website.}

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Abstract

The poem begins like so many days: with the dawning of the sun as a stand in for love.

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Translation

“When Diana’s glassy torch rises late
And is kindled by her rosy brothers,
A pleasant breath of wind lifts
the etheric cloud from all couples;
Thus she softens emotive power
And immoveable hearts, which
Towards the pledge of love she sways.”
(“Dum Diane vitrea” Stanza 1)

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Recordings

Since this is a poem, it will be recorded as a whole and then posted as a whole once it’s been completely translated. Once that happens, and all of the individual stanzas have been posted, an entry will be dedicated to looking at the poem as a whole. This entry will also include a complete recording.

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Liminal Evening

What is “Diana’s glassy torch”? Is it the final light of evening? Or is it the way that the sun reflects from the curvature of the earth so that we can still see some light even though the sun’s already set. Whatever it is, it makes it clear that this stanza is about a liminal moment.

That is, this moment is one between two set, concrete points of time – the day and the night.

Yet, even with this stanza’s liminality established, what is it that causes this cloud that’s apparently settled over couples to lift?

As far as can be told from this stanza, it’s just the switching over from day to night.

The most relevant aspect of this transition seems to be that it’s a move from the outward show of day toward the private and unknown night.

The reference to Diane’s mysterious brothers (or allies, “fratris”) supports this interpretation, after all, only when night has fully arrived do the stars emerge.

And that’s just what her brothers are – the stars.

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Sister to the Stars

For, Diane is the moon and her glassy torch is the moon as it sheds its pale light, so her rosy allies are the stars. Why they’re described as being rosy is unclear, unless it used to have a meaning along the lines of self-luminescent. A person with rosy cheeks is usually blushing, and a rose itself is red – a colour that is vibrant enough to pull in human attention.

With all of that out of the way, just what is the cloud that settles over couples?

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Lifting the Cloud of Unloving

Since this cloud is dispelled as the moon rises and the stars come out, it sounds likely to be the troubles of the day. The moon, accompanied by the stars gives such a different atmosphere that it changes the context of perception and allows people to forget their troubles.

Perhaps, along with factors of wealth and work, this is also why palour was sought after among women in classic ideas of beauty – just as Diane’s pale light could inspire lovers to come together, so too could the palour of a young woman be considered a palliative against the troubles of the day. Maybe such paleness was also important because it helped to wash away whatever troubles a husband/lover experienced in the public sphere.

Th public/private binary is definitely an interesting thing to apply to this poem since it already invokes the binary of night and day (through implication), but it’s also problematic.

Medieval life wasn’t exactly one that leant itself to privacy – walls were thin, roads were narrow, and small towns banded together not to be cliquey and such, but because it was necessary for survival and protection.

As a result, private/public would be better represented as public/less-public, in that at least around the house (most) people wouldn’t be intentionally watching you.

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Closing

Next week’s stanza continues along the way of love and calls on a lot of night imagery, so perhaps we’ll see all of these ideas come into play again then. In the meantime, leave your own thoughts in the comments, and watch for Beowulf’s final farewell on Thursday.

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The Emptiness of All that Gold [ll.2771b-82] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Hoard’s Sheer Immensity
The Golden Power
Closing

{The immensity of the Lost Underworld in Earthbound is just like that of the hoard: identity erasing. Image found on flyingomelette.com.}
 

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Abstract

The dragon is dwelled on, while Wiglaf wanders through the hoard.

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Translation

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp”None of that sight there
was for the serpent, when the blade carried him off.
Then, I have heard, the hoard in the barrow, ancient
work of giants, was ransacked by one man, he loaded
his lap with drinking vessels and dishes of his own
choosing, the standard he also took, brightest of banners.
The sword earlier had injured – the blade was iron – that
of the aged lord, that was the treasure’s guardian for
a long time, terrifying fire brought
hot from the hoard, fiercely willing in
the middle of the night, until he a violent death died.”
(Beowulf ll.2771b-82)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Hoard’s Sheer Immensity

Already it’s been mentioned how Wiglaf is not referred to by name for some time after this point, but here the poet/scribe takes this lack of identity to a strange place.

Instead of referring to Wiglaf via synecdoche with a piece of a warrior’s equipment, or calling him a “thane” or “fighter,” the poet/scribe simply calls Wiglaf “one man” (“ānne mannan” (l.2774)).

The effect of this pronoun and its adjective is immense.

However, this immensity doesn’t come from the alienation that the poet/scribe subjects Wiglaf to, but rather from the sheer size of the hoard that the poet/scribe’s making Wiglaf suddenly so small implies. Don’t forget that because of that shining banner everything is now illuminated, so we can liken this part of the poem to a long panning shot that might be used in movies to show a suddenly-broken-into, vast treasure chamber in an ancient temple or tomb.

Yet, it’s curious that the poet/scribe describes the immensity of the hoard in this way, especially since there’s so much build up to it.

We hear about it when the thief stumbles into it (ll.2283-4), again when Beowulf and his thanes head to the barrow (ll.2412-3), and then again in Beowulf’s command to Wiglaf (ll.2745-6).

Plus, any Anglo-Saxon would have been practically salivating at the prospect of finding so much treasure all in one spot – becoming instantly wealthy and instantaneously being able to exercise huge influence over others through gifts, thereby shoring up his or her own reputation and social network so that they would be more secure than gold alone would allow.

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The Golden Power

In fact, it’s exactly within the gold-giving culture of the Anglo Saxons that we can find another reason for the poet/scribe’s describing the hoard as he does.

Rather than focus on how much there is, the poet/scribe has described the hoard through a kind of lack. It’s big and immense, but it’s the sort of thing that you can lose yourself in – even if you’re a loyal thane who’s already pledged your very being to help your lord in his dying moments.

And this is what makes the dragon’s hoard so dreadful. It’s big, it’s vast, it’s unwieldy.

No one could use that much gold for social reasons, and the temptation to fall into self-indulgence (as Heremod does in the story Hrothgar tells Beowulf (ll.1709-1722)) is practically irresistible. If there is a curse on the gold, that is the curse: to be instantly given so much that you don’t know what to do with yourself so you revert to an animalistic state.

Some have even theorized that the survivor who sings the “Lay of the Last Survivor” (ll.2247–66) somehow became the dragon: The last of his kind pining away over the treasure that could not buy back the lives of his fallen people or return them to their former glory.

This might also explain why the dragon is so prominently featured in this passage, despite his being long since dead. As Beowulf’s wishes have taken over Wiglaf’s identity, now the dragon’s identity, the miserly lord of plenty, threatens to do the same. Yet ultimately Wiglaf resists, for the poet/scribe sings that the dragon “a violent death died” (“hē morðre swealt” (l.2782)) to round out Wiglaf’s time in the hoard.

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Closing

Next week, this blog will be on break. I’ve fallen too far behind in the recordings to keep heading onwards and since I finished “O Fortuna” this week, I want to give myself time to catch up before moving onto my next Latin text.

In the meantime be sure to check my past entries and recordings, and if you like what you read and hear, feel free to support my efforts here!

And, you can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Fortune Bewailed ["O Fortuna," First Stanza] (Latin)

Introduction
Abstract
Translation
Translation Notes
A Few Words on the Moon
Closing

{A picture of the page of the Carmina Burana manuscript, where “O Fortuna” first appears. Image found on Wikipedia.}

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Introduction

I’ve chosen to spend the next three weeks with “O Fortuna” because of it’s wide popularity, because of my own curiousity, and because I wanted to be clear on just what the lyrics are.

Although in the coming weeks I’ll be back to my trusty pocket Latin dictionary, today’s translation was done with the help of Google Translate and InterTran. Rather than just presenting a literal translation though, some parts have been embellished in an effort to keep something of a medieval feel.

Recordings of this poem will be posted, but not until all three stanzas have been translated and posted.

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Abstract

Fortune’s instability is bemoaned, and the extremity of bad fortune rather than that of good fortune is dwelt upon.

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Translation

“Oh Dame Fortune, as variable of state as the &nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbspmoon,
Ever waxing, ever waning –
Ah execrable life – now firm, now full of cares,
A game for the sharp-minded,
Down in the depths of poverty –
As does ice you too often melt away.”
(“O Fortuna,” 1st stanza)

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Translation Notes

Along with moving the words of the poem from Medieval Latin to Modern English, I’ve also made some other changes to it as part of the translation. Some of these changes involve leaving things just as they are, while others involve me taking some poetic license with words or phrases. What follows is a general overview of these changes.

Literally, the second line reads “ever rising, or ever falling” (“semper crescis aut decrescis”). This literal translation captures the sense of a person’s fortune rising or falling, using senses of those two verbs that are still commonly understood.

However, the above translation makes the case that the second line is supposed to describe the first line’s simile further. The words “waxing” and “waning” are still used of the moon specifically, but their otherwise medieval flavour is one of the things done to keep the original medieval feel of the poem.

Punctuation is another thing that was altered.

In the version from Wikipedia, there’s a comma after the first line, a semi-colon after the second, and a comma after the fourth and fifth. However, because the last line refers back to Fortune herself, everything from line three to line five has been put between em-dashes.

These em-dashes mark lines three to five as the diversion that they are. For these lines aren’t about Fortune directly, but are about the wretched uncertainty of life under such a constantly shifting power.

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A Few Words on the Moon

That the power of Fortune is represented by the moon shows that the poem’s original composer had a sense being under such consistent inconsistency. Yet, although much of this stanza focuses on the ills of Fortune and of being on the bottom of her wheel, the fact that she uses a wheel does instill some hope; just as the moon will grow full and light the night after being absent.

Moreover, in addition to being linked with shifting Fortune, the moon was also associated with virginity in the medieval world. The two are connected in medieval thought because of the moon’s classical association with the ever-virgin Roman goddess Diana.

This association with virginity may be working in “O Fortuna” to imply that Fortune is not only fickle and ever-changing, but also impossible to impregnate. That is, you cannot change Fortune from outside of Fortune, if you wanted to somehow alter your Fortune you would need to have some sort of “in” with Dame Fortune.

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Closing

Come Thursday, Beowulf will give Wiglaf his penultimate command, and the young thane will run to the hoard to fulfil it.

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On Water and Words [ll.2720-2732a] (Old English)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
A Good Washing
Passing (Things) On
Closing

{Wiglaf raising the washing water to Beowulf. Image found at the Tolkien Library}
 

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Abstract

Wiglaf tends to Beowulf and Beowulf begins to speak to Wiglaf, signalling that his death is imminent.

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Translation

“Then he with hand, blood-stained,
the famed lord, a man unmatched for good,
washed his dear lord with water,
battle-worn, and unclasped his helm.
Beowulf spoke – he spoke through the pain,
the ache, of his miserably vexatious wound; well he knew,
that he had fulfilled the days of his life,
of earthen joy; that all of his life-time had
fled, death was immeasurably near:
‘Now I to the son of mine would give
the war garments, if it had been so granted
by fate that I any heir had,
flesh of my flesh.'”
(Beowulf ll.2720-32a)

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Recordings

Old English:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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A Good Washing

The washing of Beowulf requires some note here.

First, there’s the general importance of the act as a means of humbling yourself before someone whom you respect.

Then there’s the fact that it’s a simple act of subservience, the sort of thing that is an active display of obedience and respect.

And that interpretation of the act leads into the Christian significance. However, if this death is meant to mirror that of Christ in the New Testament, then there’s something interesting going on here.

In the NT and in the Catholic ritual recreating the Last Supper, it’s Christ who washes his disciples’ feet.

Wiglaf’s washing is more general, but if the parallels between these stories are followed, then Wiglaf is effectively becoming the Christ figure of the story, possibly in a more meaningful way than Beowulf.

Yes, Beowulf defeated the dragon, but that cost him his life, and Beowulf would never be characteristically elegiac if he came back to life afterwards (nor would the Anglo-Saxons have told it like that, regardless of whatever their source material may have been).

This transference of Christ-ness might even have been one of the original purposes of the poem as a conversion tool, since it’s the sort of succession that Anglo-Saxon’s would have understood. After all, it’s the exact same way that kingship would be transferred when no heir was available: through a ritualistic act and acknowledgement.

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Passing (Things) On

The opening of Beowulf’s speech also says a lot about the Christian intent of the written version of the poem.

If Beowulf is taken as a heroic heathen, someone who is Christian in all ways but name (ignore for a moment, his constant references to a single ‘Lord of Men’/’Ruler’/’King of Glory’), then he simply can’t have an heir. There can be no continuation of the virtuous heathens, since there is no further need for such people, the virtuous will, of course, be Christians. And so enter the transitional figure of Wiglaf, the one who reprimands the cowardly thanes and does his best to guide Geatland gently into the good night awaiting it after Beowulf’s death.

Beowulf signals his death not by saying that he has reached the end, as the poet/scribe does before we get his dialogue, but by saying that he has no heir to give his weapons to.

He has no offspring that he could call “flesh of my flesh” (or “belonging to my body” for a curiously medieval Christian rendering of “lice gelenge” (l.2732)) that can continue his line directly. And so, it passes to one who’s proven himself to be worthy: Wiglaf.

However, it’s important that Beowulf opens his speech with talk of handing down his war garb. Because Wiglaf is not his son, the war garb will not be touching the same flesh (more practically, it may also be less of a snug fit than on any son of Beowulf). As a result, Wiglaf is not going to be able to do the same things that Beowulf did with his gear, in both the literal and figurative senses.

And that a body patently different from Beowulf’s carries forward the symbols of the old way embodied by Beowulf’s war garb (arguably, his most precious possession) is a great metaphor for the spread of Christianity throughout Early Medieval Europe.

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Closing

Check back here next week, for Isidore’s finishing off the first section of book 12 with further discussion of fertility lore, and for Beowulf’s quick review of his kingship and current predicament.

You can find the next part of Beowulf here.

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Sex, Horses, and Reproductive Lore [12:58-59] (Latin)

Abstract
Translation
Recordings
The Galen Connection
Beautiful Thoughts, Beautiful Offspring
Closing

{Jacob, showing the sheep the peeled rods. Image found in the National Library of the Netherlands’ Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.}

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Abstract

Isidore gets into the details of managing the conception and birthing of animal offspring for desired results.

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Translation

[58] “Certainly human diligence has paired many diverse animals together in sex, so too are discovered other types mingling in forged embraces; just as Jacob was able to get animals of unnatural color and likeness. For the rod was absorbed by those fertile sheep, which they would see by the water as the shadow of a ram looming over them.

[59] “Further, this itsef is done with the fertile mares of a herd, so that the birth of horses is affected by what is thrown before them while they conceive, which are able to conceive and create their likeness. For on their collars are painted in a beautiful way and placed in their presence, those that they respect, which leads to quick births of animals like those that they see.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:58-59)

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Recordings

Latin:

{Forthcoming}

Modern English:

{Forthcoming}

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The Galen Connection

The ideas that Isidore writes about here might just be pulled from the works of the famed second century physician and philosopher, Galen. His theory of conception was that it was necessary for both a man and a woman who wanted to have a child to orgasm at the same time, thereby having their contributions to the child line up.

A failure to impregnate a woman or to become impregnated was a failure to climax at the same time in other words, and not necessarily chalked up to either partner’s having something wrong with their equipment.

Further, though, Galen also wrote about how it was important for the parents-to-be to imagine beautiful things during intercourse.

This was especially true for women, since there was a vague sense that they carried the human essence that would become a child and that men merely helped to shape and quicken this essence. So, if a man was thinking of a lovely thing, and the woman he was with was thinking of some sort of “dog-headed ape” (to borrow Isidore’s “cynocephalus” (12:60)), it was believed that her conception would result in the child being somehow deficient.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on simultaneous orgasm didn’t last too far into the medieval period since the re-discovery of Aristotle led to the adoption of his ideas on the matter. According to old Ari, only the man had to orgasm during sex; it was merely the woman’s job to catch his ejaculation properly.

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Beautiful Thoughts, Beautiful Offspring

As far as the animals that Isidore writes about here are concerned, the same principles are in play. Plus, he wisely refers to the greatest auctoritee of them all in the medieval world – Scripture.

Jacob used his own sort of animal engineering, and that lead to his prosperity, so why can’t contemporary people do the same, the reference implies.

In fact, paragraph 59, though only about mares, talks about presenting those that are fertile with beautiful things so matter of factly that the lore presented is definitely taken as pure fact.

Perhaps there is some truth to it, since a birth might not go so smoothly if a mare gets spooked in the middle of it, or is under extra duress because she’s being stared down by some cynocephalus or other.

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Closing

Check back here Thursday for Wiglaf’s washing, and the beginning of Beowulf’s rather telling speech.

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