Old English Poetry

Translated by Nancy Varian Berberick

The Fight at Finnsburu

................          "Are the gables burning?"

Hnaef answered boldly,     the bright battle-king:

"No gable blazes!     We greet no glaring dawn,

and here no winged dragon     deals his fiery dread.

Here battle-light quickens,     born of a broken oath,

and dark doom-criers shriek,     blackest war-birds.

The moon stands still     to stare at this shame,

as hungry wolves howl     and war-wood shouts.

Shield will answer shaft!     A shattered promise

flings this hall-lord,     faithless Finn, into woe.

Wake now, my warriors!     Lift bow and wield linden,

greet Frisian treachery     with grey iron's grief.

Brave men, faith-fast,     fight beside me at the door!"

Rose up his golden thanes,     good men girded on swords.

Keen for the battle,     worthy kin to kings,

Siegeferth ran to the door,     bold Eaha drew his blade.

High-hearted Ordlaf,     grey Guthlaf, and Hengest himself,

kept close beside.     Those canny soldiers

defended the door,     dared all for Hnaef.

Outside, Guthere spoke,      Guthlaf's own brother

to Guthlaf's own son: "Garulf, good prince, hold back.

Don't risk life or redden blade     in the fiery first rush."

Young Garulf didn't heed,     he would not be held,

though fate forced an oath     between his father and him.

Sharp, he shouted:     "Say! Who holds the door?"

The hall-ward answered,     the wide-known wanderer,

"Siegeferth am I,     sworn to stand.

My sword's hard edge     will hold this hall!"

Fierce battle-din     flooded Finn's hall.

Shield warded breast,     gripped swords shone,

Fated Garulf fell,     first under the arrows' flight.

Then smoke rose up,     reached sear ravens sailing,

and the golden war hawk     hung over the hall.

Sword-light blazed,     red on bleeding blades,

all of Finnsburuh fired     would flame as bright.

No king can boast of braver men,      nor any so bold

as these defending the door,     dauntless against foes.

These were steadfast hearts,     Hnaef's hall-friends.

Woven words have praised     no men more worthy

of the golden gifts,      the king-granted rings.

Five days, they fought.     Not one fell.

Then one, sword-bitten,     saw his blood surge.

A blade tore his byrnie,     the edge burst his helm.

He went to his king,     where war raged loudest.

Hnaef asked to hear     how the soldiers fared,

and which of the young men ..................

The Ruin

Wonderful this warding wall!

Then fate broke the burgstede,     battered giant's work.

Towers tumbled,     gable's targe split,

age stole stout gates.     Frost shines on lime,

chills the mother's breast,     breaks earth's bond.

Wyrd drove down     the wall-maker's dream,     

earth-gripped, strong     a hundred seasons since

doom found the folk.     Of faith spoke this wall,

grey-cloaked, red-stained.     To king after king

hard oaths and hoar     gave this high-reaching friend

to stand stout under storm.

For memory men built,     bold stone-wrights binding,

fitting stone to stone.     Mead-halls soared.

High horns filled,     flowed the foam of poet's ale.

Good gifts and gold     gorged treasure-halls.

None changes fate.     Chance and chant are stronger.

Great the sore sorrow     in days of sickness.

Hearts bleed courage.     Hard men are humbled

in wind-haunted streets,     wail weeping in high halls

as idols decay,     their dwellings drear temples

of midnight mourning,     murdered dream-craft.

And this red tile,     white-fingered roof-hoard riven,

falls on heaped howes.     Here sleep brave men,

glad-minded soldiers,     gold-gleaming kings.

War-wolves, sword-lovers!     Wild and wine-flushed,

they looked on sweet treasures,     on silver shining,

on chant-crafted gold-work     and gem-carver's cunning,

on power and pride     and precious wealth.

In this brave city,     the bold bright kingdom,

stone houses stood...

The Home-Reft

Always the lorn one wakes     waiting for a message

the Measurer's mercy.     Yet, mournful in mind

each day he rows sorrowing      his hand stirs the sea

he must journey far     fare over freezing waves

wade the wanderer's path.      Fate won't waver!

So says the Home-reft     him mindful of hardship

and friends who fell      in fearsome slaughter:

Alone in this dawn     I have not but

my sorrow to speak.     No kin of mine survives.

What my heart holds     no dear friend hears.

I will trust the truth      heed what sages tell

wise in the world:     it is well for a man     

to bind his heart      bear it close in his breast

hide deep the mind-hoard     think as he will.

The weary mind      won't withstand fate

the haggard thought      gives not hope or help.

Who longs for glory      must hide his heart

coffin sorrow close     bind his bitter care.

And so shall I      stripped of my birth-land

sent far from kin      fetter my heart

dark since the day      I buried a dear prince

barrowed his bones      his body beneath the stone.

Then I, wild in winter-grief      went out on the sea

searching for a lord      went out seeking a stead

where I might find folk     warriors near or far

hale in gabled halls      who know my own kin.

Who will offer comfort      to me, home-reft

give me honor and joy?      Only the exile knows

how cold a companion      is wan-hearted sorrow.

He has no dear friend     -- it is hard for him --

no lord shields the exile.     For him, no gold rings

earth's glory is gone.      Frost grips his spirit     

he grieves for what is lost      friends and gold-gifts.

Other days haunt him     again he hears his lord

honor him at feast.      Joy is all crumbled.

He must go friendless      himself alone

wanting well-loved speech      the gold-giver's wisdom.

Often sorrow and sleep      tie webs together

binding the banished      the lonely one fast

in dreams of days      when his dear lord

embraced and kissed him.      Once more he lays

hand and head      upon his friend's knee

again he finds joy      beside his lord.

Then the lordless one stirs      the friend-reft awakes.

He sees again the fallow water     waves surge around him.

Sea-birds spread feathers      wings wide to bathe

he sees hoar-frost and hail      in hard-driven snow.

His woe increases      heart-wounds weigh heavy

he longs for loved ones.      Sorrow is made new

when memories of kinsmen      drift through his mind.

He greets the ghosts      gladly regards them

tries to touch his friends.      They swim away again.

Those phantoms floating      bring no familiar songs.

Care is made fresh      for him who often sends

his weary spirit seeking      over the sea's surface.

I can't think why      through all the wide world

my mind will not darken      be made dreary

when I ponder swift lives      the proud men passing

now gone from the hall      the bright young warriors.

So this middle-world crumbles      each day fails.

None holds wisdom      nor wields wit till he has

his share of winters.      A wise man will have patience

he must not be hot-hearted      nor ever word-hasty

nor too weak in war.      He is never wan-minded

nor too timid or high-spirited      nor too greedy

never too eager for glory      before he knows himself.

When he offers oaths      a wise man waits

until his heart is cool.      Only then does he know

where the tempered thought      will truly turn.

The wise seize omens      know how ghastly will be

all the world when its joys      stand in waste

as now wanderers see      throughout this middle-world

wind blowing round towns      walls staggering to stand

while rime-fingers scrape      shattered stone-craft.

Wind moans in the hall      the builder lies still.

Brave songs fail.      Bold men have fallen

warriors proud by the wall.      Some war forenamed

others ravens carried off      hungry over the sea.

The dread wolf divided some      shared them with death.

Was one of the loved dead      by a lorn man settled

a prince stone-hidden     safe in earth-embrace.

Thus did the Shaper      lay waste this dear land.

The city stands idle      the stone-craft of giants

now empty of song      and the noise of townsmen.

Then a wise one looked out      over the wounded place

thought about this dark life      deeply considered

with heart-wisdom      with far-faring memory

of great battle-slaughter.      So did he speak:

Where has the horse gone? Where the gallant men?

     Where is the gift-giver?

Where the golden feast-hall      the songs on the benches?

Alas, the burnished cup!      Alas, bright byrnied warriors!

Alas, the king's might!      That time has perished

grown dark under night's helm      as it never was.

Only the last of beloved men     here stands among

dragon-adorned walls     stone once wonderfully high.

Ash-spears savaged the men.     Slaughter-greedy Fate

she of far fame     forenamed them all.

And hail beats hard      down on this stone-hill

storm-wind resounds      snow binds the earth

in cold winter-dread      when dark comes creeping

spreading night-shadow.      North sends

hail-fare, icy spears      sharp in malice.

All this wide earth      fills up with grief

Fate sends shafts     again she shapes the world.

Here are riches lent      here are friends lent

here is man lent      here is might lent,

all this earth      is emptying.

So says the wise one      sitting in thought:

A good man holds to oaths      won't show his grief

pale child of his breast      unless first he knows

how to mend his heart      with courage heal it.

It is well to seek grace      comfort from the Father

the Lord in heaven      where all stands fast.


The Wermas showed Weyland     seasons of sadness

heaped hatred upon     the high-minded earl.

Came companions to him     cold yearning and sorrow.

Winter-dark, wretched     he wasted in woe

when Nidhud     forced on him fetters.

That passed      so shall this.

Beadohild keened      her brother's cruel killing

and a worse song for     her own sad state.

She swelled with      her rapist's child.

Hard to see     how sorrow would be redeemed.

That passed     so shall this.

Ask! I remember     Geat's wretched wife

Meadhohilde had vast     grief of him.

Love, silent thief     stole all her sleep.

That passed     so shall this.

In Maeringasburg     as many may know

Theodoric's hard hand     for thirty years held.

That passed     so shall this.

Worry's father     wide-sung Eormanric

Ruled with rapine     ruined the Goth people

Caught them and held.     That wolf-king

chained many     men to misery.

Woe upon woe     they wished him dead.

That passed     so shall this.

A man sighs in sadness     separate from joy

in drear darkness     he can but deem

his share of sorrow     to be endless.

Wise God works change     beyond this world

men find glory     gold and good favor

while some find woe.     I will speak of myself

how once I was     Heoding's scop

held high by my lord.     Deor he named me.

Season on season     I served him well

held land of him     till Heorenda

wit-crafty wanderer     my land rights won.

Gifts granted him     once were given to me.

That passed     so shall this.

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