Stephen Claughton: Deor

scops

*****
Stephen Claughton grew up in Manchester, read English at Oxford and worked for many years as a civil servant in London. His poems have appeared widely in print and online and he has published two pamphlets, The War with Hannibal (Poetry Salzburg, 2019) and The 3-D Clock (Dempsey & Windle, 2020), the latter a collection of poems about his late mother’s dementia. He is a member of Ver Poets and reviews poetry for The High Window and London Grip. Website: www.stephenclaughton.com.

*****

Introduction

I first came across ‘Deor’, when I was reading English at university. I didn’t specialise in Old English, but we all had to do some for the first part of our course. One of the set texts was Richard Hamer’s A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, a parallel text with the editor’s own translations. (It’s still in print, published by Faber.) Deor (‘wild beast’) is the bardic name of a scop (pronounced ‘shop’ or ‘skop’), who outlines a series of mythical and historical disasters, comparing them with his own situation by repeating the refrain, ‘Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg’ (‘That passed away, so may this’). With the possible exception of Wayland the Smith, none of the examples means much to us today. What drew me to the poem was the sorrowfulness of the refrain and the poet’s own misfortune: his claim of having been displaced at court by another bard. The story convinced me, but Hamer says that it was fictitious, possibly a repertory piece, enabling the scop to give a specimen of his work to a new audience. Reminded of that, I wondered how a resident bard might feel about a visit from this interloper, Deor.

*****

DEOR

He turned up one day, another scop,
a wanderer, he said.
I suspected him from the start.
We took him in, of course;
you have to: it’s the rule.
We showed him where he could sleep
and feasted him well in hall,
seating him at the mead-bench
among the thanes. Naturally, being a poet,
he insisted on showing his thanks
by reciting one of his poems.
It was hardly an entertainment,
more a lament of sorts,
from beginning to end a catalogue of woes,
tales from history and myth.
‘That passed away, so may this,’
was how he summed each up,
‘this’ being how he’d been bested
by another bard; that Heorrenda,
leoðcræftig monn,
now had his seat in hall
and all his land and goods.
Moral: time’s a great healer.
Except, I wanted to tell him, no it’s not,
not if you keep harping on about it like that.
Nevertheless I joined in the applause.
The others all thought he was great,
especially our lord. He’s a good man,
the chief, but too fond of novelty.
‘Don’t give me anything scop-soiled,’
he likes to tell me—his little joke.
‘The man’s a fine poet,’ I said,
‘but is he right for us? These bookish stories,
they’re hardly the kind of thing
to fire the housecarls up
the night before a big battle.
Epics are what they need,
blow-by-blow accounts
of heroes soaked in slaughter.’
Then seeing my lady moist eyed,
I had to break it to her:
the fate he said he’d suffered wasn’t true;
at worst, a hard-luck story;
at best, a repertory piece.
‘It’s like a book of swatches,’ I explained.
‘He’s hoping you’ll pick one out,
then the next thing you know
he’ll be reeling it off by the yard.
Poets are natural liars. It’s what we do.’
Think of the yarns we spin,
grooming young men for battle,
then sending them off to die,
so they’ll furnish us with more lays—
the lads are canon-fodder.
It’s what I do to justify my place.
Banishment’s a hard fate.
I don’t take to the open road—
all that living life at first hand,
experiencing the great outdoors.
It gives you such dismal subjects:
losing the joys of the hall,
following the exile’s path,
the care-worn outcast
crossing the rime-cold sea.
You have to pass the time
by thinking up new ways
to describe the monotony,
with only your word-hoard for comfort.
The ocean’s teeming with kennings:
whale-road, swan-plain, fish-field,
land-of-the-sodding-mackerel and all that.
As for our visitor,
luckily, I was believed
and the next day he was off,
well rewarded for his pains
with a warm embrace from my lady,
ring-gifts from my lord and a good crit
(‘Better than Widsith’) courtesy of me,
but on his way nevertheless.
There was nothing personal in it.
I trust that with God’s good grace
he found a new lord to serve
and isn’t a wanderer still,
out in all weathers, prey to the elements
like the wild beast he called himself, that Deor.

*****

Here, for those interested, is a recitation of the Old English poem, ‘Deor’, being read in that language. Below it, you can read a version in Modern English.

*****

*****

Deor’s Lament (circa the 10th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Weland endured the agony of exile:
an indomitable smith wracked by grief.
He suffered countless sorrows;
indeed, such sorrows were his bosom companions
in that frozen island dungeon
where Nithad fettered him:
so many strong-but-supple sinew-bands
binding the better man.
That passed away; this also may.

Beadohild mourned her brothers’ deaths,
bemoaning also her own sad state
once she discovered herself with child.
She knew nothing good could ever come of it.
That passed away; this also may.

We have heard the Geat’s moans for Matilda,
his lovely lady, waxed limitless,
that his sorrowful love for her
robbed him of regretless sleep.
That passed away; this also may.

For thirty winters Theodric ruled
the Mæring stronghold with an iron hand;
many acknowledged his mastery and moaned.
That passed away; this also may.

We have heard too of Ermanaric’s wolfish ways,
of how he cruelly ruled the Goths’ realms.
That was a grim king! Many a warrior sat,
full of cares and maladies of the mind,
wishing constantly that his crown might be overthrown.
That passed away; this also may.

If a man sits long enough, sorrowful and anxious,
bereft of joy, his mind constantly darkening,
soon it seems to him that his troubles are limitless.
Then he must consider that the wise Lord
often moves through the earth
granting some men honor, glory and fame,
but others only shame and hardship.
This I can say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga’s scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just king. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors had promised me.
That passed away; this also may.

*****

Finally, you will find more versions of Anglo-Saxon poetry on Tim Miller’s excellent poetry website Underfoot Poetry.

Back to the top

*****

2 thoughts on “Stephen Claughton: Deor

  1. I’d say that is undoubtedly a modern poem and one that speaks to me . I didn’t apply to Oxford because the thought of doing Anglo Saxon was frightening! But perhaps we can all learn from the great ancients.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s