Translating The Owl and the Nightingale

I have been considering for some time trying my hand at writing poetry, something I did a bit in my late teens but fell away from. I have also been working lately on improving my Old and Middle English. To advance both ends, I have decided to work on a translation of the 12th/13th century Middle English poem The Owl and the Nightingale. If you’re unfamiliar with it, there is a good introduction to it at Wikipedia. To put it shortly, the poem is a debate between an owl and a nightingale over who is better and, by implication, which of the lifestyles each represents is better.

As I add to and change the translation, I will be posting my work on this page, which is also accessible in the link bar at the top of the page. My goal with this translation is to remain faithful to the meaning of the text as well as its rhythm and rhyme. To this end, I will attempt to remain consistent with the iambic tetrameter and aabb rhyme scheme (that is, four-beat lines arranged in couplets) of the original. The text I am working from is that published by E. G. Stanley, which you can find online here. I welcome any comments and corrections you might have to offer along the way.

Chaucer and the inner world of man

The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.

In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.

The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.

The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.

Beowulf and the Trinitarian nature of man

Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes

prayed aloud, promising sometimes

on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices

if the Slayer of souls would send relief

to the suffering people

Such was their practice,

a heathen hope; Hell possessed

their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,

the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,

they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,

the Wielder of Glory.

Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.

The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:

It was with pain that the powerful spirit

dwelling in darkness endured that time,

hearing daily the hall filled

with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,

the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling

of the remote first making of man’s race.

He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth

a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,

exulting established the sun and the moon

as lights to illumine the land-dwellers

and furnished forth the face of Earth

with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted

to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.

While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.

The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.

Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:

Wearily he sat,

a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,

trying to wake him with water; but without success.

For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold

his battle-leader’s life in this world

or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;

for every man’s action was under the sway

of God’s judgement, just as it is now.

The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.

The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.

Book Review: The Poem of the Cid


Reading medieval romances is, for me, something like watching Western movies might be for those men of certain different tastes but the same proclivities as have persisted in the male members of the human species perennially. They are a window into a time when “men were men,” so to speak. Whether such an idealized time really existed is immaterial to the continued relevance of the idea as a powerful image and inspiration in the masculine consciousness. This particular work is a prime example.

El Cid is truly a man’s man. His long, flowing beard is a sight beheld with awe by those around him. His prowess in battle is legendary. His virtue is of the rigid principled sort that both justice and mercy, each in their own way, rely upon for existence. Even his piety, a virtue too often associated today with weakness and womanliness, is of the manly sort, with its fervent prayers and all-night vigils. And his love for his fellow-Christians, for his kingdom, his nation, and his family is unsurpassed and unquestioned. His perfection in chivalry is also exhibited by his presentation in the poem as a Christ figure, as one who embodies the virtues of Christ and whose life, in a mysterious manner, mirrors that of his Lord in many of its features.

The medieval tales of great knights are required reading for all men — and for women, too, who appreciate authentic masculinity. I recommend this book to all such readers.

Primary Source: Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.8)

Pages and squires were expected to read many books about the lives of the great knights and other warriors who had come before them. They were encouraged to imitate the examples of these great men. One of the most popular of these books was Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne. Charlemagne, which means “Charles the Great,” was a Frankish king who was crowed as the first Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day in the year 800. Charlemagne was admired even in his own lifetime for his great learning, great virtue, and skill as a military leader. In the selection below, Einhard discusses Charlemagne’s looks and the things Charlemagne enjoyed doing.

 

Charles was large and strong, and of lofty stature, though not disproportionately tall (his height is well known to have been seven times the length of his foot); the upper part of his head was round, his eyes very large and animated, nose a little long, hair fair, and face laughing and merry. Thus his appearance was always stately and dignified, whether he was standing or sitting; although his neck was thick and somewhat short, and his belly rather prominent; but the symmetry of the rest of his body concealed these defects. His gait was firm, his whole carriage manly, and his voice clear, but not so strong as his size led one to expect. His health was excellent, except during the four years preceding his death, when he was subject to frequent fevers; at the last he even limped a little with one foot. Even in those years he consulted rather his own inclinations than the advice of physicians, who were almost hateful to him, because they wanted him to give up roasts, to which he was accustomed, and to eat boiled meat instead. In accordance with the national custom, he took frequent exercise on horseback and in the chase, accomplishments in which scarcely any people in the world can equal the Franks. He enjoyed the exhalations from natural warm springs, and often practised swimming, in which he was such an adept that none could surpass him; and hence it was that he built his palace at Aixla-Chapelle, and lived there constantly during his latter years until his death. He used not only to invite his sons to his bath, but his nobles and friends, and now and then a troop of his retinue or body guard, so that a hundred or more persons sometimes bathed with him.

Charles was temperate in eating, and particularly so in drinking, for he abominated drunkenness in anybody, much more in himself and those of his household; but he could not easily abstain from food, and often complained that fasts injured his health. He very rarely gave entertainments, only on great feast-days, and then to large numbers of people. His meals ordinarily consisted of four courses, not counting the roast, which his huntsmen used to bring in on the spit; he was more fond of this than of any other dish. While at table, he listened to reading or music. The subjects of the readings were the stories and deeds of olden time: he was fond, too, of St. Augustine’s books, and especially of the one entitled “The City of God.”

He was so moderate in the use of wine and all sorts of drink that he rarely allowed himself more than three cups in the course of a meal. In summer after the midday meal, he would eat some fruit, drain a single cup, put off his clothes and shoes, just as he did for the night, and rest for two or three hours. He was in the habit of awaking and rising from bed four or five times during the night. While he was dressing and putting on his shoes, he not only gave audience to his friends, but if the Count of the Palace told him of any suit in which his judgment was necessary, he had the parties brought before him forthwith, took cognizance of the case, and gave his decision, just as if he were sitting on the Judgment-seat. This was not the only business that he transacted at this time, but he performed any duty of the day whatever, whether he had to attend to the matter himself, or to give commands concerning it to his officers.

Charles had the gift of ready and fluent speech, and could express whatever he had to say with the utmost clearness. He was not satisfied with command of his native language merely, but gave attention to the study of foreign ones, and in particular was such a master of Latin that he could speak it as well as his native tongue; but he could understand Greek better than he could speak it. He was so eloquent, indeed, that he might have passed for a teacher of eloquence. He most zealously cultivated the liberal arts, held those who taught them in great esteem, and conferred great honors upon them. He took lessons in grammar of the deacon Peter of Pisa, at that time an aged man. Another deacon, Albin of Britain, surnamed Alcuin, a man of Saxon extraction, who was the greatest scholar of the day, was his teacher in other branches of learning. The King spent much time and labour with him studying rhetoric, dialectics, and especially astronomy; he learned to reckon, and used to investigate the motions of the heavenly bodies most curiously, with an intelligent scrutiny. He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.

He cherished with the greatest fervor and devotion the principles of the Christian religion, which had been instilled into him from infancy. Hence it was that he built the beautiful basilica at Aix-la-Chapelle, which he adorned with gold and silver and lamps, and with rails and doors of solid brass. He had the columns and marbles for this structure brought from Rome and Ravenna, for he could not find such as were suitable elsewhere. He was a constant worshipper at this church as long as his health permitted, going morning and evening, even after nightfall, besides attending mass; and he took care that all the services there conducted should be administered with the utmost possible propriety, very often warning the sextons not to let any improper or unclean thing be brought into the building or remain in it. He provided it with a great number of sacred vessels of gold and silver and with such a quantity of clerical robes that not even the doorkeepers who fill the humblest office in the church were obliged to wear their everyday clothes when in the exercise of their duties. He was at great pains to improve the church reading and psalmody, for he was well skilled in both although he neither read in public nor sang, except in a low tone and with others.

He was very forward in succoring the poor, and in that gratuitous generosity which the Greeks call alms, so much so that he not only made a point of giving in his own country and his own kingdom, but when he discovered that there were Christians living in poverty in Syria, Egypt, and Africa, at Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Carthage, he had compassion on their wants, and used to send money over the seas to them. The reason that he zealously strove to make friends with the kings beyond seas was that he might get help and relief to the Christians living under their rule.

He cherished the Church of St. Peter the Apostle at Rome above all other holy and sacred places, and heaped its treasury with a vast wealth of gold, silver, and precious stones. He sent great and countless gifts to the popes; and throughout his whole reign the wish that he had nearest at heart was to re-establish the ancient authority of the city of Rome under his care and by his influence, and to defend and protect the Church of St. Peter, and to beautify and enrich it out of his own store above all other churches. Although he held it in such veneration, he only repaired to Rome to pay his vows and make his supplications four times during the whole forty-seven years that he reigned.

Knights and Chivalry (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.7)

Medieval people used to say that there are three “orders,” or groups of people, in Christian society. There are, they said, “those who pray, those who work, and those who fight.” Most people, of course, were among “those who work.” The common people were all of the people who farmed, who built buildings, who made art, and did all of the other things necessary for any society to continue. The monks were “those who pray.” It was expected that they would help the rest of society by praying to God to protect them. “Those who fight” were called knights. It was the duty of knights to protect Christian kingdoms and villages from those who wanted to harm them.

Boys were chosen at a very young age to be knights, usually when they were babies. If a father wanted his son to become a knight someday, he would tell the child stories about other knights from a very young age and encourage his son to imitate the heroes of those stories. He would also teach the boy about good manners and courtesy as knights were expected to be very well-behaved. Most of the boy’s toys would be wooden swords and shields and other toy versions of things he would use as a knight.

Once the boy turned seven years old, his training as a knight began. He would be sent to a knight’s castle to be a page. As a page, the boy was expected to spend all of his time either learning or serving the other people in the castle. He was especially expected to serve the women of the castle. A page, for example, might be ordered to walk behind the lady of the castle, carrying the train of her dress, the part of the dress that would otherwise drag on the floor. A page might spent months doing this job in order to learn to treat women with respect. As a page, the boy would also study the great accomplishments of other knights and attend tournaments where knights displayed their skills by playing war games in front of crowds.

If the boy had done a good job as a page, he could be made a squire at the age of 14. As a squire, the boy dedicated more of his time to learning music, dancing, and other arts. He was also expected to perfect his etiquette by interacting with others in a courteous manner at all times. Squires also acted as assistants to knights. They carried the knights equipment around, helped the knights put their armor on, travelled with the knights, and even went into battle with them. In this way, the squire learned all about the how knights fought and the weapons they used to fight.

If the boy had done well as a squire, he would finally become a knight at about 21 years old. A great ceremony was held when a man became a knight. His armor would be placed on the altar of a church and he would stay awake all night in the church to guard it. In the morning, a worship service would be held in the church. After many prayers and blessings for the knight, he would at least kneel in front of a lord, a noble person who owned land, and would be knighted. The lord would swear to support the knight by paying for his equipment and a castle for him. The knight, in turn, pledged to serve the lord by protecting the lord’s lands from enemy invasions.

Once a man became a knight, he was expected to follow a strict code of honor called chivalry. The code of chivalry ordered that knights always observe the virtues. Knights were expected to be compassionate, temperate, diligent, and respectful. They were always to help those who were weaker than themselves and to obey those who had authority over them. The knights, “those who fight,” were expected by all people to keep Europe safe.

 

Review Questions

 1. What are the steps to becoming a knight?

2. What is chivalry?

Primary Source: The Rule of St. Benedict (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.6)

When St. Benedict founded his monastery, he wrote a book, called The Rule, which he expected all of the monks in his monastery to read. In The Rule, St. Benedict laid out the lifestyle that the monks in his monastery would live. In the selection below, Benedict lists the rules his monks must follow:

1. In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.

2. Then, one’s neighbor as oneself.

3. Then not to murder.

4. Not to commit adultery.

5. Not to steal.

6. Not to covet.

7. Not to bear false witness.

8. To honor all.

9. And not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.

10. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.

11. To chastise the body.

12. Not to become attached to pleasures.

13. To love fasting.

14. To relieve the poor.

15. To clothe the naked.

16. To visit the sick.

17. To bury the dead.

18. To help in trouble.

19. To console the sorrowing.

20. To become a stranger to the world’s ways.

21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

22. Not to give way to anger.

23. Not to nurse a grudge.

24. Not to entertain deceit in one’s heart.

25. Not to give a false peace.

26. Not to forsake charity.

27. Not to swear, for fear of perjuring oneself.

28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.

29. Not to return evil for evil.

30. To do no wrong to anyone, and to bear patiently wrongs done to oneself.

31. To love one’s enemies.

32. Not to curse those who curse us, but rather to bless them.

33. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.

34. Not to be proud.

35. Not addicted to wine.

36. Not a great eater.

37. Not drowsy.

38. Not lazy.

39. Not a grumbler.

40. Not a detractor.

41. To put one’s hope in God.

42. To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself.

43. But to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself.

44. To fear the Day of Judgment.

45. To be in dread of hell.

46. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit.

47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.

48. To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life.

49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.

50. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.

51. And to manifest them to one’s spiritual guardian.

52. To guard one’s tongue against evil and depraved speech.

53. Not to love much talking.

54. Not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.

55. Not to love much or boisterous laughter.

56. To listen willingly to holy reading.

57. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.

58. Daily in one’s prayers, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God, and to amend them for the future.

59. Not to fulfill the desires of the flesh; to hate one’s own will.

60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot or Abbess even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord’s precept, “Do what they say, but not what they do.”

61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.