Return to the poem

Translator's Note: "Old English Rune Poem"

All surviving Old English texts are, in varying ways, mysterious to contemporary readers and scholars, and the “Old English Rune Poem” comes with its fair share of mystery. In addition to there being no known author of the poem, there is no surviving medieval copy. The only known copy of the “Rune Poem” was in Cotton MS Otho B.X, folio 165. In 1731, the Cottonian Library was moved to Ashburnham House, which was devastated by fire in that same year (the name of the house itself suggesting it may not have been the best place to keep flammable items). Luckily, a handwritten copy had been made early in the eighteenth century. This copy also was lost (to a different fire), but not before it was copied by George Hickes, who published a print edition in 1705 in his Linguarum Veterum 
Septentrionalium Thesaurus.

In its entirety, the “Old English Rune Poem” consists of twenty-
nine stanzas, one for each of the runic symbols comprising the 
futhorc alphabet used by the Anglo-Saxons. I have tried here to stay as close as possible to the literal bones of the poem, while at the same time attempting to make it sing in modern English as I believe it does in the Anglo-Saxon. Naturally, that’s impossible.

One challenge particular to Old English translation is the loss of the references that those poets gained through compound words. The landscape of Old English poetry has a spare and muscular beauty because compound word formations hold incredible amounts of poetic information. Rune xv, for example, “eolxh” or , is used as part of the compound word “eolxh-secg,” generally translated to mean a kind of marsh grass, perhaps favored by elk: “elk-sedge.” “Eolxh” is the genitive singular form of “eolh” or “eolc”: an elk. “Secg” can mean a reed or sedge, but it also carries the meaning “the cutting thing.” “Secg” contains the word “ecg,” or “edge,” and can mean “sword,” or the one who wields it: a warrior. In the context of the “Rune Poem,” then, the “eolxh-secg” carries traces of a personification that is eroded by translation. In rune xv, the grass is described as wounding every “beorna” who touches it. The “eolxh-secg,” as a compound word, can almost be imagined as grass swords, turning the fen into an army with swords held aloft.

Old English is a language that existed for a relatively short time, and many of its poems take as their subject or metaphor the collision of an older warrior culture with the new Christian faith. The “Old English Rune Poem” surely takes its place on that same battlefield, where the poet has set himself the task of adopting, saving (or co-opting) for use the pagan runes, and so it seems important to let as much of his efforts shine through as possible. In service to this goal I have, wherever possible, tried to use only the caesura as punctuation, as there was relatively little punctuation in Old English verse. Pure transparency being impossible, there are places where in this and other of my efforts, the fruits of my own labor “gedreosaþ:” fall or fail. — MO


This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

July/August 2013

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.