water droplets on blue surface

Hot Takes on Cold English

When winter storms bring the city to a halt, I apparently think of poetry, which I’m kind of surprised to learn about myself. In 2021, when ice encapsulated every twig and leaf of every tree and shrub and bent them to the ground, I thought of Robert Frost’s “Birches.” This year, as a storm that was predicted to last a few days stretched over a week and kept us tucked inside our homes, I thought of the wintery imagery used in Old English poems of exile.

An Old English Poetry Primer

The period of Old English as a language came roughly after the Romans left the British Isles in the fifth century CE and lasted until the French invaded in the eleventh century, so about six hundred years. It uses mostly the same Roman alphabet that we use today, plus letters like þ (thorn) and ð (eth), both of which scribes used for the th sound. They also used æ for the vowel sound in cat. Learning Old English is like learning a foreign language, it’s that different from Modern English. But there are some words that are still familiar more than a thousand years later: helpan means “to help,” wulf means “wolf,” niht means “night.”

This is the period that we used to call the Dark Ages, but archaeology, history, literary studies, and other fields have shined bright lights on the era. The ideas we still carry of medieval ignorance and torture turn out to just be untrue. But it was a harsh life. One of the ways people mitigated the harshness was by living in community. There was usually a leader or lord who maintained the loyalty of retainers and soldiers through an ethic of honor and payment with gold. The lord and his men would provide protection for the farmers and families that surrounded the center of community, the lord’s mead hall. The warmth and camaraderie of the hall are used in poetry of the time as a metaphor for belonging and, by extension, survival. The opposite of community in these poems is exile. The speakers have been banished, or sometimes have banished themselves, from the protection of the lord, his men, and the mead hall. The imagery of exile is always of the coldest kind—frost, snow, hailstorms, frozen seas. Exile is lonely, miserable, and freezing cold.

During the week of storms in January 2024, I was indoors with my husband and four warm furry pets (one of them being a hund named Mabel). We had food, and heat, and even an imperial apple cider that was not unmeadlike. But the icy streets for the most part kept us from our in-person community, and we turned to the not-quite-warm glow of screens to talk to friends and family. We were not in exile, but venturing outdoors was treacherous, and images from these poems kept coming to mind.

The Seafarer

Here are a few of the frostiest lines from “The Seafarer,” as translated by Ezra Pound:

Coldly afflicted,

My feet were by frost benumbed.

Chill its chains are; chafing sighs

Hew my heart round and hunger begot

Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not

That he on dry land loveliest liveth,

List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,

Weathered the winter, wretched outcast

Deprived of my kinsmen;

Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,

There I heard naught save the harsh sea

And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,

Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,

Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,

The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.

Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern

In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed

With spray on his pinion.

This might be one of the atmospherically coldest bits of poetry every written. The speaker is on a ship on the sea in winter, and the cold has chained him in place with its numbing effect. He is without his kin, exposed to the elements, and covered in ice. The sea is so cold that it falls in “icy feathers” on the boat, and even the eagle screams at the cold shock of the water’s spray.

One of the signatures of Old English poetry is alliteration. In the original texts, alliteration helps create the structure of the poems. Most translators try to use alliteration where it makes sense without overdoing it; to modern ears, it can pile up like impassable snowdrifts. But notice how Pound uses alliteration in lines like “Chill its chains are; chafing sighs.” If you read it aloud the ch sounds hit the ear like booted feet shuffling across ice. Then it segues to the sound of sighs, like hitting a slushy spot on the sidewalk.

Pound uses the unexpectedly harsh h sound a few times, but nowhere as effectively as in the line “Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew.” Here it is in Old English; Pound was able to use a nearly word-for-word translation: “bihongen hrimgicelu; hægl scurum fleag.” Each of those hs hits your face like snowflakes on a bitterly cold, windy day—like Saturday when the snow arrived and I didn’t remember to pull a fleecy gaiter over my face before taking the dog for a short walk. I don’t know exactly what “hail-scur” means, but I know what it is in my heart, and I hate it.

In the last few lines of this passage, the speaker hears the cold cries of the seabirds as the laughter of his friends drinking together in the hall. Is this merely a memory of better times, or has he fallen into a hallucination? Or wishful thinking? Or a kind of coping mechanism in his exile? Whichever it might be, it doesn’t last long, as the laughter of the birds turns to their screams of discomfort as they’re sprayed by the cold waves.

The Wanderer

“The Wanderer” is another poem of exile that contrasts the dire, lonely chill of winter with the welcoming warmth of camaraderie in the hall. Here’s a snippet of my translation:

My wretched self then traveled,

sorrowful as winter, over freezing waves,

sorrowful at my separation from the hall of the bestower of treasure,

I sought somewhere, far or near, that I could find

one who knew my people in the mead hall,

or who would console friendless me,

who would entertain me with enjoyments.

The speaker is so desperate for company in this passage that he’s given up on ever being in the hall with his friends again (though he does dream of that elsewhere in the poem). Here he’s merely wishing to find someone—anyone, anywhere—who knew his people, someone who would remember them and talk about the good times they had.

A mere two days into the recent winter storm, we too were becoming desperate for our people. Luckily, good friends had moved to our neighborhood the day before the snow arrived, Friday afternoon. We had planned to bring food and drink on Saturday as a welcome, but our wretched selves chose not to endure zero-degree wind chill. By Sunday, the snow had stopped flying and the wind had calmed. We were able to bundle up and walk over, just shy of a mile. There was no mead to be had (they weren’t even entirely sure which box held the coffee pot), but we did bask in the warmth of a new house full of books and projects and comfy furniture. These were consolations and entertainments enough.

The Wife’s Lament

Old English poets used the cold imagery of exile even when the setting of the poem is a warm and summery. The speaker in “The Wife’s Lament” has been told by her beloved to take shelter during her exile in a cave in a grove. The reader is not told why she has been exiled or why her love is not with her. She describers her own exile on a summer’s day where everyone she knows sleeps above ground in beds while she crawls into her underground cave in the forest. Yet this is how she describes her beloved’s exile (my translation):

Whether all his world’s joy

depends on himself or he is exiled

far in a distant nation, my beloved sits

under a storm-frosted rocky outcropping,

a friend weary in spirit, surrounded by flowing water

in a dreary hall, that friend endures

great sorrow of mind. He remembers too often

more joyful dwellings.

Here, rather than the more joyful, and warmer, dwellings of earlier days, the speaker’s dear friend is in an altogether more horrible “dreary hall”: sitting under a bit of jutting rock as a cold storm blows around him. Whether this scene is literal (the beloved is in exile in a colder northern area) or metaphorical (the cold shoulder of exile), I can picture the scene she is describing in two ways. In the first, this bit of rocky half-shelter is on an island or a little spit that juts into the water, with the cold winter river flowing around it. In the second, I imagine the sleet landing on cold but unfrozen ground and forming gelid rivulets around this man’s already imperfect refuge from the storm. Neither of these scenarios sounds as nice as a warm mead hall.

But there were days this week where flowing water, even if cold, seemed more appealing than the solid ice that encased the city. A transitional phase between the snowstorm and our normal Pacific Northwest rain that was supposed to last a few hours Tuesday evening became an ice event that lasted three days, taking out electrical power for hundreds of thousands of people and bursting water pipes. Our house made it through unscathed this time.

My own dear friend was in her own house with her own beloved a few miles across town. With roads like skating rinks, she might as well have been far in a distant nation. We both maintained our power, despite a few flickering lights, so we turned to the falsely warm glow of phone screens to text about the weather and how much we abhorred it every morning. By the end of the week, she had declared herself an indoor cat. I had declared myself on the verge of a meltdown, which is less poetic. We were friends weary in spirit.

There are bigger issues than my cabin fever and Old English poetry at stake during this storm: the climate change that creates both hotter and colder weather patterns in this normally temperate area, the unhoused neighbors who struggle in their own kind of exile from society and find themselves turned out of emergency shelters as soon as the temperature reaches an arbitrary number. These are the things that truly weary my spirit, and I do what I can when I can to help in systemic ways and human-scale ways. I do not wish a frigid exile on my neighbors.

In the meantime, I appreciate finding a connection to poetry that was written more than a thousand years ago in a language that seems incomprehensible and yet is the forebear of the language I use every day. It has weird letters and uses sounds my mouth is not always good at making, yet it’s close enough that when I write “beoð wel,” you might understand that I hope you may be well.

Order KHG’s latest translation, Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 1: Rebellion, available now as a paperback or ebook.