Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Middle English Alliterative Verse

Middle/Old English verse is interesting in that it usually employs alliterative verse. That is, words in a line of verse will start with the same consonant. Take, for example the first 4 lines from Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight; I've italicized the relevant words:

SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at Troye,
Þe borȝ brittened and brent to brondeȝ and askez,
Þe tulk þat þe trammes of tresoun þer wroȝt
Watz tried for his tricherie, þe trewest on erthe

Wagner, in his Ring Cycle, copied this technique from the Niebelungenlied as well as the Icelandic Sagas that he used for sources; he used it to great effect. Take, for example, this passage from Das Rheingold, where Alberich is clambering up the rocks of the Rhine:

Garstig glatter
glitschriger Glimmer
Wie gliet ich auss!...
Feuchtes Nass
fullt mir die Nase
verfluchtes Niesen

This loses something in translation, but Dereyk Cooke makes an effort at retaining the alliteration:

Nasty slippery
slithery slate!
How I keep slipping!...
Clammy moisture
fills my nostrils;
curse this sneezing

If a translator chooses to ignore the alliterative verse something is certaintly lost. If you want to read Middle/Old English poetry, read it in the original; Middle English is close enought to Modern English that one shouldn't have too much trouble picking it up.

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