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Laȝamon's Brut: a Partial Verse Translation

Posted: August 6, 2014

NOTE: The following is a paper I wrote in 2010, presenting and analyzing a Middle-English translation that still makes me proud.

Laȝamon's Brut is a history of Britain in verse, written in the West Midlands region and dated quite tentatively as some time in the thirteenth century after 1205 [2: xx, 5: 7]. The content of the poem is largely derived from the Anglo-Norman epic Roman de Brut by Wace, which in turn is a derivative of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin Historia Regum Britanniae. Still, Laȝamon's is the longest of the three, adding events not recounted by Wace or Geoffrey and elaborating upon dealings common to all three texts. The content of Brut is noteworthy for its literary merit because it is written in a language that at the time was spoken effectively exclusively by the illiterate peasantry [4: xiii]. The poem is also significant as the first known instance of Arthurian legend recounted in the vernacular, reaching for the first time the uneducated majority. This undoubtedly contributed to the popularity of the Arthurian legend, making the king and his Round Table symbols of English power and a source of pride in the culture that remains to this day.

Brut is also significant as one of the longest works in an early Middle English dialect. Early English scholar Sir Frederic Madden extols "the value and importance of a poetical composition of such great length...to assist us in forming a better notion of the stat [sic] of our language at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries, than could be obtained from the short and scattered specimens already in print" [2: vi]. The insight it gives into the evolution of English is invaluable to historians, ethnographers, and the like.

The "stat" of the English language seen in Brut differs greatly from that seen in later Middle English texts. Brut strictly retains the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary, if not its grammar. By the count of Sir Madden, there are just 90 words of Romantic origin in all 16,0001 lines of Brut [2: xxiii], making it far less accessible to a modern Anglophone than, say, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The difference in dialects is so pronounced that Madden eschews applying the name "Middle English" to the language of Laȝamon; uniquely, he addresses it as "Semi-Saxon" throughout his writings [2, 3]. To appreciate the content of Brut, then, requires of the reader a dedicated preliminary linguistic study or, at the very least, a good translator. And indeed, there are a handful of publications that dutifully render Laȝamon's writing into modern English. These vary in faithfulness to the literal text of the original, from Madden's glosses—so word-accurate that his sentences are occasionally ungrammatical by modern English syntax—to Donald Bzdyl's sweeping alterations, which are justifiable "to create a congenial, readable version" [5: 21]. Yet every major translation in publication sacrifices the same element of the original: the meter.

Brut is written in a poetical style that borrows from both Anglo-Saxon and Norman literary traditions. Lines are divided into hemistichs, separated by cæsuræ. Stichs have no set length, but nearly all possess four heavy stresses [4: xxxviii]. In some lines, these stresses are alliterated, such as line 10545: "he wes ihaten Wygar, / þe Witeȝe wurhte," which literally means "It was called Wygar / that Witeȝe wrought" [4: 66]. Rhymed lines are present about as frequently as alliterative ones; in these, the ultimate syllables of paired hemistichs are rhymed or half-rhymed. Occasionally, lines will be both rhymed and alliterated, as is line 10660: "and uppen Colgrime smitten / mid swiðe smærte biten," literally "and struck upon Colgrim / with such baleful blows" [4: 72]. Laȝamon uses alliteration and rhyme to control the cadence of his narration, selectively quickening the rhythm of passages by using both frequently [5: 23]. As the poem is read aloud, this rhythm complements the mood of the scene set by the words themselves.

Of course, the modern reader is likely not speaking Laȝamon's words aloud, and the rhythmic effect of his selective rhyming and alliterating is diminished. Bzdyl contends in defense of his choice to translate Brut as prose, "Although rendering the Brut as poetry would have allowed more literal conformity to the distinctive features of Layamon's style, I doubt that their appearance in a modern poem would accurately reflect the aesthetic significance of those features for Layamon's original audience" [5: 22].

The lack of a modern verse translation is, I feel, a terrific lapse of the English literature scholarly circle. Perhaps the absolute control over rhythm that Laȝamon's verse once enjoyed is diminished, but that is not to say it is gone entirely. Even when read, not recited, rhyme and alliteration manipulate the mood produced by a passage and the parsing thereof. This element of Brut can most certainly be retained in modern English translations, which I hope I have passably proven past this point in the paper.

The excerpt of Brut I have translated is taken from lines 12459-12535 of the Brook and Leslie edition [1], a merging of the two known manuscripts of the poem. Just prior to the scene depicted, King Arthur receives a missive from Roman emperor Lucius Tiberius (whom Laȝamon calls "Luces"), demanding the submission of Britain to the Roman Empire. Arthur's knights debate the best course of action before Arthur silences them and delivers his decision. This passage is presented similarly in both Wace's and Geoffrey of Monmouth's histories of Britain. The speech delivered by Arthur follows the same pattern in all three, with careful enumeration of historical precedents for the taking of Rome. These lines were selected to especially showcase the effect verse can have on the rhythm and mood of modern English writing. Notes on the translation itself follow.

* * * *

Þa iherde Arður      þat flit of þissen eorlen. Heard Arthur then      those quarreling men,
and þus spac þe riche      wið raȝen his folke. And spoke him so fiercely      to finish their fighting.
Sitte adun swiðe      mine cnihte alle. "Sit you down swiftly,      my esteemed knights
and ælc bi his lifen      luste mine worden May you in your heart      heed now my words."
Al hit wes stille      þat wunede inne halle All they went still      as those in awe will.
Þa spak þe king balde      to riche his folke. Then spoke the bold king      to his noble folk.
Mine eorles mine beornes      balde mine þeines. "Earls and barons,      boldest of thanes,
mine duhti men      mine freond deoren My valiant men,      my dearest of friends.
þurh eou ich habbe biwunnen      vnder þere sunnen. Through you I have won      so much under the sun.
þat ich æm swiðe riche mon      reh wið mine feonden. A most valiant fighter,      I am feared by my foes;
gold ich habbe and gærsume      gumenen ich æm ælder. I see treasure and tributes;      distant tribes trust me as king.
no biwan ich hit noht ane      ah dude we alle clæene. But I won naught alone;      your import then was shown.
To moni feohte ich habbe eou ilad.      and æuere ȝet weoren wel irad. To many a fight have I led you      and always you were so skilled
swa þat feole kine-londes      stondeð a mine honde. Such that countless kingdoms      came to my control.
ȝe beoð gode cnihtes      ohte men and wihte. You are most valiant knights      who have won numerous fights
þat ich habbe iuonded      i wel feole londen. That I have witnessed      far and wide."
Þa ȝet him spac Arður      aðelest kingen. Then spoke more did Arthur,      the finest of kings.
Nu ȝe habbeoð iherd      hæȝe mine þeines "Now have you heard,      O noble thanes,
what Romanisce men      redeð heom bi-twenen. What the Romans do plan      of us to demand
and wulc word heo sendeð us here      into ure londe. And which words they send here      to our homeland, our halls.
mid write & mid worde      wið grætere wræððe. They bring writing and words      and with them, their wrath.
Nu we mote bi-ðenchen      hu we ure þeoden. We must recall      that Britons are we all.
and ure muchele wurð-scipe      mid rihte maȝen bi-witeȝen. Our people and our honor      we are determined to defend
wið þis riche moncun      wið þas Rome-leoden. From any Rome-man      and his powerful clan.
and andsware heom senden      mid aðelen ure worden. We will send our answer      by writ to Rome
mid mucle wisdome      vre writ senden to Rome. Filled with such wise      and mindful written words.
& i-witen at þan kæisere      for whan he us ofcunnen. We will learn why the emperor      does loathe us so,
for whan he us mid þrætte      & mid hokere igræteð. Why he sends us such threats,      why with scorn we are met.
Swiðe sære me gromeð      & vnimete me scomeð. I grow quite sore      and suffer such shame
þat he at-wit us ure luren      þat we ifeorn habbeoð forloren. That he taunts us with Britain's defeat      that his forebears did mete.
Heo suggeð þat Iulius Cesar hit biwon.      mid compe i fehten. Julius Cæsar won Britain      through warfare, it's written;
Mid strengðe and mid      fehte me deð feole vnrihte. His soldiers were strong      and fought most foully.
for Cesar i-sohte Bruttene mid      baldere strengðe For Cæsar sought Britain      with boldness so great
no mihte Bruttes wið him      heore lond werien. That Brits dared not make a stand      and surrendered their land,
ah mid strenðe heo eoden an hond      and bitahten him al heore lond. And the Romans did come      and took the territory.
and þer-after sone      alle his men bicome. And thereafter soon      all Britons became subjects of Cæsar.
Sum ure cun heo hadden i-slaȝen      and sum mid horsen to-draȝen. Some of our kin they had slain,      and some dragged with horses;
summe heo ladde ibunden      ut of þissen londen. Some they brought bound      out of British lands.
and þis lond biwunne      mid unrihte and mid sunnen. Thus this country did they win      with their misdeeds and sin.
& nu axeð mid icunde      gauel of þissen londe. Now they demand payment      as if we are theirs still.
Al swa we maȝen don      ȝef we hit don wulleð. Of them we could ask just as much      if we wished as such.
þurh rihte icunde      of Beline kinge. I claim Rome is the right      of Belin the king
and of Brennen his broðer      þan duc of Burgunne. And of his brother Brennen      duke of Burgundy.
Þeos weoren ure ældre      þa we beoð of icumene. Our elders they are;      we be of their blood.
þeos bilæie Rome      and þa riche al bi-wunnen. They laid siege to Rome,      and its riches they took home;
& biuoren Rome þere stronge      heore ȝisles an-henge. And hanged their hostages      within its walls.
and seoððen heo nomen al þat lond      and setten hit an heore aȝere hond. They took all of those lands      and set them in their own hands.
and þus we mid rihte ahten      Rome us biriden. So thus we rightfully ought      besiege Rome as they did.
Nu ich wulle leten Belin      and Brenne bilæuen. Now I will let Belin      and Brennen be
and speken of þan kaisere      Costantin þan stronge. And speak of the emperor,      Constantine the Strong.
he wes Helene sune      al of Brutten icume. He was Helen's son;      all Britons from him come.
he biwon Rome      and þa riche a-welde He sacked the same city,      its riches he seized.
Lete we nu of Costantin      þe Rome iwon al to him. Let us leave now Constantine,      who won just Rome,
and speken of Maximiæn      þat was a swiðe strong mon. And speak of Maximian,      that strongest of lords.
he wes king of Brutene      he biwon France. He was king of Britain;      France he took too.
Maximien þe stronge      Rome he nom an honde. Nor could stand Rome      to Maximian the Strong.
and Alemaine he biwon eke      mid wunder muchele strengðe. He claimed Germany as his right      with a wondrous show of might.
and al from Romayne      into Normandie. From Normandy to Rome      all land was under his throne.
And þeos weoren mine ælderen      mine aððele uore-genglen. And these are my elders,      my noble forefathers.
and ahten alle þa leoden      þa into Rome leien. And they had all the land      that Lucius now leads.
and þurh swuche dome      ich ahte to biȝeten Rome. And because of this history      I ought have his Rome.
Heo ȝirneð me an honde      gauel of mine londe. They yearn from my hand      a tribute of land,
al swa ic wille of Rome      ȝif ich ræd habbe. As I will of Rome      if your blessing I have.
Ich wilnie a mine þonke      to walden al Rome. I desire in my dreams      dominion of Rome.
and he wilneð me in Brutene      to binde swiðe uaste And he wants my Britain      bound very fast
and slæn mine Bruttes      mid his balu-reses. So as to slay my Britons      in some woeful attack.
Ah ȝif hit on mi Drihten      þe scop dæiȝes and nihtten. But if it please the Lord      who ordains day and night,
he scal his balde ibeot      sære abuggen. He shall his bold threat      most sorely regret;
& his Rom-leoden      þer-fore scullen reosen. And his Rome-people      will pay the price;
and ic wulle ræh beon      þer he nu rixleð on. And I will rule with wrath      where he now resides.
Wunieð nu stille alle      ic wulle suggen mine iwille. Sit you all still,      whilst I say my will.
ne scal hit na man oðer i-don      ah hit scal stonden þer-on. No man shall stanch it      and it shall stand as stated.
He wilneð al and ich wilni al      þæt wit beiene aȝæð. Lucius desires all,      and I all that he has,
habben hit nu and aȝe      þe hit æð mæȝen iwinne. To have it now and forever,      once won by whichever.
for nu we scullen cunne.      wham hit Godd unne. For now we shall gather      to whom God does grant it."
Þus spac þe balde      þe Brutene hafde an onwalde. Thus spake the bold lord      who ruled all of Britain;
þat was Arður þe king      Bruttene deorling. It was Britain's darling,      Arthur the king.

* * * *

Arthur is understandably incensed and outraged by the thought of paying tribute to Emperor Lucius. In prose I may have selected to convey this with exclamation marks, though here I have done so by retaining the rhythmic control elements previously mentioned. I've attempted to convey in verse a pace appropriate for the context, which, not surprisingly, means compromising literal accuracy for rhythmic continuation. Note as well that I have abandoned metric accuracy, in the sense of preserving which particular line numbers are alliterated and which are rhymed. This is practically unavoidable: as word pronunciations and sentence structures change between languages, it becomes impossible to preserve original rhymes and alliterations. For example, at line 12495, "Sum ure cun heo hadden i-slaȝen / and sum mid horsen to-draȝen," literally "Some of our kin they had slain / and some with horses dragged," it has become impossible to rhyme the final words of the hemistichs without greatly changing their meaning. The specific lines I have made rhyme or alliterate are not influenced by Laȝamon's verse. Such a practice may be unjustifiable when translating a poem such as Beowulf, which was written with a preexisting framework defining patterns of alliteration, but it is certainly suited to Laȝamon's disarray of rhythmic elements.

An excerpt that nicely exhibits several types of changes made between original and translated editions is found in lines 12480-12486, from "Nu we mote bi-ðenchen" to "& mid hokere igræteð." For comparison, I have arranged side-by-side Madden's gloss of the passage, paraphrased for clarity, and my same translation as above. Madden, by staying as close as possible to the literal meaning of the original text, proves a fine benchmark by which to measure how far deviated a translation is in meaning. In the interest of space, I have marked cæsuræ with a single forward slash and line breaks with a double forward slash.

GlossVerse Translation
Now we must bethink how we may with right defend our country and our great honor, against this powerful folk, against this Rome-people, and send them answer with our good words; with much wisdom send our writ to Rome, and learn at the emperor, for what thing he us hateth; for what thing he greets us with threat and with scorn. [3: 628] We must recall / that Britons are we all. // Our people and our honor / we are determined to defend // From any Rome-man / and his powerful clan. // We will send our answer / by writ to Rome // Filled with such wise / and mindful written words. // We will learn why the emperor / does loathe us so, // why he sends us such threats, / why with scorn we are met.

The first stich of this passage has undergone the most significant alteration, largely because I was not satisfied with any way of implementing the phrase mid rihte, "with right." I have added an entirely new thought, but one that fits well Arthur's aim of rousing the spirits of his Round Table. The third line, beginning "From any Rome-man," keeps rather close in meaning to the original, but the order of the subjects, "Rome-man" and "clan," are swapped to accommodate a rhyme that otherwise would not make sense as written. The next lines show a similar occurrence, though now it is the final hemistichs of two consecutive lines being exchanged. This was done to promote understanding for a modern reader as much as it was to accommodate an alliterated line in translation. Alterations similar to those seen in these lines are found throughout the translation, but having given these as examples I do not feel the need to explicitly point out every instance of reordering or meaning change. It suffices to say that such changes exist but have been crafted so as to preserve the feel of the original.

Laȝamon practices the longstanding art of antonomasia, naming objects with an epithet or adjective. In the stich immediately following Arthur's speech, Laȝamon says, "Þus spac þe balde / þe Brutene hafde an onwalde," literally "thus spake the bold that had Britain in command." This mirrors the antonomasia in the stich that immediately precedes Arthur's first line, which begins "and þus spac þe riche," literally "and thus spake the gifted2." The practice of substituting adjectives for nouns in this way is not common in modern English literature, and so I have inserted words to supplant the ones originally elided.

Arthur's original speech does not mention Emperor Lucius by name; however, I do so twice. The first instance, line 12518 ("and ahten alle þa leoden / þa into Rome leien," literally "and possess all the land / that lies in Rome"), was amended to facilitate alliteration. The second insertion of the emperor is for clarity. As he concludes his appeal to his knights, Arthur states in line 12531, "He wilneð al and ich wilni al," literally "He desires all and I desire all." The "he" can only logically refer to the emperor, yet still I felt it appropriate to use the proper noun over the pronoun in my translation.

Old English is a case-based and declension-dependent language. As such, word order can vary greatly without affecting the meaning or clarity of a sentence. Some vestiges of this can be seen in Brut, particularly between adjectives and the nouns they modify. At line 12464, Laȝamon says, "Þa spak þe king balde / to riche3 his folke." Literally, and preserving original word order, this means "Then spake the king bold to noble his folk." The world "bold" appears after its noun, "king," while "noble" and "folk" are actually separated by a word. This feature of the language is quite convenient for the original poet, but it necessitates sentence restructuring on the part of the translator. It also forces me to find other ways of crafting rhymed lines.

This speech of Arthur's, the passage I've dedicated my time to studying, is uniformly of a swift, driven pace. Though this is a fine tempo for a showcase of rhyme and alliteration as rhythm control, it does nothing to indicate Laȝamon's ability to craft a more relaxed pacing for passages of less urgency and emotion. Were I to translate more of Brut, I would next turn my attention to such a selection, a slower one with less alliteration and fewer rhymes. There is a danger in selecting a slower passage, however. I fear that I may find myself trudging something tremendously dull, such as Laȝamon's obsessive cataloguing of the children of Ebrauc [5: 56]—all fifty of them.

1. Madden's edition generally assigns two lines where other editors assign one; by his count, then, Brut is 32,250 lines. I have adopted here, as elsewhere, the lineation used by Brook and Leslie [1].

2. Riche is a wonderful word with no good modern equivalent; it can mean gifted or well-endowed in any of a number of areas, such as valor, nobility, or chastity.

3. I take a cue from Madden by translating riche here as "noble." Later, I write "valiant."

A bibliography, or: Bockes ich habbe radde

[1] Brook, G. L., and R. F. Leslie. Layamon: Brut. London: Oxford Univ., 1978. University of Virgina Library. Web. Accessed December 3, 2010. <http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=chadwyck_ep/uvaGenText/tei/chep_1.1860.xml>.

[2] Laȝamon. Laȝamon's Brut, or Chronicle of Britain; a Poetical Semi-Saxon Paraphrase of the Brut of Wace. Ed. Frederic Madden. Vol. i. London: British Museum, 1967. Reprint, 1847.

[3] Laȝamon. Laȝamon's Brut, or Chronicle of Britain; a Poetical Semi-Saxon Paraphrase of the Brut of Wace. Ed. Frederic Madden. Vol. ii. London: British Museum, 1967. Reprint, 1847.

[4] Laȝamon, W. R. J. Barron, and S. C. Weinberg. Laȝamon's Arthur: the Arthurian Section of Laȝamon's Brut (lines 9229-14297). Austin: University of Texas, 1989. Print.

[5] Layamon and Donald G. Bzdyl. Layamon's Brut: a History of the Britons. Binghamton, NY: Center for Medieval and Early Renaissance Studies, State University of New York at Binghamton, 1989. Print.