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Deor's Lament

Deor's Lament

(Old English/Anglo-Saxon poem circa the 10th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Weland endured the agony of exile:
an indomitable smith wracked by grief.
He suffered countless sorrows;
indeed, such sorrows were his bosom companions
in that frozen island dungeon
where Nithad fettered him:
so many strong-but-supple sinew-bands
binding the better man.
That passed away; this also may.

Beadohild mourned her brothers' deaths,
bemoaning also her own sad state
once she discovered herself with child.
She knew nothing good could ever come of it.
That passed away; this also may.

We have heard the Geat's moans for Matilda,
his lovely lady, waxed limitless,
that his sorrowful love for her
robbed him of regretless sleep.
That passed away; this also may.
 
For thirty winters Theodric ruled
the Mæring stronghold with an iron hand;
many acknowledged his mastery and moaned.
That passed away; this also may.
 
We have heard too of Ermanaric's wolfish ways,
of how he cruelly ruled the Goths' realms.
That was a grim king! Many a warrior sat,
full of cares and maladies of the mind,
wishing constantly that his crown might be overthrown.
That passed away; this also may.
 
If a man sits long enough, sorrowful and anxious,
bereft of joy, his mind constantly darkening,
soon it seems to him that his troubles are limitless.
Then he must consider that the wise Lord
often moves through the earth
granting some men honor, glory and fame,
but others only shame and hardship.
This I can say for myself:
that for awhile I was the Heodeninga's scop,
dear to my lord. My name was Deor.
For many winters I held a fine office,
faithfully serving a just king. But now Heorrenda
a man skilful in songs, has received the estate
the protector of warriors had promised me.
That passed away; this also may.

Footnotes and Translator's Comments
by Michael R. Burch

Summary
 
"Deor's Lament" appears in the Exeter Book, which has been dated to around 960-990 AD. The poem may be considerably older than the manuscript, since many ancient poems were passed down orally for generations before they were finally written down. The poem is a lament in which someone named Deor, presumably the poet who composed the poem, compares the loss of his job and prospects to seemingly far greater tragedies of the past. Thus "Deor's Lament" may be an early example of overstatement and/or "special pleading."

Author

The author is unknown but may have been an Anglo-Saxon scop (poet) named Deor. However it is also possible that the poem was written by someone else. We have no knowledge of a poet named "Deor" outside the poem.
 
Genre
 
"Deor's Lament" is, as its name indicates, a lament. The poem has also been classified as an Anglo-Saxon elegy or dirge. If the poet's name "was" Deor, does that mean he is no longer alive and is speaking to us from beyond the grave? "Deor" has also been categorized as an ubi sunt ("where are they now?") poem.
 
Theme
 
The poem's theme is one common to Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature: that a man cannot escape his fate and thus can only meet it with courage, resolve and fortitude.
 
Plot

Doer's name means "dear" and the poet puns on his name in the final stanza: "I was dear to my lord. My name was Deor." The name Deor may also has connotations of "noble" and "excellent." The plot of Deor's poem is simple and straightforward: other heroic figures of the past overcame adversity; so Deor may also be able to overcome the injustice done to him when his lord gave his position to a rival. It is even possible that Deor intended the poem to be a spell, incantation, curse or charm of sorts.
 
Techniques
 
"Deor's Lament" is an alliterative poem: it uses alliteration rather than meter to "create a flow" of words. This was typical of Anglo-Saxon poetry. “Deor's Lament" is one of the first Old English poems to employ a refrain, which it does quite effectively. What does the refrain "Thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg" mean? Perhaps something like: "That was overcome, and so this may be overcome also." However, the refrain is ambiguous: perhaps the speaker believes things will work out the same way; or perhaps he is merely suggesting that things might work out for the best; or perhaps he is being ironical, knowing that they won't.

Characters and References

Weland/Welund is better known today as Wayland the Smith. (Beowulf's armor was said to have been fashioned by Weland.) According to an ancient Norse poem, Völundarkviða, Weland and his brothers came upon three swan-maidens on a lake's shore, fell in love with them, and lived with them happily for seven years, until the swan-maidens flew away. His brothers left, but Weland stayed and turned to smithing, fashioning beautiful golden rings for the day of his swan-wife's return. King Nithuthr, hearing of this, took Weland captive, hamstrung him to keep him prisoner, and kept him enslaved on an island, forging fine things. Weland took revenge by killing Nithuthr's sons and getting his daughter Beadohild pregnant. Finally Weland fashioned wings and flew away, sounding a bit like Icarus of Greek myth.

Deor has left no trace of himself, other than this poem. Heorrenda appears as Horant in a thirteenth century German epic Kudrun. It was said that Horant sang so sweetly that birds fell silent at his song, and fish and animals in the wood fell motionless. That would indeed make him a formidable opponent for the scop Deor.

Keywords/Tags: Deor, Lament, Old England, Old English, Anglo-Saxon, translation, scop, poet, poets, poems, poetry, Wayland, smith, Weland, exile, fetters, dungeon, Old England, dear, mourning, dirge, fate, destiny

Copyright © Michael Burch

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