Monamy 1. 37 x 53. Plymouth City Art Gallery. Currently being cleaned.


In order to determine precisely how and when Monamy made use of the graphic aids available to him, in my view it is necessary to start by concentrating first on the depiction of the lighthouse, and for the time being to ignore the composition of the background shipping.

To the left are two prints showing Winstanley’s first construction. The upper is the earlier, “Drawn at ye Rock by Jaaziell Johnston, Painter”, which was engraved and issued in 1698. Another print of the second tower was issued after its construction in 1699.

The lower print is based on the upper, and was engraved by Henry Roberts, 1761, after the completion of Smeaton’s lighthouse in 1759, and issued in connection with Smeaton’s account of its construction. Roberts also engraved a print of the second construction at the same time: see here.

There can be no doubt that Monamy’s painting portrays this first Winstanley construction. It would also seem reasonable to assume that he made use of the earlier engraving.

There were, however, other drawings of this lighthouse. Alison Barnes has generously directed my attention to an entry in the Calendar of Treasury Papers, Jan 7, 1702, Vol LXXVII, p 6, which shows that Thomas Baston “….. by the King’s order, through Major Gen Trelawny, … made a draught of the lighthouse on the Eddystone near Plymouth, which the King then had at Kensington, and that afterwards, by his express orders, a second draught of the same, much larger, and according to the new alterations, which were then made, in that lighthouse, together with the draughts of several of the King’s ships of war, which after much pains and six months labour, he performed to general satisfaction, and delivered to the King at Hampton Court …..”

Besides the print, therefore, Monamy could have made use of Johnston’s original drawing, or Thomas Baston’s drawing, and it is apparent that Winstanley himself made drawings, as well as a wooden model.

There are salient additions and differences between Monamy’s painting and the engraving after Johnston, discussed below.

M1: The cleaned section. From the cover of Henry Winstanley, by Alison Barnes, 2003.

The most obvious and striking differences are the long projecting arm with the red ensign; the vestige of what looks like a central door to the left of the ladder; and the head-on view of the rock on which the lighthouse stands. It is clear that Monamy also made use of a drawing by the Younger van de Velde, reproduced further down.


Below is a sketch by the Younger van de Velde, 1699; reproduced in Robinson, van de Velde Drawings, Vol II, 1974, p.287. Van de Velde’s sketch is described by Michael Robinson on p.122 as “The Eddystone lighthouse drawn probably immediately after its completion. [It] … was begun in 1696. The light was exhibited for the first time on 14 November 1698.”

In her authoritative study of Winstanley’s life and work, Alison Barnes writes that “In the summer of 1699, Mr Winstanley strengthened, raised and enlarged his lighthouse.” She has pointed out that this drawing must have been made during the summer, when work was in progress, since it appears to show some but not all of the features of the final structure. The central door and the flag belong to the final stages, but the drawing does not include the gallery to the right, clearly delineated on engravings of the strengthened building of 1699-1703, or the mottoes. The over-elaborate wrought ironwork crowning the first construction has been replaced with ironwork more closely matching the engraved print of the final lighthouse. Essentially, therefore, van de Velde’s sketch is of the second construction, considerably taller and more robust than the first.

It is very obvious that although Monamy intended to commemorate the pioneering achievement of the first, original structure, he has followed the composition of the van de Velde sketch, and added the bright red colouring of the ensign, with its attendant keeper, for visual effect. The sky and the cloud formations are based on first-hand observation, as Janet Tamblin has remarked, but it is exceedingly unlikely that Monamy ever saw either of the Winstanley structures before they vanished.

Monamy’s exploitation of the van de Velde composition, in his three known lighthouse paintings, will be discussed on other pages. Meanwhile, his second depiction of Winstanley’s first lighthouse is examined here.

winstanley’s lighthouse 1: M1
winstanley’s lighthouse 1: M3
winstanley’s lighthouse 2
rudyerd’s lighthouse: M2
smeaton’s lighthouse

miscellaneous lighthouses
lighthouse paintings composition
monamy website index

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2004



1.    I will tell you      my personal testament,
2.    tally the weight      of weary days,
3.    the hours of torment,      the times of agony,
4.    the bitter heart-stabs      I have abided,
5.    endured in anguish      in endless keels
6.    thrown through the troughs      of towering waves
often obsessed      in the cell of my heart
7.    through night’s narrow watches      as the prows of my ships
8.    dashed beside cliffs.      Cold grasped
9.    my aching feet,      frost clenched my skin,
10.   chilling my bones,      while sorrow burned inward,
11.   hot in my heart:      the hunger within
12.   ate at my spirit,      sick of my wandering
over the ocean.      He whose lot
13.   keeps him on land      can never know
14.   my sorrow and need      on the freezing sea,
15.   how I have endured      the path of the exile,
16.   deprived of my kin,      through winters of pain
17.   hung with grim icicles      while hail scourged the wind.
18.   There I heard nothing      but the roar of the sea,
19.   the crash of the ice road.      The swan’s blare,
20.   did me for games —      the gannet’s cry,
21.   the curlew’s song      for sociable laughter —
22.   the mew’s singing      for the drinking of mead.
23.   There storms beat the stone cliffs,      there the tern answered
the shattering waves      with icy feathers;
24.   often the eagle’s scream      surrounded the storm
25.   with feathers of darkness.      No familiar protector
26.   could bring consolation      to my care riddled spirit.
27.   Yet those who enjoy      a complacent life
28.   secure in their cities,      stately and wine-proud,
29.   cannot comprehend      why I must continue,
30.   however weary,      to wander the sea-path.
31.   Snow swept from the north,      night’s shadows descended,
32.   frost held earth bound,      snow covered the world,
33.   the coldest of grains.      Yet thoughts grip my heart,
34.   need moves my spirit:      I must go by myself
35.   over the salt crests,      the cavernous ocean;
36.   always my mind      moves toward the distance —
37.   my heart beats faster,      I follow its surge
38.   alone as a pilgrim      to land far away.
39.   Yet none is so spirited      nor strong in his courage
40.   nor generous in giving      nor vigorous in youth
41.   nor bold in his actions      nor blessed by his lord
42.   that he has no fears      to follow the sea
43.   to the fate that the Lord      has stored up for him.
44.   The harp does not hold him      nor the hoarding of rings
45.   nor the pleasures of love      nor worldly attainments —
46.   his only thought      is the tossing of waves —
47.   though he has his longings      alone on the sea.
48.   Groves take blossom,      towns come alive,
49.   meadows flourish,      the world is refreshed;
50.   all of this urges      the eager mind
51.   of the veteran traveler      to venture forth
52.   into the distance      over deep seas.
53.   Even the cuckoo,      the warden of summer,
54.   urges him forward      with mournful voice
foreboding sorrow,      the bitter fate
55.   of the innermost heart.      Warriors at home,
56.   blessed with comfort,      can never know
57.   how much the sea-pacer      must suffer and bear
who follows farthest      the path of the exile.
58.   Yet now my heart      hammers my chest,
59.   longs for the journey;      my hungering spirit
60.   soars out wide      over the whale’s turf
61.   to earth’s far corners      and comes back to me
62.   insistant and greedy;      the lone-glider cries
63.   irresistibly pulling      my soul to the whale’s path,
64.   the boundless ocean.      For the bliss of the Lord
65.   is warmer to me      than this waking death
66.   that flickers on land.      I have no faith
67.   in earthly possessions      that pass in a day.
68.   Till the end of life’s tide      one of three things
69.   remains uncertain      in worldly events:
70.   illness or age      or hate driven swords
71.   will take a man’s life      as fate turns its way.
72.   Hence for all men      it is best to accomplish
73.   durable fame,      renown in the world,
74.   among their survivors,      those who speak after
75.   they have departed,      through deeds of courage,
76.   through memorable acts      against the fiends’ malice,
77.   opposing the devil,      earning posterity’s
78.   emulation and praise,      and forever and ever
79.   enjoying the glory      of the angels in heaven,
80.   the triumphant host.      The time has passed
81.   for earthly magnificence      in majestic realms;
82.   now no emperors,      no imperial Caesars,
83.   no givers of gold      do glorious deeds
84.   among their peers      or live in splendor
85.   in lordly dominion      as they did in past ages.
86.   That fraternity has fallen,      the fellowship ended;
87.   weaklings now work      the world they left
88.   in grief and toil.      Grandeur has faded,
89.   earth’s nobility      ages and whithers,
90.   just like mankind      throughout middlearth.
91.   Decrepitude takes them,      all grow pale,
92.   white-headed they lament,      mourn for old friends,
93.   the children of nobles      given to earth.
94.   When life has departed,      the cask of the flesh
95.   tastes nothing sweet,      nor feels any pain,
96.   its hands cannot move,      nor its mind fashion thoughts.
97.   Though brother gives kinsman      a magnificent funeral,
98.   packing the coffin      with precious treasure,
99.   with gold to his tribute,      it won’t travel with him;
100.  no gold can aid      nor gain atonement
101.  for a soul full of sin      in the presence of God,
102.  however he hoards it      here on this earth.
103.  Great is the strength      of God almighty;
His terrible power      turns over this world.
104.  It was He Who established      the earth’s foundations,
105.  spread wide its face      and framed it with heaven.
106.  A fool is he who fears not his Lord,
fated to die without preparation;
107.  Blessed is he whose life is humble,
heaven will grant him its mercy.
108.  The Lord will secure him a steadfast spirit
because he surrenders to the power of God.
109.  A man must control      the heat of his temper,
must find a firm base      for his fierce spirit,
110.  must honor his pledges      and lead a pure life.
111.  Every man      must learn moderation
112.  with friends and with foes,      [in fellowship and] anger.
113.  Though he may not wish      to see his true friends
114.  filled with fire      or burned in the flames,
115.  [yet he must keep patience:]      Fate has more power,
116.  God has more might      than any man knows.
117.  Let us consider      where we have our true home,
118.  then let us reflect      on how to arrive there,
119.  then let us labor      to enter that place,
120.  and there find the blessings,      the beauties of heaven,
121.  where the source of life      is the love of God
122.  in endless peace.      Eternally thank
123.  our Lord in the highest,      that he should so honor us,
124.  the Prince of Glory,      throughout all time.

The present rendering consists of a poet’s personal engagement with the text and extensions of Norse verse forms over a period of some 20 years. It makes no claims to scholarship. In translating other Anglo-Saxon poems, notably the Exeter Book riddles, I tried to work with the original order of phrases on the hunch that the Anglo-Saxon poets plotted half lines as a basic device shaping all levels of significance, ranging from rhythm to exposition to stages of epiphany. In one of the most provocative and meaningful workings of Anglo-Saxon poetry, “So For Then Also The Dragon,” which I published in several versions, Don Wellman took a similar approach much farther. My work in this direction lead me to a dead end; Wellman’s does not. In my version of “The Seafarer,” I returned to a more conventional approach, and to such formal properties as alliteration, which I had previously avoided, preferring to emphasize patterns set up by syntax, relative stress, and caesura. In my “Seafarer” working, I played considerably with formal attributes I had previously neglected, and I did so in ways (such as altered and extended alliteration, and assonance) not necessarily present in the original text, just as I allowed myself some of the usual liberties in lexical transference. I also found that half-lines sometimes worked better in Modern English when extended to full lines. By numbering the lines of my working according to the base text, I indicate extensions of this sort by omitting line numbers, so that extended lines have no numbers in the portions extended. I also broke hypermetric lines, presenting the second halves as separate, indented lines. My primary source for the text was the old war-horse, George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie’s The Exeter Book, Columbia University Press, 1936. My efforts with Anglo-Saxon poetry are inextricably bound up with original poems of various sorts, most importantly, Milestones, a series begun in 1970 which take their base in the life of contemporary America as seen while driving cars; and with adaptations of Chinese poetry — particularly in a sequence titled Clouds Over Fortjade in which the activist Tu Fu holds an oblique debate with the quietist Wang Wei, through parallelism and antithesis worked out in screenfolds. My rendering of “The Seafarer” was published in a tiny but magnificently crafted edition by Walter Tisdale, which contained variants in production in different individual copies. The poem as it appears here includes several textual revisions made since the book’s publication. Tisdale also published the first volume ofMilestones, showing his usual sensitivity to context and sequence. May poets everywhere find such sensitivity in their publishers, on the web and in print — as Charles Harrison Wallace shows those whose work appears at this site.

Readers interested in my Light and Dust site, a growing, eclectic, anti-sectarian, multicultural, and multilingual collection of contemporary poetry, may click on this line to check it out. – Karl Young

� Karl Young 1990

all rights reserved


anglo-saxon text

main index

back to other versions



Celtic Mysteries
John Sharkey

These notes arise from the perception, discussed elsewhere [SSAS], that eorþan sceatas in line 61 of The Seafarer, despite its plural number, does not mean “the surfaces of the world” [Hieatt, 1967], “earth’s far reaches” [Wain, 1980], “surface, region, expanse” (Seven Old English Poems; J.C.Pope, 1981), but is a near equivalent of modern Swedish jordens sköte, ie the “lap” of Mother Nature, a blandly benign personification. The reading of “lap” is adopted by Neville Denny, 1960; and Clair McPherson, 1987, another careful translator, has “corners of the earth”, although a sense of the deep, romantic chasm, located in Coleridge’s Xanadu and reduced by Kane to a rosebud, is missing from these corners. For German Schoss, Professor Breul gives “sprig”, “shoot”, “lap”, “womb”, “flap” and “tax” (of course: there is a persistent association of the “lap” with “treasure”, even if it’s only a ha’penny, as the music hall song put it); and cites the word in combinations such as (im) Schosse seiner Familie, Schosse der Kirche, Schosse der Götter. The connotations of generation, church and heathendom are self-evident, but nobody, to my knowledge, has yet connected German Schoss with Anglo-Saxon sceat. The word’s relationship to Schatz is obvious.

Mother Nature, under many different names, is otherwise the Great Goddess of prehistoric myth. Goddess literature (some titles below, or see this website: here) is familiar enough to need little comment, but it’s worth noting that much of it mourns the supposed shift of authority, in the course of the last thirty-odd thousand years of humanity’s sex wars, from Mother to Father. Perhaps this conjectural pendulum is now starting to swing back; or perhaps sexual reproduction, as we have known it, is about to give way to cloning and genetic engineering. These comments aim only to draw attention to a few points of passing interest. A comprehensively edifying site on these matters is posted by Chris Witcombe; see his views on the Venus of Willendorf, here.

The earliest known human artefacts (a discovery in 1981 at Golan Heights, Israel, is alleged to be at least 230,000 and perhaps up to 800,000 years old — a likely story? Check discussion here or here) of purely aesthetic, non-practical character seem to be representations of the female body. It is not clear to me why these figurines should automatically be described as “goddesses”, and I would have thought that up to, say, about 20,000 BC they are better thought of as manifestations of mankind’s (or womankind’s) slowly evolving sense of self-knowledge — the consequence of apple-eating. Since Eve tasted the fruit before Adam, woman’s awareness preceded that of man, and she retains a greater self-perception of her body and its functions. Doesn’t she? Current opinion, in some quarters, holds that the “Venus” figurines were self-images created by women.

A few millenia further on, the self-knowing Mensch becomes increasingly conscious that it is subject to external forces over which it has no control. It is kicked out of Eden and perplexity sets in. Who, or what, directs these forces? What is the origin and purpose of its existence?

Why does it age and eventually depart, and where does it go? The search for survival begins, and curiosity engenders science, pure and applied. Intellectual necessity begets invention. He, more probably than she, lifts his head — are wolves the only other animals to notice the sky? Dogs will also bark at the full moon — and sees the sun, moon and stars. A vengeful deity is conceived. Man is reborn from woman, but powers exerted by more distant bodies direct life’s daily round. The sun and rain impregnate the earth, the moon regulates ovulation, there are patterns in the stars. Is there some veiled link between the vaults of heaven and the lap of nature?

Such a micro-macrocosmic marriage has been adduced by most societies. The earth is usually female and the sky male, except in Egypt, where, above a prone but ithyphallic god, a sky-goddess spanned the welkin, ingested the sun at evening and gave birth to it at dawn. Further east, the yin-yang cosmic circle symbolises the division between two opposite but equal forces in harmonious stasis and androgynous unity. The upper section is the yang and the lower is the yin. Everything in the universe is shaped by their interaction. They represent the riddle of creation, and symbolise the dualities experienced by mankind: heaven and earth, male and female, light and dark.

There is no evil, and no infernal medieval hell in this concept. The original meaning of the word would seem simply to be “earth”: simultaneously the grave and the lap of creation.The ‘hidden place’ that is “hell” is explained etymologically by John Ayto. The term “goes back ultimately to Indo-European *kel- ‘cover, hide’, which has contributed an extraordinary number of words to English, including apocalypse, cell, cellar, conceal, helmet, hull (‘pod’), occult, and possibly colour and holster. Its Germanic descendant was *khel-, *khal-, (any etymological connection with the Indian goddess Kali?) whose derivatives included *khallo and *khaljo. The first became modern English hall, the second modern English hell — so both hall and hell were originally ‘concealed or covered places’, although in very different ways: the hall with a roof, hell with at least six feet of earth. Related Germanic forms include German Hölle, Dutch hel and Swedish helvete (in which vete means ‘punishment’).” Coincidentally or not, Sw veta means “to know”. Swedish helvete, according to Elof Hellquist, is virtually the same word as Icelandic helvíti, Old Saxon helliwîti and Anglo-Saxon hellewîte. Anglo-Saxon wîte, according to Bosworth-Toller, means “punishment, pain that is inflicted as punishment, torment”. Wîtedom, says the same authority, is “knowledge derived from a superhuman source”, ie revelation; from which it is a small step for an Anglo-Saxon to understand that wisdom, knowledge, and awareness of humanity’s nakedness, are forms of mental torment, hell on earth, and the consequence of forbidden apple-eating. Wîte is also cognate with “witness”, and the implication is that observation, to be observant and observed, underlies the concept of punishment. Self-consciousness is the painful price of knowledge. Ayenbite of Inwit — remorse of conscience, an affliction suffered by those sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.

Sartre, in Huis Clos (almost French for cul-de-sac), noted that “hell is other people”. He had 20th century hells in mind. “Scholars have argued, based on surviving texts, that Hel was not considered an evil deity until Norse beliefs began to be influenced by Christianity … There was no stigma of cruelty attached to her; rather, she appeared to be sad or depressed. Her palace was as imposing as the halls of the gods, and she met the dead souls who came to her with courtesy. They seemed to dwell peacefully in Hel; they were not tortured or mistreated in any way. Nevertheless, by the Viking age, emphasis was placed on Hel’s subjects as criminals — murderers, thieves, adulterers — and others who had not died in battle, and thus had not been carried off by Odin’s Valkyries to the heavenly palace of Valhalla.” These comments fromCompton’s Encyclopedia Online echo Jacob Grimm: “Originally Hellia is not death nor any evil being, she neither kills nor torments; she takes the souls of the departed and holds them with inexorable grip. The idea of a place evolved … the converted heathen without any ado applied it to the Christian underworld, the abode of the damned; all Teutonic nations have done this … because that local notion already existed under heathenism, perhaps also because the church was not sorry to associate lost spirits with a heathen and fiendish divinity.” [p.312]. In her Woman’s Encyclopedia Barbara Walker remarks that “Though Christian theology gave its underworld the name of the Goddess Hel, it was quite a different place from her womb of regeneration. The ancients didn’t view the underworld as primarily a place of punishment. It was dark, mysterious and awesome, but not the vast torture chamber Christians made of it.”

In a more recent work, Hel, the Hidden Goddess of Northern Mythology, two Swedish authors, Gunnel and Göran Liljenroth, have put forward their theory, based partly on a close analysis of the many northern, mainly Scandinavian, place-names which incorporate the element (h)el- or (h)al-, that about 10,000 years ago the land was named for the goddess Hel, whose devotees settled those parts of the continent which are now submerged. The presence of these Ice Age peoples, they maintain, can be traced in numerous existing place-names, of which the most familiar to English speakers will be Helsinki and Elsinore. (Hamlet’s royal seat is an anglicization of Danish Helsingør, across the Sound from what is now the Swedish city of Helsingborg.) There are Swedish provinces called Halland and Helsingland, and countries with similar names are Heligoland and Holland; though Holland may mean holt-land, ie woodland. But more hollows than holts in Holland today. Any significance that Hull, near Wetwang, on England’s east coast, faces Scandinavia?

Click here for Iman Wilkens’ new map of hell.

What song the sirens sang, or what language was spoken in northern Europe during neolithic times, though puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture. If G. and G. Liljenroth may be believed, the word for the world in those days was hel, not a land outside a lost and vanished Eden but fruitfulness identified, a “goddess” called Hel.

We know what she looked like, since her portrait has been left us, carved on stone in a grave passage at Trinity-on-Sea, Brittany, France. This likeness, right, redrawn by Lully Aldworth, appears on p.7 of Hilda Ellis Davidson’s latest study, Roles of the Northern Goddess, 1998. In her introductory overview she is gently critical of Marija Gimbutas, and mentions Robert Graves’s “nebulous goddess in early Celtic literature, on which he was no authority”.

go to part 2

Why does Venus often lack arms?
Magritte’s Natural Knowledge, no date, flanks the Venus of Lespugue, France; 21,000 BC.
click for more on the Lespugue Venus.

Figurine carved in mammoth ivory. Restored.
from The Metamorphosis of Baubo
Winifred Milius Lubell, Vanderbilt UP 1994

bird   divide   man   other   sea   ship   sun

previous goddess and gods

theme index
index of picture collages
main index

“Archaeologists, geneticists and others are … trying to understand … linguistic behaviour and the prototypes of the languages we all speak … the day may yet come when … we may have some idea of the language the builders of Stonehenge spoke.” Stonehenge; D.Souden, English Heritage 1997, p.60.

General Reading List

Ayto, John; Dictionary of Word Origins; Bloomsbury 1990
Baring, Anne and Cashford, Jules; The Myth of the Goddess; BCA 1991
Berntsson, Sonny; Holy Trees in the History of Mankind; article in Liljestenar; published by Historieforum Västra Götaland 2001
Bosworth & Toller; An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary; OUP 1898
Branston, Brian; Gods of the North; Thames & Hudson 1955
Branston, Brian; The Lost Gods of England; Thames & Hudson 1957
Breul, Karl; German and English Dictionary; Cassell 10th ed. 1952
Briard, Jacques; The Bronze Age in Barbarian Europe; RKP, 1979
Duncan, Thomas G; Late Medieval English Lyrics and Carols 1400-1530; Penguin 2000
Ellis [Davidson], Hilda; The Road to Hel; CUP 1943
Ellis Davidson, Hilda; The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe; Routledge 1993
Ellis Davidson, Hilda; Roles of the Northern Goddess; Routledge 1998
Gimbutas, Marija; The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe; Thames and Hudson 1982
Graves, Robert; The White Goddess; Faber 1952
Grimm, Jacob; Teutonic Mythology; 1883, J.S.Stallybrass trans.; Dover reprint 1966.
Hellquist, Elof; Etymologisk Ordbok; Lund 1922
Liljenroth, G & G; Hel: den gömda gudinnan i nordisk mytologi; AMA Förlag 1995
Lubell, Winifred Milius; The Metamorphosis of Baubo; Vanderbilt UP 1994
Nordgren, Ingemar; Nordic Ring-names; Migracijske Teme 1-2, Zagreb 2000
Paquet, Marcel; Magritte; Taschen 2000
Partridge, Eric; Dictionary of Catch Phrases; “keep your hand on your halfpenny (till the right man turns up)”. Late 19th century? With thanks to Nigel Rees. But not in RKP 1977 edition.
Partridge, Eric; Origins; RKP 1958
Partridge, Eric; Shakespeare’s Bawdy; RKP 1956
Riding, Laura and Graves, Robert; A Survey of Modernist Poetry; Heinemann 1927
Rundkvist, M; Järnålderns ringamuletter med knoppar eller vulster (Knobbed or ribbed ring amulets of the Iron Age); Fornvännen 91. Stockholm 1996
Rydberg, Viktor; Teutonic Mythology; Swan Sonnenschein 1889
Turner, Alice K; The History of Hell; Harcourt Brace 1993
Walker, Barbara G; The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets; Harper & Row 1983

Four little “goddesses” with neckrings 700-500 BC       Statens Historiska Musem, Sthlm
click on picture for comparison with Cycladic intruder


© Charles Harrison Wallace 2001,2009
all rights reserved


John J. Graham & Peter Jamieson: 1949

The New Shetlander;  No 15 March-April & No 16 May-June, 1949
Lerwick, Shetland Isles


(After the Anglo-Saxon)


I can sing you a sang o me vaeges:
Hou in driech oors, troo days o dadderi,
I hiv dree’d mony stangs ida hert,
Hiv raked ower da haagless seas
Whaur dule hed its hame.
Aft, stivvened wi cowld, I keepit da nightwatch
At da boos o me boat as shu huived
Ida shorebod. Me feet wis pinnished wi frost,
Wis hochbund wi shakkels o ice,
Yet hot wis da toarments happit aroond
Me sea-forfochen an blud-fastin hert.
Him dat’s eart-fast kens no a dis,
Nor hou, waesom an stirned in ice
Frae da onding o hail,
I wintered among da fremd.
Dere I heard nocht bit da brimtud,
Da ice-cowld waves, and anterin sang fae da swan.
For lichtsomeness da scriech o da solan saired me,
Da kittiwakes klaag for lauchter o men,
An uibin o sea-maws instead o da foy.
Whan da vaelensi baert on da banks, da tirrick,
Wi icy fedders, sang fornenst it;
An aft, da erne, wi brim-sabbit wings,
Lowsed a scriech laek a mellishon.
But dere, nane a me ain fok
Could lichten me wanless sowl.
Little vaars he wha lichtsom lives
Ida toun, croose an aglud wi drams,
Wi but little a traachles aroond him,
Hou aft I’ve aandu’d disjaskit on da face o da sea.
Da mirknin kam doon, it moored frae da nort,
Da eart wis happit in haar, an hail wis faain —
Cowldest o hairsts frae da lyft. Yit me hert-tochts
Are tiftin to be awa tae da haaf.
Ta baffel fornenest da stramash o da sea;
An amp at me hert aye iggs
Me speerit to waunder tae unkan laands
Ta seek oot da hame o da fremd.

(After the Anglo-Saxon)

Our contributor, “Stooralaand”, has sent the following part of the poem “The Seafarer”, done into Shetlandic, and starting from the place where John Graham left off in his translation in the previous issue: —–

Dir nenn sae heich-minded among men,
Nor yit hanselled wi’ a lokk i’ da waarld
Nor sae braa wi’ yung-bluid,
Nor sae steev in wark, wi’ a mester naar till ‘is hert,
Dat he haena dül in his haaf-vaige —
Da Loard’ll no’ doe muckle fur ‘im.
He tinks na a da harp nor giein rings
Nor yit a da wumman’s waarm lips and breest
Nor a da waarld’s hope,
Nor a owt forbye aless da rowin waves;
Bit aye he tinks lang wha gengs apo da haaf.
Boannie flooers ir athin da widds, fagr ir da toons,
Moors glim wi’ loveliness, da waarld tifts wi’ life;
Aa diss iggs da aaber hert
Ta geng stravaigin, fir da sheeldir ‘at tinks
Ta geng fram apo da mar-gaets.
An da cuckoo waarns wi’ fey voice;
Da spae-burd oa simmer nuns, an murrnd
Wi’ a saad breest. Da man ‘ats weel-aff
Kens na a whit dey pit up wi’
‘At gengs awa fram.
Sae me towt waanders ower whit me hert haes a keepin-apun,
Me inner maroo gengs ower da mar-flöd,
Ower da whaal’s-gaet a da muckle haaf,
Da brodd mar-burns. Dat wye ir da fellisom things a da Loard
Haetter athin me dan diss puir amiss life
Gjaa’n ower da laand. I dunna hadd wi’ it
‘At da walt a da ert’ll aye staand.
Dir tree things aye oon-siccar
Ere a sheeldir’s time comes ta geng awa.
Ill-helt, being oot-aald an depoorpirt,
or da ill-towts a da swird-edge
Takks da braeth frae da fey man —
An sae fur aa da yarls whits roessd
A dem ‘at live an spaek lang eftir diss
Is ‘at he wrocht ere he good apo ‘is wya
Da best things apo da ert fornenst ill-willied men,
Daarin ta doe fornenest swart sheeldirs,
Sae ‘at da sonns a men
Sall roess ‘im aa da days a man,
An ‘is glory live wi’ da heich angels
Fur aye an aye, hellisom hefts a life never-saesin,
Hert’s solya wi’ strang eens.
Days ir gaan bye
Is weel is da sheenin makk-a-doe a ert’s keengdoms.

STOORALAAND (Peter Jamieson)


[Shetland Library; Lerwick]

back to other versions




An East Indiaman; National Maritime Museum
peter monamy 39 x 32

Thro’ various Climes & to each distant Pole,
In happy Tides let active Commerce rowl,
As our high Vessels pass their watry Way,
Let all the Naval World due Homage pay:
Let Britain’s Ships export an Annual Fleece,
Richer than Argos brought to ancient Greece;
Returning Loaden with the shining Stores,
Which lye profuse on either India’s Shores.

left: an east indiaman; picture attributed to monamy

the east india company flag

an east indiaman: east india company
once attributed to monamy

but actually by john cleveley the elder
c. 1770: credit line: National Maritime Museum, London

Sea Power
Sir Walter Raleigh
monamy website index

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2002, 2008
all rights reserved


The Amber Route

another map

Who were the Hyperboreans of Herodotus?

The British say the British, and the Scandinavians say the Scandinavians, but Stonehenge has to get my vote as the most convincing hub of Hyperborea, which, to Herodotus, meant Farthest North (pace Nansen). Travellers and amber merchants from Greece presumably took the route up north, and then forked left or right when they reached Hamburg. They knew their way around and didn’t need Mercator’s projection.

Stonehenge in 1770

The Temple of Apollo

amber route map from

H.K.Lewis & Co.Ltd, London, 1940

back to bird, ship, sun, sea
go to prehistoric trade route network


unsigned 39 x 53 painted circa 1725 ?

1704 Gibraltar
1706 Barcelona     1706 Alicante
1708 Dunkirk
1718 Cape Passaro 1


Cape Passaro 2

To the left, a detail of a map of Sicily from Ottens’ Atlas, 1745.

Below, an attempt to reconcile the several ship encounters depicted in the oil painting with Monamy’s pen and wash sketch. There are many differences, and since his handwriting is an almost illegible shorthand scrawl any successful further elucidation seems doomed to be minimal. The descriptive texts by Byng, Charnock et al are also enlisted to try to solve the puzzles.

The engagements separated into boxes 1, 6 and 7 on the previous page, and below, appear to be the most straightforward, followed by box 2. Information becomes progressively less detailed for the remaining boxes, and the ink sketch is no great help, as it represents the actions comparatively realistically, which does not agree easily with the schematic rendering in the painting.

Box 7: The Principe de Asturias, Rear-Admiral Chacon, was an English-built ship formerly named the Cumberland captured by the French in 1707. Built for 80 guns, she carried 70 in Spanish hands. The Grafton first engaged her, then left her for the Breda and Captain to take.

“The Montagu and Rupert took the Volante“: Byng’s despatch.

Box 6: The note to the painting reverses the positions of the Rupert and the Montagu from their places in the sketch. It may be that the identifications in the notes are based on the colours of the squadron ensigns being flown.

“The Montagu and Rupert took the Volante“: sketch.

Box 2: The notes state that one of the two nearer ships of the White is probably the Superbe. In the sketch, below, the names of the Superbe and the Real San Felipe seem reasonably clear, allowing for a creative and arbitrary spelling, but the situation is depicted very differently. What must be an English ship, judging by its ensign, lower left, might possibly represent the Kent.

The Real Phillip and Superbe. Top right, the San Luis and San Fernando galing away from the Barfleur.

From Byng’s despatch: “About one o’clock, the Kent and Superbe engaged the Spanish Admiral (in the Real San Felipe), which with two ships more fired on them, and made a running fight until about three; when the Kent, bearing down upon her, and under her stern, gave her a broadside and went away to leeward of her. Then the Superbe put for it, and laid the Spanish Admiral on board, falling on her weather quarter; but the Spanish Admiral shifting her helm and avoiding her, the Superbe ranged up under her lee quarter; on which she struck to her.” Whether this account is accurately represented in the sketch is for someone with a knowledge of naval battle-tactics to say.

The sketch and the painting are juxtaposed above, showing reasonable correspondence between the engagements located in boxes 1, 2, 3, 6, and 8. Box 5 doesn’t seem to feature in the sketch at all. It is difficult to equate Box 4 with box A in the sketch, since they are not in the same position and involve different numbers of ships. Box 7 appears to be more or less in the same position as the engagement labelled B in the sketch, involving the Principe de Asturias, the Breda and the Captain, as outlined at the top of this page. It is labelled B because there is some doubt as to whether the scribbled names below can be made to read accordingly.

Perhaps the names really do read Captain, P Asturias and Breda, after all.

Boxes 3, 4 (A), 5, and 8 are discussed on the next page.

Cape Passaro 1     Cape Passaro 2     Cape Passaro 3
George Byng & George Walton

Capture of the Real San Felipe by H.Vale
battles pre 1704       battles 1704-1739
battles post 1739
note on sea power

monamy website index



by Murat Nemet-Nejat


Understanding translation is embedded in the concept of faithfulness. What is a faithful translation? The traditional answer is Platonic, best represented in our day by the critic George Steiner, especially in his introduction to the The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation (1966). According to this view, the original poem exists in an ideal, static state, and the translator attempts to transmigrate this ideal totality into the second language. Since two languages never “mesh perfectly,” a translation can never be completely successful; something is lost. Steiner quotes Du Bellay to that effect: “That it is untranslatable is one of the definitions of poetry. What remains after the attempt, intact and uncommunicated, is the original poem.”

In this traditional approach, completely successful translations are rare, discontinuous, mystical happenings, “a medium of communicative energy which somehow reconciles both languages in a tongue deeper, more comprehensive than either.”

The problem with the traditional, Steiner approach is that it is ahistorical, empirically incorrect. Major achievements and transformations in a language are often associated with translations. To cite only English cases, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Sidney’s translations from Petrarch, the King James version of the Bible, Ezra Pound’s The Seafarer from the Anglo-Saxon and Exile’s Letter from Li Po, each of which played a key role in reorienting the English language.

These translations are based on a different concept of faithfulness. They fragment the original totality, starting with a conception of “lack.” The translation senses a quality in the original language, reflected in the original poem, which the second language lacks. The translator is faithful to this conception and tries to recreate it in the second language. A translation in this sense starts with criticism and ends by pointing, not to the first, but to the second language. It explores the second language and, if successful, changes it by assimilating this lack. I define this kind of translation a transparent text.

The ideal of transparent translation is not to be perfect in terms of a Platonic concept of wholeness but to create shifts in the second language. In fact, subtle distortions due to fragmentation and misreadings caused by the central vision of lack are integral parts of it, often pointing to some of its most successful moments.

One quality often regarded as a virtue in the traditional approach is a red flag of failure in the transparent translation: making the language of the translation so natural as though it were a poem written in that language, not a translation at all.

This is the sure sign of a bad translation, not worth reading. A successful translation must sound somewhat alien, strange, not because it is awkward or unaware of the resources or nature of the second language, but because it expresses something new in it. The best ones remain strange even after poems deriving from them make them more familiar. They affect the course of a language without being entirely part of it. A translation completely assimilated into the conventions, norms, of the second language, solely acceptable in its terms, is a failure.

This strangeness endures because in a transparent translation, style often precedes meaning, which, in the form of theme or feeling, is transformed when attached to stylistic expansion. A transparent translation always has an independent stylistic identity. This is why Walter Benjamin says in his essay, The Task of the Translator, that meaning is attached to a translation “loosely.” In original poems, style appears contingent on meaning, more integrated with it.

In its suggestiveness describing the relationship between two languages during translation, Benjamin’s essay is a powerful text. At its centre, it asserts that it is the foreignness of a work that makes it translatable: “The higher the level of the work, the more does it remain translatable, even if its meaning is touched upon fleetingly.” This thought is one step from the concepts of lack and fragmentation, which define transparent translation. But Benjamin’s ideas are, linguistically, intricately linked to, dominated by Hegelian idealism, which contradicts and finally thwarts their developments. He sees a perfect translation to reside in an ideal, pre-Babel state; a “hitherto inaccessible realm of reconciliation and fulfilment of languages.” This concept is regressive in two ways. First, it retains the ghost of a perfect match, which his essay also negates. Steiner’s introduction is a restatement of the idealistic side of Benjamin’s text. Second, it leaves Benjamin completely silent on the relationship of the translation to the second language.

The present essay tries to demythologize Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator from Hegelian idealism to the American practicality, by fragmenting and exploiting contradictions inherent in it. The focus here is the relationship of a translation, not to the first, but to the second language —– different ways in which that language is altered and expanded.

The Seafarer is, along with the Exile’s Letter, perhaps the major transparent translation in the twentieth century in English. Pound’s focus in translating this poem is sound, the harsh sound he hears in Anglo-Saxon. The Seafarer is part of Pound’s “heave to overthrow the iambic.” The result is not a natural English poem recreating the syntax and the meter of the original; its purpose is rather to force a shift from vowels to consonants as the organizing principle of a poem in English. By making the substance of the language more palpable, through inversions and abundance of consonants, it opens the door to making language itself a subject matter, the equivalent of Picasso’s and Braque’s revolutions in sculpture, “Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries.” There is a direct link between The Seafarer, Louis Zukofsky, and the language poets.

In a successful transparent translation, much more than the surface gets transposed: “He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having/Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world’s delight…” “Winsomeness” is a medieval, not an Anglo-Saxon concept. In this subtle distortion, at this moment, The Seafarer is a translation from a Provençal poem.

The theme of exile itself is another dimension that The Seafarer transposes from Anglo-Saxon into English. Not only does it appear in the figure of Ulysses at the beginning of The Cantos, but, as Charles Bernstein pointed out, for Gertrude Stein, Louis Zukofsky, and Charles Reznikoff, English was not the language they grew up in. In fact, as writers, they tended to treat it as a foreign language. Their works can be seen as translations, transparent texts, from their alien language, English, into their private idioms, a reason for their strong stylistic identity. Their relationships to English are those of linguistic exiles. The Seafarer creates a shift in English which is not in the original. It points out that a plastic involvement with language entails a distancing between the writer and the language —- and consequently between the writer and the audience. The Anglo-Saxon original was a poem accompanied by music, implicitly for an audience. The Seafarer is a poem to be read by an individual. Finally it is the most radical, significant bent Ezra Pound creates in the original.

I, Orhan Veli (Hanging Loose Press, 1988), consisting of my translations of poems by the Turkish poet Orhan Veli (1914-1950), is another example of a transparent translation. Its purpose is to alter intimacy, between reader and poem, by redefining colloquial speech. On the one hand, it possesses, I hope, the sounds, the smells, the music of a strange city, Istanbul; on the other hand, the voice feels very much as if it belonged to New York, like a New York voice.

This contradiction is at the heart of the shift I, Orhan Veli tries to create in contemporary colloquial speech. In American speech, colloquialism is often associated with natural speech. informality and streetwise humor. Though I, Orhan Veli reflects that, it also has a contemplative, melancholy, lyrical dimension. It is this dimension which is new and which sounds Turkish in the poems. It makes the colloquial speech as though the reader were walking side by side with the poet, overhearing his conversation.

This intimacy is reinforced by the way these translations alter the concept of poetic closure. Generally, Orhan Veli’s poems and these translations end where the subject matter ends, not where the poetic tradition expects them to end. The result is a seamless clarity, language pushing away from itself, losing body, as though these were not poems but overheard pieces of conversation. This helps replace the figure of the exile, the solitary prophet, by a friend.

I, Orhan Veli‘s colloquialism is not really daily speech. It is a very terse, precise abstraction from it, its stylistic, plastic identity as a translation. The purpose of I, Orhan Veli is to create a clear hard-edged sharpness, also relaxed and intimate. It is an offshoot of the clarification, at moments the spiritualization, of language that Pound started in Cathay, particularly with Li Po’s Exile’s Letter, and which poets on and off —- T.S. Eliot in the garden sequence of Burnt Norton, a good portion of Charles Reznikoff, John Yau’s A Suite of Imitations After Reading Translations of Poems by Li He and Li Shang-Yin —- try to continue.

Talisman, 1991 (Spring 6), pp. 98-100.

back to pound note

If anyone can supply further details of the provenance of this essay, please mail



Smeaton built his house to last, in stone. It was meticulously planned, all the way, and, remarkably, outlasted the rock it was founded on.

When replaced by the Douglass tower, it was dismantled and re-erected in Plymouth, where it may still be seen.


Above, Monamy. Below, a lithograph of Smeaton’s lighthouse, after J.M.W.Turner, 1824. See here.

Turner was not influenced by Monamy’s lighthouse paintings, which he had probably never seen; but he seems to have been fully aware of Monamy’s storm scenes. The lithograph comes from Sunday at Home, published 1869. Both the images to right above, circa 1890-1910, from Ballantyne’s The Story of the Rock, and below, undated, appear to be influenced by Turner’s lighthouse scene. None of these pictures owes anything to van de Velde, but much to Monamy.

John Smeaton, along with Benjamin Franklin, was a corresponding member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, which existed from 1765 until 1813 and has been described as “the revolutionary committee of that most far reaching of all the eighteenth century revolutions, the Industrial Revolution”. See here.

winstanley’s lighthouse 1: M1
winstanley’s lighthouse 1: M3
winstanley’s lighthouse 2
rudyerd’s lighthouse: M2
smeaton’s lighthouse
miscellaneous lighthouses
lighthouse paintings composition

monamy website index


Esaias Tegnér & Charles XII

Charles XII: on the centenary of his death 1818

Kung Carl, den unga hjelte,
han stod i rök och dam.
Han drog sitt svärd från bälte
och bröt i striden fram.
“Hur Svenska stålet biter
kom låt oss pröfva på.
Ur vägen Moscoviter,
friskt mod, I gossar blå.”

Och en mot tio ställdes
af retad Vasason.
Der flydde hvad ej fälldes,
det var hans lärospån.
Tre konungar tillhopa
ej skrefvo pilten bud.
Lugn stod han mot Europa,
en skägglös dundergud.

Gråhårad statskonst lade
de snaror ut med hast
den höga yngling sade
ett ord och snaran brast.
Högbarmad, smärt, gullhårig
en ny Aurora kom:
från kämpe tjugoårig
hon vände ohörd om.

Der slog så stort ett hjerta
uti hans Svenska barm,
i glädje som i smärta,
blott for det rätta varm.
I med och motgång lika,
sin lyckas överman,
han kunde icke vika
blott falla kunde han.

Se, nattens stjernor blossa
på grafven längese’n,
och hundraårig mossa
betäcker hjeltens ben.
Det herrliga på jorden
förgänglig är dess lott.
Hans minne uti Norden
Är snart en saga blott.

Dock — än till sagan lyssnar
det gamla sagoland
och dvergalåten tystnar
mot resen efterhand.
Än bor i Nordens lundar
den höga anden qvar
han är ej död, han blundar:
hans blund ett sekel var.

Böj Svea, knä vid griften,
din störste son göms der.
Läs nötta minneskriften,
din hjeltedikt hon är.
Med blottadt hufvud stiger
historien dit och lär,
och Svenska äran viger
sin segerfana der.

Esais Tegnér, 1818

King Charles, the conquering boy,
Stood up in dust and smoke;
He shook his sword for joy,
and through the battle broke.
How Swedish iron bites,
We will make trial new;
Stand back, you Muscovites;
Forward! my own true blue!

Not ten to one appal
The angry Vasa’s son;
Those fled, who did not fall:
So was his course begun,
He drove three Kings asunder,
Who leagued against him stood;
And Europe saw with wonder
A beardless Thundergod.

Old grey-haired schemers muttered
Their plots with wily care
The brave young hero uttered
One word, and burst their snare.
High-bosomed, goldhaired, slender,
A new Aurora came:
From his throne’s young defender,
The temptress turned in shame.

So great a heart was heaving
In his true Swedish breast,
In gladness, or in grieving,
Justice he loved the best.
Though fortune smiled or lowered,
He dauntless kept the field:
He could but be o’erpowered,
He knew not how to yield.

The stars have long been glowing
On his sepulchral stones;
A century’s moss is growing
Above the hero’s bones.
Thus glory passes forth,
So soon its records fall:
Their echo in the North
Is but an old man’s tale.

Still is the old land hushed,
The tale still calls up wonder,
Low dwarfish sounds are crushed
By the old giant thunder.
Still in our Northern numbers
The lofty spirit burns;
It is not dead, it slumbers,
Its hour of pride returns.

Kneel, Sweden, where reposes
Thy greatest, noblest Son;
The crumbling stone discloses
The honour thou hast won.
There bards, to read his story,
Come reverently bare;
And Sweden’s flag of glory
Is dedicated there.

J.E.D.Bethune, 1848

King Carl, the youthful hero,
In smoke and dust he stood;
He drew his belted longsword
And into battle strode.
“Come, let us try its war-bite,
What Swedish steel may do:
Make way, you Muscoviters,
Fresh heart, the lads in blue!”

So one at ten was pitted
By Vasa’s angered son,
And all unfelled had fled when
Their lesson’s day was done.
Three hostile kings united:
The boy stood like a rod,
And calmly faced Europa,
A beardless thunder-god.

As grizzled statesmen plotted
With hasty craft their trap,
The lofty stripling uttered
One word their snare to snap.
Full-bosomed, slender, golden
Aurora came one day:
The warrior of twenty
Turned her unheard away.

So great a heart was beating
Within his Swedish breast,
In gladness as in anguish
Alone for what is Just.
Alike at flood or ebbtide
Too resolute to quell,
The overlord of fortune,
He fought until he fell.

See! Stars of night an epoch
Upon his grave have shone,
And mosses now centennial
Bedeck the hero’s bone.
All glory that is mortal
Is fated so to fade.
His name in Northern story
Will soon be just a shade.

Yet — to the tale may hearken
This ancient saga-land,
And dwarfish talk fall silent
When giants rise to stand.
Still in the Northern forest
The noble spirit stirs,
Not dead, but sleeping merely:
His sleep, one hundred years.

Kneel, Svea, by the graveside,
Thy greatest son here dwells;
And scan the worn memorial
Thy epic story spells.
All history, bare-headed,
Will to this place repair,
And Swedish honour hallows
Her victory-banner there.

CHW, 1998


“On the 27th June 1682, was born King Charles the Twelfth, a Man the most extraordinary, perhaps that ever appear’d in the World.” With these words in 1732, from the first English translation of Voltaire’s vividly readable Histoire de Charles XII, the legend of the adamantine warrior received an indelible imprint. The French original was first published in 1731, and remains one of the most frequently re-issued and re-translated works in literary history. Rigorously nurtured in the Protestant religious ethic by devoted parents, Charles placed his deceased father’s crown on his own head, at the age of fifteen. Three years later, in 1700, Sweden’s then extensive Baltic and North German territories were opportunistically attacked by a coalition of three kings ruling four countries, Russia, Poland, Saxony and Denmark. Charles spent the remaining eighteen years of his life at war, leading the resistance to this onslaught in person. The first nine of these eighteen years were attended by unparalleled success, followed by nine years of virtually unremitting defeat. By 1721 a diminished Sweden was left to lick her wounds in peace. Charles had been killed in 1718, murdered, according to the latest investigations, by a ball fired from close range, encased in the brass or silver metal of one of his own coat-buttons.

Voltaire set the mould for an enduring legend, but the panegyrists were engaged from the moment of Charles’s shattering first victory over the Russians at Narva on the Baltic coast in the early months of the war, the news of which spread rapidly throughout Europe. In 1951 Olov Westerlund published his doctoral dissertation at the University of Lund, Karl XII i Svensk Litteratur, a 350 page study in the ways of poetic iconography from Dahlstierna (1661-1709) to Tegnér (1782-1846). This analysis of myth-making could rank with The Road to Xanadu by J.L.Lowes, and it demonstrates that almost every line of Tegnér’s poem on Charles XII has its origin in the effusions of the preceding hundred years.

Tegnér’s centenary verses were a milestone in the long process of debate on the character and historical significance of Charles and his Great Northern War, in which the human individual has now almost vanished under successive layers of hagiography and censure. Westerlund reveals that one of the king’s most virulent critics in the mid-18th century was a man at least as extraordinary as himself, Emanuel Swedenborg. Attitudes to Charles XII within Sweden, which hardened against him as his star began to fall, have always been subject to swings of hero-worship and denigration. It has proved almost impossible for Swedes to reach a consensus in weighing reverence for their boy David, against the fact that his obsessive pursuit of his hydra-headed Goliath merely led to the collapse of their 17th century European status. A well-judged biography by Bengt Liljegren, published in 2000, may finally have achieved the desirable balance of passion and objectivity.

In a trenchant article in Tidningen Boken, 1998, a Swedish historian and novelist, K. Arne Blom, expressed his concern with the devaluation of Sweden’s historical and literary heritage. In his view a major victim of this revisionism is Esaias Tegnér, who can fairly be described as his country’s first international best-selling author. Within 15 years of its appearance in 1825 his principal work, Fritiofs Saga, had been translated, partially or completely, twenty times, and the present reckoning is reputed to be once at least into every European language, as well as twenty-two times into English, and twenty times into German. The basic theme of this verse epic is the continuity of human values underlying the transition, during the Viking age of Scandinavia, from paganism to Christianity. Tegnér ended his life as a bishop, albeit of an unorthodox sort. Apart from his poetry, his work centred mainly on education and pan-Scandinavian cultural enfranchisement.

Until about the mid-1960s Tegnér’s summation of the memory of Charles XII would have been known to every Swedish schoolchild. Although anthologies of pre-modernist Swedish poetry occasionally appear in English, one of the latest being The North! To the North!, by Judith Moffett, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2001, the only known previous attempt to translate Tegnér’s extremely familiar lines has been by J.E.D.Bethune, in his Specimens of Swedish and German Poetry, 1848.

Few translators of formal, rhymed, metric, 18th and 19th century verse seem able to resist expressing their contempt for the efforts of their predecessors, and Bethune is no exception. Disingenuously admitting that “I have not myself attempted a version of Frithiof”, he rides into an attack on those that have, with “I am ready to allow that all the previous English translations of Frithiof are indeed very bad”, and singles out that of George Stephens, 1839, as the worst of the lot. It is true that Stephens, a pioneering runologist who spent most of his life in Denmark, appears to have no ear whatsoever for the rhythms of English verse. A much later translator, C.D.Locock, 1924, agrees that Stephens’s “versification can only be described as ludicrous”, but concedes that as regards the first essential prerequisite, “The reproduction ….. of the author’s meaning”, it is “almost too unimpeachable”. In Stephens we perhaps have a significant forerunner, in the advocacy of literal translation, to no less a practitioner than Vladimir Nabokov.

The fact is that a poet, whatever s/he writes and whether in a style of the strictest traditional formality or the most outré avant-garde, is expressing his/her love-affair with his/her mother-tongue. For any poet older than about fourteen there can be no fully acceptable surrogate in this relationship. How then is the well-meaning translator to tackle his/her self-imposed and thankless task? Another of Tegnér’s translators, Clement B.Shaw, in 1908, set out a number of rules, of which the following are only a sample: “A translation should produce the effect of the original. But this identity of emotional effect is by no means always to be secured by literal rendering ….. Moreover, the translator must translate — must faithfully reproduce the matter of the original, — no more, no less ..… One must not depart from his course for a rhyme too good to be lost; must not employ ‘mountains’ to rhyme with ‘fountains’, when the original does not allude to mountains.” Shaw’s native origins are plainly evident from this excerpt. He, too, can only disparage his predecessors: “no European English paraphrase of Frithiof’s Saga preserves the Tegnerian measures with enough felicity even to evince literary courtesy to the great poet. Yet each translator claims to have done this very thing”. However, he reserves “very high indorsement (sic)” for two American translations, “the works of Mr and Mrs Holcomb, and of Professor Sherman. No consideration of nationality prompts the opinion that these two translations have not been equaled (sic) in England.”

Devotees of Nabokov’s masterpiece, Pale Fire, may surprise themselves with a start of recognition at Shaw’s instancing the rhyme of “fountains” with “mountains”, and might wonder if the well-read polyglot was also familiar with the numerous English paraphrases of Fritiofs Saga. Yet another of its British translators, in 1872, was Captain H.Spalding, of the 104th Fusiliers — a gentleman too upright to belittle his rivals. By 1881, when he translated Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, he had been promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and he is jocularly referred to in Nabokov’s own impeccably non-paraphrastic 825-page conundrum as “bluff Spalding”, or “matter-of-fact Lt.Col. Spalding”. Nabokov’s dissection and “literal” translation of Eugene Onegin in 1964 produces an effect on the English reader at least as ludicrous as Stephens’s Frithiof’s Saga. My suspicion is that the roguish genius was consciously constructing a monumental academic joke at the expense of lickspittle scholarship. Pale Fire is the obverse of this performance: a comic novel which is deeply serious, and the prankster’s shade may now somewhere be chuckling at the Kinbotes he has spawned.

In the foreword to his three volumes devoted to Eugene Onegin Nabokov asserts “To reproduce the rhymes and yet translate the entire poem literally is mathematically impossible. But in losing its rhyme the poem loses its bloom ….. Should one then content oneself with an exact rendering of the subject matter and forget all about form? Or should one still excuse an imitation of the poem’s structure to which only twisted bits of sense stick here and there, by convincing oneself and one’s public that in mutilating its meaning for the sake of a pleasure-measure rhyme one has the opportunity of prettifying or skipping the dry and difficult passages?” ….. “A schoolboy’s boner mocks the ancient masterpiece less than does its commercial poeticization, and it is when the translator sets out to render the ‘spirit’, and not the mere sense of the text, that he begins to traduce his author.”

To coagulate a poem’s spirit, sense, metre, verbal tropes, rhymes and meaning, into a language other than its original, would be a supernatural achievement. Mortals are left to compromise. While agreeing that “in losing its rhyme the poem loses its bloom”, I can only dissent from Nabokov’s opinion that the translator who sets out to render the spirit of the text “begins to traduce his author”. What other objective should s/he have, which could not otherwise be accomplished by handing the would-be reader several dictionaries, a selection of grammars, the rest of the literature in the source language, and locking her/him up for a year or ten? Clement B.Shaw, in my view, is correct to say that “a translation should reproduce the effect of the original”. Spirit is certainly communicable, and its inter-cultural transfer has been the aim of translation since poetry first began — the only issue is the translator’s ability to prioritise from those factors that are irreconcilable. In the end it is a matter of taste and judgement and, pace Nabokov, the verdict of the consumer.

The modern reader might wonder that a military man, at the apogee of Queen Victoria’s Empire, addressed himself to translating verse masterpieces from Swedish and Russian, and be curious about what he was doing between 1872 and 1881. It is recorded that on 22nd January, 1879, a Brevet Major Henry Spalding, of the 104th Regiment, rode out of a tiny British supply depot in Southern Africa, leaving a Lieutenant J.R.M.Chard in command, with the memorable words “You will be in charge, although, of course, nothing will happen. I will be back by evening.” The defence of Rorke’s Drift during the following 24 hours is one of the most astonishing actions in the annals of military history, unmatched since the Battle of Narva. I must try to emulate the disciplined restraint of “bluff Spalding” by limiting myself to remarking that J.E.D.Bethune seems to have been mesmerized by his overwhelming compulsion to reproduce Tegnér’s rhyme-scheme.

Published in Looking Eastward: Modern Poetry in Translation No 21, King’s College London, 2003

a new translation of tegnér’s poem: into chinese

more translations & other swedish miscellanea

cxii 1       cxii 2       cxii 3
c xii & the critical backlash
esaias tegner & charles xii

© Charles Harrison Wallace 2003
all rights reserved