Byrhtwold spoke: Michael Smith’s Maldon

For those of you who missed it, the obituary of well-known Irish translator, writer and editor Michael Smith is now available to view on the Irish Times website. In the obituary, they note particularly his role as a translator of Spanish. However, my main encounter with Michael’s writing is his collection Maldon & Other Poems. At home this weekend, I was going back over the poem and had initially noted the differences between Michael’s version and those of Richard Hamer and a much older prose translation which I had a copy of from the 1920s. Revisiting those few notes about the differences, I’ve decided to write them down and try to tease out why I found Michael’s version so appealing.

I’d like to take a quick look at one small passage from his translation of the Battle of Maldon, which gives perhaps some insight into what he achieved as a writer and in which it is easy to discern why he was held in such high esteem. At the very end of the Battle of Maldon, a poem that describes a battle which took place in Essex in 991 C.E. Just as the fragment comes to an end, a warrior, Byrhtwold, an old retainer is rallying men to fight. RK Gordon in his short introduction writes that ‘though a fragment, it is a magnificent record of heroism. Its spirit is best expressed in the words of Byrhtwold.’ It is to this particular bit of Maldon then that we will turn our attention. In Gordon’s prose translation from 1926 we are given the following:

Byrhtwold spoke; he grasped his shield; he was an old companion; he shook his ash-spear; full boldly he exhorted the warriors: “Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might lessens. Here lies our leader all hewn down, the valiant man in the dust; may he lament for ever who thinks now to turn from this war-play. I am old in age; I will not hence, but I purpose to lie by the side of my lord, by the man so dearly loved.”

This prose translation is dry enough, though not without its pleasing qualities, especially the lines ‘heart the keener, courage the greater’. Gordon’s translation into prose however clearly serves a function of comprehension first and literary merit second. Compare that to this rendering of the same passage, this time from Richard Hamer’s A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse, first published in 1970:

Bryhtwold spoke out, he raised his shield aloft

And shook his spear; an elderly retainer,

Courageously he taught the warriors:

‘Mind must be harder, spirit must be bolder.

And heart the greater, as our might grows less.

Here lies our leader in the dust, the hero

Cut down in battle. Ever must he mourn

Who thinks to go home from this battle-play.

I am an aged man. Hence will I not,

But I intend to die beside my lord,

Give up my life beside so dear a chief.’

This is substantially different to Gordon’s prose, less economical too perhaps, but in keeping with Hamer’s own notice that the translations in A Choice were done in verse ‘in the faint hope that a verse translation might capture something of the spirit of the original’. This is a more lively version, where Byrhtwold not alone spoke, but spoke out. More than grasping it, he raises his shield aloft. He seems a more lively elderly retainer than in Gordon’s prose translation. Michael Smith, in his 2004 version of this same passage, surpasses any sense that the likes of Gordon or Hamer will have had of  making the passages either simply comprehensible, or as Hamer tries to make it: not alone comprehensible but enjoyable. Here is Michael Smith’s take on Byrhtwold’s speech:

Byrhtwold spoke out,

raised up his shield.

The old retainer

brandished his buckler,

exhorted his warriors,

spoke out fearlessly:

‘Our resolve must be tougher,

the heart bolder,

courage be greater,

as our might lessens.

Here lies our leader

cut down in combat,

a good man in the dust.

May he ever regret

who thinks to forsake

and flee from this fray.

I am old and wise in life

and will not go from here.

By the side of my loved lord

it is my desire to lie.’

Byrhtwold again speaks out, projecting his voice to the assembled mass of warriors rather than just speaking, as Gordon has him doing. Although Michael Smith does not have him raise his shield ‘aloft’, nevertheless his buckler is ‘brandished’, brandishing an act of defiance. He speaks out too, not just once, but twice. The second time, buckler brandished, he speaks out ‘fearlessly’. It is the fearlessness that makes what follows stronger than either Gordon’s boldness or Hamer’s courageous speech. There’s nothing to fear perhaps quite like a fearless old warrior. The words Michael Smith placed into the words of Byrhtwold were not just more fearsome, but more expressive of why they should be feared. To leave the battlefield for Smith’s Byrhtwold is not merely to think again about fighting or to think of turning from the fight. Smith’s Byrhtwold is of the view that it would cause regret to forsake their dead lord. Forsake is a much greater feeling than regret at turning away. The final lines of Byrhtwold’s speech in Smith’s version is powerful precisely because this Byrhtwold would see the leaving of the field as a forsaking, thus he is a ‘loved lord’, an almost Anglo-Saxon-esque compound minus the hyphen, as opposed to ‘a man so dearly loved’ or ‘so dear a chief’. ‘So’ and ‘dear’ are made superfluous by the alliterative quality of the ‘loved lord’. So it was that Michael Smith managed in his version of Maldon to make, in my mind, Byrhtwold truly speak: not just out, but across time, in a powerful and memorable fashion, demanding reading and re-reading.