With apologies for having gone so long without posting on the blog, here is something I’ve been working on over Christmas: a translation into Modern English prose of the alliterative poem Somer Soneday.
This fourteenth-century poem survives in a single copy in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108. The narrator awakens on a Sunday morning in the summer and sets out in pursuit of a hunting party. He crosses over a river and loses track of the hunt which he was trying to find, but instead discovers Lady Fortune turning her wheel. He recognises her and is half-attracted, half-scared. Though he fears her displeasure, he whispers to us what he can see.
On Fortune’s wheel are four men: one a cheerful and ambitious prince desiring a crown (sometimes labelled as regnabo, ‘I shall reign’ in manuscript illuminations of the Wheel of Fortune); one a king sitting at the top of the wheel (regno, ‘I reign’); one a king who has lost his crown, lands and possessions (regnavi, ‘I have reigned’); and, lastly and shockingly briefly, a man near death on a bier (sum sine regno, ‘I am without reign’). We can’t be certain whether the poem ends intentionally in this abrupt fashion, or whether the end of the poem has been lost.
This Modern English prose translation cannot capture the rich echoing sounds of Somer Soneday’s alliterative stanzaic verse. The poem is written in thirteen-line stanzas rhyming ababababcdddc. The first eight long lines in each stanza are hyper-alliterative with the majority of the content words in a line alliterating on one letter. The first c-line is a ‘bob’ (a very short line) and the last four lines (dddc) a ‘wheel’. If a two-part stanza such as this is joined together by a bob, it usually does not need iteration (another way of linking the head of the stanza to the wheel by repeating a word from the end of the first part of the stanza at the beginning of the second), but here the poet often links the bob to the end of the preceding line by sound echoes.
One stanza also links to the next by stanza-linking, the repetition of words from the last line of a stanza in the first line of the next. Within lines, more sound echoes are created by pararhyme (i.e. the repetition of initial and final consonant, launde/lynde) and by other more fluid types of chiming (gold/gurdel/gloud/glede). The poet uses a different stanza form for the speeches of the first three kings, labelled as versus in the manuscript (meaning both a set of verse-lines and, appropriately enough in a poem about the turning of Fortune’s Wheel, a circular rotation). Each versus is an eight-line stanza, each with its own rhyme-scheme (aabbccdd; ababcdcd; abbacddc). The first versus employs anadiplosis, with pairs of lines linked by the punning repetition of the last word of one line with the first word of the next. Susanna Fein sums up the sonic effects of this welter of sound: ‘Density of repetition and rhyme creates a tumbling effect, which vividly conveys a sensation of the wheel in motion’ (‘Thirteen-line Stanza’, p. 121).
The intricacy of these formal elements means that the sense of the poem can be elliptical and elusive. My translation is thus speculative and interpretative. On account of the poem’s difficulty, I am indebted to the glosses and paraphrases given by Turville-Petre in his edition of the poem, and by Fein, Dove, Chism and Bell in their respective articles.
Summer Sunday: A Translation
[Lines 1 to 13] One Sunday in the summer I see the sun rising early on the eastern horizon, day dawns over the hill, darkness is over. I threw on my clothes, I wished to go outside. With noble hunters I hurried to the woods, with eager little hunting dogs, ones who knew how to know and understand hunting calls. Roe deer and hunting dogs ran so plentifully along the ridge that it pleased me to tarry and sit down in a clearing under linden trees. Little hunting dogs bayed for the kill, as clear as any bell, the deer danced in the valley, so that all the hillside rang with noise.
[Lines 14 to 26] Hill and valley rang with the noise of the driving of the frightened deer, because much merriment of mouth made the merry blast of the horn. I got up and roamed about and saw how roe deer fled from hounds: they stalked in the shadows, scattering in the shade. And lords lingered and ladies too, controlling leashes of splendid greyhounds, ones perfect to give pleasure and please. And so I came to the hunt, where grooms shouted, and was there at a wild river which I intended to have waded across. I stalked alongside the stream and by the riverbank: a long way off I found a boat by the flood, down by a field; by this means I made my crossing.
[Lines 27 to 39] Just so I made my crossing, without much ado, in order to find amusement, and went forth into that woodland to find company. For a long time I listened quietly and remained beside the hill, so that I didn’t hear a person, a horn, a hunter, a hart or a hind. I walked so far that I grew weary of the path, then I lost track of what I was looking for and rested under a tree. And, as I sat, I saw on one side, to tell you the truth, a woman with an extraordinary wheel turning it with the winding handle, sending it round and round. Upon the wheel there were, I think, merry men and grief-maddened men all together. I went to her there on the grass, and there I found Fortune.
[Lines 40 to 52] “Fortune, friend and foe, fairest companion, amazingly false, often found fickle to deal with, you turn the wheel – and those that are on the moving rim of the wheel that runs so roundly – to woe, and from woe back to joy.” With a look from that lady of fair face, my fun and frolics were utterly flattened. If I were to versify complaints skilfully and quickly, stanzas about that lady would get me punished very quickly. Nevertheless, I don’t mean to refuse: I intend, before I go on my way, to whisper straightaway sensible words one after another.
[Lines 53 to 65] To whisper to you at once, secrets to uncover, there isn’t a lovelier lady living in this land. I wanted to have gone to that creature dressed in worthy clothes, so marvellously I found her fair of face, in front at least. The gold of her girdle glowed like a coal. That blissful lady bound me in sorrow before I had paid attention to her fickleness in heart, and that worthy creature wound with strength a wonderful wheel. A woman of so much power: I had never seen so wonderful a wheel-wright before, to tell the truth.
[Lines 66 to 78] To tell the truth, I saw sitting, as my own eyes showed me, an ambitious man, merrily gay, bright as the blossom, with arched eyebrows, on the wheel that the creature moved round and round in its course. Evidently it suited him when the wheel turned, for he enjoyed himself and laughed, reclining as he sat. The handsome man gave me cheerful looks: I’m not able to remember in my mind a merrier man in the world. I gave a greeting to the man. He said, “Do you see, my dear man, the crown of that noble king – I claim it by right.”
[Lines 79 to 86] “By birth right, it befalls me to claim of kings a kingdom, a kingdom by birth right: the wheel will turn to me. Wind well, worthy creature, let Fortune proceed, let friends depart, let the struggle to sit on the throne itself go ahead.”
[Lines 87 to 99] After that I saw another sat on a seat which likewise suited him, right on top of the wheel, on the turning rim, crossing one knee over another like a bold king, attractively clothed in a cloak, crowned as a sovereign. He had a bold heart, impetuous in his eagerness. He laid one leg on another boldly just as he wished. The lord was very unwilling to give up his lordship: he thought that all of the world was under his control very powerfully. I greeted that king on my knees. He said, “Do you see, my dear man, how I reign with ring, most powerful in authority.”
[Lines 100 to 107] “Most powerful in authority, queen and knight called me king, man of most might, fair folk fall at my feet. I led a lordly life, no living lord like me, I fear no duke, for I reign in justice as a noble man.”
[Lines 108 to 120] By noble lords and ladies it would be thought a pity to relate and whisper who sits on that next very appropriate seat, utterly afflicted with sorrow. I beheld one who had a head grey like horehound [a plant with green-grey foliage], all pale was his colour through being brought to bitter sorrows. His crown of diamonds had dropped down, his fortunes were sadly reversed, his treasure, tent, tower and palaces was seized. He was wretched and in want, brought down naked and powerless. I greeted that man with friendship: he spoke a few words and wept about how he was first crowned a king in his homeland and then had become wretched.
[Lines 121 to 128] “To become a cast-out wretch, I whom kings called king, fallen from friends, land, household – how it lasts for only a little time! The life of a lord lasts only a short while. Fortune is fickle, and now lost from me. First happiness, then sorrow, first knight, then king, now wretch.”
[Lines 129 to 133] He had been made wretched and had arrived at sorrow: he lacked many joys and much mastery. Yet I saw one who was even sorrier, sighing full sore, a naked body in a bed, brought near on a bier, a duke close to death with suffering and sorrow.
Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages: An Anthology, ed. Thorlac Turville-Petre (London: Routledge, 1989), pp. 140–47
Kimberly Bell, ‘“Roundes to Rede”: Ludic Reading Games in the Alliterative Wheel of Fortune Poem Somer Soneday’, in Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature, ed. Serina Patterson (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 169–86
Christine Chism, Alliterative Revivals (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 260-61
Mary Dove, The Perfect Age of Man’s Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 67–79
Susanna Fein, ‘Somer Soneday: Kingship, Sainthood, and Fortune in MS Laud Misc. 108’, in Texts and Contexts in Bodleian Library, MS Laud Misc. 108: The Shaping of English Vernacular Narrative, ed. Kimberly K Bell and Julie N. Couch (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 275–97
Susanna Fein, ‘The Early Thirteen-line Stanza: Style and Metrics Reconsidered’, Parergon, 18 (2000), 97–126
Thorlac Turville-Petre, ‘Three Poems in the Thirteen-Line Stanza’, Review of English Studies, n.s. 25 (1974), 1–14