Next week sees Oxford University’s tribute to Seamus Heaney. Amongst all the immense losses brought about by the death of this great poet is the loss of a skilled translator of Middle English, a translator who brought medieval poetry to a wider audience. In 2009, Heaney published a translation of Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid and seven of his Moral Fables. Earlier in his career, Heaney translated a short Middle English text called ‘The Names of the Hare’. This early Middle English poem is preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 86, a late thirteenth-century West Midlands trilingual miscellany written by an anonymous scribe for his own use.
The poem (scroll down for the beginning in the original and in Heaney’s translation) describes itself as the seventy-seven names you should say to a hare to avoid bad luck if you happen to come across one. It is sometimes described as a magical charm, but it must surely be a poetic parody of a superstition (perhaps akin to the country custom of greeting a magpie). The opening lines signal the absurdity and parody — how could or why would you bless yourself (or the hare) with your elbow, even if you had put down whatever you were carrying? Likewise, at the end of the poem the speaker hopes that he will meet the hare again ‘in either onion broth or bread’ (in Heaney’s translation). Any bad luck posed by the leporine encounter is not being taken very seriously.
The mon that the hare i-met
Ne shal him neuere be the bet
Bote if he lei doun on londe
That he bereth in his honde—
Be hit staf, be hit bouwe—
And blesce him with his helbowe.
And mid wel goed devosioun
He shal saien on oreisoun
In the worshipe of the hare;
Thenne mai he wel fare.
The man the hare has met
will never be the better of it
except he lay down on the land
what he carries in his hand—
be it staff or be it bow—
and bless him with his elbow
and come out with this litany
with devotion and sincerity
to speak the praises of the hare;
Then the man will better fare.
The lexical creativity of this catalogue of seventy-seven names must have attracted Heaney to this pretty obscure bit of early Middle English. The poem lists compounds and other appellations, signalled as epithets by the string of definite articles (see another short section below). I like the compounds’ innate brevity, the way they compress larger qualities or aspect into a single word. Hans Sauer’s article on ‘Layamon’s Compound Nouns and their Morphology’ (in Historical Semantics, Historical Word-Formation, ed. Fisiak) provides various categories of compound for analysis.
In this section, there are imperative compounds (which according to Sauer are rare in early Middle English generally): ‘the go-along-the-ground’; ‘the sit-still’; ‘the cower-to-hill’; ‘the make-shudder’; ‘the run-with-lambs’; ‘the make-flee’; ‘the break-promise’. Coue-agrise is the same thing in reverse order, ‘the quick-get-up’ (coue from OE caf, ‘quick, nimble’). There are also some nominal compounds, adjective-noun and noun-noun (‘white-belly’, ‘peg-tail’), as well as insults (again suggesting that this praising of the hare is tongue-in-cheek): ‘chump’, ‘wretch’, ‘coward’, ‘scoundrel’.
The gobigrounde, the sittestille,
The pintail, the coure-tohulle;
The choumbe, the chaulart,
The chiche, the couart,
The make-fare, the brekefforewart,
The ffnattart, the pollart,
(His hei nome is srewart);
The creep-along, the sitter-still,
the pintail, the ring-the-hill,
the sudden start,
The gobshite, the gum-sucker,
the scare-the-man, the faith-breaker,
the snuff-the-ground, the baldy skull,
(his chief name is scoundrel.)
Heaney translates some of these insults, which are single words in the original, by means of slang compounds, gobshite from colloquial Irish English and gum-sucker from Australian slang (meaning ‘loudmouth’ and ‘simpleton’ respectively). He instinctively gets the point of this poem’s multiple methods of adding one name to another, not only rhyme but also similarities of morphology. He also uses compounds as equivalents to those insults in Middle English which end with the –art or –ard suffix (a suffix used to form nouns which are often pejorative in meaning).
In the Middle English, these are pollart (‘the bald one’), couart (‘the cowering one’, hence Modern English coward), srewart (‘the one who is shrewish’), ffnatart (‘the one who snuffles’). They form a sequence of epithets on the same rhyme, showing how the poet amasses his list both by sound-associations and by morphology. The sequences of monorhymes are more important than metrical regularity or notions of individual ‘lines’ or ‘couplets’.
The full text of the Middle English poem can be found in A S C Ross, ‘The Middle English Names of a Hare’, Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, 3 (1932–35), 347–77 (I have modernised spelling). See also the corrections given by Margaret Laing, ‘Notes on Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Digby 86, “The Names of a Hare in English”’ , Medium Ævum, 67 (1998), 201–11. The Heaney translation can be found in The Rattle Bag: An Anthology of Poetry, ed. Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (Faber, 1982) and in Heaney’s Opened Ground: Poems 1966–1996 (Faber, 1998).