Shades of Green: Translators and Gawain

It's not even an opening line, that line stuck in my head. It's in the second stanza of the second section of the poem we call Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It's been firmly planted ever since the hypersensitive teenage moment when I riffled the pages of the AP English anthology, came to a passage describing the seasons, and reached the line “So runs the year in yesterdays many...” And I think I remember it as I do because, by that line, I had realized what sort of music I was hearing: the alliterative strong-stress line. That music had a lot to do with my decision, much later, to study medieval literature and later still to translate it and to use its meter for my own poems. I’ve always believed in it as a living music.

All this came forcefully back to me when I found the long segment of John Ridland's new translation of Gawain that was published in The Hudson Review (Winter 2009, pages 736-750; two other sections were published earlier, in The Dark Horse, numbers 17 and 19.) Ridland has made a startling choice: he has broken with the four-stress line and told the story in heptameter—ballad meter, or “fourteeners,” to use the old-fashioned term. He makes the case that alliterative verse is, in the words of Paul Deane, “no longer a living part” of readers' lives. Yet his meter of choice, heptameter, seems to me so profoundly pre-modern, so naïve in its associations, that I wondered at first whether that choice was good for the poem, and what it could do to make the work attractive and accessible to a contemporary audience. I'm writing now to answer those questions.

What would the other choices have been? The answer has to start with the meter and language of the original poem. It's Middle English, but don't think of Chaucer. Chaucer's East Midland dialect of Middle English is the language of late-14th-century London and of the seats of power, and the direct ancestor of the tongue alive in our own heads. The language of Gawain and of the three other poems in its sole surviving manuscript, is from the same time but a different place: the Northwest Midlands, possibly south Lancashire or Cheshire. It uses many words we don’t recognize because its vocabulary was strongly influenced by Scandinavian languages during the Old English period. That different vocabulary is the main reason Gawain really does need to be translated, to let nonspecialists read it without a struggle. The dialect also has very different-looking spelling conventions, if you can call them conventions, considering that in the one poem the name of the main character is variously spelled Gawayn, Gawayne, Gawan, Gawen, Gauan, Wawan, Wowen, and Wowayn. The spelling is another good reason to translate.

The meter is not like Chaucer's familiar iambic pentameter, either; it’s the accentual meter I’ve been talking about. Usually, it has four stressed syllables to the line, and it has at least two, often three, alliterating syllables spread across the two half-lines. “Like Beowulf,” you may be thinking. But it's not quite like Beowulf, and that's the problem. Or at least, it's not like the model of Beowulf's meter your head may be harboring. An idealization of the sound pattern of Beowulf has taken firm hold of modern attempts to write alliterating accentual verse. The modern revival of accentual meter starts with Ezra Pound's translation of The Seafarer and extends to contemporary pieces like Richard Wilbur’s “The Lilacs”:

Those laden lilacs
at the lawn's end
Came stark, spindly
and in staggered file
Like walking wounded
from the dead of winter….

Notice how tight this is: never more than two unaccented syllables at a time within the half-line, as if the ear were being constrained by the modern idea of the metrical foot—iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl. Another standard model, the translation of The Wanderer in Lewis Turco's Book of Forms, is even tighter and allows half lines in which two stressed syllables don't even need an intervening unstressed syllable:

No weary wit    may scorn weird
Nor wrecked will    work hope
Wherefore, belike,    fame-chasers
Fasten darkness    in deep moods....

This is what we have in our ears as “accentual prosody.” That's why the real prosody of the Middle English Gawain clangs hard against our expectations. Here are the opening lines; I've modernized the spelling and marked the stressed, alliterating syllables with boldface type.

Sithen the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troye, (15 syllables)
The borgh brittened and brent to brondez and askez, (13)
The tulk þat the trammes of tresoun ther wroght (11)
Watz tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe: (15)
Hit watz Ennias the athel, and his highe kynde, (14)
That sithen depreced prouinces, and patrounes bicome (16)
Welneghe of al the wele in the west iles. (13)

The extra alliterations and unstressed syllables make for expansive lines that are very different from the tight alliterative line we expect. The Gawain-poet's line has few if any controls on the number of unstressed syllables, no marking of the half lines, and extra alliterations that make a modern reader unsure which word carries the main stress. How is a translator to deal with these differences? What values will be preserved or discarded? Mary Veazey calls this Gawain’s Catch-22: you can be true to the music or the meaning, but not to both at once.

Let's assume the translator wants to go beyond word-for-word prose (such as Jessie Weston's) and write a poetic translation. A conventional approach to that job is the one taken fifty years ago by Brian Stone, the Penguin Classics edition published in 1959. (Penguin has recently replaced Stone's translation with one by Bernard O'Donoghue.) In his note on the translation, Stone contrasts his approach with that of Pound in Seafarer, with its difficult word order and striking, invented diction. Stone means to be modern—though not absolutely plain, in keeping with the richness of the poem—and to adhere closely to the original as far as modern English words allow. Here's what he does with stanza 34, lines 785-793. (The original can be found here; scroll down to the last paragraph of folio 22.):

The knight, still on his steed, stayed on the bank
Of the deep double ditch that drove round the place.
Into the water the wall went wondrously deep
And then to a huge height upwards it reared
In hard hewn stone, up to the cornice,
Which was buttressed up to the battlements in the best style
With protruding turrets between, equipped
With loopholes interlinked with lovely ornament.
No better barbican had ever been beheld by that knight….

This passage, along with the lines that follow it in the stanza, is a good one for showing how fond the poet is of describing the details of ideal courtly life. My frustration with Stone's approach to the passage is simple: apart from the rhyming bob-and-wheel segments, many lines—look especially at l. 793— are just not very metrical to my ears, because so many of them have so many unstressed syllables that sound extraneous. Without knowing what the meter was supposed to be, and without the printed helps of jogged or broken lines, many readers wouldn’t hear a meter in this passage.

Some contemporary poets have responded to that kind of frustration by giving up on meter and translating the poem in free verse. That was the Burton Raffel solution: minimal adjustment of the meter, little or no attention to the alliteration, and no attention at all to the rhythm and rhyme of the “bob and wheel”—the short, four-line rhyming tag at the end of each stanza. This is how Raffel translates the same passage:

He sat on his horse, who had halted on the bank
Of the deep double ditch in which
The walls were set, towering immense
Out of the water, hard stone
Hewed in the noblest style, topped
With rows of battlements, and turrets, and beautiful
Towers for sentries, and lovely loophole
Windows, shuttered now—he'd never
Seen a better fortress….

The strength of this version is its brevity and simplicity. Raffel refuses to sacrifice any qualities of understanding for the sake of the poem’s music. The lines are roughly four-stress, but the alliteration is almost nonexistent. Raffel wants his translation to keep to the plainest of modern English vocabulary, and to adhere to his own interpretation of the poem. But looking at the first line of the excerpt, we might question even his accuracy; the translation is ambiguous about whether the man or the horse halted on the bank, while the original is clear. Raffel is also determined to produce a line-by-line equivalent translation. But to do that he has to be completely false to the Gawain poet's notion of a line, so that he's enjambing wildly in ways that the original never does. The end product is easy to read, but it gives the reader next to no idea of what the poet was trying to do.

To show how much more attention can be paid to the poet's intended music and sense of line—and was being paid, at about the same period when Raffel was writing, in the late 1960s—compare Marie Borroff's version of the same lines:

The man on his mount remained on the bank
Of the deep double moat that defended the place,
The wall went in the water wondrous deep,
And a long way aloft it loomed overhead.
It was built of stone blocks to the battlements' height
With corbels under cornices in comeliest style;
Watch-towers trusty protected the gate,
With many a lean loophole to look from within:
A better-made barbican the knight beheld never….

The alliteration, meter, and rhymes are preserved, but the price being paid is in archaic diction and inversions: wondrous deep, comeliest, watchtowers trusty. These aren't necessarily false to the poem, or wrong for its spirit. It's a romance, part folk-tale and part courtly entertainment. The Gawain poet used words that were “poetic diction” in his own time, along with more conversational words, so Borroff’s use of them is justified. Still, for me the overall effect of the Borroff translation is of something consciously old, or quaint, or Pre-Raphaelite, or fusty, more of the nineteenth century than the fourteenth.

There are dozens of Gawain translations I am passing over (and useful collections of them can be found at and at but these are enough to give a sense of the problem. Here's one last alliterative version, one of the most recent and best publicized: the 2007 version by Simon Armitage. The lines we've been examining look this way in Armitage's treatment:

In the saddle of his steed he halts on the slope
of the delving moat with its double ditch.
Out of water of wondrous depth. the walls
then loomed overhead to a heavenly height,
course after course of crafted stone,
then battlements embellished in the boldest style
and turrets arranged around the ramparts
with lockable loopholes set into the lookouts.
The knight had not seen a more stunning structure.

Armitage gives us the original on the facing page, and that helps us to see exactly what is being given up and what gained. We can see, for example, that the translation cuts out many of the alliterating words that are “extra” by the modern rules of alliterative verse. Instead of the five Bs of

The burne bod on the bonk, that on blonk hoved....
(the man stayed on the bank, that on horse waited)

we get three clear Ss, tidily marking the stressed syllables:

In the saddle of his steed, he halts on the slope

Armitage doesn't over-observe the three-per-line rule—which is not an absolute rule in the old poetry, since there are many lines with only two alliterating syllables, one per half-line—but he does keep a rule, faithfully and satisfyingly. He also corrals the meter to suit modern ears, nearly always limiting the unstressed syllables between stressed ones to two. One of the ways he does so is by sliding freely between present and past tense, as do other translators. A dodgier part of his method is leaving out adjectives at a whim, such as the “deep” in “depe double dich.” He cuts down on elements that we might look on as “padding for meter” if they appeared in a contemporary poem: modifier combinations like “ful thik,” “ful clene,” and “ful quyte” (white), all in the same stanza. Result: a sonically chewy poem, modern in diction and phrasing (a little too slangily modern, in the view of critics like Mary Veazey and Frank Kermode), rhythmically regular as measured by our ears, but quite straightforward and nonchalant about ignoring many of the original poet's words.

Are there other choices? What can a translator do if he wants a metrical poem but doesn't want to chop so much out of the original? And is there any escaping the need, felt by nearly every translator who uses the four-stress line, to explain how it is supposed to be read? Is it possible to use a measure we know more instinctively? Ridland may have hit upon his idea for a solution by looking at those very long opening lines of the poem and counting syllables. See all those numbers in the teens? And we can get a second hint from A.E. Stallings's observation, in the introduction to her translation of Lucretius, that in experimenting with the poem, looking for a measure roomy enough to accommodate the contents of Latin hexameters for the purpose of line-by-line facing translation, she stumbled on heptameter.

Now, I have already confessed that my primary associations with fourteeners, or heptameter—and especially rhyming heptameter—are not very dignified. They include Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat,” forever wrecked in my memory by the Disney cartoon, and Robert Service's “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “My Shadow,” from A Child's Garden of Verses, a deliberately child-minded work by an author who could do better. Other people have recalled, even more unfortunately, the theme song from the old television show “Gilligan's Island.” The moralizing of Rudyard Kipling's Bar-Room Ballads, and the fourteen-syllable hymn-tune verses that also come to mind (“God moves in a mysterious way/ His wonders to perform”) don't improve the situation. As John Lennard says in The Poetry Handbook (163), the fourteener is, if not anti-heroic, then at least “counter-heroic.”

But these associations with comedy and puerility and jingle-jangle are my problems, and modernity's problems. They aren't inherent in heptameter. To get an idea how much more stately fourteen syllables can sound, consider some of the lines of George Chapman’s Iliad, the work that sent Keats into sonnet-shaped rhapsodies:

Achilles' baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos'd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts, and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.

Poems like these show us that the fourteener has good credentials for storytelling. And the fourteen-syllable rhythm is also strongly associated, in its ballad-stanza guise, with folktale and fairytale material. Many of the Child Ballads use this rhythm, and although they operate at a more popular level, they have the right connotations for the content of Gawain. If further proof were needed, Stallings's Lucretius shows that it is entirely possible to revive the fourteener for modern use.

Has Ridland done that? Here is his version of the lines we've been examining:

The knight drew to a halt on his horse and paused a while on the bank
Of the deep, double-wide ditch they had dug to enclose the whole demesne;
The wall plunged into the dark water, down to a wondrous depth,
And then it lifted out of the moat to a lofty height above.
It was constructed of hard hewn stone up to the top of the cornice,
Which jutted out under the battlements in the best defensive style.
And watchtowers of the finest design were fashioned in between,
With neatly cut-out loopholes that were easily shuttered and locked.
The knight had never seen a better gatehouse fortification.

Ridland certainly does what he sets out to do in terms of including all the words of the original as far as modern English allows. Sometimes he needs to do rather more than that. Because we have been looking at other versions, we can see right away that Ridland has needed to use some standard techniques for padding. In fact, it's as if he is reversing the advice that modern editorial manuals give for shortening sentences: adjectives are drawn out into relative clauses (the red dress/the dress, which was red), and verbs or adjectives become noun-based expressions (halted beomes drew to a halt; wonderly deep becomes down to a wondrous depth). Here and there outright additions appear (“of the deep, double-wide ditch they had dug...”). Sometimes the extent of this expansion is almost funny if we look at it hard: innoghe in the original (line 798), which becomes “uncountable” or “a host” or “in gay array” in other translations, positively explodes into “he could make out crowds of them up there.” It’s remarkable how unobtrusive these expansions are if one is not making direct comparisons. When we do notice them, they seem to preserve meaning well. The effect they have of slowing the poem down is even a help in this sort of passage, where the extravagance of description becomes richer and has more time to sink in.

The alliterating words are still there in Ridland’s version, but as ornaments pure and simple, independent of the rhythm of the line. They are placed anywhere, in any number, or left out. That leaves Ridland more free about word choices, which are the Gawain translator's main hurdle, since so many Northwest Midland words lack modern English descendants and have to be completely replaced. It’s that freedom that makes it easier to be true to the meaning of the original poem.

And being true to the words is vital when we know so little about the poem, its intended audience, and its subtext. Is this very court-centered poem connected with royal patronage? With Edward III or with Richard II? Does the reference to Arthur as “childgered” relate to the very youthful accession of Richard, and to criticisms of his policies? If the poet came from Cheshire, was he part of Richard's private military retinue centered in that county? What does it mean that Gawain, who comes from the royal court, fails a test of courtliness that his provincial hosts are judging? (See Michael J. Bennett on these questions.) Like Chaucer, the Gawain-poet may well be saying more than is apparent on the surface, so the surface needs to be presented accurately.

So what does heptameter do to make Gawain attractive and accessible to a modern audience? It makes possible a metrical Gawain that does not constantly disregard words in the original. Preserving meaning is by far the stronger reason to use heptameter for Gawain. I disagree with Deane's contention that alliterative strong-stress verse is moribund in modern English, and with Ridland’s view that for that reason a better-understood meter has to be found for translating Gawain. Given my history, I’d naturally disagree, but I don’t believe I’m alone. If alliterative strong-stress meter were entirely unnatural to us, would so many translators have decided to use it? The better reason to use fourteeners is that they give the translator room to work, even though it sometimes looks like an excess of room.

Far from alliterative verse being dead, it seems to me that the meter that needs rescue is fourteeners—rescue from the taint of the “Gilligan's Island” theme, “Casey at the Bat,” and hundreds of too-familiar hymns and jingly, moralizing Victorian verses. Stories in the grand and magical Arthurian tradition, like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, might be just the material to give fourteeners their dignity again.

Works Cited:

Paul Deane, “What happens when a literary tradition dies?”

“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” (John Ridland). The Hudson Review, vol. LXI, number 4, Winter 2009, pp. 736-750.

Richard Wilbur, Collected Poems 1943-2004. (New York: Harcourt, 2004), p. 195.

Mary Veazey, “Catch-22 and the Gawain Poet,” The Dark Horse 20, Summer 2007, pp. 28-37.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Translated and with an Introduction by Brian Stone. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1959), p. 55-56.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Translated, and with an Introduction, by Burton Raffel. (New York: New American Library, 1970), p. 72-73.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Marie Borroff. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967), p. 17.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Simon Armitage. (New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007), pp. 73-75.

Lucretius, The Nature of Things, Trans. A.E. Stallings (New York: Penguin, 2007), xxv.

John Lennard, The Poetry Handbook, (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 163.

Chapman's Homer: The Iliad. Trans. George Chapman, Allardyce Nicoll, Gary Wills. Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 23.

Michael J. Bennett: Community, Class, and Careerism: Cheshire and Lancashire Society in the Age of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, (Cambridge University Press, 2003.)

John Ridland, “Introduction," Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Trans. John Ridland. Unpublished, 2007. Thanks to John Ridland for sharing this document and for personal communications about his translation.

Middle English Dictionary:

Maryann Corbett, co-winner of the 2009 Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota. Her chapbook Gardening in a Time of War was published in 2007 by Pudding House. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared or will appear in River Styx, Atlanta Review, The Evansville Review, Measure, The Lyric, The Dark Horse, and other journals in print and online.

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