The Seafarer Cuckoo
cuckoo is right



G.V.Smithers, in 1957, recognised how fatuous the translation of anfloga as "one-flier" had to be, and re-identified the word as the equivalent of an attacking or "on-flying" death-chooser, or valkyrie. He might have added banshee. It then necessarily followed that he fully settled the true and basic significance of on wæl weg.

So near.

There is no gainsaying that these lines, 58-64, are, verily, the central crux of The Seafarer, which happens to consist of 125 lines --- if an extended or repeated "Amen" is counted as the last line. The dead central line of the poem is therefore line 62 or 63. In those two lines Smithers, by the end of his paper, 1959, nails the meaning of anfloga, and of wælweg. It's unfortunate that he didn't also rumble unwearnum, hweteð, eft, or sceatas.

However, it doesn't actually seem to me to be particularly odd to be thinking of the mind as wandering. Many a professor has been described as absent-minded. People cast their minds back on days past, and on occasion cast their thoughts forward to visualise the future. What is odd is to think of the mind as a physical entity with wings. I'm with Mrs Gordon there, although hyge means mind not soul, which either she or Sieper or Diekstra seems to believe. The fact is that hyge is virtually identical in meaning and usage with the Modern Swedish word håg, though Sieper, Gordon, Diekstra wouldn't be aware of that.

"Geek" may have arrived in its modern guise from the USA, but its remoter ancestry is clearly Anglo-Saxon geac, which survives as "gowk" in Scotland, and doubtless elsewhere in Britain. See Wright: Obsolete and Provincial English.

Below is a short comment, extracted from an essay by F.N.M.Diekstra, on the proposed identification of the anfloga with the geac, excerpted from Neophilologus, Vol 55, Issue No 1, December 1971. I almost wrote "geek" there.

from The Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins

cuckoo is right

Imagining "the" hyge, or hyge, as "flying across the sea like a bird on the wing" is, certainly, fairly absurd. However, identifying the cuckoo as a "one-flier", let alone an "on-flier" is positively cuckoo. The cuckoo fills at least two roles in European folk-lore. One is its tendency to predict the future, or send warnings of doom; the other is its function as a semi-crazed fool, or as Wright says, in his Provincial Dictionary, a simpleton (Cumberland).

I'll digress here. On learning to read, one of the first stories I remember from my Scottish kindergarten was titled "Send the gowk another mile". See internet. On the other hand, the gowk as a fortune-teller, often warning of dire events, appears to be especiially Scandinavian. and hence its appearance in Anglo-Saxon poetry.

By "Teutonic", Anderson, writing in 1937, means "Old Scandinavian". British scholars, patriotically concerned to show that everything in The Seafarer is of native British origin are anxious to maintain "that such a feature as the cuckoo as a bird of lament comes from Welsh tradition" (Gordon 31). There is time-honoured Celtic parochialism, and blatant chauvinistic ignorance, in this assertion. Cuckoos occur in folk poetry elsewhere, widely and frequently. A troubadour of sea-shanties in Sweden, Evert Taube, incorporated an element of the cuckoo folk-lore mentioned by Anderson into one of his songs of the 1930s.

Hör, hör, hör göken, fröken, göken gal i väst!
Fröken, västergök är bästergök,
norrgök är en torr och tråkig gök,
men södergöken är dödergök
och östergöken han är tröstergök,
men fröken, göken gal i väster nu!
Hör ni inte göken nu? Kuku!

"Listen, Miss: The cuckoo's call: from west is best, north is sad, south is death, east is consolation."

See Bird, Ship, Sun, Sea. Evert Taube.

The excessively influential Welsh Celts have now been scotched by Oppenheimer, and others.

This note perhaps comes from Wikipedia: "I Sverige ansåg man att göken kunde förutspå framtiden [In Sweden they believed the cuckoo could foretell the future] och än idag hör man uttrycket; södergök är dödergök, västergök är bästergök, östergök är tröstergök och norrgök är sorggök".

"Linnés lärjunge [Carl von Linné's pupil] Doctor Johan Otto Hagström skrev så här [wrote thus in] 1749 från sin resa i Jämtland:" [Jämtland: is a northern province, now of Sweden, with a fascinating history and constitution.]

Giök, Giök,
Sitt på qvist,
Säg mig vist,
Hur' många år,
Jag ogift går

När någon råkar komma under det trä, deruti gjöken sitter och gal, så kan gjöken spå [the cuckoo can predict], huru länge man skal gå ogift. Men hvarje galande utmärker giöken ett år, då han frågas, efter vissa rim, ungefärligen sålunda:.Skulle nu gjöken gala allenast en gång, efter denna fråga, får den frågnde god tröst, at inom årets slut blifva gift. Men gal han öfver 10 resor, då sägs han sitta på galen qvist, i hvilken händelse hans spådom intet aktas.

"Första gången man om våren hörer giöken gala gifves noga akt, om han siter i nårr eller vester, ifrån det rum man hörer honom gala. Ty höres den i nårr, får man sorg det året; men om han gal i väster, blir man alt ör lyckelig, äfvenså i öster, då ingen tröst skal fela enom det året. Råkar någon få höra giöken första gången i söder, den bekommer godt och mycket smör af sin boskap om sommaren." Here the cuckoo's call from the south denotes prosperity. Consistency is not needed in matters occult. Perhaps the cuckoo exported its Welsh habits to just south of Lapland.

Below is a word selected from È.A.Makaev's Glossary of the Oldest Runic Inscriptions, 1965/1996, Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien. A beautiful translation from the Russian.

Fascinating suggestion, if tenuous, about the possibly magical role played by the gowk. Modern Swedish gala tends to mean crow like a cock rather than yell like anything. But, curiously, it can also be used of the cuckoo, according to my modern Prisma Swedish-English dictionary. Could Sieper have known as much ?

I am minded now to insert my personal interpretation of the cuckoo episode.

 swylce geac monað | geomran reorde
singeð sumeres weard | sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord |

 And heralding his summer hoard of pain
the gowk repeats his plaintive geck
foreboding bitterness of breast

sumeres weard

The trickiest part of the cuckoo's appearance lies in translating the above phrase: sumeres weard. What does weard actually mean or imply in this context ? Bjork, 2014, gives us "guardian of summer", the dictionary gloss, although it is very difficult to suppose the cuckoo is guarding anything. Anderson suggests "harbinger", and actually translates "herald of summer". T.A.Shippey, Old English Verse, 1972, p 69, has "watchman of summer". Pheiffer, two below, has a good try with "summer's doorkeeper". Dorothy Whitelock, The Interpretation of "The Seafarer", 1950, in spite of disagreeing with Anderson on several points, also has "herald of summer". See The Early Cultures of North-West Europe, p 265, from which this comment, immediately below, is taken.

Here we go again. Peter Orton, To be a Pilgrim, from Lexis and Texts in Early English, 2001. His firm commitment, in the footsteps of Whitelock, to the "early cultures of north-west Europe", closes his mind to the infinitely more firmly based cultures of Scandinavia, and allows him to mistranslate almost every word of this familiar passage, in pursuit of his bias. It is, of course, unnecessary to link The Seafarer in any way with Ireland. Though one might link Milton's Paradise Lost with the pagan deities of Ancient Greece and Rome; or Joyce's Ulysses with Homer.

To subject Orton's translation to murderous dissection. Makes me feel a bit bad. Yes, hyge has to mean "mind", since there is no fully equivalent word for håg in English. Modsefa certainly does not mean "heart", but more reasonably "mood", or "state of mind". There is an etymologically stimulating site on sefa, here. It certainly does not "detach itself from him", and travel out from his body. Hweorfeð means "is cast" or "thrown", and absolutely not "travels".

"Homeland" is a decidedly curious word to use for the whale's watery domain. "Sceatas" definitely does not mean expanses (sheets ?), but "corners", or "lap of nature". There is no indication at all of anything "returning" in the text. Eft means "then" or "after", which makes the insertion of "later" in the translation a little strange. As usual, the anfloga becomes the "solitary" flier, although, less usually, it is here again unbelievably identified with the geac. Unwearnum cannot mean "irresistibly": Schuchardt has much to answer for. Hweteð does not mean "urges", wael weg does not mean whale's way. The seafarer is aiming for heaven, not for "a land of exiles". I give up.

The word unwearnum was ludicrously rendered as das heisst gierig (eager, greedy, covetous) by Richard Schuchardt, in a thesis titled Die Negation in Beowulf, published in 1910 and uncritically followed by not quite everybody else ever since.

Wayne Leman: "Accuracy is measured by the degree to which users of a translation get the same meaning from it which the original text had." I've said this before, but since no-one was listening, I'll say it again: It might be thought natural to assume that a translator's overriding priority would be, first, before anything else, to determine the precise meaning of the original text.

Below are remarks by M.R.Godden on the mental problems posed by the seafarer, excerpted from Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England, 1985.

true; it does seem rather odd
See here for The Meaning of ferð.

Why do I feel as though I'm Christopher Columbus addressing the Flat Earth Society ?
Why do the beanery suits so closely resemble other bureaucratic suits most everywhere else?
Why does the cautiously career-minded Anglo-Saxonist play follow-my-leader ?

Those contemplating undertaking a translation might like to read the sum of what is said by Wayne Leman, here, as well as by E.Bruce Brooks, here. And as follows: "A translation is the same text in a different language. Every statement made about the work by a reader of the translation should also be true of the original text. This is not possible. Not with poetry, and not even with prose, where the difficulty is generally assumed to be less. But it is what we aim at. The real thing, with the curtain of language somehow made transparent."

Nothing discredits academics more than when they scratch backs and lick boots. Without a critical approach, guided by integrity, all enquiry is worthless.

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour ! Whom resist, steadfast in the faith ...... The gods themselves contend in vain against stupidity, but intrepid resistance is indicated. Silence implies assent.

The following guidelines, included by Theodore Savory in The Art of Translation, Cape 1957; new and enlarged edition 1968, are the ones that have my approval. But who cares ?

A translation must:

give the ideas of the original
read like an original work
reflect the style of the original
read as a contemporary of the translator
sometimes add to or omit from the original
translate verse into verse

Quoted by Ernst-August Gutt, Translation and Relevance, Blackwell 1991, p.120

David Burns noted: "historians seem to dismiss, or not wish to pursue"
the link between Swedish and Anglo-Saxon.

"The greater the labour, the fewer the people who understand and appreciate it". Paul Valéry, 1871 - 1945.

"Every great advance ..... has involved the absolute rejection of authority." T.H. Huxley

" I have been obliged to content myself through life with saying what I mean in the plainest of plain language,
than which, I suppose, there is no habit more ruinous to a man's prospects of advancement."
T.H.Huxley, Autobiography, p 1, Lectures & Essays, Watts & Co, published 1931.

"Publish or Perish" is the beanery motto. To get published, they must be dull, and stupid and harmless.
Marshall McLuhan: Toronto's singular son

"There are many mathematicians [read Anglo-Saxonists] who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest."
Grigori Perelman.

See here for the Central Crux. ll.58-68.

essays & papers
commentaries: one, two, three [60 plus other versions], four, five, six
annotation         main general index
more on unwearnum         more and more on unwearnum
Holthausen & Jamieson
Seafarer: Veracity & Fidelity
Seafarer Birds         After Twenty Years


See here for anfloga BC.

""Scholars belong to guilds held together by common opinions, attitudes, and methods … innovation is welcome only when it is confined to surface details and does not modify the structure as a whole." Cyrus H.Gordon

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2015