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See letter in History Today

to sişe

A un poeta sajón

Hoy no eres otra cosa que unas palabras
Que los germanistas anotan.
Hoy no eres otra cosa que mi voz
Cuando revive tus palabras de hierro.


Very little has been done hitherto to investigate the exact shades of meaning in Old English words.
Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language, Chapter 3, § 52; 1938.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Pound's "journey's jargon" not only contains no shred of meaning of any sort --- but is also aesthetically repellent.

"In my view Anglo-Saxon should be regarded as a distinct language ancestral to modern English rather than as an early form of English ..... If we are to follow linguistic fashion abolishing Anglo-Saxon in favour of Early English to be logical we must now call Latin Early Italian ..... Early English for Anglo-Saxon is contrary to common sense."

Dr J.S.Beard, History Today, December 1998.

"..... a poem in a West Saxon dialect, known to us as Beowulf. Yet the central figure in this most famous piece of Anglo-Saxon epic poetry belongs not to Jutland, Schleswig or Holstein, as might be expected, but to Sweden: Beowulf was of the Geats, generally considered to be the Götar from Götaland in southern Sweden, and the poem is largely to do with the relationships between the Geats, the Scylfings (Svear, Swedes or Ynglingas) to the north-east, and the Scyldings of Denmark. This, then, is the background to one of the most important sources of Anglo-Saxon culture we have. Add the archaeological evidence of links between Sweden and Britain from Uppland and Sutton Hoo, and the Swedish connection is reinforced. Yet historians appear to dismiss, or not wish to pursue, the Swedish connection." Also "..... the language of the poem itself, even at the late stage of writing, contains words still more recognizable in modern Swedish, than in modern English".

David Burns, The Continental Homelands of the Anglo-Saxons, Contemporary Review, December 2002, Vol 281, No 1643.

"Some people ... think that English poetry begins with the Anglo-Saxons. I don't ..... Anglo-Saxon is a different language, which has to be learnt like any foreign language. Anglo-Saxon poetry ..... is somebody else's poetry."

James Fenton, An Introduction to English Poetry, 2002, p.1.


close, Tom, close: only found this september 2016
siş means way

Journey's Jargon One

sişas secgan hu ic:     sätten säga hur jag

the ways expound how I

my fortunes recount how 1842 Thorpe
erzählen meine Fahrten 1857 Grein
telling of my travels 1898 Stopford Brooke
of my voyages telling 1902 Iddings
mein Ergehn [experiences] beschreiben 1908 Immelmann
tell of my travels 1910 Spaeth
journey's jargon 1911 Pound
Kunde den Menschen melden 1915 Sieper
tell of my travels 1918 Faust & Thompson
meine Geschicke [destinies] kunden 1920 Immelmann
recount my adventures 1922 Kershaw
tell of my travels 1926 Gordon
narrate my adventures 1933 Mackie
sing of my sea-adventure 1936 Kennedy
tell of my adventures 1937 Anderson/Arngart
say my farings 1941 Malone
recount my wanderings 1943 Abbott
tell of my travelling 1954 Morgan
relating my journeys 1955 Whitelock
of travels tell 1960 Denny

sişas secgan hu ic

The verse moves from the concrete to the abstract, from experience to reflection, from exemplum to a moral conclusion. An exemplum, courtesy the Free Online Dictionary, is "an anecdote that supports a moral point or sustains an argument, used especially in medieval sermons." Consequently the beginning is simpler, and therefore easier to translate --- or, at least, it seems easier, at first. Since Pound followed the word-order quite closely, his opening lines, let us say up to "Not any protector / May make merry man faring needy", appear more effective than the passages thereafter, which progressively disintegrate into the jargonish babble he referred to in his Philological Note: 'The text of this poem is rather confused'. Admirers of Pound's refraction tend tacitly to ignore the lines from "May make merry man faring needy" or "Abides 'mid burghers some heavy business" or "Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed" onwards. These lines aren't English, so their admirers must have assumed they were Anglo-Saxon.

Bosworth-Toller, under sense IV for siş, gives "a proceeding, course of action, way of doing, conduct", which has to be considered the most significant sense here. For a start, it anticipates the advice the speaker gives his audience towards the end of his sermon: stieran mon sceal strongum mode. Some of the instances given by the dictionary are worth quoting in full. "Ne biş swylc earges siş --- such is not a coward's way. Ic ne mæg ğinra worda ne wisna wuht oncnawan sişes ne sagona --- I cannot understand aught of thy words or of thy ways, of thy proceedings or of thy sayings." That last one is quite a humdinger: sişes doesn't remotely mean "journeys".

However, B-T fails to cite The Seafarer, in any of its definitions of siş, so far as I can tell, which is certainly a serious omission --- or, perhaps, deliberate, leaving the interpretation of this line open.

A digressive comment here on translation. Anyone with a reasonable command of two languages must know that word-for-word translation is doomed, if the aim is to convey ideas, sensations, or anything beyond the most basic of concrete objects from one language to another. A rose is a rose is a rose, indeed; but anything which has a breath of metaphor about it needs further thought. Is a siş a course, custom, journey, manner, pathway, pilgrimage, proceeding, progression, road, route, way, or none of these? Even that irritating fellow, Pound, somewhere remarks: "Do not translate what I said, but what I meant to say". Inconsistent as ever, he didn't follow his own advice --- mainly because most of the time he didn't know, or didn't care, what his source actually meant to say. Marshall McLuhan was interested in Pound. He seems to have detected in Pound's writings a prime example of the medium being the message. I'd better take another look at Richards and Ogden's The Meaning of Meaning; but perhaps Becker's perspective on the "Problem of Man", his Birth and Death of Meaning, is too far off-piste for consideration. Not that the Seafarer poet wasn't concerned with the problem of man: ie the denial of death. Academic outcasts generally offer more rewarding insights than insider placemen.

As might be expected, the earliest translators of The Seafarer, listed above, appear to me to also have been the most linguistically adept. Thus, Thorpe, Immelmann and Sieper show that they are aware that sişas implies something more than merely "journeys" or "travels". As time goes on, the translators settle comfortably into the simple "travels", or its near equivalents, such as "voyages", with a consequent lack of penetration into the poem's content, and the poet's intent. "Fortunes", Ergehn, Geschicke show a sensitivity to meaning lacking in most of the others. Siepers' Kunde den Menschen melden is even more positive, with a strong perception that the poet's purpose is to pass on some news that he considers important. Kershaw introduces "adventures", which veers off course, but is taken up by others. By the time we get to 1937, Anderson/Arngart is already over-impressed by preceding translators, so that he too settles for "travels". This is in spite of his otherwise extremely clear general grasp of the poem. He is without doubt one of the two most perceptive analysts of the poem, the other being G.V.Smithers, in 1957-59. Anderson/Arngart is attuned to the poem's Christianity; Smithers to the pagan background. There is, however, no more overt paganism in The Seafarer than there is in, say, Milton's Paradise Lost. The paganism fascinates most commentators far more than the straightforward evangelism, which is too boring and familiar to attract much attention in these would-be pagan times.


Like now: February 2010

In the Review of English Studies, 36, 144, November 1985, Bruce Mitchell has a short piece entitled The Syntax of the Seafarer, Lines 50-52.

Lines 50-52Site interpretation
ealle şa gemoniağ modes fusne
sefan to sişe şam şe swa şenceğ
on flodwegas feor gewitan
the wide world racks the restless mind
of him who on the full flood tide
determines to depart
C.W.M.Grein 1857E.Pound 1911
es mahnt dieses alles den im Gemüt beeilten
hinaus zu ziehen, der also gedenkt
fernhin zu wandern auf die Flutenwege;
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
E.Sieper 1915G.D.Hansson 1991
Alles mahnt ihn,     dess Gemüt bereit ist,
Die Ausfahrt zu wagen,     und sich also sehnt,
Ferne zu wandern     auf Flutenwegen.
Allt lockar ett otåligt sinne
att våga färden
på fjärran flodvågar.

"I propose to leave to the reader of the poem to choose that interpretation which suits him best." This is Mitchell's final comment. However, the focus here is on to sişe, since he firmly states that: "The phrase to sişe means "to a journey".

Mitchell's three pages are knottily clotted. The Alexandrian solution, as employed in 333 BC, to the syntactical puzzles listed by Mitchell recommends itself as the most practical, and translators generally appear to have taken to it. In his translation of to sişe as "to a journey" the indefinite article seems faintly intrusive; and he actually alternates between a reading of "to a journey" and "to journey", with "journey" shifting from noun to verb. Skipping, pro tem, the grammatical intricacies of Mitchell's intriguing notes, it would seem as though "course of action", see B-T, sense IV, above, would improve on "journey". Sieper, for instance, has Ausfahrt, ie "way out".

And yet again: January 2012

E.V.K.Dobbie, 1953, Beowulf and Judith, The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, Vol IV, p 161. In his note to Beowulf, line 908, sið], Dobbie has this to say: "Does this word mean 'journey, expedition' (its usual meaning), or does it mean 'fate' (as Kock, Anglia XLV, 117, takes it)? Or may it not simply mean 'way (of doing things),' as apparently in ll. 2532, 2541? That is, it was Heremod's conduct which was lamented by his followers. The obscurity of the allusion makes it impossible to judge."

I wouldn't say that, EVKD; the word quite simply does not mean "journey, expedition"; nor does it mean "fate". It does, quite emphatically, mean "way".

try starting from another angle: here

The line numbers in brackets indicate Gordon's 1960 edition. The Modern Swedish cognate follows.

Mæg ic (1) - Må jag. (notes: 1)
slat (11) - slet. (notes: 3)
scurum (17) - skur. (notes: 5)
gomene (20) - gamman. (notes: 6)
medodrince (22) - mjöddricka. (notes: 6)
hrusan (32) - grus. (notes: 9)
forşon (27, 33, 39, 58, 64, 72, 103, 108) - ändå, ty då, för då. (notes: 10/11)
sorge (42, 54) - omsorg or sörja för. (notes: 12)
hyge (44, 58, 96) - håg. (notes: 13)
wongas (49) - vång. (notes: 14)
sceatas (61, 105) - sköte (skatt). (notes: 17). See also "Empress of Hel".


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Annotation Pages

Modern Version stanzas 1-7;   Anglo-Saxon lines 1-26

MV stanzas 8-14;   AS lines 27-52:         MV stanzas 15-20;   AS lines 53-71

MV stanzas 20-24;   AS lines 72-99:        MV stanzas 25-30;   AS lines 100-125


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