The Song of Ceber

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I suppose I owe the reader explanation of what they’ve just read along with some account of its origin, if only because it is a strange poem about anthropomorphic wasps done in a poetic style at least 1500 years old.

A while ago, but not a long time ago, I was looking through my school’s course catalog and I saw a class called “Old English”. I thought, “Sweet, an Old English Literature Class. Beowulf and all that. This is going to be fun!” It turned out to be not a 320 or 420 lit. class as I had imagined, but a 500 level language course. Worse, we were to read directly from Old English, a language that looked far more like German than English to my untrained eyes, and we were going to do our own translations.

The teacher was also fairly crazy; a little old woman maybe five foot high, if that, and over eighty years old. She got distracted easily and tended to go off on long-winded stories often having nothing to do with class.

Once she told us about visiting England to see the site of the Battle of Maldon, a site that is now apparently a farmer’s field. She took a cab out from London and upon finding the place barred by means of a barbed-wire fence, she had the cabbie drive her back to London for burglary tools.

The cabbie might have said, “You know, this guy could shoot you if ‘e finds you on his land.”

After this story, she said to us, “You should really go if you get the chance.”

One of her grad students raised a hand and in an apprehensive and cautious voice asked, “Professor D——, you aren’t advocating trespassing— are you?”

“No, no,” she said, waving a tiny hand at him. “But, if you’re ever in the area you should go.”

Another professor told me that Professor D——‘s greatest wish is to die teaching just like her hero the Venerable Bede, an Anglo-Saxon monk. If there is any truth to this, I’d say she’s well on achieving her goal.

I didn't do well in the class. Populated by cliquish grad students and way above my level, the odds were against me, but I did learn two important things.

First, Old English isn't hard to read if you have some idea of how English has evolved. Clues such as knowing, for instance, V’s and F’s are often interchangeable as are D’s and TH’s. Knowing such clues makes translation a lot easier. The second thing I learned is that I love the Old English poetic forms and that is very different from modern English verse.

It is an alliterative verse, meaning alliteration (that is words with the same beginning sound) is the main source of structure and beauty in the poems. There is no rhyme in Old English poetry, except by accident.

Let’s look at an example of one of the oldest poems in the English language.

Cædmon's Hymn

Nu sculon herian       heofon-rices weard,
Metodes meahta       und his modgeþanc,
Weorc wuldor-fæder,       swa he wundra gehwæs
Ece dryten,       or astealde.

He ærest scop       ielda bearnum
Heofon to hrofe,       halig scieppend;
Þa middan-geard       mann-cynnes weard,
Ece dryhten,       æfter teode—
Firum foldan       frea ælmihtig.

Now that’s frightening! Almost nothing looks familiar. There are even new letters to learn like thorn (þ) and ash (æ). But on further reflection we see it isn’t all alien. “Und” is “and”, that’s clear. “He” and “his” haven’t changed. And if we remember the V=F clue we find the word “heofon” becomes “heovon” and what does this sound like? Heaven! Yes, Cædmon’s Hymn is a religious song.

To save you time, here is the first line with a translation under it:

Nu sculon herian       heofon-rices weard
Now shall hear       heaven-reich warden

Easy! Nu is almost pronounced as now is now and sculon/herian sound close enough to guess. Translation into prefect English would be “Now we shall hear of” the we and of are implied. Now, heofon is heaven as before. In "rices" the C is pronounced CH and is usually translated as "kingdom" by most translators, but is more closely related to the German word "reich" as in The Third Reich, and I like that word better than kingdom being stronger in every respect. Weard is warden but again most translators shift it to keeper. Both “warden” and “reich” sound threatening to modern readers, so most translations soften the words.

Metodes meahta       und his modgeþanc
Miraculous magic       and his mind-y-thoughts

I pick "miraculous" to preserve the alliteration and magic for the same reason though most translations use power for "meahta". "And" and "his" are obvious. Then we come to "modgeþanc" and run into our first real problem. Literally it is “mind-thought”. Mod is mind, þanc is think. But I have to note that “mind-thought” doesn't explain the concept that I believe Cædmon is trying to express. Seeing translations as “Wondrous thoughts” and “Supreme Ideas” are common. The problem for me is the word "ge" right in the center of mind and thoughts. This word no longer exists in English. It used to signify that an action was either intensified or a past-participial (indicates an action has been completed). "Ge" passed into Middle English as "y-" (yborn, yrun). So a better translation might be “Mind has thought and finished thinking” an amazing concept and great praise of Heaven’s Warden! But I can’t think of a single word to say it. I lack the modgeþanc. So, without a better word, I’ll use "megamind" because it alliterates and the silly modernness of it amuses me.

Before I end this crash course in Old English poetry, let me point out the structure of the poem. It isn’t random.

Nu sculon herian || heofon-rices weard,
Metodes meahta || und his modgeþanc,

Each line is roughly ten syllables, and most lines in the poem have three alliterations which are in bold above. Additionally each line is cut in half by a caesura, those are the “spaces” in-between the poem, a pause (though it need not be observed). One half line usually has two alliterations and the other only one. This is how the alliteration holds the two half lines together.

Now to Ceber. Ceber’s cue is primarily alliterative verse as described, but admittedly a less strict sort. For example, in Old English poems sl, st, sc, etc. are not allowed to alliterate with each other. In Ceber I've freely alliterated them all even going so far as to alliterate them with the C in “Ceber” and with all soft C’s. I doubt Cædmon would be pleased. There’s also no set syllable count per line. However, I do have an ideal line: Seven syllables with three alliterations divided by the half lines. Thus:

To kill my kin || my own child

Or perhaps:

Lucky me || living lively

These are “perfect” lines in The Song of Ceber, though any look at any page shows I often only follow the alliterating pattern and I often break it regularly for no other reason than it sounded better broken.

That’s the what of it. Now for the origin of the content. After the class, equipped with some feeble knowledge of Old English poetry, and between writing projects, I set out— I sat outside on my back porch reading Beowulf while my dogs frolicked in the mint plants that grow back there like weeds. Pausing between sections, I looked up to see one of my dogs, Tori— the stupid one, chasing a wasp; one of those large yellow jackets we get out here by the mountains. I wondered how a wasp would write Beowulf. Just a stray thought. Basically, epics describe the values of the culture that made them and wasps are not human so… That stray thought exploded.

Ceber herself grew naturally from the text. I didn't work from a plan. I realized that wasp society would be female-dominated not male, and so their epic hero must be an epic heroine. I decided to make her a Tarantula Hawkwasp because hawkwasps are my State’s official insect. And that’s the sum of it.

Next time I try poetry, I might do something a little less… extensive.

Devon Stevens
6 January 2014
Albuquerque, New Mexico

5/8/2020 Update: The professor mentioned in this article died on 4/14/2020 from complications from COVID-19. So it goes.

The Song of Ceber

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