Thursday, 14 May 2015

'Nu is þon gelicost'

Christ's Ascension on the Wirksworth Stone

Today is the feast of the Ascension. Last year I posted extracts from an Old English poem, Christ II, which has a take on the Ascension story which is so beautiful and astonishing that I just have to link to it again today; if you haven't read it, do.

These are the closing lines of the poem:

Nu is þon gelicost, swa we on laguflode
ofer cald wæter ceolum liðan
geond sidne sæ, sundhengestum,
flodwudu fergen. Is þæt frecne stream
yða ofermæta þe we her on lacað
geond þas wacan woruld, windge holmas
ofer deop gelad. Wæs se drohtað strong
ærþon we to londe geliden hæfdon
ofer hreone hrycg. þa us help bicwom,
þæt us to hælo hyþe gelædde,
godes gæstsunu, ond us giefe sealde
þæt we oncnawan magun ofer ceoles bord
hwær we sælan sceolon sundhengestas,
ealde yðmearas, ancrum fæste.
Utan us to þære hyðe hyht staþelian,
ða us gerymde rodera waldend,
halge on heahþu, þa he heofonum astag.

Now it is very much like this: as if we were sailing
in ships across cold water, over the sea-waves,
beyond the wide ocean in water-steeds
traversing the floods. The waters are perilous,
the waves immeasurable, amid which we journey here
through this frail world, the stormy oceans,
across the paths of the deep. Dangerous was that life
before we came to land
across the rough waves. Help came to us
that we might be led to a haven of healing,
God's Spirit-Son, and gave us grace
that we might find, by the ship's side,
where we could moor our water-steeds,
our ancient wave-horses securely anchored.
Let us fasten our hope on that haven
which the Ruler of the skies opened for us,
holy in the heights, when he ascended into heaven.

I don't exactly know why I find these lines so moving, except that I do feel lost amid perilous seas at the moment, struggling alone and nearly overwhelmed by yða ofermæta. Everything is difficult, everything is lonely; I fail no matter how hard I try, and every stupid mistake leaves a scar. Hence probably the attraction of the hælo hyþe, 'haven of healing' - a phrase which has a very Tolkienish sound, like the Grey Havens, where the weary and the wounded find rest. Last year, translating this poem for the first time taught me the Old English word hyht, 'hope, joyous expectation' (earlier in the poem the Ascension is called Christ's hyhtplega, 'play of hope, action which brings joy', a word which fascinates me partly because I don't really understand it). Hope and joy and havens of healing all feel very far from me at the moment; and there's something mesmerising about this promise of rest, of a secure anchorage, even as it seems impossible.


Nigel PJ said...

That is a wonderful piece, so rich in evocative metaphor.
Good luck in your own journey on perilous waters and may you find the haven that you seek.

jennie said...

Thank you for a beautiful and moving post. I agree with Nigel a rich and evocative piece. Perhaps John Henry Newman knew of the word hyht and a feel for its meaning.s The last few
lines of his famous Eventide remind me of it. 'Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging and a holy rest. and peace at the last. Good luck.

Harold David Rennie said...

Sorry to hear that life is so difficult for you right now. Kind thoughts and prayers heading your way,"across cold water, over the sea-waves,beyond the wide ocean in water-steeds traversing the floods."

sensibilia said...

I love the way the sea permeates the imagery. So sorry to hear that you are having a bad time. Hope things improve.

Anonymous said...

I found the first two sentences so compelling that I decided it was worth the risk of being late for work to take the time to translate the whole thing. It's like The Seafarer, only with hope, and you're quite right, hyhtplega is an amazing word. I wonder if we can date it with respect to The Seafarer.

Thanks for putting this up. And best wishes in your own troubles.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you, all of you.

SGFE said...


lakerudyard said...

Don't despair. “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”