Monday, 26 September 2016

Elene: Part I - Cynewulf

Swift in the tale of time had fleeted
      Hundreds two and thirty-three
Winters for the world completed,
      Since heaven’s Lord in low degree
In this mid-earth a man was born
To shed o’er faithful hearts a heavenly morn.

Six years the sceptre of the Roman
      Had held the leader Constantine1;
His spear and shield against the foeman
      Guarded his folk with mood benign;
Great ’neath the skies his power grew, —
A prince of men, a righteous ruler true.

Through him God wrought with power wondrous,
      In mid-earth2 many men to aid;
Vengeance to wreak, and weapons thunderous
      Wield till the foemen fled afraid.
War waged the tribes; with din earth trembled,
The Goths and Huns their heathen hosts assembled.

On came the Franks and Hugas streaming,
      Girt for the onset; sword and spear
And twisted war-links sternly gleaming,
      With deafening shouts their flags they rear,
      And clash of shields as they draw near;
Huge hosts together; all behold them;
Onward the nations march; who can withhold them?

War in the wood the wolf was crying,
      Hid not the secrets of the fray;
On the foes’ track the eagle flying,
      With dewy feather sang his lay;
Quick from the cities all the warriors came,
The bravest whom the King of Huns for war might name.

Marched the huge host, its line enforcing
      With chosen legions, till it stood
Where, distant Danube’s waters coursing,
      The spearmen rest beside the flood;
There, where the squadrons stay before the slaughter,
They hear the host’s loud hum, the rushing water.

Proud Rome to quell, to sack and plunder
      Was their design. Soon as ’twas known
That foemen lurked the ramparts under,
      Came a swift message from the throne,
To summon out, against the foes assailing,
All who in warfare brave were and unfailing.

With warlike weapons soon the Roman,
      Fight-famed, was ready for the fray;
Rode round their leader, though the foeman
      In greater numbers rode than they;
Clashed then the shield ; the war-clubs rattle,
Onward the king rides with his host to battle.

O’erhead the dusky raven flying
      With greedy croak pursued their course;
Ran the horn-bearers, heralds crying,
      The charger pawed the ground; the force
Quick at the signal’s sound, assembled,
The monarch, horror-stricken, trembled.

With dismal fear and dire dismay,
      He saw the alien force
Of Huns and Goths who gathered lay
      About the water’s course;
A countless host. His bosom heaved,
How e’er could victory be achieved,
Or such a monstrous force o’erthrown
By one so small and feeble as his own?

But forward ! Ne’er from battle shrink!
He camped beside the river’s brink,
So near the foe throughout the night,
Since he had seen them pass in sight.
He lay amid his host that night,
      And to his sense in dreaming
Appeared a vision of delight,
      Of fair and beauteous seeming ;
Noble, in manly form it came; —
A knight of old heroic fame
Thus might have awed him in his seeming,
Such had he never seen, awake or dreaming.

He saw, and straight from slumber started,
      With boar-helm decked ; the shining guest
      Spake quickly, him by name addressed; —
(And lo ! the veil of night was parted: — )
Thee, Constantine ! so be it now revealed,
The Lord of Hosts, who fate alone can wield
The angels’ King will covenant to shield.

“Let not the threats of foes distress thee,
      The alien hosts in battle-line;
Look up to heaven, the Lord will bless thee,
      Will send thee help, sure victory’s sign.”
Straight stood he ready at the heavenly hest,
He opened wide the treasure of his breast,
      Just as the dear peace-weaver bade,
      The herald who had made him glad.

Beyond the cloudy vault he looked, and shining
      He saw the Tree of Glory decked with gold;
Rare glittering jewels were the Rood enshrining,
      And on it, writ in light, he could behold
In letters clear the words: “Thou with this sign
Shalt overcome in shock of battle dire,
Drive back the foe, and make the victory thine.”

Back, as it came, then flashed the heavenly fire;
      The herald with it flew
Afar to join the sinless choir.
      More blithe the Emperor grew, —
Care in the leader’s breast was quickly quelled,
When he that beauteous vision had beheld.

Cynewulf (9th century) England
Translated by Jane Menzies from Zupitza'a edition
Source: Cynewulf's 'Elene', Translated by Jane Menzies, William Blackwood & Sons, 1895
Elene is also known as Saint Helena Finds the True Cross

  1. Constantine was at the time the poem relates a general in the Roman army, who later became Emperor in 306 AD
  2. Mid-earth is the Teutonic idea that there are three realms which are heaven - earth - hell

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