A Pen Boasts (from an Anglo-Saxon riddle) | Rosemary Appleton


Þæt is wundres dæl,
on sefan searolic      þam þe swylc ne conn,
hu mec seaxes ord       ond seo swiþre hond,
eorles ingeþonc      on ord somod,
þingum geþydan,       þæt ic wiþ þe sceolde
for unc anum twam       ærendspræce
abeodan bealdlice,      swa hit beorna ma
uncre wordcwidas     widdor ne mænden.

it is a wondrous thing,
an ingenious thought for those who don’t know of such things
how the point of a single-edged knife, the right hand,
a person’s inner thoughts and a sharp point together
all work to this end – that I, with you,
can confidently deliver our message
for us two alone, so that no one can broadcast
more widely what we two have said, each to the other.

Writer’s Commentary

Another way of looking at the interplay between the past and the present is to look back at some of the earliest literary languages, such as Anglo Saxon. I have created a loose translation in A Pen Boasts and I have included the original text because I think it is so evocative to see the original old letter-forms as well as the form of the riddle.

 I have given the answer to the riddle as the poem’s title because, now that we no longer whittle pens from pointed reeds, I don’t think anyone would get the answer! But it’s such a fascinating little riddle because the pen sees itself as the key, or the engine almost, unlocking or driving the whole written text. Having to make a pen from a reed with a sharp knife makes writing so much more physical, more muscular, than it is today.

 The poem equates the written word with privacy and intimacy and this is makes for a really intriguing ending: why should the message remain with the writer and their pen? Why should it not be repeated more widely? Perhaps this hints at a romantic intrigue or a family feud. At any rate, I feel that translating from an ancient language is, at first, a kind of archaeology, then a way of revoicing the original text through my interpretation, in a direct relationship with the past.

Rosemary writes in the wilds of East Anglia, fuelled by coffee. Her work has appeared in Mslexia, The Fenland Reed, Spontaneity and other places.

She tweets @BluestockingBks.