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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

18-and-under, first prize

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Andrew Wynn Owen

The Whale

I sing of a fish, with all my wiles
in woven words, of the wondrous whale.
He often appears to unwary wanderers
fierce and unfriendly to all seafarers,
to many a man. He is called Fastitocalon,
this flubber of the ocean lanes.
He resembles a rock roughly eroded
or a seething straggle of strangleweed
bounded by sandbanks, basking offshore
so seafarers think they have spotted shelter.

Now they fix their high-keeled ship
to this trick-land with unravelled rope
and tether the sea-steeds at ocean’s edge;
they climb to the top of that ridge
in strong spirits; their ships saunter
sturdy by shore, surrounded by water.
At length the tired crew pitch tents,
bearing no further fears of disturbance.
There, on the summit, a fire is fuelled
and a blaze built; they are all heartened
but bent-double, they rankle for rest.
When the master monster, the briny beast,
supposes the sailors are sound asleep
and kip in camp, content with the weather,
he suddenly slides under the surface;
he speedily dives to his shadowy bed,
delivering sailors and ships to drown
in the Doors of Death.
                                That’s also the deal with demons,
the Faustpact-forgers who, by lying,
lure our best men with mischievous magicking;
they guile them from God with sordid sorcery
and lead them a dance so they tragically try
for a monster’s clemency and, at the close,
are dragged down by that friend-foe.
When the devious demon is certain
the Sons of Man, after terrible torture,
are totally brainwashed, bound to his will,
with cunning intelligence he becomes their killer –
sinners who spread his evil on earth,
overreaching and ruthless. Now, under cover
of his enchanted helmet, he digs down to Hell,
that system of circles, that endless abyss
below the mists, just as the whale
scuppers seafarers, both sailors and ships.

But mighty whale, the water-traveller,
knows another miracle still more marvellous.
If he is hungry when wandering
and the beast’s belly moans for feasting,
the ocean-warden widens his mouth,
moving his lips. A sweet scent glides out
and gallons of fish are gulled inside,
thrashing towards the source of the smell and thronging together, a heedless heap
that jam-packs his jaw. So, in a swipe,
those unprisable chops imprison their prey.

Translated from the Anglo-Saxon by Andrew Wynn Owen

The original poem may not display properly in older browsers or on computers running non-unicode-compliant operating systems. To view an image file of the poem, click here (opens in new window).

The Whale, from the Exeter Book

Nu ic fitte gen ymb fisca cynn
wille woðcræfte wordum cyþan
þurh modgemynd bi þam miclan hwale.
Se bið unwillum oft gemeted,
frecne ond ferðgrim, fareðlacendum,
niþþa gehwylcum; þam is noma cenned,
fyrnstreama geflotan, Fastitocalon.
Is þæs hiw gelic hreofum stane,
swylce worie bi wædes ofre,
sondbeorgum ymbseald, særyrica mæst,
swa þæt wenaþ wægliþende
þæt hy on ealond sum eagum wliten,
ond þonne gehydað heahstefn scipu
to þam unlonde oncyrrapum,
setlaþ sæmearas sundes æt ende,
ond þonne in þæt eglond up gewitað
collenferþe; ceolas stondað
bi staþe fæste, streame biwunden.
ðonne gewiciað werigferðe,
faroðlacende, frecnes ne wenað,
on þam ealonde æled weccað,
heahfyr ælað; hæleþ beoþ on wynnum,
reonigmode, ræste geliste.
þonne gefeleð facnes cræftig
þæt him þa ferend on fæste wuniaþ,
wic weardiað wedres on luste,
ðonne semninga on sealtne wæg
mid þa noþe niþer gewiteþ
garsecges gæst, grund geseceð,
ond þonne in deaðsele drence bifæsteð
scipu mid scealcum. Swa bið scinna þeaw,
deofla wise, þæt hi drohtende
þurh dyrne meaht duguðe beswicað,
ond on teosu tyhtaþ tilra dæda,
wemað on willan, þæt hy wraþe secen,
frofre to feondum, oþþæt hy fæste ðær
æt þam wærlogan wic geceosað.
þonne þæt gecnaweð of cwicsusle
flah feond gemah, þætte fira gehwylc
hæleþa cynnes on his hringe biþ
fæste gefeged, he him feorgbona
þurh sliþen searo siþþan weorþeð,
wloncum ond heanum, þe his willan her
firenum fremmað, mid þam he færinga,
heoloþhelme biþeaht, helle seceð,
goda geasne, grundleasne wylm
under mistglome, swa se micla hwæl,
se þe bisenceð sæliþende
eorlas ond yðmearas. He hafað oþre gecynd,
wæterþisa wlonc, wrætlicran gien.
þonne hine on holme hungor bysgað
ond þone aglæcan ætes lysteþ,
ðonne se mereweard muð ontyneð,
wide weleras; cymeð wynsum stenc
of his innoþe, þætte oþre þurh þone,
sæfisca cynn, beswicen weorðaþ
swimmað sundhwate þær se sweta stenc
ut gewiteð. Hi þær in farað
unware weorude, oþþæt se wida ceafl
gefylled bið; þonne færinga
ymbe þa herehuþe hlemmeð togædre
grimme goman.


Translation commentary

Whales are important in Anglo-Saxon literature. In Beowulf, the sea is called the ‘whale road’ (‘hron-rad’). Like The Seafarer, in which whales also make an appearance, this poem is part of the Exeter Book.

I have tried to imitate the alliterative balance of the Anglo-Saxon verse without letting it become overbearing. Wherever possible, I tried to use internal alliteration, as in ‘unprisable … imprison’. The strangled echoes of half-rhyme seemed right for whale song. From ‘That’s also the deal with demons…’ to ‘just as the whale’, the poem takes up an epic simile comparing the whale to a demon. The purpose of this seems similar to mediaeval morality plays and the didactic thread running through the Exeter Book. I hoped with the more modern phrase ‘Faustpact-forgers’ to conjure the idea of a satanic pact. The translation ‘strangleweed’ felt murky enough to stand in for ‘særyric’ (literally ‘sea-reed’). I have cut short the original and ended with the image of the whale’s jaw gaping like a hell mouth, just as Herman Melville described ‘the wrenched hideousness of [Moby Dick’s] jaw’.

Andrew Wynn Owen