• Subscribe to our e-letters

  • Facebook_icon

The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, commended

Read the judges’ comments
To obtain the free booklet of winning entries and commentaries,
please email:
Read the winning entries from previous years

Jane Draycott

The Man in the Moon

Hey, man in the moon, forever
mid-stride, frozen there faltering,
burdened by brushwood and briars,
you've the look of a man who's afraid of a fall,
for frost at its fiercest grips deep in the bones
and thorns will tear right through a shirt.
Who knows when if ever you sleep? Only
the rags on your back and the hedgerows can tell.

What road can it be you are walking,
held still on that path, one foot set
so squarely ahead? Is there nothing
you've seen that can move you at all?
Oh slowest man in the universe, fated
for all time to fix up the holes in your fences,
forever hacking fresh thorns with your axe
in your cycle of labour and toil.

Were you born on the moon, were you
raised there? However you got there,
crooked like a friar, crippled over with fear,
you've been there a very long while.
I believe you're there doing time, banished
for thieving that bundle of thorns, caught
and fined by the countryside warden,
and that things haven't turned out so well.

But you've paid your dues, come on home,
stride out down the path you are on.
I'll buy that warden a drink, get him as drunk
as a little drowned mouse, let my girl
work her serious charms on the man
and between us we'll get back your fine.
Come on down, poor man, take the next step.
Reclaim what's yours in the world.

Hey. Man in the moon. You're not listening.
I'm wasting my breath trying to help you
be free. You're one hopeless case, you couldn't
care less for the way things could be. Go to hell
in your wretched torn clothes. I know you've had it
to here with standing up there, and I know
you'll just stand there all night never making
the move. It drives me insane. It's a puzzle...

Translated from the Old English by Jane Draycott

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 Man in the Moon

Mon in þe mone stond & strit,
     on is bot-forke is burþen he bereþ;
Hit is muche wonder þat he nadoun slyt,
     for doute leste he valle, he shoddreþ ant shereþ.
When þe forst freseþ, muche chele he byd;
     þe þornes beþ kene is hattren to-tereþ.
Nis no wyþt in þe world þat wot wen he syt,
     ne, bote hit bue þe hegge, whet wedes he wereþ.
Whider trowe þis mon ha þe wey take?
     he haþ set is o fot is oþer to-foren;
ffor non hiþte þat he haþ ne syþ me hym ner shake,
     he is þe sloweste mon þat euer wes yboren.
Wher he were o þe feld þycchynde stake
     for hope, of ys þornes to dutten is doren,
He mot myd is twybyl oþer trous make,
     oþer al is dayes werk þer were yloren.
Ðis ilke mon vpon heh when-er he were,
     wher he were y þe mone boren and yfed,
He leneþ on is forke ase a grey frere.
     Ðis crokede caynard sore he is adred,
Hit is mony day go þat he was here.
     ichot of is ernde he naþ nout ysped,
He haþ hewe sumwher a burþen of brere;
     þare-fore sum hayward hap taken ys wed.
3ef þy wed ys ytake, bring hom þe trous,
     sete forþ þyn oþer fot, stryd ouer sty.
We shule preye þe haywart hom to vr hous
     ant maken hym at heyse for þe maystry,
Drynke to hym deorly of fol god bous,
     ant oure dame douse shal sitten hym by.
When þat he is dronke ase a dreynt mous
     þenne we schule borewe þe wed ate bayly.
Ðis mon hereþ me nout þah ich to hym crye;
     ichot þe cherl is def, þe del hym to-drawe!
Ðah ich 3e3e vpon heh nulle nout hye
     þe lostlase ladde con nout o lawe.
Hupe for þe hubert, hosede pye!
     ichot þart a-marscled in-to þe mawe.
Ðah me teone wiþ hym þat myn teh mye,
     þe cherld nul nout adoun er þe day dawe.



Translation commentary

Amongst all the 13th-century Harley Lyrics, 'The Man in the Moon' is highly unusual. Neither a religious poem nor a secular love-lyric, it has something of the dramatic monologue about it, developing from touching fellow-feeling to animated frustration. The poem delivers a strong sense of a characterised voice in the speaker, who in turn creates an imagined personality and narrative for the man in the moon, drawing on traditional folklore figures of the poor man paralysed by fear of authority. So we have two characters, one of whom is silent – almost a medieval Beckett or Pinter.

One of the most obvious dynamics of the piece is the shift at the fifth stanza, when the speaker turns from talking about the man in the moon to actually talking more passionately to him. In this translation I have adopted that direct address right from the beginning, imagining the speaker out on a cold night looking up at the moon and feeling sorry for him, and all the wretched fellows like him out in such weather.

The medieval poem's rhyme scheme is strongly end-stopped and closely-rhymed. In an attempt to relay the poem for a more contemporary ear I have tried to work across the line-turn more often than the original, in order to gain a more fluid narrative mode, and have retained the end rhyme only in lines 4 and 8 of each stanza. I have aimed to relay some of the alliterative energy of the original, though again not as schematically, and have additionally tried to re-create some vestige of the harmonic unity that the original full rhyme scheme achieved by stitching the same echoing final -ll/ld across all five stanzas.

Jane Draycott