William Morris Archive

Yuri Cowan

William Morris’s translation with Alfred John Wyatt of the Old English epic of Beowulf was first published at the Kelmscott Press in February of 1895; not until a few years later in 1898 was it published in a more widely distributed posthumous edition by Longmans, in their Poetical Works of William Morris series. Beowulf is thus, along with the Ordination of Knighthood and some of the late romances, one of a number of works that Morris produced specifically for the purpose of giving the Kelmscott Press a selection of brand-new material to go along with its ambitious reprinting program. Beowulf was a natural choice, admired by Morris as being the “first and best poem of the English race [with] no author but the people” (Artist, Writer, Socialist II.494). By the time Morris came to put his hand to the Old English epic, the poem had already become, as contemporary essayists and critics were quick to point out, a staple of university classrooms in the English-speaking world; it was well enough known at first or second hand to literary students and to the surprising number of general readers who had an interest in that sort of thing even so late in the heyday of so-called “Victorian medievalism.” Morris’s translation was not exactly a pioneering effort, either, being only the ninth into modern English; the first had been that of Francis Kemble in 1837, while the various intervening versions can be traced in Chauncey Tinker’s bibliography of translations through to 1903 and in William Magennis’s more recent and thorough study, Translating Beowulf (2011). But Morris’s translation was, as William Henry Hulme noted in his 1900 review of the Longmans edition, the first by a “major English poet,” and it was a translation by a writer who had built most of the literary side of his career on engagement with and popularization of a comprehensive body of sometimes out-of-the-way medieval literature. On those grounds the translation demands our attention, for all its apparent flaws. This headnote will consider Morris’s and Wyatt’s collaborative translation process through to the finished product at the Kelmscott Press; chart the reception of the translation, from enthusiastic to rocky; and offer some evaluation of the metrical and vocabulary choices made by Morris.
     Although his initial enthusiasms were for Middle English romance and after that for Old Norse saga, Morris had also certainly had a long-developing acquaintance with Old English literature and with Beowulf. In William and Sylvia Petersons’ blog-based catalogue of Morris’s library, a search for “Beowulf” brings up five entries beside the Kelmscott editions. The most unusual is Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín’s early printed edition of the poem with Latin translation (1815), a copy interleaved with extensive manuscript notations by the noted early Rawlinsonian Professor of Anglo-Saxon John Josias Conybeare, now British Library Add. MS 71716 (for some history of that volume, see Orchard 54-6). But Morris also owned an edition of the poem with German glossary by Moritz Heyne (1873); Benjamin Thorpe’s translation (1875); the Early English Text society’s autotype facsimile of the manuscript that included notes and transcription by the German philologist Julius Zupitza (1882); and A. J. Wyatt’s own 1894 edition of Beowulf, on which Morris’s verse translation was ultimately to be based. A similar number of works on Old English more generally were also in Morris’s library; they are surprisingly few, although they do include Frederic Madden’s edition of the Old English Gesta Romanorum (1838); Thorpe’s engaging translations from the Exeter book (1842); and Alfred’s description of Europe in Joseph Bosworth's translation (1855). These titles seem to have in common Morris’s interest in medieval geography and popular history – what he called “knowledge-books.”  He also maintained a substantial but by no means complete collection of the Early English Text Society’s titles, collected apparently at hazard up to the end of his life (they make up lot 245 in the Sotheby auction catalogue of his library). But among the books Morris owned, the most useful among them for the purposes of informing Morris’s first-hand understanding of the Old English language would have been Conybeare’s 1826 Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry with essays and excerpts, along with, rather more up to date, Henry Sweet’s 1875 Anglo-Saxon Reader, with its long grammatical introduction and well-chosen excerpts. So Morris had a small collection of reference books and texts, and we can therefore expect that he had spent time with the grammar and the vocabulary, even if his knowledge was hardly systematic.
    This lack of systematic knowledge is precisely why, when Morris began to think of translating Beowulf, he turned, as he had before, to a collaborator. Morris was by this time an old hand at the practice of translation, and had a well-established routine of carrying out his translations and Kelmscott editions with the collaborative help of experts and enthusiasts such as Eiríkur Magnússon. The first letter we have from Morris to A. J. Wyatt is dated 28 August 1892.[i] In this letter, Morris makes clear his relationship to the language of the poem: “I intend to try if I can get anyone to help me who knows Anglo-Saxon (as I do not) and could also set me right as to the text and its grievous gaps” (Letters III.437). He also states that he would like to create a version that is “translated and not paraphrased merely,” and comments that word choice will be a challenge, since any word that did not to him have its exact equivalent in modern English “must be weakened and almost destroyed” (emphases in original, 436). These statements of practice account for, first, Morris’s rather modern take on the four-stress alliterative line and, second, what so many critics have noted as Morris’s addiction to archaism. By “archaism” one might include not only the use of “strange” and disused words out of the past or unusually-compounded words like “upbuilded,” but perhaps especially the use of words that no longer had quite the same meaning in 1896 (a word like “deer,” for example). However, one of the convincing arguments made by Robert Boenig in his defence of Morris’s translation is that it was the metre that seems to have created more trouble than the diction for Morris and his collaborator and consequently for the reader; this will be a major emphasis in the following discussion. Finally, Morris’s interest in “translating and not paraphrasing” may have led to an occasional lack of fidelity, or at least inexactness, with regard to the poem’s matter that Wyatt was not entirely comfortable with. We might now think of “paraphrase” as a looser practice than “translation,” but Morris seems to have thought of it the other way round, that translation was a more flexible practice than paraphrase.
     Wyatt prepared a translation in manuscript form for Morris to work from, and Morris, as was usual with him, set to work with great gusto. Three of their manuscripts can be found in the Morgan Library, New York: the manuscript translation first prepared by Wyatt in prose with some parenthetical explanations; an early version of the MS in Morris’s hand, with a few variations on the early parts of the translation; and a final draft by Morris that according to Paul Needham was printer’s copy for the Kelmscott edition (130). There also exists a “Draft of part of Fitt 19 of ‘Beowulf’ (published 1895) from the Anglo-Saxon, differing slightly from the text printed in Collected Works, X, pp. 215-216. f. 87” that forms part of British Library Add MS. 45318. It is, however, the three manuscripts in the Morgan that taken together offer the best opportunity to follow the greater part of the translation in process, as Morris followed Wyatt’s MS to create his own verse version of the poem. Wyatt’s manuscript survives incomplete; a letter dated 24 September 1894 from Morris’s secretary Sydney Carlyle Cockerell to Wyatt on behalf of Morris suggests kindly that Wyatt is welcome to the manuscript “or as much of it as can be found.”
     There is not much more in the correspondence between the two men to hint at their collaborative practice; much of their work seems to have taken place in conversation, with the writing done separately. But Morris and Wyatt’s various readings of Beowulf can be traced in the Morgan manuscripts, and close comparison of them along with attention to Wyatt’s edition and the Kelmscott proofs in Cambridge University Library (discussed below and in Andy Orchard’s article) is likely to yield new insights into the collaborative translation process between the scholar and the poet. Until that is done, we have only a few hints of tension in the exchanges in the Kelmscott proofs and the claim by Edwin Morgan in his rather salty 1952 discussion of previous translations that Wyatt’s interest in working with Morris was tempered with “increasing misgivings” (qtd. Magennis 58). A more reliable witness was J. W. Mackail, who wrote in his biography of Morris that Morris’s “pleasure in the doing of it fell off,” at least in part because the archaisms grew too many (ii.285). Wyatt published his own edition of the Old English text of Beowulf in 1894; his introduction ends with the assertion that “Mr. William Morris has taken the text of this edition as the basis for his modern metrical rendering of the lay” (xiii), a helpful celebrity endorsement for Wyatts book and also a sign that Wyatt would not have wished to dissociate himself from Morris’s translation, at least at this point. So although Morris and Wyatt apparently had their differences during the translation process, they do seem to have remained cordial afterward. Indeed, in the last year of his life, before setting off on his Norwegian sea voyage, Morris wrote a letter to Wyatt discussing what Kelvin conjectures was a collection of Some Medieval English Songs and Music that was to be issued by the Kelmscott Press, but that never materialized (Letters IV.386n). According to Paul Needham, Wyatt was paid £100 by the Press for his contribution to the Beowulf translation (130).
     Kelvin, in his notes to the Collected Letters of William Morris, shares the information that “Cockerell in his Diary for April 10, 1894, noted ‘WM finished Beowulf’” and in a letter dated 31 March Morris wrote to Wyatt confirming a meeting on or around 10 April; Kelvin also notes that Cockerell’s diary confirms that they were still revising in June (Letters IV.146n), and as we shall see they continued their exchanges about the translation onto the very proofs of the Kelmscott Press. We are fortunate that the proof copy, now in Cambridge University Library, has been digitized in full and is available online, showing corrections that Sidney Cockerell affirms are in Morris’s own hand (although the library catalogue significantly and more correctly lists Wyatt as co- annotater). Among the many repairs made to the proof most are small but there are some substantial corrections; we also find the addition of shoulder notes; some care in getting the summary correct in the “Argument” section; and some attention paid to words apparently misread by the compositor following Morris’s manuscript. On one page, there is even a charming coffee mug stain, suggesting the relaxed nature of the editing process. The notes are alternately in pencil and in strong ink; the latter are certainly in Morris’s hand.
     Some of the pencil notations offer questions to return to; for example, on one proof sheet marked as page 44 (103 in the Cambridge digitization) we find the “ye” in “thrive ye well ever” queried “mixed up with thou?” The query itself is struck out in later ink and under it we find what is certainly Morris’s own intervention affirming the more alliterative “thou.” There are other such exchanges elsewhere in the proofs. If the pencil queries are Wyatt’s (and not, say, Morris’s own or a compositor’s), then we have evidence of a written dialogue continuing between them well after the initial work of the collaboration was over. On the other hand, if, as Cockerell seems to have asserted, those queries are Morris’s then it would suggest that Morris went over the sheets more than once, with great care, leaving notes for himself, which seems unlikely. Finally, if the notes belong to a compositor or proofreader, then we have evidence of activity and workers’ involvement in establishing texts during the daily practice of the Press. Applied to each of these alternative scenarios – note to self, suggestion from Wyatt, query from proofreader – Morris’s response to pencilled criticism of his word choice “mightyful” on page 69 of the proofs (121 in the Cambridge digitization) reads delightfully, as Morris agonizes “I cant have my best lines spoiled!” and in all later versions “mightyful” remains stet.
     Pace Cockerell, it does seem likeliest that a number of the pencilled notes are indeed Wyatt’s, even though that hand is admittedly very similar to Morris’s own. Good evidence for this comes in the exchange that occurs on the Cambridge digitization’s page 125 (the page itself is unnumbered), where the interlocutor comments on the line in Beowulf’s fight with the dragon (“to him was not given / That to him any more might the edges of irons / Be helpful in battle”). The interlocutor comments that “This will not do, because he had always been famous for his hand-grip,” to which Morris responds “I don’t understand the consequence in the least WM” and the interlocutor clarifies that “anymore is misleading because weapons never had availed B., except in Grendel’s mother’s den.” In this proof, “any more” is marked “stet,” but in the final Kelmscott and all later versions it becomes “any whit,” showing that Morris was willing enough to give in on occasion and to defer to his collaborator. Here and elsewhere we also see Morris asking “What is the literal,” showing again that he relied on Wyatt for many of his clarifications and readings of the original, and that there were several rounds of editing even at this late stage.
     One of the longest-standing matters of contention between Morris and especially his more scholarship-oriented collaborators at the Kelmscott Press was the matter of apparatus (see Peterson, Kelmscott Press 176, and Cowan 168-9). It almost seems at odds with the very idea of a translation that it should require a glossary of “Some Words Not Commonly Used Now,” and yet the Kelmscott Beowulf did include one (reprinted in the Longmans editions), along with a more useful appendix of “People and Places.” Significantly, the two appendices come in after the colophon, suggesting a kind of afterthought (by way of contrast, the scholarly “Memoranda” by F. S. Ellis to the Order of Chivalry volume was placed before the colophon). The glossary must have been, again, an item insisted on by Morris’s collaborators; the poet wrote to Wyatt on 10 November 1894 that “almost all in the glossary I should not hesitate to use in a poem of my own, you see, and I don’t think it would need a glossary.” So it is clear that this glossary was emphatically not Morris’s work, nor even his idea, but it was included nonetheless. In fact, at the bottom of proof page 75 (235 of the Cambridge digitization) we find another hand, querying in blue of the verb “flit” “How shall I gloss this? It don’t seem familiar.” From this evidence it appears likely that another, third hand put together the apparatus. As John Stirling, for example, has recently remarked, there are many contributors to the Kelmscott Press’s various projects in diverse capacities, whose contributions and sometimes even identities are hard to trace.
     In the history of this and other Kelmscott editions we generally find that, as F. S. Ellis remarked to Edward Gordon Duff “the author-printer kicks much against introductions” (qtd. Cowan 168) and indeed against modern interventionist paratexts more generally. And yet there were always moments when Morris was willing and even eager to form and re-present the text, especially whenever it could be made to conform to the medieval original. This was easiest to do when the medieval manuscript itself had been laid out in a way that type could readily reproduce. Thus on page 65 of the Kelmscott proof (page 211 of the Cambridge digitization), we see Morris comment “to the reader / please be very careful as to the numbering of the chapters.” This fidelity to the scribal divisions of the poem and their ordering (for which see Fulk passim and most editions of the poem) was deemed important enough that acording to William Peterson “Folios b1.8 and b2.7 (pp. 1-4, 13-16) were altered so that section numbers of the poem could be inserted” (Bibliography xxxiv). Here, too, Morris must have been influenced by his conversations with Wyatt, as well as by his own sense of fidelity to his medieval example.
     The final form of the Kelmscott Tale of Beowulf, Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder-Geats, issued 2 February 1895, was that of a a large quarto in Troy type, with the glossary in the smaller Chaucer type. 300 copies were printed, priced at two guineas apiece on paper, with another eight on vellum priced at £10. Despite these handsome prices Morris claimed to have lost money on the venture, partly due to the necessity of reprinting some spoiled sheets (Peterson, Bibliography 84-5). Indeed, as the Press was winding up its operations, Peterson notes that there were still thirteen unsold copies of Beowulf on hand—more than of any other remaindered Kelmscott book at that time (Kelmscott Press 194). By way of comparison, the Longmans editions, priced at 6s, came out in three editions of 1000, 500, and 500 copies respectively (Le Mire 197). The fact that the Longmans editions for a general readership were popular enough to be reprinted hints at a reception for Morris’s Old English translation after his death that is perhaps a bit at odds with the otherwise generally dismal feeling that surrounds the reception history of this translation.
     Morris’s translation of Beowulf has certainly come in for some criticism over the years, and critics have not warmed to it over time. The immediate critical response to Morris’s poem was quite sparse. This was at least in part because of the relative exclusiveness of the Kelmscott edition, which was not cheap and not widely distributed, but although reviews were few one can hardly suggest that the poem was panned. Morris’s friend and admirer Theodore Watts-Dunton’s review in the Athenaeum was positive, though qualified (“even for a genius so rare as his, and a knowledge of the subject so exhaustive, the task must have been one of immense difficulty), and it may be telling that his review devotes much more time to discussing general matters about the Old English poem and the challenges posed by its verse and language than it devotes to details of Morris’s translation. William H. Hulme’s 1900 review in Modern Language Notes of several books on Beowulf subjects also includes a discussion of Morris and Wyatt’s translation which is quite approving (it “gives the beauties of the original,”he says, 25). Early criticism was thus fairly positive, the frustrations surfacing mostly in later years, as when in a very short 1964 review of Burton Raffel’s translation of Beowulf E. G. Stanley fired an unprovoked backward-looking squib at William Morris’s “ye olde a-clap-trapping” — although even then Stanley conceded “Morris’s courage with words” and suggested that similar experimental spirit could have benefitted the modern translator. The title of Chris Jones’s article “The Reception of Morris’s Beowulf” seems to promise discussion of critical history, but the article is dedicated more to the translation itself and to twentieth-century adapters like Pound or the later scholarly reception than it is to those few of Morris’s near-contemporaries who reviewed the poem. The title of Jones’s article is therefore a little misleading. But no matter; between them Boenig, Magennis, and Jones offer the best and closest discussions of Morris’s poetic strengths and weaknesses, and they are more clear-eyed than Fiona MacCarthy who in her biography of Morris passed over Beowulf with little to say, or than others like E. W. Chambers who dismissed it out of hand.
     It is, of course, entirely fair to call out Morris’s vocabulary in this translation; John D. Niles cites “a style so relentless in its display of archaisms as to verge on the unreadable” (333), preferring Morris’s prose summaries in the front matter, while even W. H. Hulme noted “clauses and lines that are about as difficult to interpret as the original” (51). Certainly a verb like “thole” was not the most accessible choice to reach the Victorian or modern reader. As Robert Boenig suggests, though, the archaisms may not have been the greatest difficulty with Morris’s translation; the awkwardness may have been at the more fundamental level of the inconsistant metrical experimentation. Early critics (like Watts-Dunton in the Athenaeum, who wrote half-approvingly of Morris’s “antiquated English and antiquated movements,” 181) seem to have recognized this as well. Hulme in his MLN review suggested that Morris had been one of the only translators who could pull off the “alliterative lines with four accents” (25), although he substantiates this only by vaguely citing Morris’s “inspiration” as an established poet. It is this understanding of the precarious nature of Morris’s metrical experiment that accounts for the surprising verdict of Chauncey Tinker, for whom Morris’s Beowulf is “disappointing … unreadable … does not translate” and yet is “the best of all imitative measures” (108-109).
     Although Morris’s own style in verse, put to best effect in The Earthly Paradise sequence and in the epic Sigurd the Volsung, is immediately recognizable for its long energetic lines and generally regular metre, he was always ready to tinker a little; William Morris is a more experimental poet than he is often given credit for. Joseph Phelan discusses for example the way in which Love is Enough was seen as having been built on a “loose anapestic system,” and in fact, Phelan argues, the poem was part of the alliterative revival (111 ff.). Surprisingly for a writer who wrote prose with such an ear for metrical effect, Morris was never able to harness with any smoothness the great flexibility and variation that the alliterative line might have offered (and to which Tennyson showed himself well attuned in his translation of Brunanburh). There are moments when the Beowulf measure seems like another “loose system” with unceasing forward movement — one is tricked into thinking it might be just a kind of quantitative verse — while there are other points where the rhythm breaks down, perhaps for effect, or perhaps more problematically because Morris is unwilling to sacrifice his chosen words in favour of consistency. That Morris still thought at least partially in terms of quantity is testified by his insertion of a slip in the Kelmscott edition strictly enjoining the pronunciation of the final “e” (Peterson, Bibliography 84). But Hugh Magennis remarks that Morris really does “employ a stress-based metre and structural alliteration” (57), and this is accurate. From the beginning we find four stresses per line and alliteration within each line, although the rhythm is at least at first more breathless than the Old English original’s (“What! Wé of the Spéar-Danes of yóre days, so wás it”). It is possible that Morris strains at times too far back towards the hexametres of his epic Sigurd or of his elegant translation of the opening lines of the Odyssey (“Tell me, o Muse, of the shifty, the man who wandered afar”).
   That excited opening rhythm settles down after a while, and in its more elegaic moods the translation comes close to the statelier and more emphatic pace of the original. Consider, for instance, some portions of the famous speech of the Last Survivor in part XXXII. For example, lines 2262-6,

                Næs hearpan wyn,
        gomen gleobeames,                 ne god hafoc
        geond sæl swingeð,                 ne se swifta mearh

        burhstede beateð.                 Bealocwealm hafað
        fela feorhcynna                 forð onsended

are translated by Morris as follows:


                [...] nor joy of the harp is,
        No game of the glee-wood; no goodly hawk now
        Through the hall swingeth; no more the swift horse
        Beateth the burg-stead. Now hath bale-quelling
        A many of life-kin forth away sent.

There is a very close reliance by Morris on words that are practically updated transliterations (sometimes, but not always, falling prey to the etymological fallacy, as examined by Jones for example on page 203); this is one of the cases where it can be successful. Almost everything here works harmoniously with past and present English, while the caesura is maintained, and the sound is good. “Burg-stead,” for example, is still quite recognizable, but “bale-quelling” is more suspect, since “bale” as an adjective denoting“evil” is, according to OED, not found in English after the sixteenth century. Moreover, if we take “bale” as a noun here then it suggests rather the quelling of evil, which is still more unfaithful to the meaning than a baleful quelling would be. But the metre uses dactyls and falling trochees to fine effect (“Nó more the swíft horse / Béateth the búrg-sted”), and there are four regular well-placed stresses.
     By way of comparison, in lines 2252-4, just a few lines previous to these regular and even pleasing metrical feet, we find

                Nah, hwa sweord wege
        oððe feormie         fæted wæge,
        dryncfæt deore;         duguð ellor sceoc

translated as

               […]      No man to wear sword
        I own, none to brighten the beaker beplated,
        The dear drink-vat; the doughty have sought to else-whither.

     This is deeply unsatisfying, especially from the standpoint of rhythm,which here seems utterly shattered across three unequal lines, but also from the point of meaning (“sought to else-whither” is neither rhythmical nor grammatically clear, and the “dear drink-vat” is perhaps inevitable given the original text, but reads somewhat unusually in modern English). There are probably more than four stresses per line. On the other hand, “the beaker be-plated” is pleasing. A close reader of poetry might attempt to suggest that the disintegration of the rhythm could mark an intentional falling off or a movement from wholeness to dissolution, but if that had been the case, it should rather have been lines 2262ff that were made broken, and these made more regular.
     In general, although modern critics of the poem so frequently single out the antique diction for castigation, it seems in fact to have been Morris’s chosen metre, which although it is stress-based sometimes shows a very un-Old English intolerance for extra syllables and even stresses, that accounts for the poem’s occasional lapses into awkward word order. Robert Boenig, in his rather lonely defense of the poem, argues precisely this, and in his argument he follows the drift of Watts-Dunton in the Athenaeum. Boenig suggests moreover that close attention to word choice (perhaps usual quantitative digital tools) might find that this verse translation is no more archaic in its diction than are Morris’s more well-received late romances. It is also worth conjecturing whether, had Morris been a Modernist poet, he might have been praised for his innovative exploitation of words’ rich historical inscape and heteroglossia, in exactly the same places where the old “Victorian” poet’s idiosyncracies have been viewed with suspicion. We might also read this poem closer for signs of Morris’s interest falling off over time, as Mackail suggests was the case.
     All in all, even a condemned poetic “failure” on the basis of its language and metre deserves closer attention than Morris’s Beowulf has had, especially when its author is a major literary figure who generally did not attempt such experiments without a clear purpose. There are indeed signs that this is an experiment; but there are also some signs that Morris tired of the experiment long before he had come near the end of it. That is to say, Morris’s translation of the Old English Beowulf is every bit as useful as an illustration of a particular collaborative creative translation process played out in practice as it is as an opportunity to assess and discuss the aesthetic or linguistic virtues and faults of the finished product. As a poem or a popularization The Tale of Beowulf may very well not have been a success, but as a translation it still has plenty to offer.

[i] This letter does not mark the initiation of the correspondence, and it is not clear who was the initiator, since in it Morris thanks Wyatt for a previous letter.

Works Cited 

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Boenig, Robert. “The Importance of Morris’s Beowulf.” Journal of the William Morris Society 12: 2 (Spring 1997), 7-13.

Cockerell, Sydney Carlyle. Letter to A.J. Wyatt. 24 September 1894. Morgan Library MA 3473.1.

Conybeare, John Josias. Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Ed. William Daniel Conybeare. London: Harding and Lepard, 1826.

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Fulk, R. D. “The Origin of the Numbered Sections in Beowulf and in other Old English poems.” Anglo-Saxon England 35 (2006): 91-109.

Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín. De Danorum rebus gestis secul. III & IV : Poëma danicum dialecto anglo-saxonica. Copenhagen: T. E. Rangel, 1815. British Library Add. MS. 71716.

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