.

At Matins’ hour, the middle of the night,
I woke, and soon found I was not alone;
A man who seemed past sixty to my sight
This sentence said, and sang it in good tone:
O threefold God on the eternal throne,
To be content and love Thee I have cause:
My trifling youth is over, past and flown;
Honor with age to every virtue draws.

Green youth, to age you must obey and bow;
Your foolish lust continues one scant May.
What then was wit, is callow folly now—
Worldly wit, wealth, honor, fresh array.
Defy the devil, dread death and judgment day,
For all shall be accused of sins and flaws;
Blessèd be God, my youth is far away:
Honor with age to every virtue draws.

O bitter youth, whose pleasures seemed delicious!
O sweetest age, that may at times seem sour!
O reckless youth, proud, hateful, rash, and vicious!
O holy age, brimful of robust honor!
O fickle youth, foul, fruitless, fading flower,
Opposed to conscience, loath to love good laws,
Of glory vain the lantern and the mirror!
Honor with age to every virtue draws!

This world is set for to deceive us living;
Pride is the net, and coveting our bane.
For no reward, except the joy of heaven
Would I be young into this world again.
The ship of faith, driven by winds and rain
Of Lollardy, is plunging toward dire loss,
And gladly I refute youth’s creed profane;
Honor with age to every virtue draws.

Law, love, and loyalty all broken lie;
Dissimulance has borrowed conscience’ keys.
Writ, wax, and seal are signs no more set by,
But friends and foes both flatter as they please.
The son, who hopes his father’s goods to seize,
Would see him dead, and trusts in Satan’s saws;
My youth, adieu, calamitous disease;
Honor with age to every virtue draws.

.

Translator’s note: the form of the poem is chant royal, which is rare in English and Scots because of the difficulty of employing the same rhyme sounds throughout a four- or five-stanza poem. Chant royal is not a fixed form; French poets have used an array of artistic choices to create more than 25 variations. This example has five stanzas rhymed ababbcbC (capital C representing the refrain). The Scottish poet here, to make rhyming easier, creates a new variation by allowing himself new rhyme sounds “a” and “b” in each stanza. He does not change the “c” rhyme sound, because “c” lines must rhyme with the unchanging refrain, an important feature of his chosen form.

.

Original Scots

At matyne houre, in midis of the nicht,
Walkeit of sleip, I saw besyd me sone
An aigit man, seimit sextie yeiris be sicht,
This sentence sett, and song it in gud tone:
O thryn-fold and eterne God in trone!
To be content and lufe thé I haif caus,
That my licht yowtheid is our past and done;
Honor with aige to every vertew drawis.

Grene youth, to aige thow mon obey and bow;
Thy fulis lust lestis scant ane May:
That than wes witt, is naturall foly now,
Warldly witt, honor, riches, or fresche array:
Deffy the devill, dreid deid and domisday,
For all sall be accusit, as thow knawis;
Blessit be God, my yowtheid is away:
Honor with aige to every vertew drawis.

O bittir yowth! that seemit delicious;
O swetest aige! that sumtyme semit soure;
O rekles yowth! hie, hait, and vicious;
O haly aige! fulfillit with honoure;
O flowand yowth! frutles and fedand flour,
Contrair to conscience, leyth to luf gud lawis,
Of all vane gloir the lanthorne and mirroure:
Honor with aige to every vertew drawis.

This warld is sett for to dissaive us evin:
Pryde is the nett, and covetece is the trane.
For na reward, except the joy of hevin
Wald I be yung into this warld agane.
The schip of fayth, tempestuous winds and rane
Of Lollerdry, dryvand in the sey hir blawis;
My yowth is gane, and I am glaid and fane,
Honor with aige to every vertew drawis.

Law, luve, and lawtie, gravin law thay ly;
Dissimulance hes borrowit conscience clayis;
Writ, wax, and selis ar no wayis set by;
Flattery is fosterit baith with friends and fayes.
The sone, to bruik it that his fader hais,
Wald se him deid; Sathanas sic seid sawis;
Yowtheid, adew, ane of my mortall fais,
Honor with aige to every vertew drawis.

.

.

Margaret Coats lives in California.  She holds a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and Language from Harvard University.  She has retired from a career of teaching literature, languages, and writing that included considerable work in homeschooling for her own family and others.  


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23 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    A really solid translation of Kennedy’s text, with careful attention to both rhyme scheme and meaning. It isn’t easy to translate from one dialect to another (Lallans Scots to standard English), even though it might seem so. Every dialect has its own idiosyncratic habits, and they don’t always carry over into another language even when the two tongues are closely related.

    The English and the Scottish can argue endlessly over whether the 1603 union was a good thing. But one bad thing that came of it was the loss of the chance for there to be an alternative standard form of English, backed up by the political authority of an independent Scotland.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for your vote of confidence! Here’s one example of how this was not a breeze to translate: “wake” and “walk” in Middle Scots have the same forms with the same spelling variations. It took study of prepositions used in idioms to determine with certainty whether the first speaker was waking from sleep or sleepwalking.

      Scottish parliamentary election results are in today. With the Scottish National Party one seat short of a majority, they will be in control with a little help from the Greens, and the independence flag will be flying more bravely. Still, they may not get a referendum for years. Is it too late in history for Inglis to become an alternative standard form of English?

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    This, Margaret, might be my favorite of all the poems you have provided this site. Each line marches forward in perfect parallel to the original. This, it seems to me, is not quite a translation; it is more of a reiteration of lines in a closely related language. I don’t care much about that, because the message is, to those entitled to care about such things, rather comforting: So, just as we have thought all along, “the folly of youth” and “the wisdom of age” are still valid and appropriate phrases (terms).

    The eighth of May,
    My dear,
    Was a good day
    This year.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      While I could not have written this poem without Walter Kennedy, I consider my own works (whatever we call them) new poems, and thus we have a 2021 poem validating the wisdom of age. I did my best to display forthright confidence, undoubtedly assisted by Kennedy’s considerable skill at flyting, or using all a poet’s ability with words to vanquish a hostile adversary such as the cult of youth. Glad you like it!

      Reply
  3. Yael

    Very interesting, especially the original. This is the first time I’ve seen old Scottish language in print. I can see many German elements in it. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      One of my hopes with this translation was that readers of English could, with just a little help, understand the Scots. I am glad that worked for you. I’m also glad that you can confirm the German elements. This is certainly Germanic Scots as opposed to the Gaelic Scots. Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  4. Paul Freeman

    Academically way above my pay grade, the accessibility you gave this piece made it a pleasure to read, Margaret.

    Reply
  5. David Watt

    Margaret, what appeals to me most about reading your fine translation is the ability to readily compare the original with your piece. The Mellifluous Scots dialect has a beauty worth preserving.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, David. It’s good to be able to present a translation where many readers can understand the original. Although I had to change or add a number of words to make a smoothly reading English poem, there is still much of the deeper structure of Scots in it. I’m glad you enjoyed both works!

      Reply
  6. Julian D. Woodruff

    Margaret,
    I wanted to get in a word of thanks to you for posting the original and your translation. Your comments, too, will be a help: it’s clear that from overconfidence there is danger in misreading the original in various places. With a working printer I hope to be able to compare Kennedy’s and your work closely and enjoyably.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Hope you’ll enjoy both poems and the comparison! To make my comments even more useful for you or anyone interested in Scots words, I highly recommend the online Dictionaries of the Scots Language, dsl.ac.uk There is a dictionary of older Scots and one of modern Scots, and the website is by far the easiest to use of any dictionary site I know. Happy reading!

      Reply
  7. BRIAN YAPKO

    Margaret, this is really very beautiful — both the translation and the content of the poem. The idea of callow, destructive youth versus the wisdom and refined values that come with age certainly resonates with me and is so universal it seems to apply precisely to our modern age. As for the translation itself, it really is helpful to be able to read the original and your translation side by side. It’s fun to see how closely the original Scots seems to be related to the Middle English of Chaucer. I’m very curious as to what the spoken language sounded like — the vowels, especially, since (correct me if I’m wrong) this poem comes right around the time of the Great Vowel Shift and the transition to early modern English.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Kennedy’s whole life was probably a time of non-standard and shifting pronunciation. The word “honor” in this poem may reflect that. Notice that in the refrain and in line 12, it is spelled “honor,” but as a rhyming word in line 20 it is “honoure.” The poet may have changed his own usual sound there to rhyme with the other rhyme words in that stanza.

      The timing of the Great Vowel Shift keeps changing (getting later and longer and having different phases) as scholars learn more about it. That includes learning more about how and when it happened in different regions. My understanding is that vowels in Scotland underwent even earlier changes, and the Great Shift itself had different effects in Scotland than in England. Therefore, although I have some scholarly ability to read Chaucer and Shakespeare aloud, I give up on Scots. When I read it, I simply think of what I have heard on visits to Scotland. That is, I use Americanized modern Scots.

      Can’t answer your question, but I’m very pleased that you enjoyed both my poem and Walter Kennedy’s!

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Similar problems obtain when one is trying to read the poems of John Skelton, or the translation of the Aeneid into Scots by Gavin Douglas. Both men were roughly contemporary with Kennedy.

  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Margaret, firstly, thank you very much for your fine translation. I can only begin to imagine how challenging it is to maintain the integrity of the original work while paying close attention to the aesthetics.

    Secondly, I love the fearless, forthright manner of this poem and the way it embraces age with no apology and holds the wonder of wisdom up for all to see and applaud – something we ought to do more of in these days of scant respect for the stalwart sages of our crumbling communities. A very timely piece, indeed!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Yes, the Scottish poet starts right out by asserting what he considers the undeniable value of age, and the honor it deserves. He does have serious problems in his society, but saves any mention of them for his last 12 lines out of forty. It’s as if, “We elders can deal with this,” reinforced by the refrain!

      Reply
  9. Daniel Kemper

    This sort of poem, a translation or no, is sorely lacking in these times — one that takes the time and space to breathe. To choose a mix of telling and showing. To follow the rules of good composition, whether essay or poem. A real gem, found in what is rough for our times, and expertly polished to a shine!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thank you, Daniel, especially for the compliment on polishing! I polish my work proudly, and reject a recently expressed opinion that polishing to perfection renders a poem not human. To polish is human, and to be perfect divine, or at least, angelic. As I’m far from that, I’ll keep up the labor. I’m glad the juxtaposition of English and Scottish poems has proved valuable.

      Reply
  10. Tom Rimer

    Margaret — I have come to read this a bit late, and so I can enjoy as well the highly enjoyable comments by your many other readers. Reading the two texts juxtaposed together provides an elegant reminder of the strength and beauty of the medieval text, and shows as well your skill in recreating the poem, form and content alike, in modern English. This is truly the art that conceals art: your version is so accomplished that the reader moves from line to line absorbing the unusual rhyme scheme as though it was the most natural literary structure in the world. Everything falls beautifully on the eye and the ear.

    Bravo!

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Thanks for reading, Tom. I like the term “re-creation” for what I am doing here. It is not simply a modernization, to help readers unfamiliar with early vocabulary. In technical matters of rhyme and meter, we see that many words that formerly rhymed do not rhyme any more, and therefore I had to choose some new sounds and stick with them, even though that meant changing rhyme words. And in a number of Kennedy’s lines, modern words finish the line with not enough syllables or stresses for the meter, or with accents badly placed. I preserved the Scottish poet’s rhyme scheme and meter only with some new sounds and many “re-created” metrical lines. And of course, the lines had to make sense in accord with Kennedy’s meaning and tough tone! I am glad it reads naturally to you, such an experienced reader of poetry.

      Reply
  11. Andrew Benson Brown

    How wonderful your translations are, Margaret. I believe you should be appointed the SCP’s ‘Secretary for Foreign Tongues.’

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Having always been interested in poetry, I realized as a child that there was poetry in other languages, and decided to study foreign tongues as much as reasonably possible. I consider myself lucky that my education included many opportunities. And I am grateful to SCP for viewing translation as a worthy exercise of the poet’s craft!

      Reply

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