Sonic Illumination: The Riming Poem

Images I made digitally and then screen printed. They show our section of the Riming Poem, a ‘phonetic’ version of our modern English translation, over images of earth/ under the earth in London.

Tuesday 28 April saw Anglo-Saxonists from across King’s, Royal Holloway, and artists and makers including Caroline Bergvall, Forster + Heighes, and Tom Chivers all come together to perform our group translation of the Old English poem known as the Riming Poem.

IMG_8386Josh Davies, my supervisor and organiser of the event, had got us all together a couple of months previously. He’d introduced us to the poem: an 87 line poem we know from the Exeter Book manuscript (home to the riddles, the Wanderer, the Seafarer, and many others!), that has foxed scholars since its rediscovery.

The poem is unusual for Old English verse in that it has a consistent end rhyme. Rhymes sometimes pair only two lines, but often link several lines at a time: which produces some alternately comedic, clumsy and awkward, or stamping and rhythmic affects when read aloud.

Josh divided the poem among the Anglo-Saxonists and poets: fellow PhD student Francesca Brooks, poet and Director of Penned in the Margins, Tom Chivers, and I were grouped together to work on lines 70-79.

Exeter Book f. 95r
fol. 95r of the Exeter Book, lines 70-79 of the Riming Poem highlighted

We went away and worked on the poem on google docs, trying out literal translations, immersing ourselves in different editions, playing with sound and sense and the visual layout and graphemes.

I got hung up on using words that sound similar, trying to not ‘change’ the look and feel in the mouth of language if possible.

Fran B has a beautiful sense of the alliteration in Old English, and has a knack of coming up with beautiful pairings such as ‘grafted a grave’.

Tom’s versions were fun and playful, again he relished the alliterative and rhyming potentials of the lines. He also put together a version ‘writing backwards’ by speaking the words aloud in an accent, then writing the sounds: reminding me of that GCSE anthology standard ‘the six a clock news’ by Tom Leonard.

Pulling all our translations together, stealing words and line constructions from each other, we got our ‘final version’. But we wanted to mess up our modern English again – to return to the strangeness we see in the manuscript pages. This led us to run our modern English through a phonetic spelling generator… which had some very pleasing effects for us!

Here’s the first few lines, just to show you how different each of our versions were! Reading downwards, the colours correspond to Old English, me, Tom 1, Fran B, Tom 2, and the phonetic spellings.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 11.09.57.png

I love how the strange phonetic letters mirror the thorn and ash letter shapes of the Old English, and the unusual (for modern eyes!) shapes created by a ‘wy’ or gewy’ together in single words. Of course the phonetic alphabet also includes some Anglo-Saxon characters: the ash and eth reappearing again.

Fast forward to two days ago, the day of the reading, we read several of our versions aloud in unison, our voices overlapping. Fran, Tom and I each read a slightly different version, with slightly adjusted accents depending on our confidence with carrying off a Scots or Midlands twang!

The Royal Holloway contingent, and a KCL UG third year group.


Reading our translations along with the other contributors to hear the poem in full for the first time was astonishing. It’s incredible how much variation was created! Some groups strayed away from the rhyming, others played with it to the point of absurdity, and we even had some lines in Russian.

We were also joined on the evening by Forster + Heighes, an art duo who work with performance in a lot of their practice. They brought with them a selection of agricultural tools, that became tools to help us with our translations: a sieve for sifting out the best words, a plough for when we need to dig deeper for the right sentences, a large wooden collar for two translators to wear, bound together, to facilitate collaboration!

IMG_8381After our short rehearsal, reading the poem all the way through only twice, we read the whole thing again to an audience. Caroline Bergvall also gave a reading from Drift to start us off and welcome everyone, getting them in the mood for some new Old English.


During Fran B, Tom, and my reading, we gave out screenprints of our phonetic poem, and also played the words above our heads on the projector. We wanted to confound people with the sounds  and visuals: we stood in three corners of the room, creating a surround sound echo of sort new, sort of Old, English.

This project has been an amazing experience, with translator participants each being so imaginative and generous. There are certainly so many questions now to mull over: why and how does Old English faciliate new work? What do new, creative translations tell us about Old English poetry? The best translations certainly showed at once a thorough understanding of the Old English grammar and vocabulary, but also a playful and excited engagement with the possibilities of new and old language and images coming together, and a deep joy in the potential of reading aloud, together, in many voices.

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