Verse Riddles

Review: Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, translated by A. M. Juster

Illuminated Manuscript Wikimedia Commons
Illuminated Manuscript / Wikimedia Commons
January 9, 2016

Saint Aldhelm was a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon monk, member of the Wessex nobility, and one of the most innovative Latin poets of Late Antiquity. His most famous works are Carmen rhythmicum, a two-hundred line octosyllabic poem about a trip during a strong storm that blew the roof off a church, and Epistula ad Acircium, a collection of two essays on prosody, 100 verse riddles (the Aenigmata), and commentary on the number seven.

Richard Wilbur translated two of the riddles in 1975, but the Aenigmata has never been translated in English its entirety for a general audience until A. M. Juster’s excellent rendering of all 100 riddles, complete with extensive and entertaining commentary, published late last year by the University of Toronto Press, which is known for its medieval catalogue.

Juster is the pen name of Michael J. Astrue, a lawyer and, until 2013, the commissioner of the Social Security Administration. It may seem odd that a former senior civil servant should translate the Latin verse of a 7th-century monk, but he is particularly suited to the task.

Winner of the 2002 Richard Wilbur Award for his first collection of original poems, The Secret Language of Women, three-time winner of the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award, and translator of both Horace and Petrarch, Juster is a master of prosody and possesses a facility for accurate and accessible verse translation that is hard to match. He also has a penchant for mischief and an eye for detail. Most academic classicists possess the former to the extent that they lack the latter, which is to say, almost never.

Sadly, modern and contemporary poets have mostly ignored riddles and epigrams (J. V. Cunningham is a notable exception) in their turn away from general readers over the last century, but riddles were once a popular verse form that could be both entertaining (occasionally risqué) and instructive. For Saint Aldhelm, they were also a means of indirectly teaching church doctrines. Many of his riddles are, most immediately, about animals or inanimate objects (stones, salt, the moon), but they also tell us something about the created order and the God who, in Aldhelm’s view, rules it.

Take riddle 12 on the silkworm. (The riddles are numbered, and a key is provided at the end of volume so that readers can try to solve the riddles themselves if they wish.) Juster’s translation is as follows:

When times of year for weaving threads resume,

My hairy threads fill sallow flesh with weight,

And soon I climb the leafy tips of broom

To craft small balls, then rest with twists of fate.

In his notes, Juster explains that the early church father Basil of Caesarea viewed the silkworm as symbols of the resurrection. While Aldhelm may have shared this view, he also saw silk as a symbol of material temptations. "In Carmen de virginitate," Juster writes, "Aldhelm tells the story of a father who attempts to lead his son away from fervent Christianity with ‘a silken covering in the form of a purple robe, which a dying silkworm had produced from the its fruitful womb.’"

In riddle 15, Aldhelm sees the salamander’s resistance to fire as a symbol of the martyr’s "resistance" to the temporal fires of the stake:

I feel no flame while living in the fire,

But mock the pains while deep within the pyre.

As the hearth crackles and the embers glimmer,

I do not burn, though wood’s fierce flames grow dimmer.

And in riddle 76, Aldhelm is reminded of Adam’s first sin in the garden of Eden and Christ’s payment of that sin on a wooden cross in the image of an apple tree:

Our newborn race was fortunate at first

Until the Devil’s cunning made it cursed.

I caused the ancient fall from innocence;

I gave sweet apples to fresh immigrants.

Behold, I witnessed Earth’s renewed salvation

When, spread on wood, the Judge of every nation

(And Thunder’s Holy Son) paid reparation.

Juster’s commentary on the poems provides something like a short course on the classical and medieval world. He discusses, among many other things, the medieval view of the relationship between the lunar cycle and bleeding, the goddess of rainbows, the meaning of wind, and the symbolic significance of bees. Self-deprecating and occasionally funny, it is some of most thoroughly enjoyable textual commentary you are ever likely to read.

But the central pleasure here is, of course, the poems. Juster’s fluid and deceptively simple translations make the whole effort look easy, which is a testament to both Aldhelm’s gift and Juster’s craft.

Published under: Book reviews