Back in 1975, Richard Wilbur—probably the greatest translator of poetry into English that America has ever known—published a pair of rhyming riddles he had translated from the Latin of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk named St. Aldhelm. Practitioners of formal poetry are always lured by Latin, and especially by the neatness, economy, and precision of its smaller forms. English is a messy, sprawling language; it has to be forced into the Romance literary shapes that have defined poetry since the Renaissance. But Latin—ah, there's a language that wants to be concise and clever. A language that wants to do epigrams, aphorisms, and riddles. It's like a test of skill or a masterwork: English poets who can translate the tight little forms of Latin have proved their virtuosity.
Despite Wilbur's uncovering of Aldhelm for formal poets, with the implied challenge to translate the rest of the saint's 101 riddles, no one followed up with a complete Englishing of the Latin squibs—until now. The poet A. M. Juster has now released this brilliantly rhymed, metrical translation of the complete set, including the longer acrostic poem that opens Aldhelm's work.
Educated first by Irish monks and then by the North African officials sent to Canterbury by the pope, Aldhelm became abbot of the monastery of Malmesbury in 675 and bishop of Sherborne in 705. The latinized foreign words in his writing suggest that the Irish monks had taught him at least some Greek and Hebrew. This was at a time when those languages were fading in Western Europe under the pressure of the barbaric invasions destroying the Roman Empire, and Aldhelm was acknowledged by the Venerable Bede as a premier Latin scholar and writer of the era. Along the way, Aldhelm built new churches—including St. Laurence's at Bradford-on-Avon, one of only a handful of unaltered Anglo-Saxon churches still surviving—expanded his monastery's holdings, and exchanged letters with many of the nobles, theologians, and intellectuals of the time.
It's in one of those letters—to Aldfrith, king of Northumbria—that Aldhelm laid out his theories of poetry in the declining education of the Dark Ages. And by way of illustration, he included his own examples of Latin hexameters: 101 riddles, typically from four to eight lines long. They are odd works, in many ways. Aldhelm assumes a fairly dense knowledge of patristical theology, late classical physics, and the myths of popular medieval piety. Sic cruor exsuperat quem ferrea massa pavescit, he writes, for example. Juster renders this ninth riddle:
Look! I'm not scared by iron's long, hard stress, Nor in flame's heat do I incinerate, But goat's blood softens my fierce stubbornness, So gore defeats what scares an iron weight.
And the answer is adamant: a diamond—a perfectly easy riddle to guess, provided one knows that popular medieval legend held that the only way to destroy a diamond was to dissolve it in goat's blood. Others are less difficult. The wonderful 32nd riddle, for instance, begins I got my start from honey-laden bees / And yet my outside part has grown from trees—drawing a picture of the riddle's answer (a wax writing tablet) through a series of pastoral images.
The author of translations of Petrarch and Horace, along with a pair of books of his own poetry, A. M. Juster is well known by readers of formalist poetry for his meticulous meters and careful forms, winning the Nemerov Prize for the year's best sonnet three times. Less well known is that "A. M. Juster" is a pseudonym, an anagram formed from the poet's real name, Michael J. Astrue—a man who has had to hold down other jobs while writing his poetry and translations. Among them are a set of very senior government positions. He worked in the White House counsel's office, acted as general counsel for the Department of Health and Human Services, and chaired the Social Security Administration from 2007 to 2013.
While he was leading the Social Security Administration, he was outed as a poet in 2010 in an article by the poet and biographer Paul Mariani. As Astrue tells the story of bureaucratic Washington's response, everyone seemed nervous to be around him for the next several weeks: They knew, he says, how to deal with an official caught with his hand in the till or with his arm around a prostitute; but his being exposed as a poet left them uncertain whether to sidle up to him or avoid him as toxic.
After he finished his term at Social Security, Astrue did a little work in the private sector and wrote on financial and political topics under his given name (including for The Weekly Standard); the rest of the time, he continued in the poetry mode as A. M. Juster, doing the work that has now issued in this new translation. (Full disclosure: I saw the book in manuscript and am thanked in the preface.)
Saint Aldhelm's Riddles will provide plenty for scholars to argue about. The book is reasonably well designed, with a beautiful cover and 70 pages of commentary following the Latin and English text on facing pages. General readers will find the poetry fun, although each riddle should have had its answer printed (upside down?) beneath it. Instead, the book annoyingly gathers the answers in a list buried among the back pages.
The poetic English translation reduces to a single acrostic the double acrostic of the Latin in Aldhelm's long opening theological poem, the saint's name spelled out in both the first and last letters of each line. In his introduction, Juster bemoans his inability to render the translation with the full puzzle of the Latin, but if that counts as a failure, it's one of few in this charming, clever, concise volume.
Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.