Alliterative Verse – (The Kalevala – 1)

Inside front title page of the “Old” Kalevala, Finnish, national epic, collection of old Finnish poems, by Elias Lonnrot. First edition – Volume 2, 1835. Page text reads “Kalevala or the old Karelian poems about the ancient times of the Finnish people, 1st part in Helsinki 1835 Printed J.C.Frenckellin Son’s & Co.

Allen’s January 1980 class continues

AG: Before we get onto A Lament for the Makers” , William Dunbar’s “Howl” of the 15th Century, I wanted to give out one more sample of alliterative verse. From the Kalevala?..who’ll pronouce it correctly for me? – Kavela? Kavela? Kavela? – Actually, the accent is on the first and last syllable – Kalevala– Kalevala….

“So this is a Contest of Bards between an old poet in the Kalevala district, old Väinämöinen Old Väinämöinen his name is, and there’s a young, younger poet, Joukahainen, young punk poet who challenges this older bearded tired-out bard. And this is a Contest of Bards, which is a traditional form in almost all the world’s poetries but this is one of the funniest I’ve heard. There is… this is poem three of the Kalevala which is a Finnish national epic, which was accumulated orally over the centuries and written down in the nineteenth century by, or compiled by Elias Lönnrot, and translated by Francis Peabody Magoun, Harvard University Press, 1963. A great translation, I originally said that the alliterative verse form was not just English but Scandinavian. So this is like a modern version of an ancient Scandinavian form. So there’s a first statement in the first half of the line and then a counter-statement (in this case, partly repeating the first statement) because a lot of this was oral improvisation, so they’d lay out a theme and then repeat it slightly differently while they were waiting and thinking the next theme, the next line) The…

Student: Allen?

AG: Yes?

Student: (Does this involve two people?)

AG: Yeah. Yes. I think there’s a picture of it in here – of the traditional form (which
is) two guys sit on a bench, holding hands crossways, or directly, rocking back and forth to get the rhythm up, and then cap each other with lines. One will sing a line and the other will.. rephrase it, echo it, repeat it, or answer it. So it’s like musicians capping each other. The photograph’s.. maybe you can see from a distance, I don’t know, different, modern and ancient (sic). [Allen displays the photograph] – Is that visible to anybody? – sitting on a bench – sometimes on a bench, sometimes at a table. It’s almost like a variety of…what do you call that?

Student: Arm wrestling

AG: Arm wrestling, Mind wrestling. Poem three, the plot – “Väinämöinen grows in knowledge and becomes famous. Joukahainen sets out to defeat him in a contest of wisdom and when he does not win challenges him to dual with the swords. At this the old Väinämöinen gets angry and sinks young Joukahainen down into a fen” -(“fen”, you know, “bog”?) – “In the fen Joukahainen, gets sorely distressed and finally promises Väinämöinen, if he lets him go, his sister as his wife. Väinämöinen is apppeased by this and releases him from the fen”.

So, they are talking, or, rather, there’s a description of them. The young kid leaves his father and mother who forbid him to go challenge the old Väinämöinen … warns him he’ll bewitch you, watch out , but (he’s so vain) and he set(s) out and on the third day he reaches Väinämöinen’ s district, and so, into the middle of the thing….

Allen begins reading (starting from approximately fifty-five minutes in) from Francis Peabody Magoun’s translation of The Kalevala.

[Editorial note – Much of this extensive quotation has already appeared on The Allen Ginsberg Project – see here]

“..Steadfast old Väinämöinen, eternal sage,/ was driving on his way, covering ground/ on those clearings of Väinämöinen’s district, the heaths of Kalevala District./ Young Joukahainen came along, he was driving on the road in the opposite direction./ Shaft caught in shaft, trace got tangled in trace,/ hames became fast in hames, shaft-bow in butt of shaft-bow./ Therefore they then stop, stop deliberate;/ water poured from shaft-bow, vapor steamed from the shafts.”

“..Old Väinämöinen asked: “Of what clan are you/ to come along foolishly, recklessly onward./ You break the bent-wood hames, the sapling shaft-bows./ you splinter my sleigh to pieces, my poor sleigh to bits.”/ Then young Joukahainen/ uttered a word, spoke thus: “I am young Joukahainen/ but name your own clan;/ of what clan are you, of what crew, miserable creature?”/ . Then steadfast old Väinämöinen now told his name./ Then he managed to say: If you are young Joukahainen,/ pull over to the side. You are younger than I”

“Then young Joukahainen uttered a word, spoke thus:/ “A man’s youth is small matter, his youth, his age./ Whichever of two men is better in knowledge, the stronger in memory,/ let him indeed stay on the road, let the other get off the road./ If you are old Väinämöinen, eternal singer,/ let us begin to sing, start to recite magic./ one man to test the other, one to defeat the other”/. Steadfast old Väinämöinen uttered a word, spoke thus:/ – “What can I really do as a singer, as an expert!/ I have always lived my life just on these clearings,/ on the edges of the home field, again and again have listened to the cuckoo by the house./ But, be this as it may, speak, so that I may hear with my ears:/ what do you know about most about, understand beyond other people?”/ Young Joukahainen said: “I indeed know something!/ This I know clearly, understand precisely:

[Joukahainen’s maxims] – “A smoke hole is near a ceiling, a flame is near a fireplace./ It is pleasant for a seal to live, for a pike, dog of the water, to roll about;/ it eats the salmon around it, the whitefish beside it./ A whitefish has smooth fields, the salmon a level ceiling./ A pike spawns in the chill of night, the slobberer in bitter cold weather./ Autumns the timid, obstinate perch, swims deep./ summers it spawns on dry land, flaps about on shores./ “If this may be not enough, I have still another bit of knowledge,/ understand a certain thing:/ “The North ploughs with a reindeer,/ the South with a mare, remotest Lapland with an elk./ I know the trees of Pisa’s Hill, the tall evergreens on Goblin’s Crag,/ tall are the trees on Pisa’s Hill, the evergreens on Goblin’s Crag/. There are three strong rapids, three great lakes,/ three high mountains under the vault of this sky./ In Hame is Halla-whirlpool, in Karelia Loon Rapids./ none exceed the Vuoksi rapids (which) surpass those of Imatra” . Old Väinämöinen said: “A child’s knowledge, a woman’s power of memory! / It is neither that of a bearded man nor indeed of a married man./ Speak of profound origins, of unique matters.”/

Young Joukahainen uttered a word, spoke thus:/ “I know the origin of the tomtit, I know the tom-tit is a bird,/ the hissing adder a snake, the roach a fish of the water/, I know iron is brittle, black soil sour,/ boiling-hot water painful, being burned by fire bad./ Water is the oldest of ointments, foam of a rapids oldest of magic nostrums,/ the Creator himself is the oldest of magicians, God the oldest of healers./ The source of water is from a mountain, the source of fire is from the heavens/, the origin of iron is from rust, the basis of copper is a crag./ A wet tussock is the oldest land, the willow the first tree,/ the foot of a tall evergreen the first habitation, a flat stone the first wretched cooking vessel.”/ Steadfast old Väinämöinen uttered these words:/ “Do you remember anything more or has your foolish talk now come to an end?”/

Young Joukahainen spoke: “I remember a little more. /I remember indeed that time when I was plowing the sea,/ hoeing out the hollows of the sea, digging deep spots for fish,/ deepening the deep places in the water, putting the lily ponds in place./ overturning hills, heaping up blocks of stone./ I was already the sixth man, seventh person/, when they were creating this Earth, fashioning the sky/, erecting the pillars of the sky, bringing the rainbow,/ guiding the moon, helping the sun,/ arranging the Great Bear, studding the heavens with stars”./ Old Väinämöinen said: “You are certainly lying about this./ No one saw you when they were ploughing the sea,/ hoeing out the hollows of the sea, digging deep spots for fish,/ deepening the deep places in the water, putting the lily ponds in place./ overturning hills, heaping up blocks of stone,/ Nor were you probably seen, /probably neither seen nor heard,/ when the earth was being created, the sky fashioned,/ the pillars of the sky erected, the rainbow brought,/ the moon guided, the sun helped,/ the Great Bear arranged, the heavens studded with stars.”/

Young Joukahainen then uttered these words: “If I do not happen to have intelligence, I will ask for intelligence from my sword./ O old Väinämöinen, big-mouthed singer!/ Proceed to measure off our swords, set out to fight a duel”./ Old Väinämöinen said: “I don’t think I’m very much afraid/ of those sword of yours, your intelligence, your ice-picks, your thoughts./ But be that as it may, I will not proceed to measure swords/ with you, wretch,/ with you, miserable fellow”./ Then young Joukahainen screwed up his mouth, twisted his head around,/ clawed at his black beard. He uttered these words:/ “Whoever does not proceed to measure swords nor set out to fight a duel,/ him I will sing into a swine, change into a pig with lowered snout./ Such men I enchant, one thus, the other so. /strike dead onto a dunghill, jam into the corner of a cattle shed”./ Old Väinämöinen got angry, then got angry and felt shamed./ He began to sing, got to reciting,/ the magic songs are not children’s songs, not children’s songs, women’s jokes;/ they are a bearded man’s which not all children sing,/ nor half the boys indeed, nor one bachelor in three/ in this dreadful time, in this fleeting final age”./ Old Väinämöinen sang. Lakes splashed over, Earth shook/, copper mountains trembled, solid slabs of rock split,/ the crags flew apart, stones on the shore cracked./ He bewitched young Joukahainen. He sang sprouts onto his shaft-bow,/ a willow bush onto his hames, sallows onto the ends of his traces./ He bewitched the lovely basket sleigh. he sang it into a pond as fallen trees./ He sang the whip with the beaded lash into shore reed of the sea./ He sang the horse with the blaze to the bank of the rapid as a rock./ He sang the gold-hilted sword to the sky as flashes of lightning;/ then he sang the ornamented shaft of the crossbow into a rainbow over the waters/ then his feathered arrows into speeding hawks, / then the dog with the undershot jaw, it he sang onto the ground as rocks./ He sang the cap off the man’s head into the peak of a cloudbank./ he sang the mittens off his hands into pond lilies./then his blue broadcloth coat to the heavens as a cloud patch/ the soft woolen belt from his waist into stars throughou the heavens/ He bewitched Joukahainen himself,/ sang him into a fen up to his loins,/ into a grassy meadow up to his groin, into a heath up to his arm-pits./

Now young Joukahainen indeed knew and realized./ he knew that he had got on the way, got on the route to a contest,/ a contest in magic singing with old Väinämöinen. /He keeps trying to get a foot free; he could not lift his foot./ However, he tried the other; here his shoe was of stone./ The young Joukahainen indeed becomes anguished,/gets into a more precarious situation. He uttered a word, spoke thus:/ “O wise Väinämöinen, eternal sage!/ Reverse your magic charm, revoke your enchantment,/ Free me from this predicament, get me out of this situation./ I will indeed make the best payment, pay the most substantial ransom”./ Old Väinämöinen said: “Well, what will you give me/ if I reverse my magic charm, revoke my enchantment,/ free you from this predicament, get you out of this situation?”/ Joukahainen spoke, “I have two vessels, two lovely boats. /One is swift in race the other transports much. Take either of these. / Old Väinämöinen spoke, “I do not really care about your vessels. I will not select any of your boats./ These I too have with every rower hauled up, every cove piled full,/ one steady in a high wind, the other that goes into a head wind”.. He bewitched young Joukahainen, bewitched him still deeper in./ Young Joukahainen said, “I have two stallions, two lovely steeds./ One is better for racing, the other lively in the traces. Take either of these”./ Old Väinämöinen said, “I don’t care about your horses. Don’t bother me about white fetlocked horses./ These too I have, with every stall hitched full, every stable full,/ with fat as clear as water on their backbones, a pound of fat on their cruppers”./ He bewitched young Joukahainen, bewitched him still deeper in.”

(Then Joukahainen offers stallions, a hatful of gold pieces, a felt hat full of silver pieces)

“Young Joukahainen said, “Old Väinämöinen, reverse your magic words, revoke your enchantment./ I’ll give you a high-peaked hat full of gold pieces, a felt hat full of silver pieces got by my father in the war, brought in from battle”./ Old Väinämöinen said, “I don’t care (I care nothing) about your silver pieces. I have no need, wretch, for your gold pieces./ These too I have with every storehouse crammed, every little box fully stocked./ They are gold pieces as old as the moon, silver pieces the age of the sun”. /He bewitched young Joukahainen, bewitched him still deeper in. /Young Joukahainen said, “O old Väinämöinen , free me from this predicament, release me from this situation.”

to be continued

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately fifty minutes in and concluding at approximately sixty-five-and-three-quarter minutes in ]

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