Why isn’t contemporary English good enough for me? As I run through the glossary of terms which crop up often in my writing, no particular word gives off a luster that sparks my heart more than my mind, though owl and the old Appalachian term ruddock come close. Something birdy in all that, but the word that does summon me back again and again, I can seldom get away with using. It’s an Old English word we can’t even spell — matholode — but the “th” is more accurately represented by an obsolete letter called thorn. Maybe my computer can make it, but not with me at the controls. Imagine a backwards “6” with the loop smaller and a horizontal slash about where a “t” would have one. It’s a voiced dental fricative approximating the “th” sound in “thief.”
I love the four-syllable sound of it. I believe I was taught that the stronger stress is on the initial syllable, the secondary accent on the third — ma‘ tho lo da, the “a”s and first “o” short, the other “o” long. [Somebody correct me if I’ve misremembered.]
So what? The word occurs in the opening line of the anonymously-authored OE poem “Widsith,” which recounts the professional life of a gleeman (or scop or bard), tells what stories he sang and to whom and to what affect. It’s a beautiful piece, 142 lines ending in the claim that fame and glory don’t fade. (OK, so it’s a bit over the top.)
What has possessed me for four decades, however, is the problem translating that “matholode.” Most people just write “sang” and move on, but Tom McGowen suggested to me those eons back that the word implied “sang,” “chanted,” “breathed” all together, and it has since seemed to me the ideal mode that poets should aim for, especially when they perform a poem they’ve toiled over. Frost could do it, Heaney, Roethke, Carolyn Kizer, Merwin, Ann Deagon. So many can’t, straining for it and overshooting or not even trying, too cool to care. When I read a poem in the arena of my imagination, I want to make that chant-song sound, but nothing falsely portentous, more a homespun ceremony. And it has something of “told” in it too, of story. “Matholode” — maybe an owl’s call, maybe a ghost or the core of the self.
Why not raise the bar, knock yourself ou? I ask, fail better each time? I do love that word.