A Conversation with Professor Craig Williamson

Craig Williamson is The Alfred H. and Peggi Bloom professor of English Literature. His area of study and teaching is concentrated in medieval literature, creative writing, and Old English: some select courses he teaches are ENGL 046. Tolkien and Pullman and Their Literary Roots, ENGL 010. Monsters, Marvels, and Mysteries: Beowulf to Paradise Lost, and ENGL 014. Old English/History of the Language. The Phoenix spoke to Professor Williamson about his career, publications, and life experiences.

Suhyun Kim: What is the greatest pride of your career?

Craig Williamson: I’ve written six books, and I’m proud of that. I’m particularly proud of the fact that I translated all of the Old English poems, 31,000 lines. No one has ever done that before, and probably no one will ever do it again. I think I’ve contributed to the field and shaped Old English poetry in a translation which is both reflective of the original and powerful in its own right.

I love my teaching and I’ve been doing this for 51 years. I’ve had wonderful, interesting students along the way. You saw one of them, Caroline Batten, when they gave a lecture recently. I’m proud of this because I taught them Old English in the same class that you’re in. They went off to Oxford on a grant and decided to write a dissertation on Old English charms. Now they have an appointment as an assistant professor of medieval literature at Penn. So I’ve helped to shape an Old English scholar in a new generation. I take great pride in that.

SK: One of the translations you told us about was the piss riddle; what was it like being known as the person who solved the piss riddle?

CW: There are scholars who think that I have not solved that riddle, and they argue for other solutions. I worked on that riddle when I was in graduate school, and it was an exciting moment for me to have discovered a solution that had never been proposed. Of course, it wasn’t the only riddle for which I proposed new solutions. There were a number of them, and I loved struggling to discover their solutions. When you don’t know the solution, you dream up possibilities–they sometimes work and sometimes not. Then you begin to think about how one solution is like another. How is the moon like a hole in the ground? They’re both round, but they’re quite different. And I learned a lot about my own thinking process. I also learned about the nature of poetry. I argue in some of those early books that the essence of poetry is metaphor, and the essence of a riddle is metaphor too. Aristotle argues that riddle and metaphor are flip sides of the same coin, and I think he was right about that.

When I was a graduate student at Penn and wanting to decide what I would write my dissertation on, I knew I wanted to do something on Old English language and culture. I had just spent a year in Tanzania, East Africa, working for the American Friends Service Committee. Often I found myself sitting around a campfire in the village of Litowa, talking to people and sharing stories and riddles and other oral genres. When I returned to graduate school, I tried to read in translation every Old English poem that was ever written so I could decide which ones to work with. I found that I couldn’t do that because there were so many poems that had not been translated. So after 50 years, I did what I couldn’t do when I was a graduate student. I translated them all and made that work available to other readers.

SK: What got you into Old English in the first place?

CW: I had gone from Stanford to Harvard and studied Old English for a year there and then I left graduate school. I thought I was never coming back because I wanted to write poetry. I went to work for the American Friends Service Committee as part of my alternative service to the draft. In the villages where I worked and lived, stories were being told, and at the same time, these stories and songs were being woven into novels and poems. I became interested in that crossover between oral and written traditions. So when I came home, I wanted to study that bridge between oral and literary works in English. And that crossover was in Old English. I also wanted to study folklore and linguistic anthropology. So I came to Penn where I studied medieval English literature, particularly Old English, and also linguistic anthropology.

SK: What is your favorite part of Old English?

CW: Just learning another language. Seeing how complicated and beautiful the process was, of getting from one language to another, and trying to be faithful and true to the language and to translate it into a new language that would carry some of those complex meanings and that original beauty in translation. Even when I was a graduate student working on the riddles, I was writing my own riddles. I was going back over 1000 years to study a way of talking about the world. And I was using those techniques not only to translate, but to craft an edition of the riddles which is still being used all over the world. And then finally over the course of many years at Swarthmore, I made my poetic translation of all the Old English poems.

SK: What is your favorite part of teaching?

I love exchanging ideas with my students. I love to see the look on their faces when they suddenly realize something about a play or a poem or story that they hadn’t realized before. I can see students kind of waking up, thinking that a door is opening for them into the world of the text. This is a great gift that goes both ways: giving my students a gift and they’re giving me a gift. Often they have ideas that I’ve never found. This is the process that Chaucer calls “gladly learning” and “gladly teaching.” The two go hand in hand. You can’t learn if you’re not willing to be taught. And you can’t teach unless you’re still learning. You have to learn from your students just as you hope they will learn from you.

SK: What is the part of teaching you hate the most, if any?

CW: This is a hard question. I enjoy teaching and reading student papers, and I enjoy commenting upon them. Engaging in that type of dialogue with my students is a gift. I think it’s hard to give students grades. It seems in some ways both appropriate and arbitrary. I’m not sure if there’s any cure for that, but it’s something that’s been hard for me.

SK: How did you get to Swarthmore in the first place?

CW: When I was a graduate student at Penn, I knew about Swarthmore. I actually used to come out here with my family and have picnics on Parrish lawn. So I knew it was a beautiful place. I didn’t really know anybody who was working here. But while I was going through this process of interviewing with various universities, I got a call from the English department here saying ‘we’re interested in you. I wonder if you would come out and talk with us.’ I said sure. I thought it would be interesting. I wasn’t worried about it because I thought I had a university offer in hand. I came out and talked to people all day long, to students and faculty. They were looking for both a medievalist and someone to help set up a creative writing program. I had published a book of poems about Africa, and they were interested in that odd combination of skills and offered me a job. And the more I thought about it, I wanted to come here because I felt that in talking to the students and the professors in various departments that there was a sense here of a community sharing ideas. Here was a wonderful place where it was possible to talk with people across disciplines, and I just felt that this was the place for me. And it was true. I have really loved it here. I think the students and faculty are wonderful. And it’s a beautiful place.

SK: Throughout your time here, what is a standout moment?

CW: This is difficult because there are so many moments. One important moment occurred about five years ago. I became interested in a medieval musical group called Sequentia that was located in Europe. It was run by Benjamin Bagby, who chants some 900 lines of Beowulf from memory while he’s playing his Anglo-Saxon lyre. He founded this group, and I had seen him perform on several occasions so I wrote to him and said, if I could get support money from the college, would the group come to campus to work together with me for ten days, making a new program that would be a presentation of some Old English poems like elegies, riddles, and charms — mostly in old English but some old German, old Icelandic. I told him that we could work together on it, and then the group could perform the program for the first time at Swarthmore. Ben knew my work and he and the group were keen to come. I spent a lot of time with the group, working on the Old English together and talking about the various poems. They performed the program in Lang Music Building to about 400 people, and it was a tremendous success. Now this Old English program is performed all over the world. So just as my books and translations are used around the world, this musical performance is played and sung every year in several places. Other musicians have written to me asking for permission to set some of my translations to music. I am pleased that my work is making its way in the world. I also have on YouTube a discussion of a passage from Beowulf in my seminar that the College produced. It has over 12,000 visits.

SK: In the Lord of the Rings, Ilúvatar gave Elves the blessing of immortality; would you choose to be immortal?

CW: No, never. Tolkien argues that an appreciation for life and for all of the wonderful things in it like music and story and love is only possible when you recognize that life is limited and your time is limited. When Tolkien says that Ilúvatar gave the gift of death to humans, I think that’s what he meant. Life is a great gift to be cherished. There’s a Latin saying, carpe diem, seize the day. You don’t have an infinite number of days. Your time is limited. Try to do in each day something that is important to you and the people around you. You have to bear in mind always that there’s this thread of death, and that’s what makes things like love and language and poetry so important. Don’t waste it.

SK: Would you say that is the meaning of life?

CW: Make the best of it? Yes. Make the best of your time. Different people make different choices about how to make the best of their time. I think my teaching has been important to me and my learning. And my writing has been important to me. And my relationship with the people around me, my students and my family, my wife, my children.

SK: If you had to give one piece of advice, what would it be?

CW: Make good use of the time that’s given to you. It’s a gift. I would say that in my own personal life, the two things that have been most important to me have been learning and love.

SK: In class, you once gave us an online quiz to determine our dæmons; have you ever taken it?

CW: I’ve taken that many times.

SK: What was your result?

CW: I’ve always assumed that I’d get a cat of some sort. I have never gotten a cat. I get these animals like badgers. It’s always a surprise to me. I’ve even tried to get the cat on purpose with the answers to the question, but I can never do that. I grew up with cats. I love cats. 

SK: What is a fun fact about you?

CW: When I was in high school, I not only started writing poetry, but I started writing rock and roll songs. And the students would all sing in four-part harmony my rock and roll songs as they walked home from school. When I went out to Stanford, I joined a group called The Mendicants. We had a rule that if you wrote a song with lyrics and harmony, you could be the lead singer in the song. So I wrote rock and roll songs for the group and I was known as the Little Bopper because there was a famous singer at the time called the Big Bopper. Back then I kind of wanted to be a rock and roll singer. I still can sit down at the piano and play and sing. Thankfully, I became a poet and scholar and teacher instead of a rocker.

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