Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Nice Jewish Girl's Guide to Old English Poetry

[Written for my wife to explain graduate school in medieval studies]


Let’s start with what we don’t know about Old English poetry.

First, we don’t know for sure when most of the surviving Old English poetry was composed. Datings by scholars vary widely, from the early 11th centry back to the start of the 9th, and possibly earlier. We do know that the manuscripts containing the bulk of the poetry were set down in the early to mid-11th Century. This was a time when Britain – though still troubled by invasions and dynastic struggles – had already become a centralized and efficiently administered European kingdom. The realities of daily life would have been quite different from the images of tribal violence and romantic exile in poems like Beowulf or “The Seafarer”. While scholars used to see these poems as direct expressions of “heroic” Anglo-Saxon cultural values, it’s just as likely – as more recent critics argue – that they represent a form of literary nostalgia, as romantic and tendentious in its view of the past as Shakespeare’s plays about late medieval English kings – or modern movie versions of the same era. In the absence of clearer chronological facts, however, any speculation about dates remains just that. Only works based on historical events, like the “Battle of Maldon” or the “Battle of Brunanburh,” can be dated with any certainty (around 991 and 937 respectively).

The second thing we don’t know much about is the medium of Old English verse itself. Apart from a stray name or monkish legend, we have scant information about who composed this poetry, or how, or for what kind of audience. We don’t know whether the works in the surviving manuscripts were written or remembered, read or sung. Religious poems based on Scripture or Latin models (“Dream of the Rood”, “Christ I”, “Phoenix”) were clearly composed by highly literate poets – very likely monks – for a devout and relatively learned audience. Martial and heroic works like “Maldon” and Beowulf, or romantic elegies like “The Wife’s Lament” and “Wulf and Eadwacer”, suggest by contrast a class of courtly story-tellers entertaining a more mixed and secular-minded group of aficionados. For all their differences, to be sure, these poems show common elements of style and tone that point to a widely shared, deeply engrained literary culture. But how this culture developed and was transmitted, and how this very richness of elements came about, is something on which scholars disagree.

Finally, because of problems in scribal transmission, holes in linguistic history, and often holes in the manuscripts themselves, we don’t always know for sure what the words in Old English poems mean. Scholarly readings of key passages vary sharply, as does the way translators render such passages in modern English. E.g., when the hero Beowulf, the smoke of his funeral pyre rising to heaven, is eulogized in the last word of the epic as lofgeornest – literally, “most eager for praise” – is the poet telling us Beowulf sought a warrior’s glory or credit for kingly generosity? There is linguistic and literary evidence for both possibilities. Such apparently minor nuances have can have major implications for how we understand Beowulf's motivations and the meaning of the poem as a whole.

The many things we don’t know about Anglo-Saxon poetry are balanced by one thing most readers do agree on, whatever their historical viewpoint – how spine-tinglingly moving and beautiful it can be. The mysteries and scholarly doubts surrounding Old English poetry are in fact part of its appeal, not the least because doubt, loss, hope, and the ravages of time are central themes in the poems themselves. In pieces like “The Ruin” (describing a once great, now abandoned city) or “Deor’s Lament” (where a displaced court poet grimly waits out time’s passing), Old English poetry seems almost to celebrate its own condition. Perhaps the best example of these qualities is the passage at the start of Beowulf describing the ship funeral of the legendary Danish king Scyld Scyfing. Scyld’s entry into life as an orphaned exile is linked with his departure from this life – either back into exile, or finally returning home, we don’t know which:

There, at the landing-place, stood the ring-prowed ship
hung with ice, ready for sea, the prince’s vessel.
Then they laid their beloved king,
giver of rings, in the ship’s bosom,
the famous one by the mast. There were many treasures,
many ornaments, brought from far away;
I have not heard of a ship more fairly fitted out
with battle-weapons and battle-garments,
swords and mailshirts; in his lap lay
many treasures, which were to go with him
into the sea’s embrace, far away.
Not at all did they bestow on him lesser gifts,
kingly treasures, than did those
who, at the beginning, sent him out,
alone over the waves, when he was a child.
Then they also set for him a golden banner
high over his head. They let the flood carry him,
gave him to the ocean; their heart was sad,
their spirit mournful. Men cannot
say truly, the wisest of counselors
or heroes beneath the skies, who unshipped that cargo.


Burton Raffel’s renderings of Anglo-Saxon verse in Poems and Prose from the Old English (1998) are relatively free but they read well and Raffel the poet comes to the aid of Raffel the translator in preserving the spirit of the originals. My beginner’s recommendations are:

  • “Caedmon’s Hymn” (the earliest known OE poem, composed the story goes by an angelically inspired, illiterate shepherd)
  • “The Battle of Brunanburh” (Celebrating an Anglo-Saxon victory over invading Viking & Irish army)
  • “The Ruin”
  • Riddle #29: “The Moon and the Sun” (The riddles have no answers in the manuscript. The titles here and below are scholars’ guesses – and they don’t all agree)
  • “The Seafarer” (The one that reminds me of Derek Walcott)
  • Riddle #8: “A Jay’s Spring Song”
  • “A Woman’s Message”
  • “The Dream of the Rood” (“Rood” is an old-fashioned word for “cross”)
  • “The Battle of Maldon” (Celebrating an Anglo-Saxon defeat by invading Vikings but a victory for Anglo-Saxon heroic virtue)
  • “Deor” (A displaced court poet recounts his poet’s store of tragic legends, ostensibly to stoke his patience but, you have to think, secretly wishing his rival a similar fate)
  • “The Wanderer”
  • “Wulf and Eadwacer”
  • “Christ I”: Sections 1, 3, 5, 8
  • Riddle #7: “Swan”
  • Riddle #47: “Bookworm”
  • Riddle #66: “Creation”
  • “Charm for Bewitched Land”

Maybe since Poems and Prose from the Old English came out in the early ‘60s Raffel doesn’t translate any of the obscene or “double-entendre” Anglo-Saxon riddles. Here’s my stab at two of the best – or worst. Watch as sardonic warrior poetry morphs into a Dark Age version of locker-room humor. While pretty poor as either wit or erotica, it’s refreshing to know the honored dead can be as lame as the living when it comes to sex. The two riddles occur one after the other in Exeter Book manuscript: some monastic copyist must’ve been on a post-Lenten jag.

Riddle #42: “A Key”

Wonderfully it hangs by a man’s thigh,
under a fellow’s garments. It is pierced in front.
It’s stiff and hard, and stands in a good place.
Then the man pulls his tunic
up over his knee. That familiar hole
he’ll greet with the head of his hanging thing,
which he often filled before, just as deeply.

Riddle #43: “Dough Rising”

I heard of something growing in the corner,
swelling and standing, raising its cover.
The bride grasped that boneless one
with heart-proud hands. With her dress,
she covered the swelling thing,
the king’s daughter.


Next, two works by modern American poets, to tune your ear to what ancient Anglo-Saxons might have heard when their poetry was chanted or sung.

First, Ezra Pound’s highly interpretive rendering of the “Seafarer”, as it happens the first translation of an Old English poem I ever read. As a piece of 20th Century poetry, it marks an interesting point of transition between Pound’s archly Edwardian early style and the more gnarled and difficult modernism of his mature work. As a translation, while incomplete and often inaccurate, it also gives a real sense of the alliterative swing, compact diction and line-by-line flow of Anglo-Saxon verse:

May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
Not any protector
May make merry man faring needy.
This he little believes, who aye in winsome life
Abides ‘mid burghers some heavy business,
Wealthy and wine-flushed, how I weary oft
Must bide above brine.
Neareth nightshade, snoweth from north,
Frost froze the land, hail fell on earth then
Corn of the coldest. Nathless there knocketh now
The heart’s thought that I on high streams
The salt-wavy tumult traverse alone.
Moaneth alway my mind’s lust
That I fare forth, that I afar hence
Seek out a foreign fastness.
For this there’s no mood-lofty man over earth’s midst,
Not though he be given his good, but will have in his youth greed;
Nor his deed to the daring, nor his king to the faithful
But shall have his sorrow for sea-fare
Whatever his lord will.
He hath not heart for harping, nor in ring-having
Nor winsomeness to wife, nor world’s delight
Nor any whit else save the wave’s slash,
Yet longing comes upon him to fare forth on the water.
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker,
All this admonisheth man eager of mood,
The heart turns to travel so that he then thinks
On flood-ways to be far departing.
Cuckoo calleth with gloomy crying,
He singeth summerward, bodeth sorrow,
The bitter heart’s blood. Burgher knows not--
He the prosperous man - what some perform
Where wandering them widest draweth.
So that but now my heart burst from my breast-lock,
My mood ‘mid the mere-flood,
Over the whale’s acre, would wander wide.
On earth’s shelter cometh oft to me,
Eager and ready, the crying lone-flyer,
Whets for the whale-path the heart irresistibly,
O’er tracks of ocean; seeing that anyhow
My lord deems to me this dead life
On loan and on land, I believe not
That any earth-weal eternal standeth
Save there be somewhat calamitous
That, ere a man’s tide go, turn it to twain.
Disease or oldness or sword-hate
Beats out the breath from doom-gripped body.
And for this, every earl whatever, for those speaking after--
Laud of the living, boasteth some last word,
That he will work ere he pass onward,
Frame on the fair earth ‘gainst foes his malice,
Daring ado, ...
So that all men shall honour him after
And his laud beyond them remain ‘mid the English,
Aye, for ever, a lasting life’s-blast,
Delight mid the doughty.
Days little durable,
And all arrogance of earthen riches,
There come now no kings nor Cæsars
Nor gold-giving lords like those gone.
Howe’er in mirth most magnified,
Whoe’er lived in life most lordliest,
Drear all this excellence, delights undurable!
Waneth the watch, but the world holdeth.
Tomb hideth trouble. The blade is layed low.
Earthly glory ageth and seareth.
No man at all going the earth’s gait,
But age fares against him, his face paleth,
Grey-haired he groaneth, knows gone companions,
Lordly men are to earth o’ergiven,
Nor may he then the flesh-cover, whose life ceaseth,
Nor eat the sweet nor feel the sorry,
Nor stir hand nor think in mid heart,
And though he strew the grave with gold,
His born brothers, their buried bodies
Be an unlikely treasure hoard.

Second, here’s Richard Wilbur’s loving and remarkably adroit parody, “Junk”, faithfully following the alliterative meter that binds each half line of Anglo-Saxon verse to the next (emphasis and spacing are mine):

An axe angles xxfrom my neighbor’s ashcan;
It is hell’s handiwork, xxthe wood not hickory,
The flow of the grain xnot faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft xxrises from a shellheap
Of plastic playthings, xxpaper plates,
And the sheer shards xxof shattered tumblers
That were not annealed xxfor the time needful.

It continues:

At the same curbside, xxa cast-off cabinet
Of wavily warped xxunseasoned wood
Waits to be trundled xxin the trashman’s truck.
Haul them off! Hide them! xxthe heart winces
For junk and gimcrack, xxfor jerrybuilt things
And the men who make them xxfor a little money,
Bartering pride xxlike the bought boxer
Who pulls his punches, xxor the paid-off jockey
Who in the home-stretch xxholds in his horse.
Yet the things themselves xxin thoughtless honor
Have kept composure xxlike captives who would not
Talk under torture. xxTossed from a tailgate
Where the dump displays xxits random dolmens,
Its black barrows xxand blazing valleys,
They shall waste in the weather xxtoward what they were,
The sun shall glory xxin the glitter of glass-chips,
Foreseeing the salvage xxof the prisoned sand,
And the blistering paint xxpeel off in patches,
That the good grain xxbe discovered again.
Then burnt, bulldozed, xxthey shall all be buried
To the depths of diamonds, xxin the making dark
Where halt Hephaestus xxkeeps his hammer
And Wayland’s work xxis worn away.


Finally some show and tell: Here’s what the first page of the Beowulf manuscript looks like, after narrowly escaping a fire in a 17th century collector’s library. It’s a reminder of how much of this literature is, in all certainty, completely lost to us, if not to fire then to rot, recycling and linguistic and cultural changes that made Old English poetry and its audience obsolete.

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