Song and Poetry
About fourteen hundred years ago, mourners buried a man in what archaeologists have now labeled "Grave 32" in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Snape, in Suffolk, England. He was laid out carefully and respectfully, in pagan fashion, with a spear by his right side and a round shield covering the left side of his torso. Underneath the shield, though, the mourners placed what may have been the dead man's most precious possession: his harp. (Technically speaking, it is a lyre, but Anglo-Saxons would have called it a hearpe.) Made of maplewood, with a soundboard of thin oak, and with attachments, including a wrist-strap which would allow it to be played two-handed, it is an unusually fine instrument even compared with the similar harps recovered elsewhere, one of them from the lavishly furnished royal burial at Sutton Hoo a few miles away. The report of the archaeologist Graeme Lawson notes that it was left "cradled in the crook of the [dead man's] left arm, almost as though in preparation for performance," and adds that such graves provide us with "direct archaeological links" to the world in which Old English poetry was composed and preserved (215, 223). The "warrior-poet" of Grave 32 was surely a scop, one of those who (see The Fortunes of Men, ll. 74-77) "sits with his harp at his lord's feet, / Takes his treasure, a reward of rings, / Plucks with his harp-nail, sweeps over strings, / Shapes song: hall-thanes long for his melody."
What we now know as poetry, then, began as song, though the tunes and the music have been lost beyond recall. Performers nowadays try to reimagine it, though one may wonder whether any one person can now recreate a whole art form developed long ago by many minds and marked by delighted virtuosity. The Anglo-Saxons' word for "harp-nail," or plectrum, was sceacol, and the poet of The Fortunes of Men calls it, in very literal translation, "the shackle, which leaps, the sweet-sounding nail." It is "the harp's sweet songs, the poet's music" that provoke Grendel to envious fury in Beowulf, and there are "sound and music mixed" when Hrothgar's poet plays the "joy-wood" and sings the story of Finnsburg to the Danish court and its guests (see ll. 89-90, 1060-1161). At a much lower social level, the story of Cædmon told by the eighth-century historian Bede (see the headnote to Cædmon's Hymn) indicates that it was normal at an Anglo-Saxon drinking-party for a harp to be passed around so that everyone could sing. Cædmon is unusual in that he cannot sing (or play?) and has to hide his embarrassment in the cowshed, from which the angel rescues him by the gift of inspiration. Of course, Bede's story may not be true, but it cannot have seemed implausible either to the first readership of Bede's own version, written in Latin, or to the readership of the translation into Old English made more than a century and a half later. For the pagan and preliterate Anglo-Saxons of the early Anglo-Saxon period, poetry delivered as song was at once the main channel of their own traditions, their highest intellectual art form, and their most valued entertainment. When the messenger who announces Beowulf's death says that their lord has "laid down laughter" (l. 3022), he is thinking of gamen ond gleodream, "game and glee-dream," or as we would say, "merriment and joy in music."
The very high cultural value placed on their native skill by Anglo-Saxons must account for the preservation of Old English poetry in relatively large quantities, rather more than 31,000 lines of it all told, enough to fill the six thick volumes of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (and the post-ASPR discovered poems included in the section, "Additional Poems," in this collection). This body of literature is a striking anomaly on the early medieval European scene. Anglo-Saxons were still writing poems in the traditional style, with fairly strict adherence to the old rules of meter and use of traditional "kennings" almost up to 14 October 1066, when the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, died on the battlefield of Hastings: the latest datable poem we have is the one preserved in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the death of his predecessor, King Edward, nine months before. How long they had been doing this is a much harder question. Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People, was finished by 731, and his story of Cædmon is set many years earlier, so that Cædmon's Hymn is often taken to be the earliest Old English poem. But it has been pointed out by Kevin Kiernan (1990) that Bede gives only a Latin version of the Hymn, the Old English poetic versions (in both Northumbrian and West Saxon) being added much later, so that they could have been composed on the basis of the Latin at that later date—though it is an odd coincidence, as Fulk and Cain remark (142, 255), that the Latin falls so neatly into Old English poetic form.
Other contenders for "earliest surviving poem" are carved rather than written (Old English used the same verb, writan, for both), and use the old runic alphabet rather than the Latin alphabet brought in by Christian missionaries. The poem, The Dream of the Rood, survives in long and probably expanded form in the Vercelli Book—an Anglo-Saxon manuscript found against all probability in the cathedral library of Vercelli in northern Italy, perhaps left there by a pilgrim—but some twenty lines of a version of the same poem are carved in stone, in fragmentary form, in runic letters and in a very different far-northern dialect, on the stone obelisk now known as the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire in southern Scotland. Everything about the Ruthwell Cross is enigmatic, but it could be three hundred years older than the Vercelli Book. There are five lines of Old English poetry, also in runic script, on the Franks Casket, a whalebone box discovered in France, and an early date is suggested by the fact that the engraver not only carved his runes clockwise around the box edges, but did them in mirror-writing along the bottom, as if the left-to-right convention was unknown to him (Fulk and Cain, 45-47).
Our written records of Old English poetry, then, last more than three hundred years, from 1065 back to at least the early 700s. But there can be no doubt that the verse form was old even in Cædmon's time. We possess a considerable amount of Old Norse poetry, in a language related to Old English but recorded centuries later, much of it produced by professional "skalds" in language and meter comprehensible only to the initiated. Some Old Norse poems, however, are written in the meter they called fornyrðislag, "old-word-meter," and this is effectively identical to Old English, in meter and often in turns of phrase. Poems have also survived in Old Saxon and Old High German, again with similar meter and phrasing, all of which indicates that the various Germanic peoples at one time, before any records survive, and when their languages were much more similar to each other than they later became, had a shared tradition of poetry. Christopher Tolkien has even pointed out that some names surviving in Old Norse must have originated as Gothic, the stories attached to them going back to the wars of the Goths and Huns in far eastern Europe before the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and also remembered by Old English poets (xxiii-xxv). But the reason poetry is preserved much earlier and in much greater quantity in Old English than in its cousin languages must be—apart from a certain dogged conservatism in the English psyche—England's early conversion to Christianity, with the associated import of writing skills.
The Advent of Christianity and the Written Word
The Anglo-Saxons, after initial hesitations and some backslidings, accepted Christianity and the literacy which came with the new religion with enthusiasm. Nothing exemplifies the scale of what they then achieved more than the career of the Venerable Bede. He was born in poverty and obscurity somewhere in Northumberland, remote from the intellectual centers and libraries of the Mediterranean world. When he was a young teen in 686, his first monastery at Wearmouth was all but wiped out by plague, so that the boy had to learn to sing antiphonally with his abbot Ceolfrid, there being no choir-monk left to join the service (Bede, 15-16). But by the end of his life he was the most learned man in Europe, author of a shelf of Bible commentaries and the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the greatest historical work of the post-Roman period. All were written in impeccable Latin—though at the very end of his life, on his deathbed, he came out with five carefully crafted and enigmatic lines of Old English poetry, Bede's Death Song.
In his History Bede tells a story to explain the new hope which the pagan Anglo-Saxons saw in Christianity. As the new religion was being debated, a thane of King Edwin said that the life of man was like a sparrow which flies into the king's hall, from the darkness outside into the light and the warmth, and then flies out again. If the new religion offered knowledge of what was outside the little circle of light and life, the thane said, we should follow it. One of Edwin's pagan priests agreed with him, rejecting his old faith, ritually destroying his own idols and setting fire to his own temple. The story suggests that the main draw of Christianity was its message of hope and certainty, of a world other than the brief, lit circle surrounded by darkness that was the pagan image of life.
Another element may have been relief from fear: the northern pagan religion, English or Norse, relied on propitiation of its gods by sacrifice, and there is archaeological evidence for ritual killings in early England, some of it gruesome, like a grave excavated in Yorkshire. There the mourners had laid a younger woman out carefully in a closed coffin with her jewelry and expensive grave-goods, including a bronze cauldron. But then they threw an older woman in the grave, threw a rock on top of her to hold her down, fracturing her pelvis, and buried her alive. She was still trying to push herself up on her knees and elbows as she died (Fleming, 139-40, 347-48). Many besides King Edwin's priest-counselor must have been glad to be released from this kind of ritual behavior: one might note that the Beowulf-poet seems to have heard of sacrificial rites, though he presents them as a desperate emergency measure by the Danes and expresses strong disapproval (ll. 175-88).
As for books, before the conversion century was over, rich Anglo-Saxon churchmen like Benedict Biscop (d. 690) were arriving in Rome like twentieth-century Texas oilmen in Paris, anxious to build up their collections. The libraries of York and Jarrow, while modest by Italian standards, soon became a source of pride (Lapidge), and Anglo-Saxon scholarship began to be respected far afield. Fifty years after Bede's death, the York deacon Alcuin, or Alhwine, was "headhunted" by Charlemagne to produce, among other tasks, an authoritative text of the Bible (Garrison, Nelson, and Tweddle). One of the most praiseworthy features of this first era of Anglo-Saxon Christianity was the believers' immediate determination to spread the Gospel to what they recognized as their kin in the still pagan lands across the North Sea. St. Willibrord (d. 739) became the Apostle of the Frisians. St. Boniface, whose birth name was Wynfrith, is known as the Apostle of Germany; he was martyred in 754 at Dokkum in the Netherlands (Talbot). Anglo-Saxon and Irish missionaries were probably the more successful for not always being associated with the Frankish church, seen with some justice as an arm of Frankish imperialism.
The Anglo-Saxon church nevertheless had its own special qualities, one of which was perhaps a certain lack of interest in humility. It did produce "fundamentalists" like Bede, who says nothing about his own birth, but the Anglo-Saxon monasteries that were soon founded—sometimes double foundations for men and women, sometimes ruled by royal-family abbesses like Cædmon's Hild at Whitby—were aristocratic places, rich and status-conscious (see Wormald). This fact may well explain the survival of Old English poetry, and the kind of poetry that survived. Until late on, the church had an effective monopoly on writing, but aristocratic churchmen did not lose interest in their own traditions, including heroic legends of the past. Some thought they took too much interest in the stories of what must have been pagan heroes. Alcuin wrote angrily to one "Speratus" (an unidentified Mercian bishop; see Bullough) that he had heard a harper was being allowed to sing stories of Ingeld at mealtimes (a character who appears in Beowulf; see ll. 2022-66), instead of a lector reading the word of God; but this only tells us what was actually happening (Garmonsway and Simpson, 242). An evident compromise was to put Christian story into the kind of poetic form Anglo-Saxons were used to, and that is what we often have. Bede tells us that Cædmon, himself illiterate, had the Bible read to him at the command of Abbess Hild so he could turn it into poetry, and we have long poems paraphrasing Genesis, Exodus, and Daniel, and the apocryphal book of Judith, though they are not now thought to be by Cædmon. A man called Cynewulf, probably a Mercian monk, added a runic "signature" to four poems, including the female saints' lives of Elene and Juliana. The long poem Andreas, which translates another apocryphal story of St. Andrew's conversion of the cannibal Mermedonians, would have made inspiring listening for trainee missionaries, and we have two poems on the life of St. Guthlac, who (like St. Juliana) knew how to deal with demons. A considerable "wisdom literature" also survives in poetry, of which more is said below. Possibly its existence contributed to the remarkably confident and ambitious project (traditionally and still not impossibly ascribed to King Alfred himself) not only of translating, with many changes and additions, Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae, the most respected philosophical work in Latin surviving from classical antiquity; but also of rendering even its most challenging passages into Old English verse. As the most recent edition notes, the first poem in this sequence, which was free composition outlining a history of conquest and rebellion rather than translation of stages in an argument, "shows what the versifier was capable of when not constrained by the prose" (Griffith, 2009, 134).
One might add, "or when motivated by legends of the heroic past," for another interest of Anglo-Saxon aristocrats was their own history. It is surely no coincidence that the three most famous literary works produced by Anglo-Saxons are all in their different ways historical: Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People in Latin, mentioned several times already and completed by the year 731; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in Old English prose with poetic insertions, first compiled at King Alfred's instigation in the 890s but kept up at Peterborough monastery till 1154; and the poem Beowulf, whose date is not known, but which gives a surprisingly detailed account of events in south Scandinavia in the early sixth century, a little of which can be confirmed. Portions of two other heroic poems survived up to modern times: The Fight at Finnsburg, which duplicates part of a story told in Beowulf, and Waldere, an epic about events in the fifth century, which was evidently discarded by some hard-line librarian who however used a few scrap pages to reinforce the cover of a book now in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Some abbots at least must have given permission for the considerable expenditure of time and vellum needed to write and copy these poems, and we are now grateful for their open-mindedness.
Orality, Preliteracy, and the "Riddlic" Mode
There is no doubt that much of the surviving poetry, and perhaps all of it, was composed and set down by literate poets. Many written sources, usually in Latin, have been identified and are mentioned in the headnotes to individual poems, or groups of poems like The Metrical Psalms of the Paris Psalter and The Meters of Boethius. At the same time, the poems themselves often mention oral performance and hint at oral composition, which must once have been the only method of composing poetry before the missionaries from Rome and Ireland taught the Anglo-Saxons to read and write. In Beowulf, for instance (though this may be deliberate anachronism), the verb writan means "to cut": King Hrothgar looks at the hilt of the giant's sword which Beowulf has retrieved from Grendel's mere, "On which was engraved [writen] in images and runes / The origin of strife, the first feud" (ll. 1686-87). One may wonder whether the delight which Solomon and Saturn both express about books—"Books are bound with glory . . . Books bring a reward to the righteous" (Solomon and Saturn II, ll. 72, 82)—is the product of a time when literacy was still intimately connected with the promise of salvation and had not dwindled down to being an administrative tool. To these wise men, even the individual letters of the Pater Noster prayer are magically powerful—as perhaps were once the pre-Christian runes listed and described in The Rune Poem and used non-literally by the poet Cynewulf, four times, to sign his own name. One may sum up by saying that Old English poems were produced by literate poets, who nevertheless were living in a largely if decreasingly preliterate world.
It is vital to realize, however, that preliterate is not the same as illiterate. In the modern world, illiteracy carries a stigma. In a preliterate world the wisest of men, and of women, may well be illiterate, with no sense of inferiority attached. Indeed, a corollary of pre-literacy may well be that preliterates have skills which the modern literate world has lost, and which even early literates still possessed and valued: notably, the ability to speak carefully, and listen hard. This shows up, one might suggest, in a complex attitude toward truth—how it is told and heard, perceived and understood, in all its complexity and ambiguity. For this Craig Williamson has invented the useful neologism "riddlic," a term with a wider meaning than "riddling" (1982, 25 ff.). Its "riddlic" quality is one of the most pervasive and distinctive features of Old English poetry in general, as discussed extensively below, though in our literate world it has often not been appreciated.
One may add that another distinctive feature of Old English poetry is the prominence it gives to female speakers and female characters. Three of the long poems surviving have heroines rather than heroes, Elene, Juliana, and Judith. The unhappy or unfortunate women—Hildeburh, Wealhtheow, and Freawaru—have important, even pivotal roles in Beowulf. In the epic fragment Waldere, an important speech is assigned to the woman Hildegyth. And female characters—Eve, Sarah, Hagar—speak up prominently in the poems Genesis A and Genesis B. In addition, we have two "dramatic monologues" in the Exeter Book by female speakers, their gender confirmed not only by the content of what they say but by the feminine endings on adjectives the speakers apply to themselves. These two poems also illustrate the power and potential for complexity of riddlic speech; as well as the theme of evanescence, an issue of special importance, one might think, for the preliterate world.
The two poems are perhaps the most perplexing in the entire Old English corpus, and interpretations of them have varied even more wildly than usual, as the headnotes to them indicate: it is probable that we will never understand in detail the stories that they refer to. Nevertheless, there are some things one can say about their mode of speech and their underlying themes. The first of them (all poem titles are modern) is now called The Wife's Lament. This appears to be an autobiographical lament by a woman, and what she is lamenting seems to be a separation forced on her and her partner by hostile relatives. The physical scenario, however, is so strange that some have thought that we must be in the presence of an allegory, perhaps of the body's lament for the soul. For surely even a divorced Anglo-Saxon wife would not be "forced to live in a cold earth-cave, / Under an oak tree" (ll. 32-33)? Meanwhile, the core of the lament is the speaker's memory of happy times. She declares, "Something now seems as if it never was— / Our friendship together" (ll. 29-30). Note that "friendship" is a much stronger word in Old English (freondscipe) than in modern English, where it excludes romantic love. And in the poem even "our" is stronger than the word we use, for where modern English distinguishes only singular and plural, Old English had a special set of personal pronouns for the "dual" number, used only of two people, here uncer rather than ure. So freondscipe uncer means the "friendship (love) of just us two, the two of us together," even "together against the world."
Nevertheless, what makes the thought especially bitter for the speaker are the words, "as if it never was." Saying something is "as if it never was" does not mean, of course, that it never existed. It did exist. It still exists with painful clarity in the memory. But memory is purely subjective. There is no evidence for the memory in the real world at all. But which world is more real, the internal one or the external one? It is that contrast which creates special grief, special pain for the speaker as she hangs on to the love which now seems to be totally denied by the cold and unfeeling world around her.
The second lament spoken by a woman in the Exeter Book is the poem Wulf and Eadwacer, and this adds yet another twist to the theme of impalpability, the contrast of subjective/objective, the concern with what is there/not there. In this poem, the speaker laments that her lover, Wulf, has been taken from her and cries out at the end of the poem:
It's easy to rip an unsewn stitch
Or tear the thread of an untold tale—
The song of us two together. (ll. 21-23)
Once again she uses the dual pronoun uncer
, and once again what she laments is an abstraction, "The song of us two together." Nevertheless, and this goes a stage beyond what we heard from the speaker in The Wife's Lament
, what this unhappy woman says is, logically speaking, not true
. If it has never been "sewn," there can be no "stitch" there to rip! If the tale is "untold," there can be no "thread" to unravel. The "love" of The Wife's Lament
did exist, even if now it is "as if it never was": when the "wife" of that poem says, "The web of our wedding is unwoven," she means that she and her lover were
married, though now they have been separated. By contrast, the second woman is saying there never was
any "stitch," any "thread," and so no "[told] tale," no "song of us two together." Nevertheless, we may well guess what that second speaker means. What she is saying is that she is desperately regretful for something that never existed, that has been prevented from existing—but is terribly and paradoxically powerful in her mind, in her imagination. To feel the force of what she says—and this is how "riddlic" speech often works—you have to be aware of both the surface literal non-meaning and the underlying emotional meaning: the point is the agonizing contrast, just as the point of a riddle is the contrast between misleading surface and hidden solution.
One may reflect that in a preliterate world, where there is not even the concept of an authenticating document, subjective memories are especially important, though their fragility is also well understood. One may go on to say that the whole theme of the subjective versus the objective appears powerfully again and again in the Old English corpus. Or, to put it into more appropriate "riddlic" language, the theme of what is that isn't: which is the way the issue is put in the poem Solomon and Saturn II.
This may be the most complex but neglected dialogue in Old English poetry; it is rarely translated or discussed. Possibly it has been out of favor as being, in some views, not "Anglo-Saxon" enough. The two disputants have names from Jewish and classical tradition, and some of their often-bewildering information exchanges come from a lost world of apocryphal knowledge. Yet the genre of the poem, a wisdom contest, may well have been traditional in the Old Northern world. It is paralleled, for instance, by exchanges in Old Norse, such as The Riddles of Gestumblindi or the Eddic poems, Vafthruthnismál and Grimnismál. Yet one should note that Solomon and Saturn II is not exactly a riddle contest. To use Williamson's useful neologism once more, it is "riddlic" rather than "riddling." The two contestants do not behave quite like Tolkien's Gollum and Bilbo, asking each other defined riddles to which there must be a definite single answer. Sometimes they test each other's knowledge, rather than their riddle-solving skill. Sometimes they pose existential questions to which there can be no single satisfactory answer. Sometimes they answer question with question, and increasingly they enter into a dialogue on the unstated but recurrent theme of justice: why may two twins have entirely different fates, why must some be saved and some be damned? Yet there is an element of the riddle there. Gollum's gruesome riddle, "This thing all things devours . . . ," echoes Saturn's question in lines 130-37, "What creature walks the world . . . feasts on ground-walkers, / Sky-floaters, sea-swimmers everywhere." Bilbo's fortuitous answer is "Time!" Solomon's is "Old age," but in both cases either answer would do.
More indirectly, Solomon at one point (ll. 213-14) asks, "Are you wise enough to say / What things were and what things were not?" Saturn replies, as often, with a question, not an answer, but the answer is in the question: "Why does [the sun] cast shadows?" (l. 218). For something which is both a visible presence and a visible absence is, of course, shadow. (Tolkien did not forget this question either, or the sinister nature of shadow-shapes elsewhere in Old English). But the question of items which are at once there and not-there is widespread in the Old English corpus.
One item in this limited set, besides "shadows," must, for instance, be "ruins." A ruin is certainly there, physically. It may weigh many tons, like the ruined Roman stone buildings and stone walls which the Anglo-Saxons encountered for the first time on their arrival in what was once Britannia. They seem to have made a great impression on the newcomers. To the poet of Maxims II, they were "the cunning work of giants" (l. 2). In The Wanderer, the speaker moralizes on "the old works of giants" (l. 91), and the same phrase comes up in the poem now called The Ruin, which, from its mention of "stone buildings and hot springs" (l. 39), is thought to be a meditation on the Roman ruins (now restored) at Bath. The point about a ruin, though, is that while it exists physically, by its very existence it testifies to the nonexistence of something else: whatever it is a ruin of. It is there, in the present. It proves that something else, in the past, is no longer there. Ruins, then, are a central image in The Wanderer, another of the Exeter Book's "dramatic monologues," this time spoken by a male persona (or possibly several of them, "wanderer," "wise man," or "man wise in mind"). There the ruins act as a physical proof of evanescence (see ll. 78-108). And the thought they generate, directly parallel to that of the "wife" in The Wife's Lament, is "How the time has slipped / Down under the night-helmet as if it never was" (ll. 101-2).
But it may be there in memory. And memories are also in a sense there/not there. They may be immensely powerful, stirring thoughts too deep for tears, as they do for the two female speakers discussed above. But they are also utterly subjective. No two people remember the same thing the same way. Nor can the grief they bring ever be fully felt or fully communicated. And "the wanderer" adds a further twist to the "as if it never was" situation, just as the woman of Wulf and Eadwacer did. For the pain of memory may be especially great if the memories come to us in dreams, which can be blocked out by no effort of self-control. That is what happens to "the wanderer," who in his dream remembers the happy time when he had a lord, a place, a home. Then he wakes up to the bitter landscape of later reality, where even the seabirds seem to mock him, for they are at home in the freezing sea as he is not. Rightly does he say, if with Anglo-Saxon understatement, "Then the wounds of the heart are heavier" (l. 53). Nessun maggior dolore, wrote Dante, "There is no greater sorrow than to remember, in misery, the happy time" (Inferno V, ll. 121-23). But the Anglo-Saxon poet dramatized the thought centuries before him.
Shadows, ruins, memories, dreams, "our friendship," and "The song of us two together." To the list of things that are and are not, or are now as if they had never been, one could well add the human counterparts of stone ruins: last survivors. They exist, and like the ruins, they bear testimony to what has vanished, through their memory. This does not have to be mute testimony, for last survivors can at least talk. But in Anglo-Saxon culture even that consolation is doubtful, for "A noble man / Must seal up his heart's thoughts" (The Wanderer, ll. 13-14). Of all the virtues, stoicism was perhaps the one most prized by Anglo-Saxons (as by many of their cultural descendants). There is a last survivor in Beowulf (ll. 2230-67) who makes a speech over the treasure he is hiding, or depositing—curiously, he leaves it "open" for the dragon to find. But his speech is a soliloquy, with no one to hear it. Beowulf too is very nearly a last survivor, though he has one person left to speak to, his relative (nephew?) Wiglaf. His last four-line speech, however, and typically, conceals grief by flat statement. Does talking soothe "the wounds of the heart"? Possibly poetry does.
Polymorphs of Truth
Another way to bring out the pervasive "riddlic" quality of Old English poetry is to borrow a rhetorical trope from Kurt Vonnegut. His novel Cat's Cradle (1963) rests on the science-fictional idea of "Ice-Nine," a form of water which acts like a seed crystal to turn everything it contacts into ice. Just as Vonnegut plays with the idea of different "polymorphs" of water, so one may "riddlically" play with the idea of different forms of truth, as they appear again and again in the Old English corpus.
In this imaginary scenario, "Truth-One" in Old English would be soð, or "sooth"—a word derived, though it does not look like it, from the verb "to be." "Sooth" is things as they are, and one of the jobs of a "soothsayer" is to tell it the way it is. The Old English metrical psalms are full of such truths. In Psalm 134, for example, the poet says:
[God] alone made the world's glorious wonders.
He created heaven for the understanding of man.
He first made the earth after the waters.
He made the great lights for the children of men.
He made the bright sun to rule the day
And the moon and stars to rule the night.
He slew the Egyptians and their firstborn children
And led the Israelites unharmed out of Egypt
With a mighty hand and powerful arm.
He parted the great Red Sea in an instant
And led the Israelites right through the middle. (ll. 9-19)
This is a biblical truth that does not seem open to debate (though there are certainly debatable truths elsewhere in the psalms, and the literal truth of this is certainly debatable). Here we see both a cosmological and a historical truth combined in a description of God's ongoing creation in the world, what is called elsewhere forðgesceaft
. And heavenly Wisdom in the Old English translation of the Boethian meters often speaks such undeniable truths, for example, telling Boethius that "if you want to gaze on the radiant truth, / You must renounce and relinquish all idle joys, / Imperfect goods and pointless pleasures" in favor of a gift that will make Boethius "eternally glad" (Poem 5, ll. 20-25).
Riddles, on the other hand, do not offer an unquestioned truth. They depend on a kind of doubling, "Truth-Two." Every statement in a riddle must be both eventually true (or it is not a fair riddle) and potentially misleading (or it is not a good and testing riddle). We cannot tell before solving a riddle which clues are meant to be literal, which metaphoric. As Williamson notes: "Each riddle creature takes on the disguise of another: the bagpipe is a bird that sings through its foot; the rake scruffs like a dog along walls; the butter churn is engaged in a bawdy bit of bouncing to produce its baby butter, and the bookworm is a plundering beast that wolfs down a tribal heritage" (2011, 163-64). Some of the most sophisticated riddles use this metaphoric/literal ambiguity to point to a double solution, one plain and the other bawdy. So the riddler says:
I heard of something rising in a corner,
Swelling and standing up, lifting its cover.
The proud-hearted bride grabbed at that boneless
Wonder with her hands; the prince's daughter
Covered that swelling thing with a swirl of cloth. (Riddle 43)
Here the corner, the bride, and her hands turn out to be literal truths, but the rising "something" (nathwæt
, literally, "I know not what"), the "boneless wonder," has a doubled metaphoric meaning, both bread dough and phallus. The thing that covers this swelling creature, hrægl
in Old English, can be either a cloth or a dress. The ambiguity of riddles makes them delightful to solve, but it also challenges the reader to see below the surface meaning of words and concepts in order to reconceive the world in its many hidden connections. Williamson describes the process:
The riddlers taunt and cajole, they admit and deny, they peddle false hopes and paradoxes, they lead the reader down dark roads with glints of light. And in the end they never confess except to flatter, "Say what I mean." What they mean is that reality exists and is at the same time a mosaic of man's perception. What they mean is that man's measure of the world is in words, that perceptual categories are built on verbal foundations, and that by withholding the key to the categorical house (the entitling solution), the riddlers may force the riddle-solver to restructure his own perceptual blocks in order to gain entry to a metaphorical truth. In short the solver must imagine himself a door and open in. (1977, 25)
Nevertheless, with a good riddle there ought at least to be a single correct solution (even if, as is sometimes the case with the Old English riddles, no one is sure what it is). This is not always the case with other forms of "riddlic" language.
Old English maxims offer another sort of truth that mediates between the two truths above, the unassailable truth and the riddle-truth, which we may call "Truth-Three" in the polymorphic system. The poet of Maxims II says, for example, "A king shall rule a kingdom" and "Wind is the swiftest creature in air," but also admits that "Truth is the trickiest" (ll. 1, 3, 10). Some editors emend OE swicolost, "trickiest," to switolost or swutolost, "clearest," in order to sustain the fiction of "Truth-One," things as they are, but the Maxims II poet constantly indulges in using the verbs byð (is, is always, will be) and sceal (shall be, should be, must be, ought to be, is typically), verbs notoriously difficult to translate. With respect to kingly behavior, for example, Williamson argues that "beneath the apparently straightforward gnomic half-line, the poem points to a wide variety of possible kingly behaviors," noting that "what is slides into what should be or might be [and] the possibility of 'might not' lurks beneath the surface [so that] the ideal is haunted by the shadow of real-world kingly faults and failures" (2011, 179-80). He also contends that sometimes beneath a series of apparently unrelated truthful maxims, there is an implicit riddle. So the poet of Maxims II says: "The dragon shall dwell in a barrow, / Old and treasure-proud. The fish must spawn / Its kin in water. The king must give out / Rings in the hall" (ll. 26-29). But what does the dragon or the fish have to do with the king? "Perhaps a generous king is like the fish spawning peace in the hall, while the greedy king is like a dragon, hoarding his treasure (as Heremod does in Beowulf) so that he has no loyal thanes and spawns only strife" (Williamson, 2011, 180).
On the other hand, some maxims scattered throughout the Old English poems appear to articulate a plain truth, which is not only expressed in the maxim but which also has maximum force. These maxims remain (in a sense) true, even when mere facts appear to deny them. Near the start of Beowulf, for example, the poet rounds off a gnomic, and rather practical, statement about buying loyalty in advance with the words: "A warrior thrives / Through glorious deeds and generous gifts" (ll. 26-27). The established pattern of treachery and ingratitude in Anglo-Saxon history, and in everyone else's history, proves the statement factually untrue. Nevertheless, it ought to be true, and the ideal or desirable rule is not invalidated by mere exceptions. Even more pointedly, Byrhtwold, the old retainer in The Battle of Maldon, says as he prepares to die with his lord on a lost battlefield, "Ever may a man mourn / Who thinks to flee . . ." (ll. 319-20). What he says is not factually true: one can easily imagine someone running away from a lost battle, and congratulating himself on his own good sense later on every time he thought of it! But once again we know what Byrhtwold means. He means no one ought to feel like that, has any right to feel like that. What he says is not soð- true, it is super-true, a cultural imperative. Maxims often express cultural imperatives even in the face of a history or a reality which denies them.
Another form of truth, "Truth-Four," might be proverbs. Many Old English proverbs survive and are often fairly clear, such as A Proverb from Winfred's Time, which says: "The sluggard delays striving for glory / Never dreams of daring victories, / Or successful ventures. He dies alone." Other proverbs, especially those in prose, remain thoroughly enigmatic. They must have been accepted as true, but we do not have the key to their coding. Often it can be guessed: "He who wishes to run down the hart must not care about his horse" (Durham Proverb 41; Arngart, 294) means something like "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Both ancient and modern proverbs have (one may well suppose, though it has to be a guess) the same meta-meaning: you cannot achieve your goal without paying the price for it. Other Anglo-Saxon sayings remain incomprehensible to this day: "The fuller the cup, the fairer you must bear it" (Durham Proverb 42; Arngart, 295). All the words are easy enough, but the truth behind them . . . ? And it is by no means the most challenging proverb to survive.
On another front, modern philosophers of language take particular interest in "speech-acts," such as "performatives"—when you utter a performative you are in fact doing the deed you name. One significant example still recognized in our society is to say, "I bet you . . . ." Probably someone who refused to pay up on a bet made orally would get away with it in our courts, for we all know that something is not legal till you have a written contract, an invoice, a receipt, and so on. Nevertheless, the words, "I bet you . . . ," especially if made before witnesses and ratified with a handshake, would be accepted as binding in honor by many people. In a preliterate society such deals have even more backing, and there is one particular kind of public statement which has special importance. This is the promise or, in Old English, the beot. This word is often translated as "boast" (Anglo-Saxons did not have the same inhibitions about immodesty that we do), but it derives from the verb behatan, "to promise," and that is what the speaker of a beot is doing. He may back it up by stating previous achievements, but the main point of a beot is to promise an undertaking—typically, to stand by one's lord in battle, to conquer or die. The status of a promise is, however, intrinsically uncertain, in abeyance. One cannot tell whether it is true or not till it is fulfilled, or of course, not fulfilled. So the moment when a promise is made/was made, "then," is inevitably linked to a "now," when the promise comes due.
So Wiglaf says to the warriors hanging back from the dragon, "Now the day has come / When the Lord needs the might of warriors" (Beowulf, ll. 2645-46, the woman Hildegyth calls to her lover Waldere, "The time has come when you must choose" (Waldere, l. 12), and even the author of the apparently un-heroic poem on The Seasons for Fasting (pure information, one might have thought) adds urgency to his regulations with the words, "The time has come! / We know in this hour that we need to pray" (ll. 134-35). The whole promise-complex animates the speeches of the retainers in the second half of Maldon. Leofsunu calls out, "I promise not to flee one foot" (l. 246), the poet says of Eadweard the Tall, "He vowed he'd never flee" (l. 276), Ælfwine says, "Now we'll see who's worthy of his vow" (l. 214), the poet notes of Offa, lying dead by his lord, "he had kept both his courage and his vow" (l. 293). The negative side gets just as much weight. Leofsunu imagines it when he says that the warriors back home "will have no reason to reproach me" (l. 249), and we are reminded that Offa had said, correctly, back in the "then" which is irreversibly connected to "now," "That many who spoke boldly there in the hall / Would never make good on the field of battle" (ll. 199-200). And in Beowulf, Wiglaf says, "I remember well" the time when promises were made (l. 2631), and closes his speech of threat and reproach to the defaulters with a line that verges on maxim, "Death is better for you than a life of shame" (l. 2890).
Promises, then, are betwixt-and-between on the truth scale. They ought to be "performatives," but may not turn out so. Charms, meanwhile, of which we have a dozen in this collection, aim to alter facts by words, so functioning even more strongly as "performatives." When a healer tells her tale of how "the mighty women stole strength," the tale is true only in some nonphysical sphere, but when she says, "Get out, little spear, if you are in here," that is surely meant to be true, and to work, in a severely practical way (Metrical Charm 12, second stanza and refrain). One might call promises "Truth-Five," and charms "Truth-Six." And let us not forget allegory, riddle-become-story, as "Truth-Seven": for Anglo-Saxon poets readily saw the point of the Phoenix rising from the flames as ascending from its earthly nest to immortal life, or the whale in Physiologus II seducing the careless sailors to camp out on its back and drown when it submerged, as images of the saved and the damned. But it is perhaps time to abandon Vonnegut's idea of numbering polymorphs: for one of the characteristic errors of the literate mind confronting the preliterate is to try, as our education has conditioned us to, to fix boundaries, make distinctions, reduce reality to bullet points.
In fact, if one looks at poems such as Maxims I (in its three different sections), or Maxims II, one cannot help noticing—it is what makes the poems bewildering—the way they slide in and out of levels of obliqueness. What could be plainer (or more useless) than "Frost shall freeze" (Maxims IB, l. 1)? What more culturally imperative (if questionable) than "The lasting memory / Of an honorable man is always best" (ll. 12-13)? The end of Maxims IC moves from history, "Enmity has ruled the earth since Cain's / Crime against his brother Abel," to what seems like a stern corollary, "for the man without courage, without spirit, / The least of treasures: no glory for the knave" (ll. 67-68, 79-80). But is that a fact, just the way things are in a world of strife? Or a recommendation, the way things should be? Do we need to make the distinction? Rightly, then, does the poet of Maxims II comment, "Truth is the trickiest" (l. 10). Sometimes (it is another thought repeated in several poems) one has to feel the truth to know it. Maxims II also declares, "Woe is wondrously clinging" (l. 13), and perhaps only someone who has been told, deep in grief, "Cheer up, don't take it so hard," can appreciate the truth of that.
Shifting and sliding, then, whether from riddling to riddlic, or up and down the "truth-scale" from one kind of statement to another, are part of the skill set of the Anglo-Saxon poet. Nothing said here can quite do justice to the "leaping shackle" of Old English poetic virtuosity, which shows at its most extreme in poems like The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Deor, each of which is built upon the "speech" of a narrator. For many years what drew attention to these poems was their personal quality, which they share with the "women's songs," The Wife's Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer, and which is indeed strong and moving. Then slowly it was recognized that unlike Victorian "dramatic monologues" (to which they had been unconsciously assimilated by Victorian readers), these "men's songs" were impersonal too. The Wanderer uses the words I, me, and my, nine times in its first thirty lines, three times near the middle (ll. 10-29, 63-65), but then never again. The poem is studded with imaginary speakers, who may or may not be the "wanderer" himself: the "wise man," the "wise warrior," "the wise man who ponders," the "man wise in mind." The Seafarer follows a similar pattern, but with a markedly more Christian conclusion. Deor goes the other way, from the far-distant to the immediately personal, starting with a sequence of "fates worse than death" drawn from old legend—Weland's torture, Beaduhild's rape-pregnancy, monstrous love, long exile, impotent despair—generalizing first that that is the way things often go (as said at much greater length in the poem The Fortunes of Men), but then applying it personally, to the harper "Deor" himself. All the "fates worse than death" found some cure or consolation, and for those fully aware of old legends, there may even have been a consolation hidden from the imagined speaker Deor: the fate of Heorrenda of the Heodenings, the harper who displaced him in the poem, was not a lucky one.
One thing all three poems are certainly saying is that true wisdom comes only from experience, from the heart, not the head: no one without such experience has a right to declare truth. A surprising number of other poems likewise center on the image of the ancient sage, the wise man, the old father, who may also be a wanderer, a seafarer, an exile, one hardened, like the sad women remembering former joys, by bitter experience. It seems to be almost compulsory for an Anglo-Saxon poet to claim moral authority created by age and grief, as Cynewulf does, presenting himself as "World-weary, sick at heart" (Fates of the Apostles, l. 1) or "old and ready / To follow the final road" (Elene, ll. 1233-34). Is this true autobiography, or required stance? One cannot tell. The poets claim the role of "soothsayers," those who state ultimate truth about reality, but they move easily between riddle-truth, proverb-truth, maxim-truth, charm-truth, felt-truth, and learned-truth, as well perhaps as states which modern people do not readily recognize.
One must add that it is also highly characteristic that modern editors—conditioned by the need to mark off speeches and speakers by literal devices and print-conventions like quotation marks—are bothered by being unable to know who exactly is speaking or when a perspective has shifted. These are matters easier to convey orally than in print. Detecting and responding to such shifts: what that demands is, above all, hard listening.
The need for hard listening is made greater by what seems to be a major goal of the Anglo-Saxon poet: to convey maximum change of meaning with minimum change of sound. The simplest way of doing this is to oppose contrastively two words of different meaning but similar sound, as in the Old English proverb, "Works speak louder than naked words" (Ælfric's Treatise, ll. 1257-58; Crawford, 74). We say "actions speak louder than words," but the "works/words" opposition packs more punch.
In this area, Old English had more than one advantage over modern English. The force of the dual pronoun in some circumstances has already been noted in The Wife's Lament. By contrast, the existence of a subjunctive mood allowed for nuance, especially in conversations. The first words of Unferth in his challenge to Beowulf are, given literally, word-for-word and in the same word order as the Old English, "Art thou the Beowulf, he who with Breca contended?" Only Unferth does not exactly say "contended." He uses the verb winnan, which was declined like swimman or springan, both of which have survived into modern English as "swim/swam/swum," or "spring/sprang/sprung." Its past tense in Old English was wann. But Unferth does not say wann, which would have been the third person past singular indicative. He says wunne, third person past singular subjunctive. The use of the subjunctive indicates something like hypothesis, doubt, not direct information—something other than "Truth-One." One might get the sense of it by translating the passage as something like, "Are you the Beowulf, who is said to have competed, or anyway, so we hear, with Breca?" But the punch of the insult, for insult it is—hearers would inevitably notice both the word said, wunne, and the word not said, wann—is diminished by being spelled out. It's hard for any translator to reproduce this! Our language no longer has that capacity.
Words as simple as "this" and "that" ought to be easier, for they have not changed much—though in Old English ðæt was only the neuter form of "the," not necessarily directly opposed to "this." But "this" and "that," like "here" and "there," or "then" and "now," are "deictics," a deictic word being one whose meaning depends on its relation to the speaker. This means their referents shift. One way we still use "this" is to indicate closeness to the speaker, perhaps to invite a listener to share that closeness—"I met this girl the other day, I saw this bike in the window, etc."—and Anglo-Saxon poets used it the same way. The "wanderer" is inviting a kind of agreement when he says, "I can't think why in this uneasy world," and again "all this world's wealth," "this ruin of a life" (ll. 63, 79, 93). Not everyone may agree that "this world" is a ruin, or even uneasy, but "this" is inviting us to share the speaker's point of view. The "seafarer" does something similar, summing up a whole set of observations as "All this," and inviting his hearers to share a generalization.
But, as said above, the referents of deictic words can shift. The poem Deor says seven times, "That passed over—so can this." The first six times, the referent of "That" is a time of trouble, described in the stanza that precedes the repeated line. Each of those six times also, we do not know what "this" is—only the speaker knows that. But the seventh time, although the words are exactly the same, the meaning of "that" is different, even opposite. For between the sixth and seventh repetition, the speaker has told us what "this" is: it is his own desperate situation, which unlike all the others has not passed over. As for "that," it no longer identifies a time of trouble, but the speaker's own previous time of prosperity. It is that time of prosperity which has passed, and the poem says, in effect, "it helps to endure one's own troubles if you reflect on other peoples' troubles which they got over." One has to add that while it is easy enough to say things like that, it takes guts to say them when one is deep in a trouble that shows no sign of passing! And once again, spelling the whole thing out takes away the punch which the Old English poem supplies with marvelous, and once more subtle, economy.
Another set of words still in the language consists of what we now call the modal verbs—that particular set of auxiliary verbs which takes its place at the start of a complex verb phrase: in modern English, "can/could, may/might, will/would, shall/should," and "must," which last is tenseless. Modal verbs are odd in that while the first four pairs all have present/past forms, the past tense is often used not to indicate past time but something further off, less likely. We all know that if someone says, "I might do it," it is less likely than "I may do it." In the transit from Old to modern English, these verbs have all also changed places in a kind of square-dance which repeatedly confuses translators. In Old English sceal, pronounced "shall," means "must." Moste, a past-tense form, means "might" in the sense of "had permission to." Mæg, pronounced "may," means "can, am physically able to," and cann . . . but the grammatical point need not be drawn out. The poetic point, which concerns us here, is that Anglo-Saxon poets seem to have been hypersensitive to the meanings of such words—and to some other verbs of similar meaning which the language has lost—and loved to contrast them. The Beowulf poet (if it was him: Tolkien thought the passage was an interpolation) makes a violent opposition, first between "Woe" and "Well," but then between sceal and mot, the opposition neatly captured by Williamson's translation:
Woe to those who in terrible affliction
Must offer their souls to the flame's embrace;
Well to those who on death's day
Can seek their Lord's protecting power. (ll. 184-87)
The modal contrast, at least, is similar to the one that occurs when Beowulf responds to Unferth's accusation that he lost his swimming contest with Breca in the stormy sea, by saying that they stayed together, but for different reasons: he could not
outswim me, I would not
abandon him. It is always worth noting the way such verbs are used: often they are placed, for emphasis, at the end of a line, with a contrastive modal a few lines away. All of which, once again, offers challenge to a translator, insight to readers as once to listeners.
One may sum up by saying, "still waters run deep," or to use an Old English proverb, "still waters break the bank" (Dist. of Cato 62; Cox, 13). The Old English proverb is literally true, as hydraulic engineers know: running water in an aqueduct exerts less pressure and needs thinner walls than static water. But both Old and modern English forms of the proverb mean the same thing metaphorically: very minor ripples on a plain surface may indicate strong pressures and deep passions beneath. But one may well ask at this point what bearing such shifts from "riddling" to "riddlic," or from "proverbial" to "maximal," or from one imagined speaker to another, have on what is after all the bulk of the poetry surviving, which consists of narrative, not rumination? And the answer is, the influence is pervasive. It colors the narratives, even the Bible translations (five major ones, Genesis A and B, Exodus, Daniel, Judith), the saints' lives (five again, Andreas, Guthlac A and B, Elene, Juliana), and the heroic poems (Beowulf, and the fragments of Maldon, Finnsburg, and Waldere). It especially affects the way characters talk.
A good example of how to use a proverb in a difficult conversational situation occurs at Beowulf, lines 1832-35. Beowulf is saying farewell to the Danish king Hrothgar, having dealt with the monster Grendel and Grendel's mother for him, but for no apparent reason brings up the issue of Hrothgar's son Hrethric. "If your son Hrethric, / Heir apparent, wants to visit the Geatish court, / He'll find many friends there." But why should Hrethric want to make such a visit? Beowulf caps his suggestion with a proverb, "Foreign lands / Are best sought by sons who stay strong!" The remark is so enigmatic that its point has rarely been noted, but it seems very likely (given other events at the Danish court) that Beowulf is delivering a veiled warning: your son, heir apparent though he may be, is not safe. Get him out of here! But you cannot talk like that to kings. And so the proverb. One advantage of proverbs is that, in a way, the speaker does not say them (as noted by Deskis, they can be used to veil truth rather than declare it openly). They are what everyone says, and everyone accepts. If the listener knows how to apply them, well and good; if not, the speaker takes no responsibility. Hrothgar responds to Beowulf, significantly, by a veiled prophesy (all of which in the end comes true) of future problems for Beowulf and his people as well. At this point, one may well think, Beowulf and Hrothgar would each do well to listen to the hidden warning the other has given, but each perceives only the other's danger. The astute Anglo-Saxon listener could perceive both at once, and also the characters' matching non-perceptions.
In a similar though even more complex way, one may well wonder what the queen Wealhtheow is saying in her long speech to Hrothgar, her husband, earlier in the same poem (ll. 1172-85). It took fifty years of scholarship before anyone began to understand it, and many scholars would not believe it once they did—one of them insisted that the ironically unexpected situation revealed was just too difficult for Anglo-Saxon warriors to take in, men "not chosen mainly for intellectual qualities" (Sisam, 1965, 9). The remark is characteristic of the disdain often felt by modern literates for ancient preliterates. How did Sisam know what qualities were prized by old heroes? Maybe men who could not take a hint did not last long in an Anglo-Saxon war band. Talking tactfully round a subject could be a survival skill, as could recognizing the intention when someone else was doing it.
Many people would now agree that the queen's speech is in fact a pivotal one. It changes the note of the poem from triumphal to ominous, for what the queen is saying is that she sees threats to her son Hrethric from both Beowulf (whom Hrothgar has just adopted: this threat turns out to be nugatory) and also from her nephew Hrothulf (who in legend appears to be a threat indeed). But the queen then makes a second speech, in lines 1216-29, in which she gives Beowulf a splendid gold neck-ring—we have just been told there is an unhappy fate upon it—and asks his help and protection for her sons, who, we should just have realized, will need it. She concludes, seemingly looking round the great hall of Heorot (on which there is also an ill fate):
"Here warriors hold true to each other in the hall,
Loyal to the lord, devoted to duty,
Gracious in heart, their minds on mead.
Downing their drink, they do as I ask."
What kind of truth-statement is that? It is presented as flatly true, "Truth-One." But if we pick up the hints, and indeed the plain statements just made, the air is full of foreboding, which the queen clearly senses. That perceptive critic, the late Ted Irving, saw it as a prayer (1968, 144): and it is true that this is what Wealhtheow desperately wants to be true and to come true. But a prayer ought to be addressed to someone. Is it a charm? In a charm, one says the thing that one wants to happen, in the hope that the words will make it happen. But surely Wealhtheow cannot realistically expect her words in this situation to have magic power. All one can say is that it is certainly a very human response to anxiety to deny one's fears, but catching the tone of this statement would tax the powers of any actress.
Wealhtheow's earlier speech, meanwhile—the one which changes the tone of the whole poem—contains no performatives, but is dominated by what modern philosophers of language have come to call "implicatures," a major component of the new discipline known as "pragmatic linguistics." All that one needs to know about pragmatics in this instance is that it is the skill of listening to what people don't say (like the wann hiding behind wunne as mentioned above). Anglo-Saxon poets seem to have known that their audiences did not need to be taught it. A remarkably powerful "unsaid" occurs in the poem Genesis B. Satan, thrown down from heaven, chained in hell, and in a rage of jealousy against the human beings he fears have been created to supplant him, cries out that if he had his hands free, "For a cold winter's hour, I could lead my troop—" Then his speech breaks off, resuming, "But these iron chains constrain my freedom" (ll. 395-96). The clash of subjective will and objective realization is rather like the scene of waking from dream in The Wanderer, but no one has ever had any difficulty in understanding the anacoluthon, in hearing what Satan did not manage to say: "I could lead my troop to utterly destroy those wretched human interlopers!"
Wealhtheow's "unsaid" is harder to detect, but not so terribly hard—if one remembers, as said above, (a) that her husband has offered to adopt Beowulf a few hundred lines before (though no one apparently took any notice), (b) that she has sons of her own, Hrethric and Hrothmund, (c) that Anglo-Saxon monarchies did not recognize primogeniture, and (d) that her nephew Hrothulf, her son's first cousin, is acting as co-regent to her husband. Her fourteen-line speech (1172-85) begins with four lines of entirely proper and predictable recommendation for generosity (Beowulf has just got rid of Grendel for them). The fifth line brings up the matter of adoption, and the next three surely contain a veiled rebuke: give treasures away (unspoken, to strangers like Beowulf), but leave the kingdom itself to your kinsmen (unspoken, not to strangers like Beowulf). And then we have six lines about Hrothulf, who has done and said nothing to motivate them. One has to ask, what is the connection? And the answer has to be, fear: he is another competitor for her sons. The great unsaid, meanwhile—she is talking to a very old man, who just happens to be a king—lurks in "while you may . . . when you go . . . if he outlives you." The word "die" is never used, but Wealhtheow is creeping up to it. The last time she skirts round the idea, "when you die," she even uses the indicative mood rather than (as she did the first two times) a modal verb in the subjunctive! That may be as bold as it is safe to get when talking to old kings.
The force of Anglo-Saxon "rules for conversation," at once more cautious and more assertive, has its effect even on poems which we know are direct translations. Though one can never be 100 percent sure what kind of text an Anglo-Saxon poet had in front of him, in several cases we have Latin texts which correspond so closely to Old English poems that the poet must have been using something very like them. One can nevertheless see what appear to be deliberate changes, motivated by a strong sense of what is/is not right and proper to say.
One such example is a conversation from the poem Andreas, based on a Latin text which must have been closely similar to the one now known as the Codex Casanatensis (for a translation of which, see Calder and Allen, 14-34). This is a missionary story, very suitable, one might think, for the Anglo-Saxon missionary milieu of St. Willibrord or St. Boniface. The poem tells how Andreas—that is to say, St. Andrew—was sent to the city of the cannibal Mermedonians to rescue his colleague St. Matthew, and how he converted the heathen by a display of courage and then of power. In order to get to the city, though, he has to hitch a ride on a boat, and what Andreas does not know is that the skipper of the boat is in fact his Lord Jesus, in disguise. The conversation between Andreas and his disguised Lord is accordingly a complex and teasing one, for Andreas is at once asking a favor (which puts him in an inferior position), very conscious of his mission (which puts him in a morally superior position), but not aware of whom he is talking to (which puts him in a false position). Latin and Anglo-Saxon views of how this should be presented are markedly different. Summarizing the difference, in the Old English poem both characters remain on their dignity. Both seem conscious of the requirements of what we have learned to call "face."
A fourteen-speech interchange in the Latin version is accordingly cut down to eleven in Old English (see ll. 267-358). One vital alteration is this. In both versions, Andreas has no money: he and his companions are hitchhikers. In the Latin, he conceals this fact until they are on the boat. When he does come out with it, the skipper says, very reasonably, "Why did you board then?" Andreas is then in a thoroughly humiliating position—like going into a restaurant, taking a table, and suddenly realizing you can't afford the prices and will have to slink out again: avoiding customers' fear of this is why restaurants (except the most prestigious) put their prices on the menu outside. In order to persuade the skipper to take him, Andreas accordingly has to explain his apostolic mission. The Anglo-Saxon poet clearly did not like this image of his hero on the defensive. In his version the saint says clearly, "I have no wealth" (l. 282), "I have no precious treasure" (l. 312), and he does so before they all "boarded the ship" (l. 357). The skipper still questions him, with a hint of surprise:
"How, dearest friend, has it come about
That you intended without any treasure
To secure a ship to cross the sea
With its deep currents and high mountains,
The cold cliffs of ocean waves?
Have you no precious bread or pure water
To nourish your body and sustain your spirit?
Hard is the lot of the poor man who must wander
Over the dangerous waves of the ocean road." (ll. 319-27)
But the situation is defused, first, by the careful assertion of friendship, and more significantly—as tricky situations in this culture often are—by the skipper reverting to quasi-proverbial mode (which one might call, by analogy with "riddlic," the "proverbious mode"). The last two lines are a general statement which everyone can agree with (compare, for instance, The Seafarer
, ll. 55-57), so in a sense the speaker has not said them: he is just repeating what people say. The issue of how Andreas should apply this general statement to his own situation is left to him, with the implied question—"what in the world did you think you were doing?"—left in the realm of "implicature."
Andreas still replies to the implied reproof with stiff dignity, quite unlike his counterpart in the Latin text:
"It is not proper for a prosperous man
To whom God has given such worldly wealth
To speak proudly to a poor man who owns nothing." (ll. 330-32)
One notes that he too is moving in the direction of the maxim, stating a rule of propriety. In this complex negotiation, one may conclude, both speakers, human and divine, have to show at once their own self-respect, not to be offended by impertinent questions or assumptions of superiority, and their understanding of the other speaker's limits. In a heavily armed heroic culture, one may well conclude, even monks and missionaries needed to learn how to tread the borderline between aggression and weakness, how to think ahead in a conversation, and when to shift "proverbiously" in and out of impersonal modes.
Other conversations within the corpus could be analyzed similarly, and again with comparison to their originals, even originals of such particular authority as the Bible. A good example is the story of Abraham, his wife Sarah and concubine Hagar, and their two children, the half-brothers Ishmael and Isaac, told episodically in Genesis, chapters 16 to 21. The poet of Genesis A follows the story closely, for the most part, keeping the narrative order of the different subplots of Abraham's life as they are told in the Bible. But the Hagar/Sarah story has some especially sensitive moments. Both Abraham and Sarah laugh at God's promise (Genesis 17:16) that Sarah will bear him a son in advanced old age. Abraham's laughter is retained, but Sarah's sarcastic inner laughter (18:12) has been muted into indirect narration (ll. 2408-16), and her later lie (18:15) has been cut out entirely. Also sensitive, one might think, is the whole issue of Sarah offering her Egyptian slave Hagar to Abraham as a sexual substitute for herself. The Anglo-Saxon poet seems, however, relatively untroubled by this, reproducing her two speeches at 16:2 and 16:5 in lines 2254-62 and 2275-84. But Sarah's later demand that Abraham should send away Hagar and her son gets more careful handling. (One might note that the habit of Anglo-Saxon kings of practicing "serial monogamy" gave rise to repeated trouble between stepmothers and half-brothers, like, for instance, the flight of Alfred's nephew Æthelwold to the Vikings in 899, or the murder of Edward King and Martyr at Corfe Castle in 978.)
Whatever anxiety was riding the poet of Genesis A, he makes Sarah speak to Abraham much more carefully, in the speech at lines 2816-25, than she does in the Bible at Genesis 21:10. In the latter she even uses an imperative: "Cast out this bondwoman and her son." Wealhtheow had used imperatives too, but to begin with only to urge King Hrothgar to do what he was ready and eager to do already, the vital one—the one with an implied but unstated "don't" in it (see above)—embedded in formal politenesses. In Genesis A the imperative has vanished altogether, replaced by a much more tactful and submissive approach:
"Forgive me, my dear lord and husband,
Giver of rings, keeper of the household treasure,
For what I must ask. I beg you to order Hagar . . ." (ll. 2816-18)
She follows it up not with a flat declaration, "the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir," but with a rather careful explanation (as if one were needed) of the disadvantages of contending heirs. One interesting addition is the last line of the speech (2825), "When your life departs at last from your body." Sarah does not say that in the Bible, but the Anglo-Saxon poet picked up the implication, and has Sarah voice it in words quite similar to Wealhtheow's final and most outspoken allusion.
The Force of the Token
Later and more orthodox Anglo-Saxons like the homilist Ælfric of Cerne were unhappy about what adaptations were being made to sacred texts. In the case of Genesis A, probably Exodus, and quite certainly Genesis B, he might well have censored his bolder predecessors: which only goes to show how powerfully Anglo-Saxon ideas of tact and propriety could override even sacred authority. One must however move on from the details of "riddlic" or "polymorphic" language, "deictics" and "modalities," "implicatures" and evasions, to the broader question of structure. Can anything be said—remembering that most of the surviving narrative poems are retellings of an established story—about the way Anglo-Saxons liked to construct narrative, and what kind of narrative drew their attention?
The question needs to be asked. The poem Exodus in particular (based, of course, on the Bible narrative of Exodus, chs. 12-14) has long puzzled even its admirers. Like other Old English poems, it takes every opportunity of converting what is in fact flight into a display of heroic courage. At the start of Andreas, the twelve apostles were pictured as thanes defending their lord, like Offa or the heroes of Maldon:
These were great men, well-known warriors,
Brave and bold leaders of the people,
When hands and shields guarded the helmets
On the full plain of battle, that fateful field. (ll. 8-11)
Scholars have commented uneasily that of course this is an allegory of the warfare of the spirit. It is generally conceded that the author of Exodus
was well aware of the familiar allegory by which the Children of Israel, leaving captivity across the Red Sea and into the Promised Land, represent all Christian souls passing from bondage to Satan through the waters of baptism to salvation. This may justify the poet's description of the Israelites as people of the sea, contrasted with the earth-bound Egyptians. But seeing "the sons of Reuben [as] / A horde of sea-raiders hungry for victory" (ll. 351-52; and in the original the word is sæ-wicingas
, "sea-Vikings")? The enthusiasm with which the poet dismisses from the Israelite battle-line all those too young or too old for "the grim game of war" (l. 253) also does not seem to match an allegory of universal salvation. But there is one particular narrative issue which deserves close attention. The poet seems to have broken a basic rule of narrative by missing out his big scene
(Cecil B. de Mille did not make the same mistake in the 1956 movie The Ten Commandments
). Williamson declares in his headnote that he believes "the essential (dis)order of the poem . . . was altogether intended." What then was the intention?
The crux comes between lines 290 and 295. The Israelites are waiting on the shore of the Red Sea when the "war-crier" (l. 267) calls them to attention: the "shepherd of the people" (who must be Moses; l. 271) will address them. He tells them not to fear in a speech which runs to line 293. And then he speaks again, in a speech beginning just two lines later, to say a miracle has happened:
"I have struck the waters and separated the sea
With this vital rod, this green branch,
This vibrant token of times to come." (ll. 297-99)
The natural thing to do, surely, was to describe the miracle happening as it happened. Indeed one might well think that the story was better told the Bible's way, in Exodus 14:10-22. There the fleeing Israelites, seeing the Egyptian pursuit, cry out against Moses in despair, saying they should have remained in slavery, verses 10-12 (the Anglo-Saxon poet will have none of that!). Moses tells them, "Fear not" (vv. 13-14; extended into lines 275-93 of the poem). The Lord tells Moses what to do (vv. 15-18), and the angel of the Lord shields the Israelites temporarily (vv. 15-20; not in the poem). Then Moses stretches out his hand, and the Lord parts the waters of the Red Sea (vv. 21-22; in the poem, told only in flashback, ll. 295 ff.). Why change the satisfactory and very-much-authorized order of the Bible?
The answer may lie in the word "token." It has already been pointed out that in the warlike culture of Anglo-Saxon England, the beot, the promise, remained, so to speak, in limbo, till the moment came when it was or was not fulfilled, which one might well call the moment of ðearf, or necessity: for thane to endure (ðolian) in the ðearf of his lord or ðeoden was a set of alliterative connections on which several Anglo-Saxon poets rang changes. The "then" of the promise is inevitably connected with the "now" of its redemption. But there is another moment which is connected, and that is the retrospective moment when all has been made clear, when the promise emerges from its ambiguous state, and even onlookers can see the result. One might call this the moment of soð or "sooth." And the sign of that moment, one could say, is the tacen or "token." In the poem Judith, the heroine pulls the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes out of a bag, as she also does in the Apocryphal book of Judith, which is the poem's source, but only the Anglo-Saxon author flags the head as the "victory-token" (l. 196).
In the same way Beowulf's fight with Grendel is definitely over when Beowulf shows the monster's arm—it is the first moment we realize that the hero has actually pulled it off—as "a plain sign" (tacen sweotol) to be nailed up "Under the eaves of Heorot's roof" (ll. 831, 833). Later on in the poem, King Hrothgar meditates with the hilt of the giant's sword in his hand, for it too is a token, a visible sign—or even more convincingly, a tactile memory, subjective made objective—of God's power over the monster race drowned in the flood. Andreas makes his promise to God, undergoes his ðearf by torment in the cannibals' prison, is released and vindicated by the flood which comes to drown the Mermedonian city, but the story is not over until the moment of soð—at line 1596, when a cannibal admits, as he does not in the Latin text, "Now in our terror we can see the truth." But the clearest example of the sequence, promise-trial-revelation, as presented by Anglo-Saxons is the story of the Cross. In The Dream of the Rood,, the Cross itself describes its own time of torment, but then says, "The time is come," the truth has been revealed. This adds a special significance to the story of the Cross's literal unearthing in Elene, for the Cross itself is the greatest of all victory-tokens, "A token of glory, a symbol of victory" (Elene, l. 89).
More could be said about this Anglo-Saxon complex of emotions, and perhaps of ideology. One could say it rests on an attitude to time: past-looking-forward (then) moving to present (now) to perfect (has happened, future-looking-back). Decision is sometimes marked even by a pluperfect: the Beowulf-poet declares firmly, "The leader of the Geats had made good his boast" (l. 827), the Judith-poet that his heroine "had gathered glory" (l. 149). The modern proverb says, "It's not over till the fat lady sings" (how obscure will this be in a thousand years?), but the Anglo-Saxon might say, "it's not over till you can look back and see a token." One could also say that the whole complex rests on a sense of the uncertainty of words and promises and memories and prophesies, all of them subjective: they need to be translated into a thing, something you can hold and look at, like an arm, a head, a cross. Or something undeniable, like the flood that drowns Andreas's tormentors, or the flood that drowned the giants—or in the case of Exodus, the flood-in-reverse, the parting of the waters.
Going back to the narrative hiatus in that poem, what it tells us is that the poet and, one may assume, his audience were not as interested in the drama of events, what was actually happening, as in the moment of revelation, or confirmation, when one, in Ted Irving's term, "comes at last, as the old Quakers used to say, upon a knowing" (1968, 105). Not our way of looking at things, but a characteristic way. One born, perhaps, from the grained-in uncertainty of life in a heroic age not yet over as the poets were writing. One, furthermore, which perhaps helped to determine the scenes from the Christian myth which Anglo-Saxon poets chose to focus on and repeatedly retell.
Universal History, Personal Choice
Despite the assurance given by Christian faith, a sense of the unknown and the inscrutable runs through the poetry, in poems like The Gifts of Men and The Fortunes of Men, in the dialogue between Solomon and Saturn on the mystery of why one twin thrives and another does not (Solomon and Saturn II, ll. 254-86), in Cynewulf's image of life as "a hard and harrowing voyage, / Sailing our ships across cold waters" (Christ II, ll. 488-89). The poetry also expresses a consistent sense of "the order of the world" (to name another poem), in its selection of Christian themes and answers. It is markedly different from the favored themes of modern preaching—little in it of grace, mercy, forgiveness, penitence, or humility, all concepts for which Old English had slowly to develop a vocabulary—but expressed with power and sincerity. It is worth seeing the universe as Bede and his successors saw it.
One religious concern which recurs again and again is the origin of sin. This was firmly rooted in the Fall of the Angels, which led directly to the Fall of Man, and we have accounts of both most notably in Genesis B, a poem translated from Old Saxon and surely brought back from the Anglo-Saxon missions. The combined story is told also in Genesis A, in Guthlac B, lines 149-77, in the verses recovered from Vercelli Homily XXI (here at the very end of the section of "Additional Poems" not printed in The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records). But another thought also recurs. Beowulf locates the origins of the race of monsters, the enemies of God, in the race of Cain, and at the end of Maxims IC, the poet says ruefully that ever since then, humanity has lived in a state of war:
Enmity has ruled the earth since Cain's
Crime against his brother Abel.
That was no one-day feud! Wickedness thrust
Its way into the world from that first blood.
Cain's killing was mankind's primal murder.
Afterwards feud flourished, and endless hatred
Plagued people, so the inhabitants of earth
Invented hard spears and tempered swords,
Endured the savage clash and claw of weapons. (ll. 67-75)
With another strange shift, he goes on directly from this to say in effect, "and that is what we must be ready for"—acquiescing? Recommending?
The shield should be ready, the spear on its haft,
The blade on the sword, the arrow on its shaft,
Courage in a warrior's heart, a helmet on the brave.(ll. 76-78)
As remarked above, the last two lines of the poem move to a stern corollary:
But for the man without courage, without spirit,
The least of treasures: no glory for the knave. (ll. 79-80)
As often, the tone of this is hard to catch. Christian regret moves to ferocity expressed determinedly as a maxim, super-true, not to be denied.
The tone of Genesis B has also bothered scholars, for there are several departures from the way one might expect the story to be treated. Whatever one thinks of his motives, it cannot be denied that the subordinate devil whom Satan sends from Hell to tempt Adam and Eve shows loyalty (can that be praiseworthy loyalty?) to his satanic lord, and returns to him, shackled though he is "in black hell in a clutch of fire" (l. 842). There are a string of differences from the biblical account of the Fall (see the list in the headnote to the poem). The poet even seems (but how are we to take the tone of his remark?) to express surprise at God's (dare one say?) negligence in allowing the Fall to take place:
It's a great wonder that eternal God,
The Prince of peace, would endure such enmity,
And suffer his servants to be led astray
By that subtle demon who seduced Eve,
Marking mankind for endless suffering. (ll. 655-69)
One's doubts are not entirely cleared up by the poet's resort to maxim (a maxim found in similar words in Old Norse, suggesting that it was widespread in the northern world), "Woe to the one / Who doesn't hear or heed this lesson, / Who still has a chance to make a choice" (ll. 703-5). What this says is that Adam and Eve were warned, and if you won't take a warning . . . you should have listened harder.
At the other end of universal history lies Doomsday, another favored theme, expressed in the two poems on Judgment Day, in Christ III, again in the verses in Vercelli Homily XXI, and in another verse rescued from homilies on The Judgment of the Damned. Associated with the theme of fear are the grim poems on the fate, not of the soul, but of the body, delivered over to corruption and in both Soul and Body poems reproached bitterly by the soul from leading it astray (the longer Exeter version balances this with a passage of praise for the virtuous body by its soul). The same theme is picked up in Azarias and in Guthlac B, and recurs in the post-Conquest poems from Worcester Cathedral Library, in The Soul's Address to the Body (From the Worcester Fragments), and in The Grave. By contrast, the joy of Paradise, and the beauty of Creation itself, are described in The Phoenix and in passages from Daniel, Azarias, and Guthlac A, as well as in the song of Creation sung in King Hrothgar's hall of Heorot (Beowulf, ll. 89-98), and in Cædmon's Hymn.
It is undeniable, though, that the image of life collectively presented is a dark one, in which humanity is under continual siege from the devils, as it was from the monster-races of the pre-Christian mythology. In every one of the five saints' lives surviving in the poetic corpus, the saint confronts and overcomes diabolic assault. Andreas has to cope not only with the cannibals, but with the "prince of hell" and his subordinates, who come to taunt and threaten him in his prison. The same is true of Juliana, and in Elene the repentant sinner Judas also faces down a demon enraged by his recovery of the True Cross. St. Guthlac takes an even more proactive line with the devils who haunt the wastelands of the Fens, moving into their territory to take it over, unmoved by the vision of hell that they show him. Nor are the devils like, for instance, C. S. Lewis's Screwtape and Wormwood, subtle tempters who put thoughts into the mind and slowly lead vulnerable souls down the primrose path to Hell. The nearest they come to this is when, in Guthlac A, they try to shake the saint's confidence by showing him the bad behavior of young men in monasteries (to which the saint replies, in effect, "Boys will be boys," an echo, perhaps, of some long-forgotten dispute about monastic governance). But for the most part the devils work by fear, and are vanquished by superior courage, confidence, and above all, power.
At bottom, one may conclude, the main appeal of the new religion was the assurance—and see what was said above about the force of the pluperfect—that victory over Satan and his minions had already been won. And the sign of that, the physical "token" demanded, was the Cross itself. In the Vercelli version of The Dream of the Rood the Cross is a "radiant sign," a victory-beam," a "tree of victory." In Elene, Cynewulf calls it "a radiant sign, / A token of glory, a symbol of victory" (ll. 88-89), and it is the sign which brings Emperor Constantine victory in battle. The word used for "sign" is in both poems and more than once, beacen, which means more than "beacon" ("sign, token, portent"). It is striking that there is another long runic inscription, on another cross not far away from the Ruthwell Cross, where as noted above, lines from The Dream of the Rood are carved in runes, in a dialect older and more northern than that of the Vercelli poem. This second runic inscription is on the Bewcastle Cross, which stands within the walls of the old Roman fort on Bewcastle Waste, overlooking the Debatable Land between England and Scotland, site of many battles. Its inscription has been declared unreadable (though one would like to see what computer enhancement would do), but its first words are perfectly clear: they read, in runes: Þis sigebecn . . . , "this sign of victory." What forgotten battle the inscription commemorates we do not know, but the inscription proves that calling the Cross a "victory-token" was felt to have more than symbolic meaning.
As for the moment of victory, that is described in the poem The Descent into Hell and again in Christ and Satan. The moment on which the world turns comes when the two Marys go to wrap the dead Christ's body. They expect to find him on a cold bed, "the old earth-grave," so often described in the "Soul and Body" theme. But they are wrong—as wrong as the Assyrians in Judith who expected to find their general Holofernes resting from his debauching of Judith. The Marys discover an unexpected and miraculous truth:
They thought that [Christ] would have to remain alone
On Easter eve. They surely had other ideas
When they turned back from the tomb! (ll. 17-19)
This surprising truth which reshapes both history and eschatology is articulated in a typically understated way reserved for transitions of great moment in Old English poetry. King Hrothgar in Beowulf
also has a strong sense of "fate's twists and turns" (l. 1772), but in his case it is from prosperity to woe. For the two Marys, the moment is what J. R. R. Tolkien called "eucatastrophe," the moment when everything turns from bad to good (1966, 85-87). The great reward of it, furthermore, is not just the Resurrection but the Descent into Hell itself, when Christ invades the realm of Satan and releases his prisoners, who have lived their lives since the Fall without a chance of salvation. (The thought that such souls could be released must have had special power for recent converts who remembered their pagan ancestors with affection: early missionaries record this as a concern.) Fall, Harrowing, and Doomsday: these are the three critical elements of the Christian story as we read it in Old English, clearly set out in Christ and Satan
In this schema the vital thing is to choose one's side: winners or losers. But in "this ruin of a life," as the "wanderer" calls it, the sides may not be so clear. That, at least, was the thought which Bede expressed on his death bed, in the poem we now call Bede's Death Song:
Before he departs on that inescapable journey
Down death's road, no man is so wise
That he knows his own end, so clever or unconstrained
That he need not contemplate the coming judgment,
Consider what good or evil resides in his soul,
What rich reward or bounty of unblessings
Will be offered in eternity when his time runs out.
The poem, a mere five lines in the original, has been hailed as showing through its complex syntax what Anglo-Saxons could do after a lifetime of studying Latin, but this view could not be more false. The saying is characteristic of Anglo-Saxon thought, and Old English poetry, on multiple levels. If not proverbial, it is "proverbious." It is a speech act as well, but once more what kind of speech act has not been clear to everyone. It has been taken as a promise, a reassurance. In fact, it is a threat. It has the characteristic Anglo-Saxon understatement: when Bede says "no man is so wise," he means, by implication, "many men are not wise enough." The force of it in the original is multiplied by the stealthy repetition of the same verb at the end of first and last lines: but one is in the indicative, the other in the subjunctive. Fail to note the difference at your peril! For the threat lies also in the contrast of the two times, the "now," "Before [you] depart," while you are alive and can choose
, and the "then" when "[your] time runs out"—when it will be too late to choose. Bede's last words were grave, ominous, a touch sardonic, and above all, as has confused so many, they were "riddlic."
The End and the Aftermath
Anglo-Saxon England went down to defeat on 14 October 1066, when Duke William overcame King Harold. Soon all Anglo-Saxon bishops had been replaced by Normans, except Wulfstan of Worcester, too popular and too saintly to be removed: he never made the slightest effort to learn French, and since Duke William had no success at learning Old English, the two could only communicate through Latin translators. Anglo-Saxon royalty and gentry had likewise been muzzled, like Edgar Ætheling; executed, like St. Waltheof; or dispossessed, like almost everyone. Incoming bishops and abbots with no knowledge of Old English saw no point in composing or even preserving poems in what soon became, almost everywhere, the peasant language. The last Old English poem in strict meter is, fittingly, the poem from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the death of Edward (the Confessor), which must have been written in 1065 or 1066. Holdouts nevertheless remained, as we can see from the poems in the section, "The Minor Poems," in this collection from Wulfstan's Worcester, and the poem on Durham. Nor may that have been the end of the tradition, for almost three centuries later poems again began to be recorded in an alliterative meter, which, while different from Old English—for by then the language had changed to Middle English—nevertheless retain much of the rules, the traditional language, and even the spirit of pre-Conquest poetry. Even that resurgence, however, was to last not quite into the era of modern English.
One has to concede, though, that poetry in Old English had a long run. The question of which is the oldest of our surviving poems has been discussed above, but whichever it was, a late seventh-century date is not improbable. The poem Widsith, a compendium of heroic names and legends, many of them now forgotten, has also been declared recently and persuasively to be another poem of the seventh century (Neidorf). Meanwhile, poems like Maldon and those from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle must be later than the events they commemorate, which, as said just above, takes us all the way to 1066. Although scholars have become increasingly cautious, or timid, in their opinions—one may note that the editor of Genesis A offers a full 250-year span of possibility for that poem, 650-900 (see the headnote to the poem)—there is a case for saying that this poetic tradition held its devotees for four centuries before violent suppression: a good claim on anyone's attention.
There is one final thought, signaled in these sections by the riddle which Craig Williamson has prefixed to each section, a riddle in which the manuscript, or the poems in the manuscript, speak for themselves—as objects do in many riddles, and in other poems too, including The Dream of the Rood, where the rood itself speaks; The Husband's Message, where what speaks is a runic inscription; and even the Franks Casket, which describes itself riddlically and runically, and for once also adds its own answer, "whale's bone."
The final thought is this. The poems we have are also, in their way, almost all "last survivors": only three of them, apart from the Chronicle poems and the poems ascribed to Cædmon and Bede, and found in many manuscripts, duplicate each other. Some of the poems are, furthermore, fragments, including the Maldon and Finnsburg poems and Judith. As for the corpus itself, it now is a ruin. Certainly it exists. But its existence is at least a reminder of what no longer exists, a whole tradition of which we can hear only, here and there, murmurs and echoes. The poems are in many ways like the buried lyre unearthed in the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Snape, like the treasures dug up at Sutton Hoo and restored, like the stone walls of Bath remembered and celebrated in the poem, The Ruin. The poems exist, often in fragmentary form, and like the old ruins, they bear testimony to all that they remember, even if it has vanished. Nor is their testimony mute, for last survivors can at least talk and pass their tales on. The "book-moth" riddle laments the fact that the songs of the tribe, once transferred from the wordhord, the word-hoard of the mind, of memory, to the written vellum page, are susceptible to the ravenous appetite of the devouring worm. The word wyrm in Old English also means "dragon," like the one that destroys Beowulf in the end. But both the riddle and the poem Beowulf reaffirm that the wisdom of old, the stories of heroes, the marauding of monsters, the complicated forms of speaking and listening, the types of truth, can live on as they are both written down and retold. The worm may devour the manuscript page, but we remember the song-bright wisdom and reshape it into a riddle of that stæl-giest or "thief-guest," the ravenous worm. The dragon of the world, that inexorable, devouring movement of time itself, may destroy us all, but it cannot touch the tales that we deem worth saving, worth remembering.
Many modern students, scholars, and poets have found inspiration, insight, even comfort in individual poems. Strange and challenging as they are, they are still capable of speaking to us over the centuries. The entire corpus, however, over 31,000 lines, has never before been translated in a collected edition by a single scholar and poet, as it has here. It deserves to be read in its entirety, for the poems illuminate each other, create a priceless example of cultural diversity which at the same time retains haunting familiarity. Craig Williamson's offering here has become both the true echo of the old songs, and a new poetic reshaping of them for a modern world. In them the dead "warrior-poet" of Grave 32 can be heard again, like his lovingly buried and now painstakingly reconstructed harp.
Note on the Texts, Titles, and Organization of the Poems
This book contains modern alliterative, strong-stress poetic translations of all of the Old English (OE) poems in the six volumes of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR), edited by George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (1931-1953), plus additional OE poems identified or discovered after the publication of ASPR. The entire corpus of OE poetry, a little over 31,000 lines, has never before been translated into modern poetry. The most comprehensive translations heretofore have typically been in prose and have included somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 lines. When I had finished translating the OE poems included in my previous editions of A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songs and Beowulf and Other Old English Poems, I began to realize that no selective anthology of OE translations, my own included, could hope to accurately represent the whole corpus, and so I set out to remedy this situation by translating all of the poems. This was perhaps an act of what the Anglo-Saxon poets might have called ofermod, or "overweening ambition," but I felt it was an important task that needed doing. I hope the results here will strike scholars, students, and general readers interested in the period and its poetry as a worthy endeavor.
The book is organized into sections that correspond to the individual books of ASPR (The Junius Manuscript, The Vercelli Book, The Exeter Book, Beowulf and Judith, The Paris Psalter and the Meters of Boethius, and The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems) plus a number of additional poems and poetic fragments not included in ASPR, which were identified as OE poetry later. After the introductory materials, each section of the book corresponds to a volume of ASPR, with a final section devoted to the additional non-ASPR poems. In each section I have given a brief introduction to the manuscript or volume in question and have taken the poetic license of offering a modern riddle, written in the style of the OE Exeter Book riddles, to celebrate it.
The order of poems in the book is exactly that of ASPR, except for the additional uncollected poems at the end, which are arranged alphabetically by title. The individual poem titles, which are almost never in the original manuscripts, have occasionally been changed in various ways by editors and scholars over the years since ASPR. The titles here sometimes reflect these editorial changes or my own reading of the poems, but I have been careful to keep some element of the ASPRtitle in place or to indicate it in the headnote to the poem.
The demarcation of the poems (where one poem ends and another begins) has also been the subject of occasional debate among editors and scholars. My demarcations are meant to take into consideration scholarship since ASPR, and I have tried to indicate in the individual headnotes where this change has been argued and what the alternate demarcations are in the old and new readings. Where there is a significant loss of text either because of damage to the manuscript or a break in the sense of the narrative or meaning, this is indicated by three asterisks. Where I have added a brief passage to bridge the gap indicated by a loss in the manuscript, this added text is enclosed in brackets. The line spaces between sections of the various poems are not in the manuscript; these spaces are provided to demarcate sections of the poems for the modern reader.
In making these translations, I began with the ASPR texts and then consulted more recent editions. I have not followed a single edited text but have made use of multiple texts and the long history of scholarly commentary on the poems. My translations are based on these combined readings; in any case, they are not literal translations, either word for word or line for line, but an attempt to bring the meaning and majesty of the originals into modern poetry, trying, as St. Jerome suggested, to capture the grace and glory of the originals by translating sense for sense. For more on my method of translation, see the introductory essay, "On Translating Old English Poetry."
In the course of my work I have consulted not only the various editions of the Old English texts but also occasional prose translations of the poems, including most notably the following (in approximate chronological order): The Exeter Book by Israel Gollancz and W. S. Mackie, The Poems of Cynewulf and The Cædmon Poems by Charles W. Kennedy, Genesis A by Laurence Mason, Anglo-Saxon Poetry by R. K. Gordon, Beowulf: A New Prose Translation by E. Talbot Donaldson, Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English by T. A. Shippey, Anglo-Saxon Poetry by S. A. J. Bradley, Old and Middle English c. 890-c. 1400 by Elaine Treharne, The Old English Boethius by Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine, The Beowulf Manuscript by R. D. Fulk, Old Testament Narratives and The Old English Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn by Daniel Anlezark, Old English Shorter Poems: Religious and Didactic by Christopher A. Jones, The Old English Poems of Cynewulf and Old English Shorter Poems: Wisdom and Lyric by Robert E. Bjork, Old English Poems of Christ and His Saints by Mary Clayton, and Old English Psalms by Patrick O'Neill. Other prose translations are noted in the headnotes to the individual poems.
The headnote to each poem provides a brief introduction to some of the critical issues that have been raised about the poem, often citing recent editors of the poem whose work has been helpful to me in making the translations. In composing the headnotes, and indeed in assembling this entire work, I have made use of several important surveys of OE literature, both old and new, including (but not limited to) the following: A New Critical History of Old English Literature by Stanley B. Greenfield and Daniel G. Calder (the sections on Old English poetry are by Greenfield), A History of Old English Literature by Michael Alexander, A History of Old English Literature by R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain, and Old English Literature: A Short Introduction by Daniel Donoghue. The Fulk and Cain book was an especially valuable resource and guide; without it I could not have undertaken this work.
In a book of this scope, it is finally impossible to mention all of the editors, lexicographers, scholars, and translators who have shed light on these texts over the years, but I want to acknowledge and thank them for their many insights into these magnificent poems. I could not have accomplished these poetic translations without them. A number of scholars, having read my translations in earlier books, have encouraged me to keep steadily at work on this larger project. Their kind words have been the best of incentives to keep me committed to this task.