Old English Exodus

November 26, 2017

Exodus
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.850]
19 p.

After reading Genesis it’s natural to move on to Exodus, and in the Junius Manuscript we do just that. This poem, which runs a brief 590 lines in the original Old English, begins with the terrible tenth plague striking Egypt and ends with the triumph of the children of Israel on the far side of the Red Sea, with Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers so much flotsam and jetsam. The poet has therefore focused his attention on the central episodes in the story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from their bondage, though, as we’ll see, he had other things on his mind as well.

This is a particularly vivid poem, I found, with much striking imagery. Much of it is violent. I remarked in my notes on Genesis that the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons coloured their telling of the Biblical story, and the same is very much true in this poem.

When the angel of death descends on Egypt, for instance, the poet gives us a passage that reminded me of Grendel stalking toward Heorot in the black of night:

“The hall-joys were drained —
The last, lonely song was a cry of suffering,
Of peril and pain. In the middle of the night
God cruelly struck down the Egyptian oppressors,
The many first-born sons. Death stalked the land —
Terror and torment piled up corpses —
Killing was king of that ravaged realm.” (ll.33-9)

When once they have left Egypt, the miraculous guidance of the pillar of cloud and the column of fire excite the poet’s admiration for a lengthy stretch. He remembers, too, the life of Joseph, whose coming to Egypt as a slave was the remote cause of the enslavement from which the Israelites are now being delivered.

The approach of Pharaoh’s army in pursuit spreads fear through the people, and the description of the approaching forces is wonderfully evocative:

“Then the mood of the Israelites grew desperate;
Their hearts lost hope as they saw Pharaoh’s army
Surging from the south, sweeping over the land
With shields gleaming, battle-swords swinging,
Boar-spears thrusting, trumpets ringing,
Banners waving, the cavalry-storm coming.
Dark death-birds circled the strand,
Carrion crows hungry for corpses,
Screeching like hellions for a bloody meal.
Wild wolves sang a hideous evening-song,
Frantic for a feast of flesh and bone.
The beasts of battle held no pity
For any people, Egyptians or Israelites.
They howled for carnage, sang for slaughter.
Those bloodlust guardians of the border lands,
Wilderness-wanderers, bayed through the night,
Spooking the souls of the men of Moses,
Who hunkered down in despair and doom.” (ll.162-79)

I note with interest how the poet pivots from a description of the menace of the Egyptian soldiers — imagined very much after the manner of his contemporary warriors — to a description of the menace of the natural world: the wolves, and the hungry crows, all arrayed against the people of God. One could imagine him taking the opposite tack, depicting the animals, which are God’s creatures, as friends of the children of Israel, but instead he makes them amoral, prowling on the borders and circling overhead, awaiting their chance. There seems no reason for hope.

In response to this threat the Israelites arm for battle, but Moses gathers them together and delivers a stirring speech, reminding them to put their trust in God’s protection:

“They will no longer live to scourge us
With torment and terror, making our lives
A mesh of misery, a web of woe.
There’s no need to fear dead warriors,
Doomed bodies — their day is done.
God’s counsel has been lifted from your hearts.
Remember his covenant and keep it always.
Worship your God, pray for his grace,
His promise and protection, shield and salvation,
His gift of victory in a time of triumph.
He is the God of Abraham, the Lord of creation,
Our eternal Maker of unmeasured might.
He holds our army in his guardian hands. (ll. 280-92)

The staff is stretched out over the waters, and they part, making a way of escape. Interestingly, even as they march across, away from their foes, they do so as if to war, and the poet underlines their ferocity:

As the noblest of people walked through the water,
They raised a banner high over their shields
With a sacred sign, the gold lion of Judah,
The bravest of beasts. The loyal warriors
Would never suffer insult or injury
As long as their lord and leader lived
And they could lift swords, thrust spears
Bravely in conflict with any bold nation.
The soldiers of Judah would always respond
To the call of battle with hard hand-play,
Sword-swipe, spear-stab, shield-thrust,
Blood-wound, body-woe, the cruel crush
Of hard helmets, carnage and corpses.” (ll.338-50)

I wonder if in a warrior culture this crossing of the Red Sea, fleeing from danger rather than confronting it, would have been considered shameful. The poet seems to be taking great care to reassure us that they had lost none of their courage and capacity for destruction.

At this point, as it nears its finish, the poem begins to become more complicated. We leave the Israelites and return to Noah, and then to Abraham, and then jump ahead to Solomon. Perhaps the poet is here calling to mind God’s enduring covenant with the children of Israel, which is here, at the crossing of the Red Sea and the decisive deliverance from bondage, being honoured and fulfilled.

The crossing complete, the path through the waters collapses upon the pursuing Egyptian forces in a scene of carnage:

“The arrogant Egyptians could not hinder his hand
Or escape his doom, the sea’s fierce fury —
He destroyed them all in shrieking horror.
The seas slid up, the bodies slid down;
Dread fears rose, death-dreams plunged;
Fresh wounds wept, bloody tears tumbled
Into the ocean’s embrace. The Lord of the flood
Ravaged the ramparts with an ancient sword
Of storm-winds and wave-walls. Troops perished.
Hordes of the sinful headed toward the bottom,
Where they lost their souls in endless sleep.” (ll.518-28)

And here, at the climactic moment of the poem, before describing the victory song and the joyous dancing of the Israelites, the poet introduces another apparent digression, but one which, it seems to me, is a key to interpreting the whole poem. He inserts a meditation on the pilgrimage of each soul through this earthly life:

“It’s true that our present worldly pleasures
Are transient. Time unravels them all.
Desire and delight fade, touched and twisted
By inevitable sorrow — an exile’s inheritance.
We wander the world pursued by woe,
Our homeless hearts mired in misery.
[…]
The day of reckoning, the hour of doom,
Draws near, a moment of might and glory,
When all our deeds will be judged by God,
And he will lead the steadfast, righteous souls
From their exile on earth to a homeland in heaven,
The light and life of the Lord’s blessing,
Where everyone in that company of joy
Will sing hymns, glorious hosannas,
To the Kind of hosts for all eternity.” (ll.566-587)

The poet is therefore encouraging us to read the story of the Exodus as a metaphor for the deliverance of each soul from the bondage of sin and death, “an allegory of the soul, or of the Church of militant souls, marching under the hand of God, pursued by the powers of darkness, until it attains to the promised land of Heaven”. (So says Tolkien.) This is a common theme in Christian theology, of course, but it is here expressed in a particularly artful and powerful way.

In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson highlights the poem’s “deliberate ambiguities and allusions, its concealed figurations and fulfillments, and its textual and narrative difficulties”, which initially made me think I was about to read an Old English Prufrock. It didn’t turn out that way, but, nonetheless, there is something to what Williamson says; this is a complex, and quite beautiful, poem. At least some of the textual difficulties may have been mitigated by Williamson’s thoughtful translation, which is about 10% longer than the original. At any rate, I enjoyed reading it, and I’m looking forward to the next poem in the Junius Manuscript — which is, mercifully, not based on Leviticus, but on the story of Daniel.

2 Responses to “Old English Exodus”


  1. This is amazing. Was thinking of reading through the Bible next year looking at different translations. I knew nothing about this Old English version. Will look out for it. Thanks for introducing me to it.

    • cburrell Says:

      Thanks for the encouragement. For clarity, these Old English poems treat only a few sections of the Old Testament (and some of the New as well, which I’ll get to later). I’m sure there is an entire Old Testament in Old English, but not as poetry.


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