The Exeter Book

January 28, 2019

The Exeter Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017)
300 p.

The Exeter Book is one of four principal surviving sources for Old English poetry, and, of those four, it is the largest. It is a tenth-century codex that has been part of the Exeter Cathedral library since 1072. It is the sole source for almost all of its contents.

The collections of Anglo-Saxon verse I’ve looked at previously — the Junius Manuscript and the Vercelli Book — consisted of, respectively, four and six poems. The Exeter Book, by contrast, contains about three dozen poems, most of them fewer than 150 lines long, and it also contains about 100 verse riddles. This makes it a very interesting and surprising collection, but also makes it rather hard to summarize. Instead, I will write briefly about a few of the poems that particularly attracted my attention.

*

The Book begins with one of the longest poems: a triptych called Christ, the parts of which are a set of meditations on Advent and the Nativity, the Ascension, and the Last Judgment. They are thematically linked, but are not necessarily — and, in fact, probably not — all the work of one poet.

The Advent poems are partly based on the O Antiphons. Here, as an example, is the beginning of the poem based on the antiphon O Oriens:

O Radiance of dawn, brightest of angels,
Messenger of morning, righteous and rising,
Bright light of truth, splendor of sun,
Brilliant beyond stars, imbuing middle-earth
With the grace of growth in all seasons —
You are the illumination and enlightenment
Of all time and the world’s endless turning,
You are the God begotten of God,
Separate and Self, Son of the Father,
Gift and blessing of high heaven,
A child born who has always been
Before beginning, beyond ending…
(V, 1-12)

That, even in translation, is a strong, dense meditation on Christ as the light of the world. (For readers unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon verse, you should be listening in this poetry for patterns of stressed syllables and alliteration in each line.)

Other of the Advent poems are in honour of Our Lady, such as the one which begins in this way:

O glorious maiden of middle-earth,
Purest of women, most precious queen,
How wisely and justly do all speech-bearers
Praise your name and bless your birthing
With joy in their hearts, delighting and saying
That you are the blessed bride of God,
Lord of the sky, Ruler of heaven.
The attendants of Christ, servants of God,
Proclaim and sing that with your virtue,
You are the Lady of the glorious hosts,
Hallowed in heaven by his primacy and power,
And Lady under heaven of all earthly hosts,
Even those dwelling in hell.
(IX, 1-13)

For me, this is fine devotional poetry, and I intend to revisit these Advent poems again during the Advent season.

The middle section of Christ describes the Ascension, but briefly. The bulk of the poem, apart from bridge sections which link it backward to the nativity poem and forward to the last judgement, is devoted to a charming plan I’ve never encountered before: the “seven leaps” of Christ. The “leaps” in question are (1) from heaven to the womb, (2) out of the womb, (3) onto the cross, (4) from the cross to the tomb, (5) the descent into hell, (6) out of the tomb, and (7) the ascent into heaven. It’s a delightful poem.

The final section of Christ is a stirring depiction of the judgment of the damned and the blessed, written with strong imaginative power.

**

Juliana is one of the few saints’ lives in The Exeter Book. St Juliana of Nicomedia was one of the martyrs of the early Church; she suffered under Diocletian. The poem is probably the work of Cynewulf, one of the few Anglo-Saxon poets whose name has come down to us.

The poem relates how St Juliana refused to marry a pagan and was, as a result, abused and imprisoned. She was visited in prison by a demon who, disguised as an angel, tempted her to compromise, and much of the poem is devoted to their dialogue. It is wonderfully done. The demon is marvellously suave and persuasive, which is already excellent, but, better still, Juliana sees through him immediately. Indeed, she is so feisty that her first response is to leap and throttle him! (One imagines, here, and with gratification, a correspondingly vigorous response were she confronted with one of our oily churchmen!) In any case, in what follows “the radiant maiden” forces the “hell-sprite, man’s fierce foe” to reveal himself and confess his evil intentions before she sends him back to hell:

Then the maiden released that soul-slayer
After his time of torment in the dark abyss.
The dread demon was a bearer of bad news,
Bound to tell the revolting truth
To a host of torturers, the tribe of hell.
That was not a good journey for him.
(561-6)

I would rank Juliana with the best of the saints’ lives known to me. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

**

The Exeter Book also contains a number of poems which scholars call “elegies” on account of their generally meditative tone and non-narrative subject matter. Later English poetry would make this type of poem more familiar to us; it is poetry that tries to capture a mood or feeling.

A good example is The Wanderer, written from the point of view of a man exiled from his home. It conveys a powerful sense of sadness and longing for what cannot be had again. The poet, bereft of home, sees that ultimately everyone shares his fate:

The wise warrior knows how ghostly it will be
When all this world’s wealth is a wasteland,
As middle-earth is now in many places —
Wall fragments stand, blasted by winds,
Covered by frost — ruined hallways in snow.
Wine-halls decay, lords lie dead,
Deprived of joys — the proud troop
Has fallen by the wall. War took some
On a long death-road; a bird bore one
Over the deep sea; the gray wolf shared
One with death; a sad-faced earl
Hid one in an earth-hole, a bleak barrow.
So the Maker of men laid waste to the world,
Until the old works of giants stood idle
And empty of the hall-joys of men.
(78-92)

Other poems of this kind in The Exeter Book include “The Seafarer”, “The Wife’s Lament”, and “The Ruin”. This is a side of Old English poetry that I have not encountered before.

**

One of the most unusual and intriguing poems in this collection is “The Rhyming Poem”. It is unusual because — it rhymes! This in addition to maintaining the usual requirements of Anglo-Saxon verse, of course. It is, as one can imagine, one of the most difficult poems to render into modern English, and Craig Williamson, so able and fluent in general, confesses his inability to do the original justice. I reluctantly agree with him. For example:

The will is weak, desire droops and curls,
No-faith follows, the heart heaves
Its last, its least — all harrows, all hallows.
Joy fades, lordships fall. Sin spreads
Its wide net, shame serves, pleasure pains.
Thus the world winds down. Hope drowns.
(55-60)

The original’s rhyming couplets are entirely missing, though he has managed to give us some internal rhymes. The style has become compressed and gnomic, though it is hard to know if this is a feature of the original poem or just an artifact of the effort to cram in all the poetry.

In any case, it is good to know that there is at least one rhyming poem in the Old English corpus.

**

Finally, I will say a few words about the dozens of riddles. Riddling is a poetic pastime that, unfortunately, has not had a distinguished career in subsequent English poetry. Tolkien gave us some rhyming riddles in The Hobbit, and I’ve little doubt he did so inspired by these Anglo-Saxon exemplars.

Here is one example, to give the flavour of the thing:

Head down, nosing — I belly the ground.
Hard snuffle and grub, I bite and furrow —
Drawn by the dark enemy of forests,
Driven by a bent lord who hounds my trail,
Who lifts and lowers me, rams me down,
Pushes on plain, and sows seed.
I am a ground-skulker, born of wood,
Bound by wizards, brought on wheel.
My ways are weird: as I walk, one flank
Of my trail is gathering green; the other
Is bright black. Through my back and belly,
A sharp sword thrusts; through me head,
A dagger is stuck like a tooth: what I slash
Falls in a curve of slaughter to one side
If my driving lord slaves well.
(Riddle 19)

Solutions to the riddles are not given in the Book, though in his notes Williamson solves them, or at least describes the solutions that have been proposed. (Some of the riddles, like the one above, are easy to solve, but some have never been solved conclusively.)

A few of the riddles rely on double-entendres for their misdirection. An example is Riddle 25.

I must say that in general I found the riddles to be great fun, but I was only able to solve a handful of them on my own.

**

As I said at the top, there is far too much in The Exeter Book for a blog post to handle. Reading through all these poems has been rewarding for me. Typically I would close my day by sitting down and reading one or two, more than once wishing that I had a scop to sing them to me! Those interested in learning more could profitably consult the Wikipedia page, which includes links to individual pages for roughly half of the poems.

Next in this collection of Old English poetry is Williamson’s translation of Beowulf. I’m looking forward to it.

4 Responses to “The Exeter Book”


  1. I really want to read the Juliana story now.

  2. cburrell Says:

    I wish I could find a way for you to do so. This book is a doorstop; it would cost a pretty penny to send it down to you.


  3. Surely you want to keep it anyway? Especially as it appears to have cost you in the neighborhood of $60. I think I’ll live without it for the time being. I can probably find a translation somewhere online, though perhaps not as good.


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