Posts Tagged ‘Anglo-Saxon’

Old English miscellanea

June 7, 2019

Minor and Miscellaneous Poems
Anonymous
Translated from Old English by Craig Williamson
(U Penn, 2017) [c.600-c.1200]
Roughly 200 p.

Most of the Anglo-Saxon poetry which has survived has done so between the pages of a small number of codices: the Junius Manuscript, Vercelli Book, and Exeter Book, plus the manuscripts which have preserved Beowulf and a few other large-scale works (including a complete psalter in Old English verse). But beyond these major sources there survive a large variety of smaller poems and fragments — even individual lines of verse. The last few hundred pages of this gargantuan gathering of poems are devoted to these survivors. I had thought that I’d glance over them quickly, but in the event I found them fascinating, a kind of curio museum liable to throw up a fresh surprise at every turn, and took the time to read through them all.

They are “minor” poems in the sense of being short, not — or at least not always — of being uninteresting. They include relatively well-known historical poems like “The Fight at Finnsburg” and “The Battle of Maldon” (both of which, if memory serves, Tolkien wrote on), and “Caedmon’s Hymn”, which might be the earliest Old English verse that we have. There are the two hymns of St Godric (which I knew from the gorgeous musical settings by Anonymous 4), a calendar poem that describes the seasons and the annual cycle of church feasts, a set of metrical charms for use against diseases and cattle thieves, and some pious moral exhortations in “The Rewards of Piety” and “Instructions for Christians”. There is also “The Grave”, a ghastly meditation on death and decay, and a set of versified commentaries on Latin liturgical prayers like the Pater Noster, Gloria, and Credo.

Speaking of the Pater Noster, my favourite of these miscellaneous poems was “Solomon and Saturn”, a dialogue between the two named figures as representatives of the Biblical and pagan worlds, respectively. This is a novel idea for a poem, and it is doubly interesting to find that the pagan is Greco-Roman rather than, as one might expect, Scandinavian or Germanic. But the content of the poem is the main attraction: in one especially delightful section Solomon describes the effects of the Pater Noster on the devil. Each letter of the prayer assaults the powers of evil with righteous violence:

Whoever earnestly chants the word of God,
Sings out the truth of the Savior’s song,
And celebrates its spirit without sin,
Can chase away the fierce foe,
The champion of evil, if you use the power
Of the Pater Noster. P will punish him —
That warrior has a strong staff, a long rod,
A golden goad to strike the grim fiend.
Then A pursues him with mighty power,
Beating him back, and T takes a turn,
Stabbing his tongue, twisting his neck,
Breaking his jaws. E afflicts him,
Always ready to assault the enemy.
R is enraged, the lord of letters,
And grabs the fiend by his unholy hair,
Shakes and shivers him, picks up flint
And shatters his shanks, his spectral shins.
No leech will mend those splintered limbs —
He will never see his knees again.
Then the devil will duck down in the dark,
Cowering under clouds, shivering in shade,
Hatching in his heart some hopeless defense.
He will yearn for his miserable home in hell,
The hardest of prisons, the narrowest of homelands,
When those churchly twins, N and O,
Come sweeping down with sharp whips
To scourge his body, afflict his evil flesh.
Then S will arrive, the prince of angels,
The letter of glory, our Lord and Savior —
It will haul the fiend up by his hostile feet,
Swing him in the air, striking the stone
With his insidious head, cracking his cheeks,
Shattering his mouth, scattering his teeth
Through the throngs of hell. Each fearful fiend
Will curl up tightly, concealed in shadow
As the thane of Satan lies terribly still.
(ll.119-155)

And so on. This, I believe, is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long while.

*

Beyond these complete poems or substantial fragments, we also have a bunch of really short poems. When Williamson claims to have translated the “complete” Old English poems, he is not kidding. An inscription on a ring, a stray riddle, a metrical phrase carved on a stone cross or casket, a poetic line scribbled in the margin of a manuscript — they are gathered up and set down here. These bits have a certain romance about them; they, and only they, have been spared by the gauntlet of time. In some cases it becomes difficult to decide if something qualifies as Old English verse or not, for in later centuries the line between Old and Middle English became blurry, and the distinction between merely rhythmic prose and bona fide metrical verse can be tricky to descry. When in doubt Williamson has chosen to include it, and I’m glad.

**

Sadly, this browse through the Old English Curiosity Shop brings our journey through the whole surviving body of Old English poetry to an end. It has been a strange and rewarding trek for me through what was, mostly, terra incognita (or whatever the Anglo-Saxon phrase would be), and I am reluctant to let it go. Thanks are due to Craig Williamson for undertaking the massive task of single-handedly translating this marvellous, little-known literature.

I am mindful, however, that during the 18 months that I’ve been a hearth-guest of the Anglo-Saxons, a queue of other big, bulky medieval books has formed on my shelf. Unless I am mistaken they seem to hail from Finland, Iceland, Arabia, and Japan. Decisions, decisions…

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.

Old English Genesis

October 9, 2017

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

This year my extravagant birthday gift was The Complete Old English Poems, a door-stop of a book in which Craig Williamson has translated into modern English the entire surviving body of Anglo-Saxon poetry. This poetry — consisting of roughly 31000 lines in total — includes, most famously, Beowulf, but also a number of other substantial poems on a variety of subjects. I am planning to read through them, slowly, over the next few years.

I have begun with the Junius manuscript, which consists of several poems on Biblical subjects. The first is “Genesis”, a work of roughly 3000 lines which takes as its matter Genesis 1-22, including the creation of the world, the Fall, Noah, the Tower of Babel, the calling of Abraham, and the Sacrifice of Isaac, but also brings in other Biblical material to relate the story of the fall of the rebel angels.

Happily for me, this first taste has whetted my appetite for more; I enjoyed it thoroughly. Williamson aimed to preserve the poetic form of the original alliterative, strong-stress verse typical of the Anglo-Saxons, and his translation has the tough, terse feeling that we expect.

It is right to praise the Lord of heaven
With wise words and loving hearts.
He is almighty, infinite, eternal, abiding —
Source and Shaper, Guardian of glory,
King of all exalted creatures, Lord of Hosts.
He exists before beginning, beyond ending.
Righteous and steadfast, he will rule forever
The embracing expanse of high heaven,
Its length and breadth, its range and reach,
First established for the children of glory,
The guardian angels, the hallowed host,
Who held a bounty of brightness and bliss
Through the emanating might of their bold Maker. (l.1-13)

What most surprised me about this poem was the extent to which it reminded me of Paradise Lost; the rebellion of the angels, and the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden, especially, and also the poem’s adoption of the devil’s point of view brought Milton’s poem powerfully to mind. Did Milton know this Old English original? I’d have thought not, but in fact the evidence is more ambiguous: he was a friend of Junius, the manuscript’s owner at the time. Most interesting is Williamson’s observation that sections of Paradise Lost can be scanned both as iambic pentameter or as Anglo-Saxon strong-stress verse. He grants the consensus view that the “Old English influence on Milton’s epic is impossible to prove”, but also states his personal view that “there is some connection in terms of form, characterization, and narrative thread between the two poems”.

They refused to revere his words and works,
So he turned their triumph into dark defeat,
An agony of existence under the earth.
They balked in heaven and were blistered in hell,
Where they spend each restless night in flames,
An ever-ready, relentless fire. At dawn, cold comes,
An eastern wind of almost ice. They’re caught
Between the twin torments of frost and fire,
The stabbing heat, the piercing cold.
Hell holds them both in bitter balance. (l.333-341)

Satan resolution to revenge himself on God by marring his finest creation is reminiscent of Milton:

We know he has marked out middle-earth,
Where he has made mankind in his own image.
He hopes to resettle our place in heaven
With these pure souls. This is our chance
To spoil his plan, avenging ourselves
On his precious Adam and all of his heirs.
In that new world we’ll frustrate his will.
Now I no longer aspire to the holy light
Or hope for heaven where the Lord intends
To enjoy eternity with his host of angels.
We’ll never succeed in weakening God’s will,
So let’s just subvert it with the children of men.
Let’s teach them untruths, seduce them to sin,
Lead them to lie. Let’s worm our way
Into this world and undo God’s work. (l.423-437)

Some aspects of the demon’s temptation of Adam and Eve differ from the Biblical account. In this poem the serpent first approaches Adam, but is rebuffed, and only then approaches Eve. More surprisingly, the nature of the serpent’s temptation is different: although he does promise Eve that eating of the fruit will grant her an unsuspected glory:

Eat this fruit, taste its sweetness,
Savor its power to open your eyes,
So that you can see beyond yourself,
Beyond this world to the throne of God
And curry favor with your own Creator. (l.620-625)

He also tells them that God has rescinded and reversed his forbidding of the fruit (“He commands you to taste this fair fruit / That he knows you crave.”), thereby casting their disobedience as, plausibly, a well-intentioned mistake. This is a theologically fraught innovation that I’m not convinced makes a great deal of sense. But then the poet captures the moment of the Fall with admirable concision: “He ate the apple / And lost himself.” (l.780-1)

There are a few places in the poem where the fact that the Anglo-Saxons admired warriors and the warrior virtues comes through strongly. Abraham, for instance, is portrayed as a rather typical heroic figure:

Abraham, you are honored among heroes
In the eyes of God, who gave you the glorious
Gift of ash-spears and gleaming swords
To slash through your savage enemies,
Carve a bloody swath through your fierce foes,
A road of wrath, a hard path of pain.
That company was waiting in a cruel camp
To descend upon you, dealing out death
In grim combat, but God himself
And your great army expelled that evil,
Banned that bane, put the faithless to flight. (l.2128-2138)

This seems incongruous to us, as a transparent example of pre-Christian values infiltrating the Biblical story, but cases like this are instructive, for of course it is likely that we, too, allow the prevailing values of our time to influence how we read and understand our religion, rather than allowing our religion to teach us how to evaluate the values prevailing in our particular time and place. And lest the poet’s characterization of Abraham seem too outlandish, I’ll just note that he can be superbly sensitive too, as when he allows Abraham to describe his feelings at growing old without a child:

“My heart is a cold cache of sorrow —
For this agony I know no comfort or counsel.” (l.2205-6)

**

The “Genesis” poem is, on textual grounds, thought to be the work of at least two poets writing originally in different languages, and the Old English poem as we have it is thought to have been assembled from these earlier pieces sometime in the ninth century. It has been a wonderful poem with which to launch this long-term reading project in Anglo-Saxon verse.

Beowulf, pictured

September 18, 2017

Beowulf
Adapted by Gareth Hinds
(Candlewick, 2007)
128 p.

Generally speaking I’m fond of attempts to adapt classic stories into a variety of different forms: poetry, film, music. Granting that such adaptations are usually inferior to their originals, they nonetheless can give a familiar story a new freshness, and when done with affection and appreciation they augment my appreciation too.

Beowulf is an interesting case, for the Old English original is inaccessible to me (still, though I have dormant plans), and all I’ve ever known are a variety of adaptations, some, I believe, more nearly conveying the experience of reading the original than others. Gareth Hinds has adapted the story into a graphic novel, which, given the nature of the medium, means that he is primarily adapting the story rather than the poem, but it’s such a wonderful story, and so well suited to a visual treatment, that I approached it in a spirit of expectation, especially on the strength of a glowing appraisal in a recent overview of Beowulf adaptations.

I’ll be the first to admit that my familiarity with graphic novels is slight, and so I am perhaps not an informed judge, but I thought this was excellent and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is quite faithful to the original, both in overall structure and in certain details. As to the latter, for instance, there is that brief sequence shortly after Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot in which King Hrothgar’s wife makes an appearance in the hall; it is a notable moment of the poem because it’s the only occasion, I believe, in which a woman enters the action (unless we count Grendel’s mother); Hinds introduces her at the same point, and with the same modest emphasis.

As to the structure of the story, Hinds captures and conveys it brilliantly through the use of three very different colour palettes for the story’s three panels. Each of the three battle scenes are shown in long, wordless sequences of drawings. The monsters are truly monstrous, and, like the poem, this graphic novel is extremely violent (reserved for teens or older, I should think). Where Hinds does use words, they are of an elevated tone befitting the material, and on the basis of the occasional echoes of alliterative verse that I hear in the prose, I believe he must be relying in whole or in part on an uncredited translation.

For me an edition of Beowulf like this could never be a substitute for a verse translation (of which my favourite is Sullivan/Murphy), but as a complement it has much to recommend it. In closing, here are a few photographs to give a flavour of the look of the book: