Posts Tagged ‘Old English’

The Vercelli Book

April 4, 2018

The Vercelli Book
Anonymous
Translated from the Old English by Craig Williamson
(Penn, 2016) [c.800]
150 p.

Continuing our explorations of Old English poetry we come to the Vercelli Book, one of the four principal surviving sources for this literature. The Book itself, which resides in the northern Italian city of Vercelli, dates to the 10th century, and is an anthology consisting of a half-dozen poems and a collection of prose works, mostly homilies. It is the poetry that has our attention today.

We will look at the poems in the order in which they are presented in my edition; I assume they follow the same order in the original manuscript.

**

The longest poem is Andreas, at about 1700 lines. It tells a legendary tale about how St Andrew the Apostle rescued St Matthew and many others from prison in Mermedonia, the land of the cannibals. This is a legend new to me; it is based on a second-century tale, The Acts of Andrew and Matthew in the City of Anthropophagi, but our Anglo-Saxon poet has taken care to recast Andrew as an Anglo-Saxon warrior, who, though he does not himself wield a weapon, has all of the requisite virtues.

The story begins when St Matthew is captured, blinded, and thrown into prison in a city of flesh-eating madmen, whom the poet describes in grisly detail:

The people of that place, the tribes of terror,
Hungered for unholy food. They ate no bread,
Drank no water, but wolfed down human
Flesh and blood, the corpses of men,
An abominable feast. This was their custom:
They slaughtered strangers who came from afar,
Engorged themselves on their unwelcome guests.
Each foreigner found himself invited to the table,
And the inhabitants ate as many as they were able.
They satisfied their hunger in hideous ways.
First the fierce people would go for the eyes,
Gouging out the beautiful jewels of the head,
Stifling sight with their sharp spear-points.
[21-34]

God calls Andrew to rescue Matthew, and even, incognito, captains the ship which carries Andrew to the terrible city. There is a good deal of unexpected humour during this voyage as God asks Andrew a series of questions, as though he needed to know the answers, and Andrew in turn expresses astonishment at the incredible wisdom of his host. There is in this exchange a rather beautiful capsule expression of the Gospel:

Then Andrew answered the curious captain:
“Dearest of men, how is it possible
That you of all people have never heard
Of the Savior’s power, how the Ruler’s Son
Revealed himself, his grace and glory,
Throughout the world? He gave speech to the dumb,
Hearing to the deaf, sight to the blind.
He gladdened the spirits of the leprous and lame,
Those who were limb-locked, sinew-twisted,
Sick and tormented. He healed the suffering
While here on earth and woke the dead
With a holy word. This man of glory
Manifested his power by means of miracles,
Consecrating wine from water to everyone’s delight.
Likewise from two fish and five loaves,
He fed the multitudes, five thousand strong.
They had come from far, weary and woeful
From their long journey, to enjoy their feast
With pleasant food in the open fields.
Now, my dear friend, you can hear how the Healer,
The Guardian of glory, has offered us his love
Through all of his holy words and works.
His teaching has brought us untold joy.
He has invited us home to the gates of heaven
And the exultation of angels, where we may live
In his fond embrace forever, even after death,
Alive in the dwelling place of the Lord.”
[568-94]

At last Andrew, “God’s adamant warrior”, arrives in Mermedonia. As he disembarks God declares that he will suffer greatly, as Christ did, but that great good will result. A truer prophecy could not have been spoken, for although he succeeds in setting free St Matthew and all the other prisoners, he is himself captured and his bone-house is subjected to all manner of abuse, with even his brain-house bashed and bloodied without mercy. Flowers bloom where his blood splashes on the ground:

Then the holy warrior, the beloved soldier,
Looked back at the long track of his tears,
As his God and Glory-king had commanded,
And saw beautiful, bright groves, blooming
With flowers everywhere his blood had fallen.
His gore had transformed the dead land
Into God’s green grandeur, a garden of light.
[1492-97]

When at last Andrew opens his word-hoard and calls to God for assistance, he is inspired to command water to spring forth from a marble pillar standing nearby. A great flood results, and the people of Mermedonia, seeing the error of their ways, repent, whereupon Andrew stops the flood and restores to life those who had drowned. The Mermedonians build a church and are given a bishop. The poem ends as Andrew departs, leaving them in peace as they sing praise to God:

“There is only one God, our holy Father,
The Lord and Creator of all living things,
Almighty, everlasting. His right and rule,
His promise and power, are glorious and blessed
All over middle-earth. His holy splendor
Makes bright each quickening creature,
Each shining star, each shimmering angel.
We bask in his living light and realize glory
In his holy radiance for ever and ever.
He is the Lord of lords, the King of kings.”
[1770-9]

This is quite a delightful poem, full of lurid incident and imaginative detail. It is, by a good margin, the most macabre story about the Apostles known to me (which is saying something).

*

Among the shorter poems in the Vercelli book is The Fates of the Apostles, a brief (150 line) work relating what happened to each of the twelve Apostles after Christ’s Ascension. At the conclusion of his survey, the poet addresses the reader directly in moving terms:

Now I pray that the person who has read this poem
And finds these words spiritually sustaining
Should humbly pray to this holy host
To grant me aid, shield me from sin,
Support me in my faith, and send me mercy.
I will need kind friends, caring and compassionate,
When I must travel the long, last road
Into that unknown and wondrous land,
Leaving my body behind, a bag of dust,
An armful of earth, a feast for worms.
[104-12]

He then proceeds to pose a riddle which, when solved, will reveal his name. Riddling is a charming tradition in Anglo-Saxon verse, and we’ll see much more of it before we’re through.

*

Next is another short (190 lines), but not simple, poem called Soul and Body, in which two souls return to earth to speak to their decaying bodies.

First comes a damned soul, doomed, it seems, for a certain term to walk the night, and taking the opportunity to unburden itself of the hatred and contempt it bears toward its body:

“You cruel, bloody clod, what have you done?
Why did you torment me, filth of flesh,
Wasting world-rot, food for worms,
Effigy of earth?” [18-21]

If a healthy human being is one in which soul and body are in harmony, this wicked soul is profoundly dissonant. It considers its body to be its great antagonist, and even blames the body for having caused its damnation:

“You tied me to torments
In hell’s dark home, made me a slave,
I lived inside you, encompassed by flesh,
Trapped in my torment, your sinful desires,
Your lusty pleasures. I couldn’t escape.” [37-41]

This soul knows that its body, though now in a state of dissolution, will be reunited to it on the day of Judgment, an event it anticipates with no relish:

“What will you say to God on Doomsday?
You will have to pay for each sin separately,
With each small joint in your hand or limb —
A severe judgment from a stern judge.
But what are we going to do together?
In the end we will endure the multitude of miseries,
The gathering of griefs, you allotted for us earlier.” (108-15)

Notice that even here the soul is dissociated from its own true nature; as far as it is concerned, it is the body that will be judged on the last day! The body, of course, cannot respond to this abuse. It is dead:

A corpse cannot speak.
Its head is split open, its hands torn apart,
Dismembered in the dust. Its jaw is gaping,
Its palate cracked, its throat ripped out,
Its sinews sucked away, its neck gnawed apart,
Its gums shredded into a handful of dust.
Savage worms now ravage its ribs,
Drink down the corpse, thirsty for blood.
Its tongue ripped into ten pieces,
A delightful feast for the little devourers,
So it cannot speak to the soul, trade talk
With the wretched spirit. The name of the worm
is Ravenous Greedy-Mouth, whose hard jaws
Are sharp as needles. It is the first visitor
To desire the grave, crunching through ground.
It rips up the tongue, bores through the teeth,
Eats down through the eyes into the head,
Inviting the other gobblers to a great feast,
When the wretched body has cooled down
That once wore clothes against the cold.
Then it becomes the feast for worms,
Cold carrion, a banquet for maggots.
Wise men should remember this. (l.123-45)

Then, in the poem’s second half, a blessed soul visits its body, its “dearest friend, beloved companion”. Here, too, the soul marks its body’s part in shaping its eternal destiny, but in a happy way:

Alas, my lord, if only
I could lead you away to see the angels
And the splendor of heaven, as you appointed for me
Through your good deeds. You fasted here,
Filling me up with the body of God,
Quenching my thirst with the soul’s drink. (158-63)

This body too is decaying in the grave, but the soul has hope:

I mourn for you here, dearest of men,
For a body turned into a banquet for worms,
But God’s will was always that your share
Should be this hateful home, this loathsome grave.
But I tell you truly: Do not be troubled
By this earthly torment — we will be united again
Gathered together for God’s judgment
On Doomsday. Then we shall enjoy together,
A precious pair, the honor and grace
You appointed for us while we were living,
And we will be exalted as one in heaven. (173-84)

Medieval views of the relationship between soul and body are sometimes caricatured as naively dualistic, with the body seen as a kind of prison from which the soul wishes to escape. There is some warrant for this in the tradition, but, then again, there is warrant for the opposite in the writings of, for example, Thomas Aquinas, who sees human nature as a profound and essential unity of soul and body. It is hazardous to generalize about a thousand years of history. This poem might seem to be playing into the dualistic framework, especially in the first half, which definitely presents the soul and body as being in an antagonistic relationship, with the body being basically evil — even a source of moral evil. But the poem’s second half presents the two as “beloved companions”, meant for one another and destined to be reunited, and this is clearly the view we are meant to favour. Disharmony in our nature is the fruit of sin, and is healed by salvation. Dualism can never really sit comfortably with the dogma of the resurrection of the body.

The poem will reappear later, in the Exeter Book, shorn of its happy soul.

**

The shortest poem in the Vercelli Book is a little fragment, On Human Deceit. At just 50 lines, there is not much to it. The poet considers the many ways in which men sin and harm both themselves and others. It is a fragment, and it reads that way.

**

Listen! I will speak of the best of dreams,
The sweetest vision that crossed my sleep
In the middle of the night when speech-bearers
Lay in silent rest. (1-4)

The Dream of the Rood is only about 160 lines long, but it is a powerful and beautiful poem that has been justly celebrated as one of the masterpieces of Old English poetry, and even of medieval literature as a whole.

In it, the poet has a vision of the cross on which Christ died, and the cross speaks to him, telling its story: how it was cut down, formed into a cross, and made an instrument of torture and execution. And then, one day, it was the Son of God who approached:

The warrior, our young Savior, stripped himself
Before the battle with a keen heart and firm purpose,
Climbed up on the cross, the tree of shame,
Bold in the eyes of many, to redeem mankind.
I trembled when the Hero embraced me
But dared not bow down to earth — I had to stand fast.
A rood was I raised — I raised the mighty King,
Lord of the heavens. I dared not bend down. (l.42-9)

I love the portrayal of Christ here as a warrior, preparing for battle. Scripture is clear that he went to his death willingly, and here the poet transmutes that willingness into positive eagerness. Mounting the cross, Christ died:

I saw the Lord of hosts stretch out his arms
In terrible suffering. Night-shadows slid down,
Covering in darkness the corpse of the Lord,
Which was bathed in radiance. The dark deepened
Under the clouds. All creation wept,
Lamenting the Lord’s death: Christ was on the cross. (56-61)

His friends soon came to take his body down, treating it with the greatest reverence. But the cross, neglected or hated, was taken down and thrown into a pit, covered with earth, until one day, many years later (and making a nice connection with Elene, below), the friends of Christ recovered it, adorning it with jewels. The cross then became a sign of love and hope, a miraculous transformation:

The Son of God suffered on my for awhile —
Now I rise up high in heaven, a tower of glory,
And I can heal any man who holds me in awe.
Long ago I become hateful to man, hardest of woes,
A terrible torturer. Then I was transformed.
Now I offer the true way of life to speech-bearers,
A road for the righteous. The Lord of glory,
The Guardian of heaven, has honored me
Above all trees, just as he also honored
His mother Mary above all women.
(ll.93-103)

At the poem’s conclusion, the cross instructs the poet to convey his story to all, teaching them that Christ will return one day to judge all souls.

Then the poet awakes:

“Now my life’s great hope is to see again
Christ’s cross, that tree of victory,
And honor it more keenly than other men.
The cross is my hope and my protection.”
(ll.134-7)

For me, this is the most touching and beautiful poem in the batch, and by a wide margin. Dream visions are not uncommon in Old English poetry — nor in the later English tradition neither — but this remains, I think, among the best.

**

Elene is the second longest poem in the Vercelli Book, at about 1300 lines. It tells the story of St Helena, mother of Constantine, and her discovery of the True Cross. This story is well-known, but the poet has a few surprises for us.

The poem opens with an account of Constantine’s vision of the cross before the Battle of Milvian Bridge and his subsequent conversion. (The poet says, wrongly, that he was immediately baptized.) He then sends his mother to Jerusalem to search for the long lost cross of the Savior.

From that day on, the story of Christ
And the sign of the Cross, the sacred rood,
Resided in Constantine’s heart, sustaining
His spirit, so that he ordered his mother Helena
To journey abroad with a band of soldiers
To the land of the Jews to seek out the cross,
The tree of glory, the gallows of God,
And see if the holy cross might be hidden
In an unmarked grave in unhallowed ground.

In Jerusalem is a young Jewish man, named Judas, whose family has for generations passed down secret knowledge of the location of the buried cross, keeping this knowledge hidden lest it give aid and comfort to Christians. This section of the poem makes for uncomfortable reading as the poet laboriously berates the Jews for their blindness, ignorance, and foolishness in rejecting Christ and the salvation he brought. It is natural enough that he, a Christian, should think those Jews who rejected Christ to be in error, and, as subsequent developments in the poem make clear, he does not believe that Jews are, as a people, intrinsically inferior to Christians, but he does express his anti-Judaism far more forcefully than we would.

You spit in the face of the Savior and Son,
Who could wash your eyes clean of blindness
With the sacred spittle and heal your hearts,
Saving you from the darkness of devils
And their fiery filth. You condemned to die
The Lord himself who created life
And conquered death — who raised up the patriarchs
From their mouldering graves, their grim fates.
In your blindness you traded light for darkness,
Truth for lies, mercy for malice.
You played deadly games with perjury,
So now you are sentenced to Satan’s realm,
Where no one will hear your unholy words
Or care to comfort your everlasting pain.
You condemned the life-giving power
Of the eternal Light. Now dwell in darkness
For all of your days. You live in delusion
And will die in desperation.
(304-21)

Helena is less scrupulous; she agrees wholeheartedly with the poet, and in a startling passage threatens the Jews of Jerusalem with a fiery conflagration unless they reveal the location of the True Cross. Judas is himself imprisoned for seven days before he relents and agrees to cooperate. A miracle occurs to guide him to the precise spot, and, to Helena’s great joy, three crosses are recovered from an ancient pit, and the cross of Christ is identified by its power to raise a dead man to life.

Then Judas lifted the third cross in joy,
The Redeemer’s rood, the tree of victory,
And the body rose up, intact and inspired
By the breath of life, its own lost soul.
Its limbs were alive, its eyes opened,
Its heart quickened by the power of the cross.
People raised their voices in praise of the Lord,
Honoring the Father and exalting the Son,
Lifting up their voices in a rapture of song:
“Glory be to God, who breathes life into being,
Shaping, sustaining all living creatures
Who celebrate the Creator without end.”
(893-904)

At this point the poet interjects a delightful vignette in which Satan, piping mad, protests this unauthorized theft of one of his souls:

That so-called Savior, Jesus of Nazareth,
Was a misguided boy born in Bethlehem
Of human flesh. He has mocked me, defiled me,
Made my existence an endless misery.
He has robbed me of riches, wasted my wealth,
Stolen my precious stash of souls.
He’s unrestrained. It’s unfair. It’s obscene.
His kingdom spreads like a pernicious plague
While mine is compromised all over creation.
(927-35)

News of the discovery spreads, to great rejoicing throughout the Christian world. Judas is himself baptized and made bishop. Shortly thereafter, at St Helena’s request, a search for the Holy Nails is begun, and another miracle leads to their discovery. One of the nails, in something of an anti-climax, is sent to Rome to be used as a bit for Constantine’s horse.

The poem closes with a charmingly personal passage in which the poet speaks about himself, his sins, his long labours over his poem, and his faith in the power of Christ’s cross.

Now that I have told this sacred story
About the rood, I am old and ready
To follow the final road. My flesh is frail,
My body failing. I have woven these words
Out of study and thought, winnowing them long
Into the night-watch. I too was blind
To the full truth about Christ’s cross
Till my mind was filled with the Lord’s light,
Revealing the depths of divine understanding.
My words and works were stained with sin,
And I was bound in misery, wound in woe,
Before God granted this feeble old man,
Whose mind was missing its careful clarity
Of younger days, a sacred gift, a share of grace.
He opened my heart and soul to the truth,
Easing my body and enlightening my mind,
Unlocking the ancient art of poetry,
Which I have practiced with great joy.
(1231-49)

There follows an acrostic section in which he spells out CYNEWULF, which may be his name, and the poem comes to a close with a vision of the final judgment.

*

The poems of the Vercelli Book, then, are a fairly heterogeneous lot. They are all Christian poems, of course, and the influence of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture is evident in several. There are two saint’s lives, and two take as their centerpiece the crucifix of Christ, but otherwise the poems do not bear a strong resemblance to one another, and neither is it clear that they have been gathered together into one volume for any particular reason. All of the poems have something to recommend them. The greatest treasure is The Dream of the Rood.

Old English Daniel

February 13, 2018

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

Continuing my reading of the poems in the Junius Manuscipt, I come to this narrative poem based on episodes in the Book of Daniel, Chapters 1-5. At roughly 700 lines, it is somewhat longer than Exodus, but it seems to me a much more straightforward poem.

The poet tells the story of the sack of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar and the captivity of the Hebrew people, Daniel among them. Daniel gains favour with the king as an able interpreter of dreams. Meanwhile the king is drunk on hubris, and we hear the story of the burning fiery furnace, and of the three Hebrew men, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, who are protected from the flames by an angel of God. The king has a second dream, and again Daniel interprets, foretelling the seven-years madness of the king. Finally we hear the tale of Belshazzar’s feast, with the strange handwriting on the wall and Daniel summoned to read it.

I noted, in comments on earlier poems in this manuscript, that the poets sought to cast the Biblical characters as warriors, mighty in their fury and dauntless, even when this was without any real warrant in the Biblical text. Interestingly, that does not happen in this poem. Instead, the poet sees Daniel as a different kind of hero: a sage, a man of knowledge who sees into mysteries. I do not know if this was a character whom the poet’s audience would have recognized as familiar.

The poem is odd, structurally. The first dream of Nebuchadnezzar is passed over rapidly, but the second is presented in great detail. Even more oddly, the final panel of the poem ends abruptly, after Daniel is summoned but before he interprets the handwriting — he is given just enough time to berate the revelers for their impiety. And of course those of us who teach catechism classes to youngsters are surprised to read a poem about Daniel that never mentions the lion’s den (though the explanation is straightforward enough: that occurs in Daniel, Chapter 6). In his introductory notes, Craig Williamson notes these peculiar features of the poem and points to a lively scholarly debate about them.

My favourite part of the poem is the song of praise which the three young men sing from the centre of the fiery furnace. The imagery is beautiful and the effect is resplendent; let me write out the whole thing:

The three bold surviviors, wise in mind,
Said to their Creator with a single voice:
“Gracious Father, let the full beauty
Of the world’s crafts, each created wonder,
The heavens and angels, the bright clear waters,
Each of your beings in its own degree,
Everything above in its glory and grandeur,
Praise your power and worship you.
Let the sun and moon, the stars in heaven,
The planets parading in the night sky,
The waters of earth and air, the dew and rain,
Praise and glorify you. Let all souls sing,
Exalting the name of almighty God.
Let burning fire and bright summer,
Night and day, land and sea,
Light and darkness, heat and cold,
Frost and dew, rain and river,
Spring-snap and winter-wonder,
Cloud-drift and snow-drift,
All weathers, all seasons, glorify God.
Let all creatures in the curve of creation
Extol your blessings, eternal Lord —
Lightning-flash and thunder-clap,
Earth-hills and summer-spills,
Salt-waves and spring-surges,
The deep thrum of whales singing,
The high drift of birds winging,
Water-flow and wind-blow,
Cattle in the field, beasts in the wild.
Let the children of men celebrate your love,
Bring you the best of their hearts’ hymns.
Let the people of Israel, your faithful servants,
Praise you, proclaiming your glory revealed
In the wealth of the world, in bright nature’s
Bountiful being, in each creatures’ song.
Your hands hold each heart’s virtue,
Each mind’s making, each soul’s yearning.
We three children of God speak out
With a singular voice rising from the flames —
Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael together.
We glorify God in the sanctity of our hearts.
We bless you forever, Lord of all nations,
Almighty Father, true Son of the Creator,
Savior of souls, Healer of hearts,
Holy Spirit, and all-knowing God.
We celebrate your vision in our way of seeing,
Your powerful truth in our best way of being.
You reign supreme in the realm of heaven,
Higher than the sun-road over the world-roof.
You are a Poet making, a Creator shaping,
The Holy Word weaving itself in the world
Moment by moment from beginning to end —
All light, all life, the soul of our seeking,
The way of our walking in every bright land.”
(ll.363-416)

Admitting all of the necessary caveats about reading in translation, I hear in these lines a joyful lyricism that I’ve not encountered before in Anglo-Saxon poetry — albeit on limited exposure. At any rate, I like it.

The fourth and final poem in the Junius Manuscript is based on the New Testament. Christ and Satan will be our matter next time.

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.