This week looks at Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the ways in which the earliest English poetry has come back to influence more recent poets such as Hopkins, Hardy, Auden, and Hughes, following its reintroduction to school syllabuses in the late Victorian period. Each of these poets draw to some extent on the more Germanic elements of English, rather than the softer Latinate elements which had been favoured by the Romantics. By studying Anglo-Saxon poetry, students will discover the descriptive force of harsher consonants, moving away from the lyrical softness of Romanticism, as well as the power of alliterative line. They will also explore how poetry can give a sense of what is lost, though contemplation of ruined buildings, lost ancestors, and the question of what we can and can’t know about the past.
Caedmon’s Hymn (c. 670)
Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes
eci dryctin or astelidæ
he aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe haleg scepen.
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin æfter tiadæ
firum foldu frea allmectig
primo cantauit Cædmon istud carmen.
Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven’s kingdom,
The might of the Creator, and his thought,
The work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders
The Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,
Then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,
The Eternal Lord, afterwards made,
The earth for men, the Almighty Lord.
In the beginning Caedmon sang this poem.
We begin with ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’, the oldest recorded poem in English, and indeed one of the oldest surviving examples of Germanic alliterative verse. It was passed down from a Latin translation in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The poem is in the Northumbrian dialect, whereas most Anglo-Saxon verse we have is in the Wessex dialect. Caedmon was a minor brother in the monasteries of Northumbria who has originally worked with cattle, an experience which inspired the poem, along with the Celtic Christianity in the North of England which he was involved with in the monastery.
This poem introduces students to the style of Anglo-Saxon verse, especially the alliterative patterning associated with it: ‘metudæs maecti | end his modgidanc’, ‘firum foldu | frea allmectig’. It has a four-beat line, with no strict syllable count, patterned instead with the usually three alliterative sounds in each line.
The Ruin (tr. Michael Alexander)
Well-wrought this wall: Wierds broke it.
The stronghold burst…. Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen,
the work of the Giants, the stonesmiths,
Rime scoureth gatetowers
rime on mortar. Shattered the showershields, roofs ruined,
age under-ate them.
And the wielders & wrights?
Earthgrip holds them – gone, long gone,
fast in gravesgrasp while fifty fathers
and sons have passed.
grey lichen, red stone, kings fell often,
stood under storms, high arch crashed –
stands yet the wallstone, hacked by weapons,
by files grim-ground …
… shone the old skilled work .
… sank to loam-crust. Mood quickened mind, and a man of wit,
cunning in rings, bound bravely the wallbase
with iron, a wonder. Bright were the buildings, halls where springs ran,
high, horngabled, much throng-noise;
these many meadhalls men filled
with loud cheerfulness: Wierd changed that. Came days of pestilence, on all sides men fell dead,
death fetched off the flower of the people;
where they stood to fight, waste places
and on the acropolis, ruins. Hosts who would build again
shrank to the earth. Therefore are these courts dreary
and that red arch twisteth tiles.
wryeth from roof-ridge, reacheth groundwards ….
There once many a man
mood-glad, goldbright, of gleams garnished,
flushedwith wine-pride, flashing war-gear,
gazed on wrought gemstones, on gold, on silver,
on wealth held and hoarded, on light-filled amber,
on this bright burg of broad dominion. Stood stone houses; wide streams welled
hot from source, and a wall all caught
in its bright bosom, that the baths were
hot at hall’s hearth; that was fitting … Thence hot streams, loosed, ran over hoar stone
unto the ring-tank ….
… It is a kingly thing
… city ….
Original (8th Century, Exeter Book)
Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras,
hrungeat berofen, hrim on lime,
scearde scurbeorge scorene, gedrorene,
The Ruin (tr. Bill Manhire, 2010)
Storm roared in the roof: a rocking of towers.
Giants stood then stumbled.
Once they strode into weather and wind.
Where stairs went down, only these mounds.
Then more is missing.
Walk toward the baths: they are missing.
Toward ramparts and ring-hall: missing.
Toward Romans and Saxons: missing and missing. Each man under-taken.
Generation and generation. Here is a gate made of frost,
Here tiles were torn away and [missing].
Here was fire. Here was [lost] And here is the true charred text.
See how the ruin rides among riddles - anchor and inkhorn and loom –
bumping against whatever happens next. Oh earth went over them all:
chalice and harp, husband and wife,
palace and tented place. Grey moss on red stone…
And here and there a glance, a gleam
a home [but missing]
dwelling we almost glimpse across the water.
‘The Ruin’ comes from the Exeter Book, most famous for its riddles, but also containing a number of elegiac poems such as this one. This kind of meditative verse is very different from the heroic verse of ‘Beowulf’, which many students will think of when they think of early English poetry. The poem is reflection on the Roman world, on the civilisations which have come before the poet which they don’t fully understand. It may have been written about the Roman ruins in the city of Bath, as suggested by the references to baths and hot water. The Romans seen are as giants compared with the new world, creating a sense of lateness, a sense that the poet comes from a time when the great deeds of mankind are in the past. It is interesting for students to contemplate their own reaction as they read a poem from a world which is distant to them, the England of the 8th century, which itself looks back to an ancient past which is distant to the poet.
Another of the key things for students to note when reading Anglo-Saxon verse is the use of ‘kennings’, compound words which act as a kind of metaphor, a compression of two ideas into one. Some examples here include ‘gravesgrasp’, ‘earthgrip’, ‘wallstone’, and ‘wallbase’. Students can discuss the metaphorical force which arises from slamming two ideas together in this way, and come up with their own examples.
Bill Manhire, a modernist poet from New Zealand, was himself a student of Anglo-Saxon Norse. In his translation of the poem, he makes it into a kind of double act, containing both the Anglo-Saxon poets trying to rediscover the meaning of Roman society and him as a modern poet trying to rediscovery the meaning of the Anglo-Saxon text. He refers to absences in the text, as well as absences in the landscapes, exploring the connections between the two. The poem is playing with multiple ideas about the missing and the lost, as when it plays with the tradition of using square brackets to indicate lost or missing material, working this mark of loss into the meaning of the poem itself. Manhire’s use of the word ‘gleam’ here – an Anglo-Saxon word we still use in modern English – also furthers the sense of things both lost and recovered. Students can connect this idea back to Gilgamesh from Week 1, and the idea of texts filled with gaps and holes.
Original (8th century, Exeter Book)
Maeg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan,
siþas secgan, hu ic geswincdagum
earfodhwile oft þrowade,
bitre breostceare gebiden heebbe,
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela,
atol yþa gewealc, þaer mec oft bigeat
nearo nihtwaco aet nacan stefnan,
ponne he be clifum cnossað
The Seafarer, Ezra Pound (1912)
May I for my own self song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsmen;
Hung with hard ice-flakes, where hail-scur flew,
There I heard naught save the harsh sea
And ice-cold wave, at whiles the swan cries,
Did for my games the gannet’s clamour,
Sea-fowls, loudness was for me laughter,
The mews’ singing all my mead-drink.
(Read more of the poem here.)
‘The Seafarer’, along with the similar poem ‘The Wanderer’, is perhaps the most famous example of Anglo-Saxon poetry representing the laments of an exile. The most famous translation of the poem is Pound’s; students should note, linking back to Week 4, that Pound had a sense of this poetry as contemporary with Tang poets like Li Po.
Pound’s translation tries to get the physicality of the world into the poem. This poem is ideal for students to pick out examples of the harsher, more guttural sounds of Anglo-Saxon verse, as well as its emphasis on consonantal sounds and bold rhythms. Pound saw a return to this kind of verse-writing as a way of breaking away from the dreamy, somnambulant verse of poets like Keats and Tennyson. His four-beat line, with the suggestion of a caesura in the middle, as well as his alliterative patterning, are close to the Anglo-Saxon original. (See also ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’.)
There is a sense, in the poem, of extreme circumstances, specifically the harshness of journeying at sea, of struggling through a cold, difficult, hostile environment. The alliterative music of the poem’s sounds is suggestive of the noises of the sea, the winds and seabirds’ cries, with the use of kennings (such as ‘whalesacre’) suggesting things crashing together, like waves hitting the side of the boat.
Students can also discuss the elegiac tone of the poem, comparing it to that of ‘The Ruin’. There is a sense of someone looking back on their life, contemplating how everything passes, as well as how we are always in a later world, always coming after something which is lost. The inevitability of fate is one of the Anglo-Saxon themes, even when it is presented within a Christian world. The poem contains a strong sense of struggle, both the heroism but also the fatality of it.
Ask students to come up with their own kennings, playing with the compression of bringing two ideas together to create a new metaphor. They can then develop this metaphorical force into a new poem.
Ask students to write a poem deliberately using more Germanic or guttural sounding words, using techniques like the alliterative line and the force of consonance.
Ask students to choose something from their own past that’s lost – a place, a person, a thing – and write an elegy for it.