Now Winter has Fled and earth's breast has a fairer face

Some aspects of Old English verse

© 2002 Jeff Lynch

Firstly let me apologise for the loose and rambling nature of this small article. I have but two books (not counting the Michael Alexander version of Beowulf) containing Old English verse.* This exercise merely sees me picking out examples at random as it were as they catch my attention and if I think that they teach me something. Richard Hamer in his "A Choice of Anglo Saxon Verse" reminds us that there are about 30,000 lines of Old English poetry discovered. Most of these are Christian based tracts, homilies, stories, prayers and bible based. The "warrior sagas" too are nearly always a combination of pagan Cynn or kin histories with Christian messages built in. Many of them are fragments only and almost none of the authors are known. He also notes that despite most of the extant works survived by a fluke of history much of the work is of a very high quality.

What can we learn of the craft from the works themselves? Very little indeed. However a few lines shine light on how the poets (scops) saw how to craft their words.

Starting with Beowulf; the warriors are riding back from the mere(another beautiful word) where Beowulf has killed Grendel (a monster).
The man struck up,
Found the phrase, framed rightly
The deed of Beowulf, drove the tale,
Rang word changes.
Alexander here points out that this is an extempore telling (they are on horseback). It is a fresh legend and the tale is driven and the teller rings the word changes giving delighted listeners delight in technical accomplishment even in the spur of the moment.

The most telling piece on the subject of alliteration (I always try to remind myself of the saying sound echoing, sense at the mention of alliteration) according to Hamer is from the other end of the time spectrum compared with Beowulf. It is a stanza from Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.
As hit Is stad and stoken
In stori stif and stronge
With lel letterers loken,
And londe so hath ben longe….
I stared at this with total incomprehension. One can make out a few words but no sense! This changes when you find the accompanying translation (whether it is a literal one I know not!)
"If you will listen to this lay for just a little while, I shall tell it quickly as I heard it spoken in town, as it is clearly established in firm strong story linked together with loyal letters, as has been long been done in the land"
Somewhere or other I had heard of loyal letters (letteres) before surely but still I cannot remember where or when. It seems clear enough that they refer to the 'locking of letters', and in this case to the beginnings of words like stad and stoken or lel and letteres which make the repeated pattern; the poet here is speaking of the long honorable tradition of alliteration (in Britain.)
 I am not certain now where I came upon woruld candel (and also the candle of heaven); it may have been in Beowulf, but I find the words magical in describing our sun. Of course a candle provides light in the dark, if it is burning. We now know that the sun is lit by nuclear reaction (the poet merely saw light), which of course followed the darkness. We may have a candle at night but of course we cannot see the sun at night, so that there is a poetic difference or tension to the words as well. Candles were often used as a measure of time, being marked off at intervals and noting where the wick burns to the markers below. So the sun is a universal marker, from dawn to dusk recognised by poets then as now. We have another day, we have the next day until a week and then a year! And so on to the dying of the light. A marker recognisable until fusion changes into the next aspect of star’s life!

I am also fond of swan-rad ('swan's riding?), for the sea. Swan is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, of Old English (Germanic) origin. Rad a strong sound. Swan riding or ridden is a fine allusion, a strong and yet gentle picture!

In "The Fight at Finnsburgh (Finnsburh)", which is really a fragment attached to Beowulf by the poet we find these lines…
… Now shines the moon,
welkind wanderer
It is from Welkin also OE poetic/literary meaning sky or heaven. Wolcen is its western Germanic origin. The welkin is a lovely replacement for our universe or space. The ancients named planets wanderers, which is of course technically more correct than the moon being a wanderer, but it a mover as well! The Fight at Finnsburgh is a tale of an epic five day fight. Here is a grim and memorable allusion in the description of battle:
A pale crowd of corpses. The crows dangled Black and brown.
In this translation at least, we seem unsure if the poet is comparing the bodies with crows or if he means them to be carrion around them. It is sufficiently unclear perhaps to cover both images. Here dangled is the strong word! Crows rarely dangle.

Perhaps but fallen corpses may seem to. This as I said could be only a personal interpretation from one translation!

The fight occurs at the door of a hall. Here have the startling words:
No eastern dawn is this, no
Dragon flying
Nor are the gables burning on this hall,
But now starts the war
These words are designed to be alarming, with passionate overtones couched in contradictions. The mixture of the real (an eastern dawn) which is the everyday and the fabulous (the unreal with the dragon) is obvious. But the point is that neither of these are appearing. Nor is an everyday event such the burning of  hall gables happening. There is no mythical creatures to mystify or entertain, to amaze or frighten us, no sideshows no sleight of hand; merely, but now starts the war stark and awful! Which is real enough and scary enough if imagine you are one of the warriors.

Other battle images, this time from "The Battle of Maldon", include:
the wolves of war advanced the viking troop. Unmoved by water, westward over the Pante (a river) Many a spear passed through the lifehouse of the doomed.
Next is a separate quotation:
..on earth was uproar
they let the file-hard spears fly from their fists
grimly-ground darts….
These lines are good examples to support Beowulf type battle scenes, in resonance and power. The one body we all possess (some say borrow) is well described as the life house which perhaps shelters the spirit within (but I reach for the metaphysical, so will desist). In any case doomed or not (although these lines are not directly linked) they give a last hurrah firing out their fire-hard spears in doomed defiance. Of  course there is an abundance of alliteration in these particular lines!

Lastly a curious footnote perhaps of interest to those interested in runic letters. It seems that there was one poet, Cynewulf, "whose practice it was to end his poems with a coda in which his name was spelt out in the letters of the Runic Alphabet". Hamer says also that nothing else is known about him save that he was probably a Mercian of the eighth or ninth century. Given that only four or five individuals are known to us at all, this is remarkable enough indeed. LONG LIVE RUNES!

* Note: The title of this ill managed piece is from Beowulf. Since I began the piece I have obtained a copy of an older book Anglo Saxon Poetry edited by S. A. J. Bradley, Everyman (pub), reprint 2000. This book is particularly comprehensive!


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