Old English


Ornamental page with the beginning of the Gospel according to John, from the Lindisfarne Gospels




In the beginning was the poem. It is of some 3,182 lines and is written in the language of the Anglo-Saxons known to us as “Old English.” The events related in Beowulf can be dated approximately to the early decades of the sixth century, and to that period when the Frisians, Danes, Swedes, Franks and Geats were engaged in their occupation of England. The period in which it was actually written remains in dispute, although the most recent scholarship suggests a date in the tenth century. Yet Beowulf is so instinct with life and spirit that, on its discovery, it was believed to have been composed at the time of the events themselves. It is an act of the historical imagination, and may be seen as one of the earliest triumphs of historical consciousness.

The poem begins with a call for attention: “Hwaet!” — What! or Listen! Immediately invoked are the “gear-dagas,” the days of old, a threnody which will become a constant passion among the English. There then follows a description of the funeral of Scyld Scefing, “ beaga bryttan” or the Lord of the Rings, whose body is carried down to a great ship and despatched upon the whale-road and wave-domain of the sea; the sea is a constant presence in the poem, moving within the four beats of the alliterative line in an insistent rhythm which will affect the whole subsequent movement of English poetry. The grandson of Scyld Scefing, the warrior Hrothgar, builds a great “heal aern,” or hall-building, in order to memorialise his own triumphant career; this is a place of warmth and light, of food and drink, wide-gabled and lofty. It is a wine-mansion and gold hall of men. In a world of danger and of darkness, it represents human felicity. There is an Anglo-Saxon term, “ seledreorig,” meaning “sad for a hall” (perhaps a longing for home); it is a harbinger of English melancholy.

Within this hall the “scop,” or bard, chanted the song of creation when the “Aelmihtiga” created the earth and the waters, as well as the “sunnan ond monan” which grant light to humankind. And so good fortune reigned over Hrothgar’s kingdom until a “feond on helle,” a moor-dweller and border-wanderer, the monster Grendel, fell upon the bright hall and devoured thirty of Hrothgar’s retinue. Grendel was descended from Cain, just as Alfred the Great’s line was traced to Adam himself. The feud of Cain and Abel was in direct and powerful relationship to the Anglo-Saxon culture from which Beowulf sprang; events did not necessarily take place in time but were endlessly foreshadowed in the texts of sacred or spiritual teaching. The fraternal feud, then, might be seen as the most significant event in English history. It anticipates the sense in which later writers treated biblical history as a form of historical redaction.

Thus Grendel, the seed of Cain, was a “death-scua,” or death shadow, a “hel-rune” who in the depths of night traversed the “mistige moras,” or misty moors. Here, too, are the first traces of that delight in the strange and the occluded which marks the English imagination. The wonderful and the terrible stalk the “mistige moras” of subsequent poetry and fiction, with a particular conflation of horror and pathos which has become so characteristic and so familiar.

The monster was an exile and a wanderer, a state which the Anglo-Saxons feared and hated in equal measure. For twelve winters—note how, in this landscape, time is measured by winter—the monster pursued a campaign of extirpation and carnage against Hrothgar. Some of his men and counsellors offered sacrifices in propitiation to the pagan gods, and prayed to the “ gast-bona,” or devil, but the narrator consigns them to doom and damnation. Beowulf is a Christian poem concerning pagan warriors. This is a world in which the forces of elemental myth and of Christian typology are not necessarily distinguished. It is not a question of the Christian and pagan elements opposing or modifying each other; they are equivalent in a poem of formal contrasts in which pathos and savagery, humour and celebration, are mingled. It is an inclusive English narrative.

After these twelve winters the thegn, Beowulf, came over the sea to assist Hrothgar. A watchman above the shining cliffs and high hills rides down to confront him. “I have watched by the sea for many years,” he tells him, “and have never witnessed such a host of armed men.” Then Beowulf unlocks his “word-hoard” and speaks of his quest against the fiend. “Beowulf is min nama.” He takes up arms against Grendel and, in one desperate fight, the monster is fatally wounded by the warrior. Beowulf then severs the head of Grendel’s monstrous mother. At a later time, he himself is delivered a fatal wound by a guardian dragon. The pattern is completed. The poem ends, as it begins, with a funeral ceremony. It is a high chant. It resembles an oratorio, and may be compared with John Milton’s Paradise Regained. It is wrought at an intricate and formal pitch even though it springs out of melancholy and a sense of transience. It has the violence and intensity of Celtic work with the formality and fluency of Old English. The heart of the attentive listener may well break, but the scop keeps on singing.

The musical instruments of the Anglo-Saxon world, known to us, are the six-stringed harp or lyre, the horn, the bagpipe, the viol, the cymbals, the hand-bell and the reed flute. The association between music and poetry, however, is a matter of speculation. It is indeed possible that Beowulf was sung, and that the peculiar marks in the manuscript of the poem act as musical notations. The Latin word signifying singing, “ cantare,” is translated into Old English as “the hearpan singen,” or sung to the harp. The phrase, “swutol sang scopes,” appears. Yet the poem may have been chanted or intoned, to the accompaniment of the “hearpan”; it may even have been recited without the aid of any music. That its oration demanded a rigorous and formal performance is not in doubt; the scop was a significant figure in any lord’s retinue, since he was both poet and historian of the community. The subsequent history of English poetry is so entwined with music, however, that the notion of musical accompaniment is a pleasing one. From the plaintive lyrics of the early Tudor court to the collaborations of Dryden and Purcell, Auden and Britten, the combined line of word and melody is persistent and continuous. It conjures up the image, expressed in an Old English Life of St. Dunstan, of a harp sounding a melody—a song of joy—of its own accord.

Like many works of the English imagination, Beowulf has left its mark upon the landscape. The ancient site of Belbury Castle in Devon was known as “bigulfesburh,” or “Beowulf ’s burgh,” and the name of “grendlesmere” appears in a Wiltshire charter of 931. The association of specific places with fatality is indeed an ancient one; the sites of pre-Saxon communities were generally held to be blessed or cursed, and until recent times there was a marked reverence for fairy circles and standing stones. There is a more elusive, but perhaps more significant, continuity. It is appropriate that in one sense Beowulf is a saga of origin, an attempt to animate or revive the culture from which the English believed they had sprung. Within the body of Anglo-Saxon writing itself lie the origins of subsequent English literature, whether in the form of dream-vision or riddle, history or travel, biography or elegy, verse moral or pastoral. There is also the matter of epic.

Beowulf itself survives in only one manuscript, its provenance unknown, but its fortuitous discovery is an intimation of the fact that there may have been other Old English epics which are now lost irretrievably; extant references suggest, if they do not prove, that there were long verse narratives concerning mythological figures such as Wade or Weland the Smith while fragments of the “Battle of Brunanburh,” the “Battle of Finnsburh” and the “Battle of Maldon” point to a relatively large corpus of lost and forgotten epic narrative.

That attraction to the epic form has persisted among the English poets. There are of course the great examples of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and Milton’s Paradise Lost, of Hardy’s The Dynasts and the fragment of The Fall of Hyperion by Keats. The epic ambition is to be found in Sidney’s Arcadia, in Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, in Tennyson’s Idylls, in Browning’s The Ring and the Book, in Blake’s Jerusalem, in Wordsworth’s Prelude, in Byron’s Don Juan, in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. One scholar of the English epic, E. M. W. Tillyard, cites Langland’s Piers the Plowman as a worthy successor of Beowulf but refers to other examples in order to demonstrate “the kinship of them all.”He places The Pilgrim’s Progress in this company, but then broadens his theme by arguing for the inclusion of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The case of Gibbon is instructive. In his childhood he had read Pope’s translation of Homer, and Dryden’s translation of Virgil; he was aware of the facility with which English poets could appropriate the epic tradition. In similar fashion he conceived of his History as a didactic and exemplary undertaking, and of himself as the true heir of Spenser and of Milton. The epic strain is deeply rooted.

One central preoccupation, however, might have been taken from Be owulfitself—that of a national epic celebrating the foundation and development of the race. Milton wished to “rasp out a British tune” or Arthurian epic before he ever contemplated Paradise Lost; Dryden lamented his inability to write an epic upon a national subject, while Pope contemplated a blank verse narrative upon the theme of Brutus and his discovery of Albion. Coleridge had surmised that “I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem,” but then surrendered the idea to Wordsworth, who believed that only epic “can satisfy the vast capacity of the poetic genius.” The epic mood was endemic, therefore. “There is a chaunt in the recitation both of Coleridge and Wordsworth,” one contemporary noted, “which acts as a spell upon the hearer.” The ancient chant of Beowulf is heard across the generations.

There is also a steadiness and intensity of tone which later poets have inherited. Here is a passage translated from the “Battle of Finnsburh”:

Around him lay many brave men dying. The raven whirled about, dark and sombre, like a willow leaf. There was a sparkling of blades, as if all Finnsburh were on fire. Never have I heard of a more worthy battle in war.

Here is a passage from Siegfried Sassoon, on another battle, in “Counter Attack”:

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud

There is the same understated vehemence, the same directness and passion. It is reminiscent of Carlyle’s remark that in the obstinacy and stolidity of the nineteenth-century labourer lay the lineaments of the Saxon warrior. When David Jones invoked his own experiences of the First World War, within In Parenthesis, he placed them in the context of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic mythology. As Taine puts the question (of the Anglo-Saxons), “Is there any people which has formed so tragic a conception of life? Is there any which has peopled its infantine mind with such gloomy dreams? . . . Energy, tenacious and mournful energy, an ecstasy of energy—such was the chosen condition.”

The poetic life of approximately four hundred years survives now in only thirty thousand lines, snatched fortuitously from the oblivion of time; they are to be found in four manuscripts, one of them still located in the cathedral library of Vercelli near Milan, where no doubt it was left by a wealthy pilgrim on a journey to Rome. They were transcribed in the latter part of the tenth century, as part of the monastic revival of that period, when the scriptoria of the cathedrals and great monasteries were involved in a programme of educational and administrative reform. It was a question of preserving the inheritance of the race, at a time when its destiny and identity were being threatened by the Norsemen. But if it was a manner of affirming historical identity, it was also an act of piety; the poetic corpus transmitted by the monks was of an overwhelmingly Christian character, thus establishing the visionary religious tradition within all subsequent English poetry. The sacred histories of Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, Judith, The Fate of the Apostles, Christ and Satan all furnish the homiletic material of the later English poets.

The dates for the composition of these Anglo-Saxon poems cannot now be ascertained and we may hazard any period between the sixth and tenth centuries; although most of the extant poetry has been transcribed in the West Saxon tongue, there are dialectical differences in the range of Old English which emphasise the provenance of different kingdoms. From Northumbria come the hymn of Caedmon, The Dream of the Rood and Bede’s verses in the last hours of his life. Bede, who characteristically wrote in Latin, reverted to his native tongue in extremis, just as the scholar Aldhelm sang in the vernacular upon a bridge to attract and edify the English. From Mercia are supposed to spring two long poems on the life of St. Guthlac, the hermit of Crowland among the fens of Lincolnshire, while Beowulf itself contains certain Mercian references. From Kent may derive a version of the “Finnsburh” fragment; from the West Saxons “The Ruin.” In such a sophisticated society there was a range of expressiveness. In the Cynewulf Christ, homage is paid to the singer of “wise poems”; another bard may chant before heroes, while others are concerned with singing of sacred law or of the course of the heavens.

All employed the alliterative line, that great pounding force which is created by two half-lines divided by a caesura, with two principal stresses or “lifts” in each half-line. It has been well noted that it emphasises the qualities of intense or loudly enunciated speech; it is measured by a firm and heavy beat. It does not run and cannot be rushed; it is intense because it harbours an ecstasy and energy forced to dwell in measure. The pattern of two alliterative words in the first half of the line, followed by one in the second, creates a cadence as if of thought or contemplation. The listener or solitary reader is obliged to pause—as it were—in order to comprehend the meaning. Its syllabic momentum courses so powerfully through the lines of later poets that the beat of the pentameter and the octosyllabic couplet, two of the dominant forms within English verse, can be supposed to spring directly from this oral source. Like English speech, it has a falling rhythm. It is a “high” language, a call or summons like a great bell; the line-break and the pattern of stresses allow for a complete interrelation between parts in a series of oppositions and contrasts. The language employed is, by the tenth century, deliberately archaic and “poetic” with a reliance upon encrusted ornamental diction as well as a repertoire of phrases; the sun is “the candle of the world,” the sea is “the chalice of waves,” the helmet is the “castle of the head.” It is what William of Malmesbury declared to be “English magnificence.”

One of the most interesting features of these tenth-century recensions is the manner in which they were transcribed; the poetry is written in the long lines of prose, as if no certain or intrinsic difference could be distinguished between verse and prose narrative. In similar fashion the prose homilies preserved in the Vercelli book borrow alliterative and general metrical features from Anglo-Saxon poems; this is of the utmost significance in dealing with examples of English prose and poetry from much later writers where, in many instances, there is again no clear distinction between the forms. The meditations of John Donne or Thomas Browne may best be understood as forms of allusive poetry, while parts of Browning or Clough move towards the dominant nineteenth-century mode of the novel. There is no necessary boundary. There is none, also, between the various genres of Anglo-Saxon poetic activity. Little distinction is made between the poetry of natural observation and of religious narrative, for example, which in turn suggests that there is very little perceived difference between religious and secular poetry. In a society once thoroughly paganised, where ravens spoke and stones moved, how can there be such a difference? And in a society where the values of early Christianity came to prevail over heathen reverence, the whole world remains a spiritual force replete with miracles and changed by prayer. It was, and is, an island of visions.

There was also no distinction between Latin and Christian verse, between classical and religious texts which were studied with equal attention; the eighth century was, in particular, a great age of learning in which the works of Virgil, Statius and Lactantius were inscribed alongside those of St. Jerome and St. Augustine. The monastic system of education trained not only prelates but princes, since both secular and religious leaders were generally interconnected and interrelated. This may account for the “high” and artificial style of a poetry in large part composed for, and addressed to, a sophisticated audience. The pleasure of scop as well as listener lay less in the modern shibboleth of invention than in elaborating upon the impersonal authenticity and authority of ancient texts. We read continually of exile and of transience, of kinship feuds and the necessity of loyalty, of the isolated wanderer; we witness the giving of gifts in the mead hall, the blizzards of winter, the effigy of the boar; we are reminded of fate and of destiny, of the wilderness world, of the strongholds of city dwellers, of the surging salt sea, of the raven, of the eagle and the wolf. It has been suggested that we still dream of dark woods in memory of the Druids; in turn the fascination with old ruined dwellings in writers as disparate as Wordsworth and Dickens may have its deep source in the Anglo-Saxon preoccupation with deserted or empty buildings, all their warmth displaced by “ wintres woma,” or the awful sound of winter.

The nature of this poetry, then, does not encourage individual utterance; but it does not altogether preclude it. In the late eighth or early ninth century a cleric concealed his name in runes towards the conclusion of four poems. A rune was a symbol of the ancient Germanic alphabet used by the Saxon tribes long before the Romans came, in which each sign represented a letter or an object. Thus the cleric’s name, Cynewulf, becomes in sequence torch, bow, necessity, horse, happiness, man, sea, wealth. His signature was a cryptogram, one of those aenigmata so congenial to the Anglo-Saxon imagination. The works where the runes are inserted are all of a homiletic nature—Elene, Juliana, The Ascension and The Fate of the Apostles—some 2,600 lines altogether, established upon Latin originals or, as Cynewulf puts it, “as I found it in book.” The fact that his own name is distributed among the closing lines suggests that his is a work intended to be read rather than heard and, perhaps, to endure beyond the memory of his own civilisation. In the “faecne hus ,” or treacherous house, of the body he has been wholly intent upon “wordcraeft” or “leothcraeft,” the art of poetry. One great Anglo-Saxon scholar, Kenneth Sisam, has described him as the first English “man of letters . . . whose name and works are known,” 2 and in that there is perhaps some distinction.

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