The pleasures of Anglo-Saxon poetry

Anglo-Saxon poetry offers a range of pleasures which can, perhaps, be arranged in a hierarchy.

The pleasure of the sounds

First, there is the pure pleasure of the sounds – the tremendous compacting of meaning into abrupt gutteral syllables compressed into short alliterative lines which sound great when recited aloud. They nakedly convey the pagan energy from the origin of our speech which usually lies hidden beneath layers of mellifluous Norman French, Latin and all the other languages we’ve rifled and pillaged. There is a sonic purity which is reinforced, the more you understand the history and subject matter, by a kind of ideological or historical sense of primalness.

Art and style

There is the art and style: as you practice you gain a deeper understanding of the skilled use of alliteration, the division of sentences into compact semantic units or stock phrases (“hard under helmet”), the laconic understatement (“the blow was not welcome”), the pleasure of deciphering riddles or kennings.

Subject matter

There is the the “sweet sorrow” of the subject matter, broadly dividing into:

  • elegies of profound loss, to the passing of great men, great times, great buildings – Durham, The Ruin, Deor, The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Wive’s Lament
  • overtly Christian poetry, but tinged with the same pagan sense of loss and sadness – The Dream of the Rood
  • warrior legends and epics: Beowulf, the Fight at Finnsburg, The Battle of Maldon – always with the same dying fall, Beowulf’s fate, Finn’s defeat, Byrhtnoth’s ofermode

Virility

Poetry which manages to convey sensitivity to the sad plight of fallen humanity with tremendous energy and virility. It assumes a very masculine worldview, one of continual physical competition, bravery and strength in contests and fights.

Our heritage

William Morris crystallised the plaint why tens of millions of English people know the story of the Odyssey or the wooden horse of Troy who have never heard of Beowulf, Maldon or Finnsburg. These are the myths and legends of our forebears, of the Germanic tribesmen who invaded and settled our country 1500 years ago, giving their name to our country and to our language. Their word-hoard, their myth-kitty, their songs and lays are intrinsic to our language and heritage. Almost nobody knows or studies them. (This Amazon book review claims in 99% of schools Old English isn’t taught at all, and only appears in 10% of university departments.)

The pathos of survival

Because so little survives – only 30,000 lines of poetry, of which Beowulf comprises 10% – and most of which has survived by the slenderest of threads, there is a strong sense of the preciousness and uniqueness of what we have. There is a close analogy with the Sutton Hoo treasure, enormously rich in itself but indicating by its very richness – like Beowulf – the enormity of what has been lost.

Dead language

Then there is the very academic pleasure of studying and trying to understand a dead language. But not one like Latin or ancient Greek which were kept alive by scholars through the Middle Ages and Renaissance and then widely studied as a sign of culture in the Victorian period and beyond. Anglo Saxon has always been a tiny minority pursuit (oddly, since it is the origin of the most successful language on the planet). Yet the more you study, the more you enter the treasure house of a lost world.

Philology

Not only does so little survive but what we have was written in different places in different dialects  which themselves changed and evolved over some 600 years, so it’s not even one language but a range of quite distinct sub-languages we are dealing with. Trying to piece together all the scattered fragments of text – and the scattered dialects in which they’re written – to create a consistent understanding of the Anglo Saxon languages has been the work of two centuries of philologists and sooner or later even the casual reader finds themselves drawn into speculation about the meaning of this or that word, and then into the long history of debates about it…

For example, the precise meaning of ofermode in the battle of Maldon is debated to this day and has large ideological and historical overtones – is the poet criticising or praising Byrhtnoth? is the entire poem a critique of the craven policy of King Aethelred? – but all these depend on the most technical of philological interpretations which requires a detailed knowledge, training and understanding in the Anglo Saxon languages…

Beowulf lines 1127-37

Hengest ða gyt
wælfagne winter | wunode mid Finne
eal unhlitme. | Eard gemunde,
þeah þe he ne meahte | on mere drifan
hringedstefnan; | holm storme weol,
won wið winde, | winter yþe beleac
isgebinde, | oþðæt oþer com
gear in geardas, | swa nu gyt deð,
þa ðe syngales | sele bewitiað,
wuldortorhtan weder. | ða wæs winter scacen,
fæger foldan bearm.

Hengest there yet
the woeheavy winter | waited with Finn
all unhappy. | His home-earth beminded
though there he might not | on the mere drive
his ring-prowed ship; | whelm storm swelled
waged with wind, | winter waves belocked
ice be-bounden, | until another came
year in the homeyards | such now yet does
those which continually | observe the seasons,
world-wondrous weather. | Then was winter scampered
fair felt the earth.

Related links

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

Replica of the helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial (Wikimedia Commons)

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