Archive for the Old English Poetry Category

The ‘Scape

Posted in Inspiring Things, Life, Old English Poetry, Themes with tags , , , , on July 29, 2011 by mm

Hey-ho, back again. This post is a spontaneous post, motivated by recently looking through some photography blogs. I must say, one of the (non-literary) things in life that I find most inspiring has to be landscape photography–can’t get enough of it. The grand scale of this Earth is so staggering, so awe-inspiring…and if you can’t get out into it for yourself, looking at pictures can do the trick.

Taking a glance through recent Freshly Blogged posts, I came across this entry in the blog McAlisterium, and I was immediately struck by the images therein. The bleak, carven landscape of Loch A’an presents just that sense of scale that sends a shiver down my spine. The rolling of the hills, the sharp upthrust of broken cliff-peaks, the smooth flowing in of the water to cover the shore. You see? It’s total poetry.

So I thought I’d give that post a plug. Nicely done, thou blogger. It’s nice to revel in the glory of nature.

In fact, now that I think about it, yet another Old English passage comes to mind. You knew it was coming, didn’t you? I confess, so did I. But don’t think that this post was just another excuse to translate some Beowulf. Think of it as a complement to the landscape. They are the words of an ancient someone who, perhaps, felt some of the same awe and admiration for the mythic, inspirational power of the Landscape:

                                                 Þǣr wæs hearpan swēg

                      swutol sang scopes.      Sægde sē þe cū‏þe

                      frumsceaft fīra      feorran reccan,

                      cwæð þæt se ælmihtiga      eorðan worhte,

                      wlitebeorhtne wang,      swā wæter bebūgeð,

                      gesette sigehrē‏þig      sunnan ond mōnan,

                      lēoman tō lēohte      landbūendum,

                      ond gefrætwade      foldan scēatas

                      leomum ond lēafum,      līf ēac gesceōp

                      cynna gehwylcum      ‏þāra ðe cwice hwyrfa‏þ.

 

Nice. Now the translation, which, I admit, is rather rough here, due to the inadequacy of Modern English to capture in so few words the art of its ancestor. It tries its best though, and so will I:


                                           “There was the music of the harp

                      The sweet song of the scop.   He who knew spoke

                      Of the creation of men      telling from afar,

                      He quoth that the Almighty      wrought the earth

                      The glory-bright plain,      surrounded with water,

                      He set triumphant      the sun and moon

                      Gleaming as light      for land-dwellers,

                      And adorned      the surface of the ground

                      With trees and leaves.      Life he also shaped

                      Each in its kind:      those who stir with life.”

 

The scop returns again, as you can see. He seems to be everywhere, doesn’t he? No, not really, just in the passages I choose to quote here. Whatever the case, here we have a lyric presentation of the creation of the world.

The “Almighty” is, presumably, God. Note that He also “shapes” things–līf ēac gesceōp–in addition to “wrighting” things (a shame that such a word didn’t survive…).

The progression of imagery in the poem also appears significant, each half-line of creation building upon the previous: the earth (world) > surrounded by water > sun and moon overhead > shining light down > upon those who live on the land > which is covered with leaves and trees (literally “limbs”, but translating it as “limbs and leaves” brings to mind something rather more violent) > where Life (emphasized here) dwells.

I’ll leave it at that. Truly a weaving of words, and, I think, a fitting description of the muse-like quality of the landscape. Read it, and then maybe go outside.

Beowulf for the Soul

Posted in Life, Old English Poetry, Themes, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 25, 2011 by mm

H’lo ‘gain.

It’s been a bit of time since the last time. For a bit there I was worried that I wouldn’t be back. Well, we’re back now. All of us. Don’t worry, you.

The reason for the gap here has unfortunately been Sickness. Ach, how I hate it. It drains the will from your will and the spirit from your spirit, as they say. As I say. I made that up. Being sick also has the unfortunate side effect of making me rather cranky, and that’s bad. A cranky scop is a useless scop, as I say. However, the fact that sickness makes me cranky is actually quite appropriate. Take a look at the German word for “sick”: krank. And when you’re really kranky you have to go to the Krankenhaus, where they store all the cranky people so they can’t damage society any further. Huh. I didn’t quite get there this week, so I’m here instead.

And since I’m here, I might as well offer some literary material. I’m reminded yet again of yet another passage from Beowulf–a poem which, as you can see, applies to nearly every aspect of life. Keep it right next to your Homer and your Milton and your Bible up there on the shelf. You do have a Bible, right? Of course you do. You wouldn’t understand Beowulf if you didn’t, what with Cain and the Flood and all. . .Okay I’ll stop.

Now listen to the sage words of Hroþgar the king as he warns Beowulf of what to be worried about in life. Because living, as it were, can very easily make you dead:

                                            Nū is þīnes mægnes blǣd

                     āne hwīle;      eft sōna bið

                     þæt þec ādl oððe ecg      eafoþes getwǣfeð,

                     oððe fȳres feng,      oððe flōdes wylm,

                     oððe gripe mēces,      oððe gāres fliht,

                     oððe atol yldo;      oððe ēagena bearhtm

                     forsiteð ond forsworceð;      semininga bið

                     þæt ðec, dryhtguma,      dēað oferswȳðeð.

Ah, savor it for a moment. . .hmm. . .okay translation:

                                                “Now, the glory of your power

                     Is only for a time;      soon after it will be

                     That sickness or the sword will deprive you of strength,

                     Or the grasp of fire,      or the whelm of water,

                     Or the grip of blades,      or the flight of spears,

                     Or terrible old-age;      or the brightness of the eyes

                     Will fade and darken;      suddenly it will be

                     That Death will overcome you, warrior.”

Apply? Of course this applies. It said sickness didn’t it? Sickness or the sword. Both very dangerous. Mhm. Anyway, this passage exemplifies one of the deepest tenants of what we’ll call the spirit of Anglo-Saxon culture: “you’re young now, boy, but oh, ohoho you just wait.” I’m oversimplifying for comedic effect, of course, but I think the point comes across pretty well (I think. . .hmm, how many times have I used “I” in this post? I’m beginning to sound like the President): “Make good of the time you have, because all your muscle, all the glory of your power (!!!), will be overcome by death.”

This is what I think about when I’m feeling sick. Forget chicken-noodle soup, this is Beowulf for the soul.

It makes me feel all epic.                          

Anglo-Saxon Aloud: some words

Posted in Links, Old English Poetry, Reciting Poetry with tags , , , on July 18, 2011 by mm

You know, I’ve written and translated some OE by now, and we’ve seen it represented on the page, but that’s not how it was meant to be experienced, really. The scop didn’t just read it off his scrap of parchment (prohibitively expensive, I’d imagine)–he memorized it, and then he spoke it. That’s oral poetry.

So, where can you hear some of this wonderful oral poetry? Go thou no further than Anglo-Saxon Aloud, a great addition to your playlist! There, Mr. Drout has recorded a large body of spoken OE texts, poetry, and etc. If you want to hear a text like Beowulf come to life in your ears, that’s the place for you.

Of course, I have some personal preferences as to how OE should be spoken aloud, and therefore  I would differ somewhat with Mr. Drout’s diction (for example, he seems to have a fondness for heavily trilled r’s, and a tendency to make /ea/ diphthongs into /i/, /y/ into /u/, etc.), but if you’re listening for pleasure, it’s doesn’t much matter. The joy of hearing an ancient language livened and quickened with the a new voice. . .it’s neat, to say the least.

So go thumb your ear through a few sound files. Time well spent.

Heort of the Matter

Posted in Old English Poetry with tags , , , , , , on July 16, 2011 by mm

It occurs to me that this talk of Old English poets and what-not may strike some as rather cryptic. I hope not, but there it is. In light of this, I’ll take the time to give an example of just what kind of material I hold near and dear: namely Old and Middle English poetry. Having studied these topics (the former more than the latter) somewhat beyond superficial levels, I’ve gained a deep-set, passionate appreciation for the art, history, and meaning of them.

The study of the Old English (henceforth “OE”) language has also been one of my principle passions since, uh, “early life”. No word on how long ago that was.

So! I’m going to start by making some observations on a passage of OE poetry. Taken from the text of Beowulf (Klaeber, 4th ed., if you want to know), here’s a description of the scop in his natural environment: reciting poetry. Please open your books. That’s it. I know it’s been a while since you’ve glanced through this stuff, but isn’t it just awesome? Let’s read.

                                                        Hwīlum cyningas þegn,

                        guma gilphlæden,      gidda gemyndig,

                        sē ðe eal fela      ealdgesegena

                        worn gemunde,      word ō‏þer fand

                        sōðe gebunden;      secg eft ongan

                        sīð Bēowulfes      snyttrum styrian

                        ond on spēd wrecan     spel gerāde,

                        wordum wrixlan;

Ah, the downright epicness that is Old English verse. Wonderful, isn’t it? Look, we’ve got the classic Alliterative Line: one line split into two half-lines, with alliteration binding the two halves together across the gap (that’s the caesura, for you Latinites). Look at that second line: guma gilphlæden // gidda gemyndig. Doesn’t that just ring? Hm? Ah, well, I suppose I’d better give a quick translation:

                                                  “Sometimes the thane of the king,

                        A man laden-with-praising-words,   mindful of songs,

                        He who remembered      many a multitude

                        Of old-sagas;      he found other words

                        Bound with truth;      the man afterward began

                        To stir with wisdom      the journey of Beowulf

                        And recite with speed     the skillful story,

                        Weaving with words.”

I’ll admit I’ve taken some liberties in rendering this. The last half-line, for example, wordum wrixlan, ought to be more like “varying words”. . .But that just doesn’t cut it for me. Also the modifier gilphlæden in the second line. . .there’s a lot of meaning bound up in this word. It’s a compound, you see: gilphlæden. The second element is pretty straightforward (“laden”, you know?), but gilp is special. This is actually the origin of our modern “yelp”, but in OE it carries connotations of “boasting, singing, praising”, roughly. This is what the scop does. This is how he composes poetry: he weaves the old sagas together, finding “other words”, weaving and binding them together. It just so happens that, at this point in the poem, he’s singing the praises of Our Hero Beowulf. Who could be more deserving?

In essence, this poetic passage is a description of the making of poetic passages. Yeah, you like that? The old Beowulf-poet—whoever he was, we don’t know—sure has a way with things like that. Think of a blog-post about making blog-posts: same thing. So take note—if you ever do that, you’re doing it in the spirit of Beowulf.

I hope to examine more of such stuff here in the future. For now, though, I think that should suffice, so I’ll let it stand. Hopefully I’ve been able to convey some of the concepts I’m trying to convey.

As a parting note: scōp him Heort naman, the byline for this blog, translates to “He himself shaped it the name Heorot“. The He is Hroþgar, king of the Danes, whose aid Beowulf comes to in the first 2/3 of the poem. In the beginning, Hroþgar orders a grand hall to be built as the seat of his throne, and when it is built, he “shapes” it (referencing the “creation” etymology of the word scop) the name Heorot , or “Hart”, a beast signifying royalty. And there you have it. The moral of this story is that Old English is just. plain. awesome.