Saturday, June 03, 2017

Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems


Some Sample Passages: Since it's an anthology of a large body of poetry, there's no one opening passage, but it makes sense to do a few from various works to give a sense of how Williamson does things and the topics covered. From Genesis A (p. 37):

It is right to praise the Lord of heaven
With wise words and loving hearts.
He is almighty, infinite, eternal, abiding--
Source and Shaper, Guardian of glory,
King of all exalted creatures, Lord of hosts.

From Andreas (p. 190):

Listen! We have heard the heroic stories
Of the twelve glorious disciples of the Lord
Who served under heaven in days of old.
Their faith and courage on the battlefield
Did not falter or fail after they separated
And were dispersed abroad as the Lord commanded,
The high King of heaven who shaped their lives.

From The Wanderer (p. 454):

Often the wanderer walks alone,
Waits for mercy, longs for grace,
Stirs the ice-cold sea with hands and oars--
Heart-sick, endures an exile's road--
A hard traveler. His fate is fixed.

Riddle 59 (p. 584):

Sometimes a lady, comely and proud,
Locks me up, boxes me tight--
Sometimes draws me out on demand
And hands me over to her pleasing prince,
Who shoves his hard head in my hole,
Slides up while I slip down--
A tight squeeze. If the man who seizes me
Presses with power, something shaggy
Will fill me up, muscle me out--
A precious jewel. Say what I mean.

From Beowulf (p. 607):

Listen! We have heard of the Spear-Danes' glory,
Their storied power, their primal strength--
The kings and princes whose craft was courage.

From Instructions for Christians (p. 1115):

Give to your eternal God a tenth share
Of the goods you own, the property you possess,
And he will greatly increase the other nine.
There are four things that lead finally
To full happiness and eternal blessing--
Try not to miss them when you meet them.
The first is honest labor; the second, spoken prayer.
The third is learning the laws of life.
The fourth is the fasting that we must perform.

Summary: The Complete Old English Poems is 1189 pages, but that also includes introductory material to the whole, introductions for the individual poems, an appendix discussing the proposed answers to the surviving riddles, and an index; all in all, the poems make up just a tiny sample from a civilization we know took poetry very seriously. What we have is quite a mixed group -- lives of saints (Andreas [the Apostle Andrew], Elene [Queen Helena], Juliana, Guthlac), verse translations and paraphrases of the Bible passages and liturgical prayers, bits of bestiary descriptions (phoenix, panther, whale), passages in historical chronicles that are or may be intended as verse, a few old charms and descriptions, in short, the wisdom literature of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England.

It is scarcely possible to cover the whole in a short space, but in any reading some things will stand out more clearly than others. While I don't have much to say about it, I was struck by how much the Old English Genesis poems sometimes sounded like Milton -- the descriptions of the devils in hell, in particular. Williamson explicitly at one point says that he thinks there is a connection, and this would be interesting to look at more closely at some point.

I greatly enjoyed Andreas; I knew the basic shape of the tale already, although I'm not sure if it was from having read the work before in a different version or just from a different source. God tells the Apostle Andrew to go to cannibal country in order to rescue the Apostle Matthew from the Mermedonians; it's across the sea and Matthew will be dead in three days. Andrew's response is priceless, and a nice bit of psychological rendering: he replies that he doesn't know how he can do it, the sea roads are hard, and these cannibals don't seem very welcoming. "This does not sound like a safe journey" (p. 195). God insists that he has a responsibility to go, and so Andrew finds a ship -- which turns out to be piloted by God Himself in disguise.

The Dream of the Rood, which I think is arguably the greatest surviving literary work in Anglo-Saxon, is very nicely handled by Williamson. The work turns a twist on Old English riddles, which often have an inanimate object speaking as a person in order to create an ambiguity requiring you to guess the object; here we have the tropes, but the object, the Cross of Christ, is revealed in order to develop the personification. The result is a many-layered work; the Cross that speaks is the slayer of Christ, but it also suffers with Christ, since it, too, is pierced by the nails; drenched with his blood, it is the token of victory over death; it is buried and later raised up to be a sign that can heal. In his introduction to the book, Tom Shippey notes that the Cross seems to have been itself one of the most eloquent arguments for Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. They put a great deal of emphasis on the tacen, the token or trophy that shows a promise to have reality -- a promise being merely an ambiguous possibility until its sign of being fulfilled is presented. Christianity, of course, brought massive promises; it recognized the fatalistic element of the world, this mass of short-lived human beings with little to do but have a few minor victories and face the inevitable end with courage, but it promised that this was not the whole story, that there was a victory over death itself, and it did not merely promise. It brought with it a victory-token, the Cross, a sign that the promise was being fulfilled, that a nobler death was possible and a higher victory could be won. And of course, for the Christian, the Cross is not an external sign, either; it is something we sign on ourselves. And thus we can have sympathy with the Cross itself, growing quietly in the forest until it is turned to the accomplishment of terrible things, killing its Lord and yet suffering with Him at the same time, all sin -- and yet, by God's grace, all victory, raised up as a sign of glory. It is a riddle indeed, and all the more riddling for the fact that we know the answer.

I have already done Beowulf, in Tolkien's prose translation, as a fortnightly book, so I won't say much more about it. I had noted there that I think one can fully understand the structure of the poem by taking it at its word -- it was written to speak of Danish kings. As I read it in Williamson's translation, this was even more obvious: on every page we are not just speaking of Beowulf and Hrothgar, but making references to other kings -- Sceald and Hrethel and Hengest and Heremod, and many others. It is very much a book of kingship.

The riddles were often amusing. A very common kind is the half-bawdy riddle, like Riddle 59 quoted above, in which a harmless thing -- in this case probably a shirt or a helmet -- is depicted in terms naturally suggestive of sex. It is a kind of fake-out one can still find today, with a not-so-innocent description of an entirely innocent thing, and then, wide-eyed, a "Well, you have dirty mind, don't you" -- a way of not only telling a joke but pulling one over on the person to whom you are telling it. Of course, a problem with this kind becomes fairly clear when you have a bunch of them all together -- they are so very similar that it's difficult to tell what, in particular, any given riddle is intended to represent.

Old English poetry, of course, is highly alliterative, and, while rhythmic, is very flexible in its use of rhythm, which means that it can be difficult to draw a line between poetic verse, properly speaking, and heightened prose, particularly since the distinction is not usually made in the actual manuscript -- thus Williamson has to end his work with a number of passages that may or may not have been intended as verse, because they are sections in prose works that loosely share some features of poetry. This is a sign of a healthy language; too sharp a distinction between prose and poetry, and you can be sure that one of the two is being strangled to death. The features of Old English poetry also contribute to one of its most important aspects, which is that it is very highly didactic in character. It is there to tell you something worth knowing. Later poets in English tend, under the influence of foreign models, to seek after epic ambitions or lyric evocations; these aren't inconsistent with the Old English roots, but they do represent a shift in focus. One sees this, perhaps, with Beowulf, which tends to be read as an epic -- but, as I've said, seems instead to be at heart an account of what it is (or perhaps, more sadly and elegiacally, what it was) to be a Danish king. Poetry was what you used when you really wanted people to think about something, to reflect and remember and let it echo inside. Some later poets tended to rebel against Renaissance and early modern didacticism in poetry, sometimes in the name of getting back to the real English in one way or another. But the didacticism was not a latinate imposition but legacy from the earliest roots of poetry in English, and, I think, if you really want a sense of the natural poetic diction of English, which so many poets claim to seek, you need to become comfortable with the straightforwardly didactic. It is there that one begins to draw out of mere prose the potential for great verse.

Modern English not being as alliteration-rich (or, for that matter, as alliteration-tolerant) as Old English, translating the one into the other is more difficult than one might think. Williamson goes for a light touch -- he focuses on stresses and pulls in alliteration as he can. This loses, no doubt, much of the poetry, but it does make things read more smoothly than a more rigorous attempt to alliterate would -- which is part of what makes a book this large readable in a fortnight.

Favorite Passage: Obviously there are quite a few good ones. This one, the twenty-third meter of Boethius, stood out for me on this reading (p. 886):

"A man would be happy his whole life on earth
If he could see clearly the purest stream
Of heavenly radiance, the source of goodness
That bathes us all in a shimmering bliss,
And could cast away the dark mists
That obscure the mind and veil the truth.
Yet with God's help, we can heal your heart
And uncloud your mind with old tales
And ancient myths. So listen to this story
And find your way on the righteous road
To your eternal home, the soul's haven."

It sums up a great deal of the value of "old tales and ancient myths", I think.

Recommendation: Recommended.


Quotations from The Complete Old English Poems, Craig Williamson, tr., University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia: 2017).

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