Fragment of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as shown at the Historical Tapestry site.
September 26, 2012


The Anglo-Saxon World

When we were getting ready for the trip to London we decided to take along some paperback books to read on the flight. The Kindle™ was supposed to be turned off during the flights to and from London, or so we thought. I bought The Anglo-Saxon World an anthology of writing from the time before Norman French infiltrated the language and changed it forever.

I didn't get around to reading it until the day of our departure. I'd already made some progress by the time we boarded the plane, and I think I'd handed it to my wife while I was strapping myself in. The lady who had the window seat apparently looked at the book, and remarked to my wife how some relative of hers had hated Beowulf. This seems to happen a lot to English teachers. A lot of times it's about how they hated grammar, punctuation, diagramming sentences, or whatever. Sometimes it's about a text being in Old English, when it's in Middle English, as in the case of Chaucer, or even in Modern English, as in the case of Shakespeare, Spenser, or even the KJV. I suspect that people in the sciences are more likely to get looks of incomprehension, or possibly even hostile exchanges. As for philosophy, fuhgeddabout it.

How exactly is one supposed to answer such comments? You can't launch into a long explanation of Anglo-Saxon metrics. That's beyond your area of competence, and a decent answer would be beyond their interest. So it's probably best to just shrug and ignore them, or move to another seat. We actually did both.

So what's in this fabulous book that aroused such hostility on the part of our anonymous seat-mate? Well for one thing poetry. It includes a translation of "The Seafarer," that is a complete translation of the lyric. Ezra Pound did a translation in 1911, and that is quite famous. Along with Canto I, Pound's version can be used to illustrate to students the pattern of stress and alliteration that dominates Anglo-Saxon poetry. Here's some of the opening of Pound's version:

"Máy I for my own sélf sóng's truth reckon,
Jóurney's járgon, hów I in hársh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bítter bréast-cares have I abided,
Knówn on my kéel many a cáre's hold,
And dire séa-súrge, and there I oft spént
Nárrow níghtwatch nígh the ship's head
While she tossed clóse to clíffs. Cóldly afflicted,
My féet were by fróst benumbed.”
" The whole of Pound's version can be found here.

I've marked the alliterative stresses with acute accents in the example above.

We find stresses in the first line on May, my, self, and song's, and in the second on Journey's, jargon, how, and harsh. The stresses vary, unless I am mistaken, from two to four, and come on the alliterative syllables. The stresses are also irregularly spaced, so that hey don't form metrical feet, as later poetry would do.

The translations in the present volume are more pedestrian than Pound's.

"I can sing a true song about myself,
tell of my travels, how in days of tribulation
I often endured a time of hardship,
how I have harbored bitter sorrow in my heart
and often learned that ships are homes of sadness.
Wild were the waves when I often took my turn,
the arduous night-watch, standing at the prow
while the boat tossed near the rocks. My feet
were afflicted by cold, fettered in frost….”
" The stress pattern is somewhat smoother than Pound's, and the rhythm is not as intense. Pound's version is probably the better poem, but because Pound, for one reason or another, omitted material, mostly the Christian material, that he may have regarded as tacked on, the version in The Anglo-Saxon World is the better translation, i.e., the more accurate in terms of the meaning of the original material. Pound's poem is a recreation, and a great poem in itself, but it is not necessarily an accurate translation.

There's also a translation of the notorious, and possibly infamous, Beowulf. Now Beowulf is an heroic epic, and should not be confused with any other form of literature. He's not Mr. Darcy, or James Bond. He has more in common with Achilles and Odysseus than with the modern, self-deprecating character. So he's not afraid to boast of his exploits. This has more in common with what ancient people's understood as the virtue of pride, as described in the ethical works of Aristotle, than in the Christian virtue of humility. So you're not going to enjoy Beowulf, if you enter into it with the expectations of a modest Christian hero. Beowulf also confronts real evils, real monsters, and he's not afraid to characterize his opponents as monsters. So there's no modern empathy for the other guy. He's evil, and he's got to be destroyed. The society of Beowulf is also vastly different from our own. It's focused on things like honor, and the obligations between a king and his people. Once you understand these things, you might begin to enjoy Beowulf.

The translation given here is a verse translation that to some extent attempts to preserve the original's prosody. Again, as with the translation of "The Seafarer," it's not great poetry, but it is serviceable.

Other writings that are here include excerpts from Bede, riddles, and other survivals from the Anglo-Saxon literature that has survived.

If you were turned off by Anglo-Saxon poetry when you took the introductory lit course, you might want to give it another chance, and this is a good place to start.