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Old English Verse, Media, and Poetic Form


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What does it mean to tell stories without narratives? Do the formal effects of poetry - at perhaps as basic a level as lineation - alter the content of the poem? What about the formal effects of media - literally, the means by which a poem or story is transmitted? Does the technology used to record and transmit a thought have an impact on the thought itself, in production or reception? Can the very same thoughts be expressed and understood via cuneiform tablets, papyrus scrolls, printed paper codices (bound books), and even web pages? Or does something else change as the material of communication changes?

This lecture considers the Anglo Saxon poetry found in early Medieval manuscripts - only four of which are known to exist - and asks us to consider the categories we typically apply to poetry, such as Epic, Lyric, and Elegiac, in the historical and material contexts of the Anglo Saxon world. Do these categories still apply?

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Old English Verse, Media, and Poetic Form

  1. 1. Are we reading poetry yet? Old English Verse, Media, and Poetic Form
  2. 2. Table of Contents Song & Poetry Media & Authorship Manuscripts, Copies, and the Idea of Authoritative Sources Text & Translation Old English Verse Genre & Form Riddles, Gnomic, and Historical Poems Subjectivity, Modernity, & the (Literary) Historian Elegy, the Elegiac, and the Self in Old English poetry
  3. 3. Song & Poetry “What we now know as poetry . . . began as song, though the tunes and the music have been lost beyond recall” (ix).
  4. 4. Song & Poetry William Bascom: “Myths are prose narratives . . . ” (9). Does a myth have to be prose? Does a myth have to be narrative? Genre: Drama, Prose and Verse Mode: Didactic, Narrative and Lyric Form: Meter, Rhyme, Alliteration, Structure
  5. 5. Song & Poetry “What we now know as poetry . . . began as song, though the tunes and the music have been lost beyond recall” (ix). “Lyric” Poetry sung to the lyre A modern conception (Virginia Jackson) Anglo-Saxon Warrior-Poet Braveheart Apostrophe (Jonathan Culler) First-person speaker (“I”) Fictional or absent addressee (“you”) Lyric “thou” and the “overheard” (John Stuart Mill)
  6. 6. Song & Poetry “. . . the tunes and the music have been lost beyond recall” (ix). What separates a poem from a song? How are these Old English poems different from Beowulf? Can myth be sung? Can it be sung without story? Can it be hummed? “Lyric” vs “Narrative” What is the difference between a song and a story? Ballads: Story-Songs “Rocky Raccoon” “Candle in the Wind”
  7. 7. Media & Authorship From Gilgamesh to Beowulf: Tablets, Manuscript[s], and Author[s]
  8. 8. Media as Method What do cuneiform tablets and YouTube have in common? History of the Book Cultural Bibliography vs. Descriptive Bibliography Media Studies
  9. 9. Media: Old English Manuscripts Only four major Old English poetic manuscripts: Junius Manuscript: aka “the Caedmon manuscript” Exeter Book: anthology Vercelli Book: found in Vercelli, Italy Nowell Codex: aka “the Beowulf manuscript”
  10. 10. Media: Old English Manuscripts Beowulf manuscript Damaged in fire Editorial insertions Authority? Exeter Book 131 original leaves (?) First 8 leaves are lost 10th Century Largest extant collection of OE literature Spills, cuts, and burns interfere with legibility of text
  11. 11. Authorship: Old English Poets Only four known Old English Poets Caedmon (mid 7th century) Bede (c. 672-735) Alfred the Great (849-899) Cynewulf (c. 770-840) Other references William of Malmesbury: Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne
  12. 12. Authorship: Old English Poets Caedmon: First Old English Poet Bede: Historia Ecclesiastica An illiterate shepherd Given poetic inspiration in a dream Christian poet who sets the stage for Bede “Caedmon’s Hymn”: only surviving poem Nine lines Three versions Nineteen manuscripts Bede: The Smartest Man in Europe Scriptural commentary Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum The Ecclesiastical History of the English People “Bede’s Death Song” five lines two versions
  13. 13. Authorship: Old English Poets Alfred the Great King of the Anglo- Saxons King of Wessex, 871- 899 Self-promoted Warrior-poet “the Great” Translations and Metrical Prefaces Gregory: Pastoral Care Promoting literacy among the English nobility Boethius: Consolation of Philosophy Cynewulf Little known; early c9th Vercelli Manuscript Elene Authorial presence Dream of the Rood? References the same cross discussed in “Elene” Cross suffers with Christ Dreamer = Poet? Old man’s lamentation Exeter Book
  14. 14. Media & Authorship: The Epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf Gilgamesh Media Stone tablets Cuneiform Many copies Authorship Many multiforms Many authors No “authoritative” version Beowulf Media Manuscript Old English Single surviving copy Uh-oh . . . Authorship Multiforms: The Fight at Finnsburh Scribal Authoring? Clear indications of different world-view between speaker and story
  15. 15. Media & Authorship: “Caedmon’s Hymn” “Bede’s story . . . indicates that it was normal at an Anglo-Saxon drinking-party for a harp to be passed round so that everyone could sing” (x). Caedmon: First Old English Poet Bede: Historica Ecclesiastica “Caedmon’s Hymn”: only surviving poem Nine lines Three versions Nineteen manuscripts Can we be sure about Caedmon?
  16. 16. Text & Translation Old English Verse Form
  17. 17. Translation: Old English Verse The Alliterative Long Line Two half-lines the on-verse (a-verse) and the off-verse (b-verse) Each verse = two feet each verse must contain at least one stressed syllable the first foot is stronger than the second On-verse: two strong-stressed positions (alliterating) Off-verse: only the strong-stressed syllable of the first foot is allowed to alliterate
  18. 18. Text & Translation: Old English Verse Strong-Stress Meter & Alliterative Verse Variation [Epithet] Oral-Formulaic Theory Caesura Simile & Metaphor
  19. 19. Genre & Form The Generic & Media Contexts of “Other Old English Poems”
  20. 20. Genre & Form: Heroic or Historical Poems “The Battle of Malden” Medium: Only Manuscript destroyed in 1731 Incomplete anyway: beginning and end missing “Deor” Form: Stanza & Refrain (p. 138) Medium: Exeter Book Genre: Heroic Lyric? What is the difference between story and song?
  21. 21. Genre & Form: Exeter Book Riddles Medium: Exeter Book 90 in Exeter Latin and Old English originals Form: Riddle Formal markers: “What am I?” etc Double entendre vs. Third-person descriptive
  22. 22. Genre & Form: Gnomic or Wisdom Poems Genre: Didactic & Moralistic Rhetorical Play Form: Turn on the slipperiness of language Maxims: Ambiguity Charms: Substitution What do Maxims, Charms, and Riddles have in common?
  23. 23. Subjectivity, Modernity, and the Literary Historian The “Elegy” and English Lyric from Old to Modern
  24. 24. Elegiac “Form” Elegy defined by “elegiac speaker” Know the [literary] historian: “elegy” a Victorian designation Contemporary with invention of “lyric” and J.S. Mill Not “formal” Classical “elegy”: metrical form Modern “elegy”: poem of lamentation (mode) “Genre” can be defined by Mode/Voice Form Medium: Exeter Book Source for all four of our “elegies”
  25. 25. Elegiac “Form” Old English “elegies”: An isolated or exiled speaker who laments a loss Longing for earlier days of joy with loved ones Bad weather reflecting the wintry storms of mental life Fluctuating mental states (memory, dream, hallucination) The use of reason to try to understand life’s misfortunes Recognition that life is . . . “transient, fleeting” Use of occasional proverbial wisdom to generalize one’s lot Searching for consolation, sometimes finding it in religious belief (143)
  26. 26. Elegiac: “The Wanderer” “By shifting from first-person lament to third- person description or reflection, he both generalizes his own condition and establishes some distance between the suffering man and the reflective man . . . he must use his mind to cure his mind” (145). 1st person/3rd person
  27. 27. Elegiac: “The Seafarer” First Half: The Ocean Second Half: Radical tonal shift Ezra Pound’s translation omits Elegiac: “The Wife’s Lament” Is the speaker male or female?
  28. 28. Elegiac: “Wulf and Eadwacer” If he comes home here to my people, it will seem A strange gift. Will they take him into the tribe And let him thrive or think him a threat? It’s different with us. (1-4)
  29. 29. Elegiac: “Wulf and Eadwacer” Medium: Exeter Book Only surviving copy Not mentioned anywhere else Title is a modern editorial convention Genre: Notoriously difficult to classify Riddle Elegy Ballad Form: Stanza and Refrain? Not a convention of Old English Borrowing?
  30. 30. Elegiac: “Wulf and Eadwacer” If he comes home here to my people, it will seem A strange gift. Will they take him into the tribe And let him thrive or think him a threat? It’s different with us. Wulf is on an island; I am on another. Fast is that island, surrounded by fens. There are bloodthirsty men on that island. If they find him, will they take him into the tribe And let him thrive or think him a threat? It’s different with us. I’ve endured my Wulf’s wide wanderings While I sat weeping in rainy weather– When the bold warrior wrapped me in his arms – That was a joy to me and also a loathing. Wulf, my Wulf, my old longings, My hopes and fears, have made me ill; Your seldom coming and my worried heart Have made me sick, not lack of food. Do you hear, Eadwacer, guardian of goods? Wulf will bear our sad whelp to the wood. It’s easy to rip an unsewn stitch Or tear the thread of an untold tale— The song of us two together.
  31. 31. Elegiac: “Wulf and Eadwacer” Medium: What does the absence of a confirming text change about our understanding of textual “authority”? If Beowulf is more like The Aeneid than like Gilgamesh because of its existence as a single text, can the same be said of this poem? How does the addition of the title inform our reading of the poem? Genre: How does our classification of the poem change our understanding of it? What mode of address does the poem take? Is it didactic (instructive, universalizing), narrative (explanatory, sequencing), or lyric (meditative, individualizing)? Form: What work does the refrain do in the first two stanzas? How does it build expectation? How does its absence from the third stanza onward disrupt this? How do the pronouns create, intensify, or clarify ambiguity in the poem? Who is “us”? Who are “they”?
  32. 32. Mixed Genres Riddles with elegiac or heroic motifs Deor: Heroic or Lyric? Charm? Elegy? Wulf & Eadwacer The Dream of the Rood
  33. 33. “Deor” Let me tell this story about myself: I was a singer and shaper for the Heodenings, Dear to my lord. My name was Deor. (34-36)
  34. 34. Mixed Genres: “Deor” Medium: Exeter Book “In the Exeter Book, [‘Deor’] follows a series of homiletic or religious poems and precedes ‘The Wife’s Lament,’ ‘Wulf and Eadwacer,’ and the first group of riddles. ‘Deor’ is a poem that bridges the homiletic and the enigmatic. Both the form of the poem and its murky historical details are much debated” (139). What does the position of the poem in the larger text tell us about the way its author, scribe, or compiler understands it? How does it shape the way the audience understands it? Form: Stanza & Refrain Uncommon in OE historical poetry Each stanza details a particular suffering The refrain universalizes this to common experience
  35. 35. Mixed Genres: “Deor” Weland the smith made a trial of exile. The strong-minded man suffered hardship All winter long—his only companions Were cold and sorrow. He longed to escape The bonds of Nithhad who slit his hamstrings, Tied him down with severed sinews, Making a slave of this better man. That passed over—so can this. To Beadohild her brother’s death Was not so sad as her own suffering When the princess saw she was pregnant. She tried not to think how it all happened. That passed over—so can this. Many have heard of the cares of Maethhild— She and Geat shared a bottomless love. Her sad passion deprived her of sleep. That passed over—so can this. Theodric ruled for thirty winters The city of the Maerings—that’s known to many. That passed over—so can this. That grim king ruled the land of the Goths. Many a man sat bound in sorrow, Twisted in the turns of expected woe, Hoping a foe might free his kingdom. That passed over—so can this. A man sits alone in the clutch of sorrow, Separated from joy, thinking to himself That his share of suffering is endless. The man knows that all through middle- earth, Wise God goes, handing out fortunes, Giving grace to many—power, prosperity, Wisdom, wealth—but to some a share of woe. Let me tell this story about myself: I was singer and shaper for the Heodenings, Dear to my lord. My name was Deor. For many years I was harper in the hall, Honored by the king, until Heorrenda now, A song-skilled shaper, has taken my place, Reaping the rewards, the titled lands, That the guardian of men once gave me.
  36. 36. Mixed Genres: “Deor” Form: Stanza & Refrain Each stanza details a particular suffering First stanza: Weland Second stanza: Beadohild Third through fifth stanzas: better-known or lesser- known? “Many have heard . . .” (14) “—that’s known to many” (19) “We all know . . .” (21) How does the succession of stanzas build the reader’s understanding of sorrow’s particularity? Penultimate stanza: universal, “A man” (27) Absent refrain – can you universalize the universal? Final stanza: Deor Poet-as-speaker: Hero? “Deor”: “brave, bold” or “grievous, ferocious” (140) How does the movement between particular and universal problematize our understanding of both categories?
  37. 37. Mixed Genres & Subjectivity: “The Dream of the Rood” Medium: Vercelli Book found in Italy One of the earliest Old English Christian poems Author: Cynewulf (?) Form: Alliterative Verse Genre: Christological Dream-Vision Cross suffers with Christ Paradox: must stay strong to fulfill the will of God, but will of God is to become instrument of Christ’s death Dream-Vision: Kubla-Khan? The Wrath of Khan Star Trek (2009)