Now Winter has Fled and earth's breast has a fairer face
Some aspects of Old English verse
© 2002 Jeff Lynch
Firstly let me apologise for the loose and rambling nature of
this small article. I have but two books (not counting the Michael
Alexander version of Beowulf) containing Old English verse.* This
exercise merely sees me picking out examples at random as it were as
they catch my attention and if I think that they teach me something.
Richard Hamer in his "A Choice of Anglo Saxon Verse" reminds us
that there are about 30,000 lines of Old English poetry discovered.
Most of these are Christian based tracts, homilies, stories, prayers
and bible based. The "warrior sagas" too are nearly always a
combination of pagan Cynn or kin histories with Christian messages
built in. Many of them are fragments only and almost none of the
authors are known. He also notes that despite most of the extant works
survived by a fluke of history much of the work is of a very high
What can we learn of the craft from the works themselves? Very little
indeed. However a few lines shine light on how the poets (scops) saw
how to craft their words.
Starting with Beowulf; the warriors are riding back from the mere(another beautiful word) where Beowulf has killed Grendel (a monster).
Alexander here points out that this is an extempore telling (they are
on horseback). It is a fresh legend and the tale is driven and the
teller rings the word changes giving delighted listeners delight in
technical accomplishment even in the spur of the moment.
The man struck up,
Found the phrase, framed rightly
The deed of Beowulf, drove the tale,
Rang word changes.
The most telling piece on the subject of alliteration (I always try to
remind myself of the saying sound echoing, sense at the mention of
alliteration) according to Hamer is from the other end of the time
spectrum compared with Beowulf. It is a stanza from Sir Gawain and The
I stared at this with total incomprehension. One can make out a few
words but no sense! This changes when you find the accompanying
translation (whether it is a literal one I know not!)
As hit Is stad and stoken
In stori stif and stronge
With lel letterers loken,
And londe so hath ben longe….
Somewhere or other I had heard of loyal letters (letteres)
before surely but still I cannot remember where or when. It seems clear
enough that they refer to the 'locking of letters', and in this case to
the beginnings of words like stad and stoken or lel and letteres which make the repeated pattern; the poet here is speaking of the long honorable tradition of alliteration (in Britain.)
"If you will listen to this lay for just a little
while, I shall tell it quickly as I heard it spoken in town, as it is
clearly established in firm strong story linked together with loyal
letters, as has been long been done in the land"
I am not certain now where I came upon woruld candel (and
also the candle of heaven); it may have been in Beowulf, but I find the
words magical in describing our sun. Of course a candle provides light
in the dark, if it is burning. We now know that the sun is lit by
nuclear reaction (the poet merely saw light), which of course followed
the darkness. We may have a candle at night but of course we cannot see
the sun at night, so that there is a poetic difference or tension to
the words as well. Candles were often used as a measure of time, being
marked off at intervals and noting where the wick burns to the markers
below. So the sun is a universal marker, from dawn to dusk recognised
by poets then as now. We have another day, we have the next day until a
week and then a year! And so on to the dying of the light. A marker
recognisable until fusion changes into the next aspect of star’s life!
I am also fond of swan-rad ('swan's riding?), for the sea. Swan is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, of Old English (Germanic) origin. Rad a strong sound. Swan riding or ridden is a fine allusion, a strong and yet gentle picture!
In "The Fight at Finnsburgh (Finnsburh)", which is really a fragment attached to Beowulf by the poet we find these lines…
It is from Welkin also OE poetic/literary meaning sky or heaven. Wolcen is
its western Germanic origin. The welkin is a lovely replacement for our
universe or space. The ancients named planets wanderers, which is of
course technically more correct than the moon being a wanderer, but it
a mover as well! The Fight at Finnsburgh is a tale of an epic five day
fight. Here is a grim and memorable allusion in the description of
… Now shines the moon,
In this translation at least, we seem unsure if the poet is comparing
the bodies with crows or if he means them to be carrion around them. It
is sufficiently unclear perhaps to cover both images. Here dangled is
the strong word! Crows rarely dangle.
A pale crowd of corpses. The crows dangled Black and brown.
Perhaps but fallen corpses may seem to. This as I said could be only a personal interpretation from one translation!
The fight occurs at the door of a hall. Here have the startling words:
These words are designed to be alarming, with passionate overtones
couched in contradictions. The mixture of the real (an eastern dawn)
which is the everyday and the fabulous (the unreal with the dragon) is
obvious. But the point is that neither of these are appearing. Nor is
an everyday event such the burning of hall gables happening.
There is no mythical creatures to mystify or entertain, to amaze or
frighten us, no sideshows no sleight of hand; merely, but now starts
the war stark and awful! Which is real enough and scary enough if
imagine you are one of the warriors.
No eastern dawn is this, no
Nor are the gables burning on this hall,
But now starts the war
Other battle images, this time from "The Battle of Maldon", include:
Next is a separate quotation:
the wolves of war advanced the viking troop. Unmoved by
water, westward over the Pante (a river) Many a spear passed through
the lifehouse of the doomed.
These lines are good examples to support Beowulf type battle scenes, in
resonance and power. The one body we all possess (some say borrow) is
well described as the life house which perhaps shelters the spirit
within (but I reach for the metaphysical, so will desist). In any case
doomed or not (although these lines are not directly linked) they give
a last hurrah firing out their fire-hard spears in doomed defiance.
Of course there is an abundance of alliteration in these
..on earth was uproar
they let the file-hard spears fly from their fists
Lastly a curious footnote perhaps of interest to those interested in
runic letters. It seems that there was one poet, Cynewulf, "whose
practice it was to end his poems with a coda in which his name was
spelt out in the letters of the Runic Alphabet". Hamer says also that
nothing else is known about him save that he was probably a Mercian of
the eighth or ninth century. Given that only four or five individuals
are known to us at all, this is remarkable enough indeed. LONG LIVE
* Note: The title of this ill managed piece is from Beowulf.
Since I began the piece I have obtained a copy of an older book Anglo
Saxon Poetry edited by S. A. J. Bradley, Everyman (pub), reprint 2000.
This book is particularly comprehensive!
Back to Tilkal, Issue 2, eJournal of