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From The Story of Poetry I: from Caedmon to Caxton

From The Story of Poetry I: From Caedmon to Caxton


Lytel ic wes betwih brothur mine, ond iungra in huse feadur mines.
Pusillus eram inter fratres meos, et adolescentior in domo patris mei.

                from the Mercian Hymns of the eighth century, with the ninth-century Latin gloss

The art of English poetry begins after the ebb of empire. In the wake of Rome, a series of small kingdoms re-emerged, at peace and war with one another, and vulnerable to the depredations of the Danes who were much too close and predatory for comfort.

In each little kingdom there were courts, some more sophisticated than others. In each court there must have been entertainers, including minstrels whose job it was to fill the long winter nights with stories, songs and distractions designed to celebrate the household, the lord and his antecedents, or simply to amuse. They picked up stories from legend, oral tradition, and when the Christian God arrived, from the Bible and the legends that surrounded its narratives. The tradition was largely non-literary, the scop or minstrel carrying in his head, thanks to mnemonic formulae and a formidable skill, lyric and elegiac offcuts as well as 28 ell bolts1 of language on which he played variations as he sang.

The way in which a poem arrives at a reader has an effect on how it is conceived and composed. The ballad sheet, the illuminated manuscript, the slim volume, the epic poem, the ‘representative anthology’, the electronic poem or performance piece each make different demands on the poet and have a distinct technology for transmission to their audience or market. Poets of the seventh and even of the eleventh century composed for recitation, not for the page. Their job was to charm the ear and to keep it charmed, in some instances for hours at a time. They strove for clarity and vividness of sense. They accompanied themselves on musical instruments of various levels of sophistication. The tools of their trade were not the quill, the pen, the biro, nor did they compose on parchment, paper or keyboard. They had memory and accompaniment and they unfolded poems, by means of voice, on the attentive air. It was poetry's purest ecology. The poems were infinitely re-usable, never quite the same twice because memory added and removed decoration. The audience responded or lost interest at different points and thus collaborated in the unique experience of recitation. The scop was revising every time he re-opened his mouth. An aural scholar comparing two performances of the same poem would have all the problems that a scholar examining different scribal texts might have, but it would have been multiplied by the additional variables that audience and specific occasion provide.
At no stage in the early poetry of English do we find the subjective poet. There are 'personal themes' of loneliness, exile and suffering, but the voice that sings is not self-absorbed or self-obsessed. The bourgeois spirit that enters our poetry with Gower and Chaucer (but not Langland, the Gawain poet or the Balladeers) is remote from Old and early Middle English poetry. It simply was not the medium for such subjectivity which, if it existed at all, found its means of expression somewhere else, perhaps in prose, in meditation or devotion. ‘Only a poet of experience,' Robert Graves writes, 'can hope to put himself in the shoes of his predecessors, or contemporaries, and judge their poems by recreating technical and emotional dilemmas which they faced while at work on them.’2 The technical and emotional dilemmas of poets alive in the oral tradition are so remote as to be virtually incomprehensible to most modern poets, including those performance poets who have been heard to affirm that they follow in an ancient tradition of recitation. The difference between the anonymous scop and the modern performance-poet goes beyond the anonymity of the former and the manifest subjectivity of the latter. It is a matter of technical subtlety and resource, the difference between a living tradition and an amplified set of conventions rooted in a complex electronic technology. A commercially-designed and directed popular culture cannot be compared with a tradition in touch with an audience: it is a product calculatedly in touch with a market.
William of Malmesbury reports (five centuries after the event) that Aldhelm used to sing songs – ballads, perhaps – on the bridge in order to lure a congregation into his church for the sermon. Oral poetry was popular. It could be a baited lure, or a broad and colourful pathway, into the house of God.

Here is a riddle. Where does English poetry start? With the Old English chicken or the Middle English egg?

Does it make sense to start a history of English poetry as far back as 657, with Cædmon? The scholar and critic A.R. Waller thought so. ‘And from those days to our own,' he wrote almost a century ago, 'in spite of periods of decadence, of apparent death, of great superficial change, the chief constituents of English literature – a reflective spirit, attachment to nature, a certain carelessness of “art”, love of home and country and an ever present consciousness that there are things worth more than death – these have, in the main, continued unaltered.’ The changes may seem to us more than superficial and the thematic constants a little more complex, than they seemed to this civilised and comfortably-settled scholar.

Sixty years after Waller, his argument persisted. 'Microcosm and macrocosm, ubi sunt, consolation, Trinitarianism – these are but some of the ideas and motifs,' wrote Stanley Greenfield, 'that Old English literature shares with the works of later writers like Donne, Arnold, Tennyson, and Milton.' This is more fanciful and arbitrary, because it pretends to be more specific, than Waller. The later English poets he calls as witnesses answer the four 'motifs' listed, but those motifs, singly or in combination, are characteristic of any European literature – or indeed, of almost any literature you might care to name.

Old English poetry is remote in time and temperament even from Chaucer and Gower, who are only three centuries away, but it does have some affinities with Langland and the work of the Gawain poet, with the alliterative verse of Richard Rolle of Hampole and others, and with surviving shreds of popular verse. The spirit of the more secular Old English poetry is not remote from the spirit of the Ballads. It would strain credulity to draw the line much further forward, despite echoes and analogies. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound and W.H. Auden undeniably used the old traditions in selective ways for their own ends, generally when they were learning their craft and looking for antidotes to the lazy smoothness of their ages. But to them Old English was a language as alive and foreign as Welsh or Icelandic, a poetic rather than an immediately linguistic or lexical resource, and something to be used analytically and selectively.

All the same, we might as well begin at this beginning, even if it looks like another country altogether, and even if we will need to start again in a few pages, from a rather different point of departure.

Old English poetry was composed in several related dialects, and when it was written down it was often partly transposed from one dialect into another. This is not uncommon with oral literatures. For example, Ionian Greek oral poets ‘composed’ the Iliad and Odyssey, probably during the ninth and eighth centuries before Christ. These works were committed to writing between the seventh and sixth centuries. There was a gap of centuries between the events and their composition, and a further gap between their evolving composition and their transcription in Athens under Pisistratus. As a result, throughout the surviving texts there are elements of distortion, ‘correction’, misunderstanding, interpolation. The written text has been deliberately stabilized but the content remains, linguistically and in other respects, quite volatile. Mycenæan elements mingle with material from three centuries after the end of Mycenæan world (1100 BC); there is ninth and eighth century material. Some of the weapons described are Mycenæan, some are from three centuries later, some from even earlier periods, and some contemporary. As in Beowulf, funeral customs are conflated (inhumation and cremation, for example). Narrative matter from an older tradition survives in later poems. In 'Widsith' and 'Deor' there are allusions to Eormanric (d. 375) and Ælfwine (d. 573), and Theodoric. There are also celebrations of heroic actions and conduct – glory, bonds of protection, loyalty etc. – which must have been strictly anachronistic at the time of transcription.

The great Greek epics are cultural amalgams littered with anachronisms, and they are a curious linguistic mix: Peloponnesian, Aeolic, Ionic and Attic elements survive together. This demonstrates the poems' territorial spread, perhaps, their cultural breadth; but also a copyist tradition culminating in Athens. Might it suggest too the development of a deliberately formalized and ‘literary’ language at the time of transcription, the emergence of a 'decorum'? Or are the Attic elements from the time of the poems' ‘final’ redaction and the other elements vestiges from its transfer, orally, through time and space Westwards to Athens?

It is likely that if one had asked the illiterate Greek singer of tales, or the Old English scop, about the actual lines of his poem, or what a particular word might mean, he would have found it difficult to understand the question. He would not have seen the poem in his mind's eye, or heard it in his mind's ear, as a series of discrete lines. It would have existed as phrases rhythmically related, a prosodic flow; and the notion of a word as an entity separable from its context would have been obscure to him. Even in the manuscripts that survive, lineation is not generally marked – the text runs on continuously, like prose – and the cæsura is not indicated. The scribes themselves took the parcelling out of the verse for granted.

The language known as Old English consists of a bunch of Germanic first cousin dialects (the second cousins include Old Saxon, old High German, Old Norse and Gothic) which were spoken in England between the fifth century and the Norman Conquest. It arrived with raiding parties from Northern Germany – Angles, Saxons and Jutes – who decided to settle. The Saxons, whose dialect was called West Saxon, took up residence in the South West, the Jutes in the South East where they spoke Kentish, and the Angles, speaking Anglian, north of the Thames. This replicated the language patterns in North Germany itself. Little survives from the early period. It is only in the seventh and eighth centuries that we begin to get a hold on the language, three centuries into its use in Britain. By that time the dialect patterns have developed further. Mercian (spoken between the Thames and the Humber) is markedly distinct from Northumbrian (north of the Humber), judging from the limited evidence that survives (inscriptions, glosses and three poems). We know most about Mercian and, particularly, West Saxon. Wessex was effectively the cultural centre of the country from the time of Alfred (849-901) to the Conquest. Indeed, most of the surviving literature is preserved in that dialect, even if it was originally produced in another.
The surviving manuscripts, which were all composed within monastic communities, date from around 1000, though many of the poems were composed well before that time. Thanks to the church's scribal practices, religious elements find a way into secular poems and classical elements find their way into religious and devotional verse. The manuscripts incorporate a cacophony of elements; scholars have the fascinating task of untangling ‘authentic’ from superadded features.

Most Old English poetry survives in four key monastic ‘codices’ or manuscripts. We have already glanced at Junius XI which contains Genesis, Exodus, Daniel and Christ and Satan, so-called ‘Cædmonian Poems’ which are thought to be of an early date. Then there is the Vercelli Book, possibly the earliest codex of all, with twenty nine pieces, of which the most poetically powerful is ‘The Dream of the Rood’ (1). There is also Cotton Vitellius A.xv, in the British Library, which includes Beowulf, Judith and other material. It was originally two separate codices, but was bound together early in the seventeenth century.

Poetically most important is the amazing Exeter Book, presented to Exeter Cathedral by Leofric, the first Bishop of Exeter, who died in 1072. The Exeter Book contains the greatest secular and some of the most remarkable religious verse in Old English, including ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Seafarer’, ‘The Ruin’, ‘Widsith’, ‘Christ’ and the riddles. If this codex had perished, the reasons for studying Old English poetry would have been much reduced.

‘The Battle of Maldon’ is the greatest surviving 'occasional' poem, the occasion itself recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle entries for 991. Byrhtnoth’s heroic defeat is recounted by one of his followers. The singer places some of the most powerful heroic-elegiac lines in Old English into Byrhtwold's mouth:

‘Hige sceal the mare, heorte the cenre,
'Courage shall be the more, heart the keener,
mod sceal the mare, the ure mægen lytlath.
mood shall the more, as our might littles.
Her lith ure ealdor eall forheawen,
Here lies our lord all hewn to bits,
god on greote…’
good man in the grit…'

'The Battle of Maldon' is all of a piece. The theme is struggle, unavailing but sustained – like the moral struggle of classic Greek tragedy, but here expressed in action – that we encounter elsewhere in Old English poetry. The oral and literary traditions dovetail in this poem of vivid narrative and elegiac definition.

We should focus on the Exeter Book first. Its poems are often described as 'early'. We can pass on then to the the small body of wonderful poems from other sources and end with the unavoidable curate's egg of Beowulf.

What survives in the Exeter Book and the other codices may be corrupt, fragmentary and undependable. But whatever the condition of the text, the poetry is not in any sense primitive or technically unformed. The Anglo Saxon of the tenth century world had moved beyond the seeming spontaneities of Cædmon. A ‘plough-lad’ not unlike Cædmon may, as Waller suggests, have composed these pre-Christian lines ‘when he had drawn his first furrow’:

Hal wes thu, folde, fira modor,
beo thu growende on godes faethme:
fodre gefylled firum to nytte

Stopford Brookes translated this archly as:

Hale be thou Earth, Mother of men!
Fruitful be thou in the arms of the god.
Be filled with thy fruit for the fare-need of man!’

The later scop knew what he had to say and he had the established means of saying it. He invented nothing new in the way of form or story; what was new was the disposition of the elements in particular configurations, the addition of new thematic concerns (religious, for example, or political), and the variation and decoration he achieved.

A scop might or might not be learned, but a scribe had to be. Latin and Greek had arrived in Britain with Theodore (originally from Asia), the seventh-century Archbishop of Canterbury, and the abbot Hadrian (from Africa). Benedict Biscop, Bede’s teacher and patron, not only helped establish but stocked the libraries at Jarrow and Wearmouth. Bede’s disciple Egbert of York founded its school and decorated its churches. The great Alcuin was able to be educated ‘in the cloister school of his native city’. So good was the education that people were sent from the Continent to study in Britain both the classical trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric and the quadrivium of astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music. Alcuin commented on the efficacy of the instruction and the efficiency of the scriptoria where the books were produced. ‘The young monks file into the scriptorium and one of them is given the precious parchment volume containing a work of Bede or Isidore or Augustine, or else some portion of the Latin Scriptures, or even a heathen author. He reads slowly and clearly at a measured rate while all the others, seated at their desks, take down his words; thus perhaps a score of copies are made at once.’ A huge volume of work could be got through in a single scribe’s lifetime. Admittedly, after waves of Danish terror had laid England waste from the Humber to the Tyne, the ecclesiastical and educational fabric was rent, and not until Alfred did a whole culture re-emerge. All the same, once the literary culture had been set in motion, it was sometimes able to persist fitfully through the gratuitous, bloody and costly interruptions of the Scandinavian raiders and settlers, and then to flourish.

A century ago it was a convention to divide Old English poetry into two categories: ‘national’ and ‘Christian’. The 'national' arguments for retaining Old English as a compulsory element in the undergraduate university syllabus have lost their force. It is doubtful whether the division was ever more than a political device, making it almost a patriotic obligation upon the student of English literature to start at that remote beginning. It is worth repeating that there was no nation to which the secular poems relate or refer. The idea of a single ‘nation’ emerged rather later in history than when the so-called 'early national poems' were first composed, at the time of the seven kingdoms. What is more, the poetry that is described as Christian is composed in an idiom, and with formal and thematic traces, of secular and heroic traditions, just as the heroic poems are touched and sometimes deeply marked and marred by Christian elements, whether traditional or scribal it is hard to say. The material regarded as ‘national’ is often of Teutonic origin in terms of narrative, character and motif.

We can take 'Widsith', probably the oldest substantial English poem to have survived, as an example. It recalls the heroes and barbarous peoples who invaded Italy, and the speaker is rich in heroic tales which will not stand too much historical scrutiny. The poem includes elements of epic and elegy. The kernel of it may be a fourth-century poem by a minstrel who visited the unsettling Gothic court of Eormenric, who died in 375. To this a subsequent poet or poets added later journeys and genealogies, composing towards the end of the seventh century. Accretion, as in a medieval cathedral, was the creative process. Time sequence proved unimportant, the question of anachronism hardly arises: events, happenings (especially heroic happenings) have a 'factuality' as concrete in the imagination as that of trees and mountains. A happening is there and the past tense is not ‘over’ except in time. 'Widsith' celebrates the minstrel's own vocation, a wanderer among people and a rememberer of (not a witness to) events and deeds. Given the cryptic, abbreviated quality of certain passages, it is tempting to suggest that the poem represents a kind of prompt-text and that the scop would have filled out the rather skeletal story as he performed. English stories and landscapes do not feature either in this or in several other poems in the Exeter Book.

Its crucial wealth is to be found in the poems that follow 'Widsith', all of them textually challenging because of corruptions and interpolations and still much argued-over by scholars. The forty-two line minstrel's lament 'Deor' is unusual in the surviving canon, one of only two Old English poems (the other is 'Wulf and Eadwacer') with a refrain:

'Thæs ofereode, thisses swa maeg'.
('That passed, so may this').

The refrain gives the poem a stanzaic quality, and the tragic or unhappy stories the poet glances at open out again on the heroic imagination. It is an intriguing poem but unusual rather than outstanding.

'Deor' is followed by one of the great Old English monologues, 'The Wanderer' (2), which tells of the sufferings of a man who has lost his lord, his companions and therefore his identity. The comitatus relationship involved the unbreachable mutual loyalty of chief and retainer, so that when the chief died the retainer in a sense perishes, like the bereaved Indian wife who would once have committed suttee; but this Anglo Saxon retainer commits poetry instead of hurling himself on his lord's pyre.

'The Wanderer' stands first in a tradition that culminates in poems such as Walt Whitman’s ‘O Captain, My Captain’ and ‘When lilacs last’. Solitary, uncompanioned, the poet moves through the unresponsive world and remembers. He dreams of his vanished sense of security and purpose, when he served his lord. Waking, he sees the snow falling and the ashen waves breaking over and over on the shore. The images of things ending and passing create a desolated music. By a simple transposition a monastic scribe could baptise this poem, making the departed lord into Christ and the lamenting poet into the human soul. The Christian interpolations in the poem are light and probably the product of just such a tentative and fortunately uninsistent transposition.3 The ubi sunt motif ('where have they gone?') is most moving on first reading and re-reading the poem.

Less subtle is the Christian transformation of the most famous shorter Old English poem, memorably translated by Ezra Pound. 'The Seafarer' (3) is the same length as 'The Wanderer' and may be read as a dialogue between a wearied old sailor and a younger interlocutor, or as a monologue with a marked change of key halfway through. The reader impatient of the Christian elements can take lines 1-64 as a complete poem, rich in metaphor and powerful in rhythmic movement as the old heart, restless again for travel, comes alive at the prospect. With line 65 the enduring, sinewy sailor seems to collide with a psalmist, and the indomitable durability of endeavour is displaced by a sense of worldly vanity. The second half of the poem is powerful but out of key with the first, an extended grim moral to a short and harshly affirmative tale.

In 'The Wife's Complaint' we hear a female speaker, though her diction and her prosody are indistinguishable from the male speakers of other poems. Her text is difficult and corrupt. She recalls how her husband has left her and crossed the sea; she has been persecuted by his foes and is in a sort of prison, in a cave under an oak tree, where she can sorrow and lament all day and curse her foes, hoping that one day they may know the agony of exile and solitude. Unlike 'The Wanderer', she is constrained to a single place, but like him her life and identity depend upon a lord whose absence leaves her purposeless and friendless. ‘The Husband’s Message’ (the manuscript is torn and decayed) reads like a direct response to 'The Wife's Complaint'. It is spoken by the 'letter', perhaps a runic stick, that the husband has sent to reassure his wife and invite her to come when the tide is right to the new home he has prepared for her. The runic conceit is carried to completion by the mysterious runic riddle with which the poem concludes.

Also seriously torn in the Exeter Book is a poem scholars call 'The Ruin' (4), evoking the collapsed buildings and glory of a city. It may well refer to ancient Bath, judging from the springs and baths it remarks on, the wealth and gaiety. The season conspires with the poem's mood. It is tempting to read 'The Ruin' as anticipating Oliver Goldsmith's masterpiece, 'The Deserted Village'.

If we move from the largely secular to the specifically Christian world of poetry, we find that the Christian themes and narratives are treated in much the same style, and with the same diction and form, as the secular and heroic work. If Fate has become Providence, it is more a change of terminology than a transformation of sense. Christ has become King or thane, his Apostles retainers performing feudal functions, but again he speaks and acts less like a Biblical figure than like a leader holding court and doing deeds. We owe Christ fealty: here is feudalism projected on the wide screen of Heaven. Whenever a church appropriates a pagan culture and Christianises it (as it did in Mexico, Peru and India for example) more of the pagan survives than the priesthood bargains for. So too in England.

In Britain, early Christianity had two separate sources and cultures. St Augustine's missions in the south brought structures and traditions continuous with those of the Continent. This was a vigorous and specifically Roman Catholicism. But earlier there had been the Irish or Celtic incursions in the north, where English poetry begins twice over, once in Old English with Cædmon and again with the recrudescence of the vernacular in the fourteenth century and such figures as Richard Rolle of Hampole.

Celtic Christianity was less theologically orientated than the Roman. Aidan, the Apostle of the North, followed the martyr King Oswald and converted ‘the rude north Anglian tribes’. Streoneshalh, the Whitby of Caedmonian fame, was governed by abbess Hild in accordance with Celtic, not Roman, usage. (It is worth remarking the presence of significant women within the spiritual and administrative hierarchy of the Northern church.) If at the Synod of Whitby (664) the unity of the church under Roman rule was conceded, certain features which can be identified as Celtic persisted. 'The Dream of Rood', the second part of 'The Seafarer' and 'Phoenix' appear much more Celtic than Roman: deep feeling has an absolutely central place. It has been suggested that the Celtic church was organisationally simpler, spiritually more tolerant and alert to actual Christian virtues than to doctrinal orthodoxy and ritual propriety. It was more comprehensible, accessible and therefore congenial to the people. It would be an exaggeration to see in it a kind of ur-Protestantism, making a space for the subjective (on which both elegy and lyric are founded), stressing the relation of the individual questing soul with God ('The Seafarer, 'The Dream of the Rood') and also emphasizing the humanity of Christ, the brotherhood of man, the fellowship of the saints. And yet the contrasting character of the two religious cultures might be regarded as prefiguring a cultural and political divide which has persisted into the present century.

Many of the religious poems consist largely of paraphrase. 'Genesis' is such a poem, structurally curious because in it Lucifer and his cohort of angels fall twice. 'Genesis B' is an Old Saxon interpolation, quoting matter directly from Old Saxon. The connections with the mainland remained strong: Britain had not yet become an island. The poem 'Exodus' is freer and more lively; of the directly Biblical poems it is certainly among the more rewarding.

What survives of secular Old English poetry is uniformly intriguing and some of it can be described as great, holding its own with the mature literatures of Europe at the time. The religious verse is more conventional, with vivid moments, startling variations on familiar themes, but often less compelling as narrative and as spiritual drama than the prose Homilies. One religious poem, however, is in a class by itself: 'The Dream of the Rood'.

It is the first dream vision in English, god-fathering a line that includes massive poems such as Langland's Piers Plowman, Gower's Confessio Amantis, all of Chaucer's early vision poems, and much of the less achieved work of the fifteenth century. In 'The Dream of the Rood' the sleeper, oppressed by his own burden of sin, sees the crucifixion. As in a riddle (though we know the answer from the outset), the Rood, the cross itself, speaks its tale of pain, triumph and paradox, now suffering, now glory. When the poet awakes the riddle that has troubled his soul is resolved, he is released from his uncertainty and understands what Christ's sacrifice means in terms of his own, and every believer's, redemption. After Christ's death, He harrowed hell and rose again.

Before the poem was discovered in the Vercelli Book, some lines from it had been found carved in Germanic runes (in the Northumbrian dialect, not the dialect of the surviving manuscript) on an ancient stone cross at Ruthwell, near Dumfries, and – attributed to Cædmon – were translated. Later, the poem was more plausibly attributed to Cynewulf, the other great named Old English poet and author of at least four poems, the best of which is 'Elene', about St Helena's quest for the True Cross. But 'The Dream' cannot with authority be removed from that distinguished category of work attributed to Anonymous.

The idiom and values of the heroic pagan tradition here confront the most extreme human deed of all: man's crucifying of the incarnate God and that God's forgiving purpose. Christ is a hero of a new kind, allowing himself to be taken and tortured, showing his might in his will to forgive. Defeated in body, he triumphs in spirit, and that triumph raises us all with it. It is a perfect transposition of heroic values into a new key, a transposition which had eluded other scops active with the same tools as 'The Dream' poet. The speaking cross is like the retainer who, to serve his lord, must do unspeakable things which that lord requires. For the poet, the cross's voice is real and potent; it sees the blood congeal in gems and then re-liquify. It feels the flesh and weight of the punished saviour with an intense, almost erotic passion.

Some Old English poetry was composed after the Norman Conquest, 'Durham' for example, an encomium urbis or city celebration poem, early in the twelfth century. The city was northern; the Venerable Bede was buried in its cathedral. Norman French progressed unevenly up the island. But the days of Old English were over. Late in the twelfth century, ‘The Owl and the Nightingale' typifies the change. It is a débat in rhymed octosyllabic verse, the vocabulary – not over-Norman – courtois or courtly, the idiom assured and alien to what had been writt

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