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13.02.18, Jones, ed. and trans. Old English Shorter Poems

13.02.18, Jones, ed. and trans. Old English Shorter Poems

The poetry that survives from the Anglo-Saxon period of medieval history is relatively meager in quantity compared to the numerous homilies, recipes, writes, law codes, and liturgical materials that remain, and yet this poetic corpus is overwhelmed by the lasting image of the most famous monument to Old English heroic cultures, Beowulf. While its 3,182 lines of alliterative verse do constitute the most substantial and arguably the deepest single contribution of Old English poets to the history of poetry, its position has dwarfed the many other poems of value and spirit from the period, verse which takes as its subject not monsters and dragons, heroes and worldly glory, but themes more familiar to our own modern poets' offerings, although the form taken is different. Spiritual unrest, the desire for peace in a troubled world, the terrors of an uncertain future, and the need for steadfastness despite the times: all these are the concern of the thirty poems collected from approximately thirty manuscripts and presented in the first volume of Old English Shorter Poems, most ably edited and translated by Christopher A. Jones for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library Series. The series itself, under the guidance of series editor Jan Ziolkowski, and Old English editor Daniel Donoghue, both at Harvard, has taken as its goal to supply readers with bilingual volumes of a wide range of medieval texts, including Medieval Latin, Medieval Greek, and Old Icelandic materials, in addition to Old English. Each volume will comprise texts in original languages, predominantly drawn from existing editions (although editorial emendation is possible, and necessary in some cases) and coupled with a prose translation, textual notes, and succinct editorial commentary.

In his short introduction, Jones explains that the poetry he has selected is specifically non-narrative religious verse. A lengthy tradition of Biblical narrative poetry that the Anglo-Saxons inherited from Late Antiquity had made a custom of versifying books from the Bible, and Old English poetry of the books of Genesis, Daniel, Judith, the Gospels, and similar texts also existed. The poetry herein is fairly short, and although it is not all lacking in narrative, it is largely meditative and lyrical in nature, and includes both allegorical readings of the natural world, overtly Christian suggestions for living, and reflections on death and dying, and the world to come. Other volumes in the series have covered Old Testament narrative verse in Old English, as well as the poems of the Beowulf-manuscript, the works of Cynewulf, one of our few named Anglo-Saxon poets, and the Old English translation of Boethius' De consolatione Philosophiae. Additional volumes will cover hagiographical verse and the metrical psalms.

Professor Jones makes two important points in his introduction. The first emphasizes the difficulty of demarcating the line between poetry and prose in the late Old English period, the time when the majority of these poems were likely composed. He correctly notes that rather than having two categories, it would be more helpful to think of artful language of the period as occupying positions on a spectrum, from strict, perhaps archaizing "traditional verse" to energetic and rhythmical prose, with many of the religious poems occupying a point in the middle. These poems do not use a traditional heroic vocabulary, nor do they follow strictly the traditional metrical rules one would find in Beowulf. The first appendix to the book prints a late Old English sermon, Judgment of the Damned, in which one finds both forms together, written out in the manuscript as continuous prose, emphasizing the mixed nature of the poetic art at this time. Secondly, he notes that the audience for this verse would seem to indicate a "popular elite," a population of learned lay readers and lesser clergy who would have both personal and professional interest in the proper maintenance of Christian customs, and in attractively presented reminders of the central themes of Christian devotion.

The first section offers translations of three animal poems drawn from the medieval Physiologus tradition, in which the characteristic habits and appearance of the animal kingdom were individually treated to allegorical interpretation. The panther, the whale, and a "certain bird" (traditionally considered the partridge) were adapted from a Latin source text, which the poet has altered to suit his design. In these poems we witness a consistent preference of Old English poets to adapt and amplify conscientiously the sources of their inspiration. A fourth, much longer poem on the mythical phoenix has a different tradition from the others, being in part a translation of a poem by the North African poet Lactantius, but even in this part we see the poet enhancing, condensing, and expanding his source material to adapt the language and subject to a native audience.

In reading the prayers and Christian meditations of the second section, we gain the sense of the piety of Anglo-Saxon culture, strongly engaged with liturgical observation, soteriology, and glorification of God. The most interesting of these, such as Resignation (A), reveal an intimate Christian concern with the danger of omnipresent evil, with light and shadow, an awareness of the sway of sinfulness and the difficulty of true atonement. Alongside the famous Caedmon's Hymn, Jones presents two lesser-known hymns: Godric's Hymn to Mary, extant in at least ten manuscripts, and the Kentish Hymn, a poem in mixed West Saxon and Kentish dialect from Cotton Vespasian The poems of the third section, containing didactic works on Christian living, continue to reveal an Anglo-Saxon Christianity that was humble, learned, and devout, a remarkably literate culture able to produce elegant verse of simple power in difficult times. Although the dismally unimaginative titles given to many of these pieces (not by Jones, who also laments them, but frequently by nineteenth-century editors) will hardly entice the modern reader--Homiletic Fragment (II), anyone?--the wisdom offered, rugged and righteous in turns, has much that should appeal. "Many a dear companion will turn out to be a stranger, will sometimes fail, his boasting words prove feeble," a poet laments, before acknowledging the joys of this world that nevertheless "long stood concealed by darkness, obscured beneath a veil, fully hidden by unformed matter." Such poetry can stand proudly in the long tradition of forceful and philosophical Christian verse.

The final group of poems concern the "last things" of death and the afterlife. Two of these feature a morbid conversation between a soul and its earthly body, in which the former berates the body for its corruption, its filth, and its frailty. These poems belong to an older European tradition, and although in other poems the flesh gets to respond, the Old English versions grant all the lines to the soul. The Soul's Address to the Body, a poem with a very complicated manuscript history (it has survived in literal scraps of parchment, contained in the so-called "Worcester Fragments"), is here presented in a highly-readable format, in all its macabre glory, as the soul mocks its former home for its irredeemable nature, and its eternal shame. Even the earth in which the poor body lies is "befouled" with "your filthy corpse"; the body "must rot and decay," its "bones will be deprived of the clothes to which they were accustomed." "The Grave" continues this vein of discourse, and the section closes with Judgment Day (I) and Judgment Day (II), the latter which was attributed to Bede; the images of the terrible punishment awaiting unrepentant sinners were borrowed freely by a later Anglo-Saxon homilist. The volume ends with a retrospective lament written in transitional Old English, and two appendices present the sermon mentioned above and a significant portion of relevant bilingual (Latin-Old English) material.

Although most of these poems have been translated before, they receive fresh treatment in this volume, and although not presented as verse, they have a far more enjoyable rhythm than those in S. A. J. Bradley's Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Jones' translations are smooth and elegant throughout, and follow closely the Old English, making them useful cribs for students and others who would learn more of the original language. Lineation is given for both the original and the translation. Jones mostly (although not strictly) eschews strict translations of the numerous compounds or kennings that Old English poetry is famous for: coinages such as "whale-road" or "sky-beam" will not be find herein. There is no "middle-earth" (middan-geard) in this book. He sensibly renders the compound ferð-gleaw, literally "spirit-skilled" (Judgment Day I, 30a), as merely "wise" (the compound was used to gloss Lat. sapiens). While the results achieved are often prosaic, Jones also achieves some striking touches, as when at line 64a of Phoenix he translates flod-wylmum as "ebullient waves." However, while he avoids the often-stilted coinages that some translators have employed, he does not hesitate to use compounds that survived into more recent English, even if they are archaic. Thus han-cred (Soul and Body, 68a) is happily rendered as "cock's crow." Occasionally, Jones avoids compounds that would seem to promote themselves: mold-wyrmas (Soul and Body, 72a) are "worms of the earth," but why not "earthworms?" Yet even these choices are governed by reason (the worms that consist on cadavers are different from those of the garden). The reader interested in kennings will find many discussed in the notes--such as the sæ-mearas (The Whale, 15a) which Jones does translate literally as "sea horses."

Jones' textual and editorial notes are excellent, the former offering a brief overview of the state and origin of the edition presented, and the latter making many allusions clear to the non-specialist. He notes where textual cruces exist, and explains when he deviates from accepted wisdom, or when he follows only with hesitation--as with the interpretation of geonges geanoðe geomres iamiamque (Aldhelm, 7). It remains somewhat unfortunate that in a volume of poetry there is no discussion of even the basic elements of the Old English language or its verse techniques. Although one might argue that those with the ability to read the Old English would have no need of such a discussion, if the series is indeed aimed at the curious "general reader" as well as scholars, some explanation of form and technique of the poetry being translated would seem appropriate. Otherwise, older texts run the risk of having their original glory hermetically sealed from the very readers being sought.

Both Professor Jones and the editors at Dumbarton Oaks should be praised for the splendid editing of the volume. I have found only a few extremely minor errors in the bibliography, and none of consequence. The index handles proper names very well, while some of the subject entries seem idiosyncratic; "bees" gets a reference, but "honey" on the same page does not; the two occurrences of "harp" are cited, but not "trumpet," nor is there any mention of "teeth" or "gold" or "devil." Still, the material, highly repetitious and scripturally allusive, would not seem conducive to any but the most comprehensive thematic index, which would lie well outside the purview of this edition. The book is also, as is the entire series, handsomely bound, with beautiful paper and a compact, convenient size.

Minor quibbles aside, this book is a wonderful edition of neglected works from a poetic tradition whose full worth is often unknown even by scholars. While the material is unlikely to provide a first foray into Old English literature, for those already acquainted with Beowulf it should provide hours of thoughtful meditation on spiritual questions, and on the transience of pleasures in a still-troubled world. "Though worms still hungrily assail you, dearest friend..."(Soul and Body, 136-137a), this poetry reminds us that it was always so, and that might just be solace enough.