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21.01.11 Niles, God's Exiles and English Verse

The Medieval Review

21.01.11 Niles, God's Exiles and English Verse


The Exeter Book is a miscellany of Old English poetry that has rested safe and sound in the library of Exeter Cathedral since 1072, a gift of that see's first bishop Leofric, who turned the diocesan collection of five books into the fourth largest library in England of its day. It is a gift that keeps on giving, even after all these centuries. The text is beautifully produced and well-preserved in a fine hand, created during the Benedictine Reform a century earlier, perhaps at Glastonbury Abbey where that movement was begun under Abbot Dunstan, later Archbishop of Canterbury. In Bishop Leofric's bequest it is said to be a mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoð-wisan geworht ("big English book about various things rendered song-wise"), that is, "made into poetry." The Exeter Anthology, as Niles prefers to call it, contains 133 poems, exemplifying the whole range and richness of poetic creativity in the Old English language better than any other single manuscript, except perhaps the Nowell Codex or Beowulf MS, another Late West Saxon miscellany of three prose and two poetic texts produced a few years later in another southern English scriptorium. Niles, however, finds Beowulf to be something of a fish out of water in this newly reformed Benedictine world, "a large one--that has swum in from some other ocean, even though the fact of its being recorded in writing implies a monastic contribution at least as regards the transmission of its text" (6). Yet Beowulf, too, like the Exeter Book, is an anthology of sorts, a summa litterarum or consummation of many vernacular poetic forms that went into its composition. [1] The epic includes proverbs, homilies, hymns, Bible stories, moral reflections, heroic lays, poignant elegies, piquing enigmas, battlefield aristeias, descents to the Underworld, famous last words and at least four staged mortuary dramas, not to mention its monster-fights and other combats that resonate with struggles both secular and spiritual. Most Old English genres are included in this capacious poem. But we can only understand Beowulf's ambition and inclusiveness because we also have the Exeter Anthology to show us the depth and variety of vernacular forms upon which that poet drew in his startling reimagination of the northern world in geardagum ("in the old days"). The Nowell Codex and Exeter Anthology, produced so closely together in space and time, are virtual companion volumes, epitomizing together a whole lost world of poetic experience in the Old English tongue.

In addition, all the verses in both compendia, whenever originally composed and in whatever dialect of Old English, offer the same urgent prosody, the alliterative long line of archaic oral tradition that can be traced back to the tribal homelands of the Anglo-Saxons in fourth-century Jutland and northern Germany before the migration of some of these peoples to the former Roman diocese of Britannia in the fifth and sixth centuries. This form of oral-traditional poetry appears wherever verse in a Germanic language has first been preserved in writing over hundreds of miles of territory and a thousand years of time. Its speakers reserved it for the most important things they had to say and think. The poems of the Exeter Anthology thus have very deep roots in the ancestral thought-world of the newly recruited Benedictine monks who wrote and read them, roots they themselves may not have completely known about or understood, but could nonetheless respond to and make their own. In this sense, the poets of the Exeter Anthology anticipate Ezra Pound's modernist injunction to "Make it New" in his translations of both ancient Chinese poetry and Old English verse, like his striking "cover" of "The Seafarer" from the Exeter Anthology itself. These poems are indeed "renovations" in just the terms Pound himself might have used, not passive or perfunctory records of a lost art, copied out of some antiquarian or preservationist impulse.

Instead, as Niles argues persuasively, these poems are fresh compositions for their own day and age, designed or newly adapted for inclusion in a carefully orchestrated and thematically harmonious whole. Niles sees the unifying principle of the Exeter Anthology as a double-edged "monastic poetics," one celebrating the glory of God and a determined search for His presence in a new key of religious conversion and commitment, while at the same time characterizing that quest as an eviction from the land of one's birth, one's familiar world of parents, children, siblings, neighbors, patrons and the other important people in an Anglo-Saxon person's life. This spiritual displacement from one's native folk and homeland may have been physically enclosed and thus stationary in space, but felt as psychologically uprooted, deracinated, unsettled and mobile in time. It was imagined as a kind of extradition from one's former social identity, an exile whose outcome was uncertain and could thus be construed in the imagery of antique fortitude and heroic valor. Niles imagines the poems of the Exeter Anthology as circling this irony of exile in stasis, offering clusters of new fruit from this vineyard of vernacular spirituality where aspirants found fresh meaning in the familiar themes of Old English elegiac verse, where absence from home and loss of loved ones could be repurposed to express an affective alienation from the land of one's birth even while one still lived in the heart of it.

Niles includes in Appendix One his translation into Modern English prose of The Wanderer, perhaps the single most expressive recruitment of the theme of exile in the entire codex. He describes the intended purpose of this poem, in the context of the others, as follows:

"One of the effects of the poetry of the Exeter Anthology would have been to reassure its readers that a decision to become one of "God's exiles" was both courageous and rational, given the precarious nature of life on earth and the certainty of Judgement, not to mention the potential spiritual comforts of a communal way of life" (38).

This last point is an important one, since these cenobitic monks were anything but silent and solitary anchorites; they had joined a new team and were subject to new rules under new management, a monastic managerial class that many of them were soon to join. Even the anhaga, the "lone-dweller" or figure of the Wanderer in that poem, a man who has just lost lord and kin on the field of battle and finds himself driven out onto a wintry sea seeking a new lord, is not to be imagined as utterly alone aboard his vessel. Anglo-Saxon readers would have assumed a crew of subordinate companions, who are looking to the soliloquist for their own protection and reassurance, an expectation which only compounds the Wanderer's stress that he vents at first light while they are still asleep:

"Often, each dawn, I have had to lament my sorrows alone. There is no one alive to whom I dare freely confide my thoughts. I know in truth that it is a good habit for a man to bind his feelings tight within his chest, to lock shut the treasure-coffer of his heart, let him think as he will. No one whose spirit is exhausted can withstand the course of events, nor does an agitated mood give help. Those who value the esteem of others therefore often confine a bleak spirit within their breast" (Niles's translation, p. 246).

Stiff upper lip indeed, but one required for effective leadership in anxious circumstances, whether imagined as a physical or spiritual quest. And the poem ends, too, with an image of implicit community, but one which is even more sharply evocative of the experience of stationary exile. In the concluding frame, the Wanderer seems finally to have found a lord to cheer him with welcome in his hall. But the anhaga now realizes that he is still alone. This new hall is no more his home than the one he left behind. He now sits apart from his fellows in silent meditation, brooding on his experience of wandering through a wasted world, remembering the crumbling ruins of a post-Roman landscape, the eald enta geweorc ("old works of giants"), their once-happy occupants long gone:

"Here wealth is fleeting; here friends are fleeting; here retainers are fleeting; here kinsfolk are fleeting; this whole framework of earth is turning to nothingness" (Niles's translation, p. 248).

The Wanderer now knows not only that this world is not his home: it is nobody's home. There is no homeland for humans on earth, no fellowship that cannot be lost, no relationship that will not be severed by death--nothing left to long for, but comfort with the Father in the heavens, þær us eal seo fæstnung stondeð ("where for us all the immutability abides") (Niles's translation, p. 248). This is a rather abstract rendering of the resonant term fæstnung ("fastening"), which has far more active and social senses in Old English, yielding literally, "where for us all fastening stands firm." The term implies not only a deep "anchoring" or rootedness where can one's wandering can stop forever, but even more importantly, an intimate, personal "bonding," an unshakable relationship of trust, loyalty and acceptance that the Wanderer once had with his long-dead human "lord, laying hands and head on his knee" (246).

Niles makes a further excellent point that, however much these poems may draw upon native oral traditions, they are literate, even highly bookish creations, learned responses to a strenuous devotional regime and aggressive theological indoctrination in the Latin language, whose words and phrases rang daily in the monks' ears and minds in many different forms--spoken, sung and read. These vernacular poems are thus the products of a sophisticated bilingual culture. They were created and copied by readers for readers, who could be expected to grasp the familiar poetics of their traditional forms while understanding them as provocations to further thought and interpretive analysis. The poems preserved in the Exeter Anthology are not accidental, but deliberate acts of poetic imagination, cunningly crafted by word-smiths with ingenuity and skill, some of which they learned from the study of Latin grammar and scriptural exegesis. The poems were then fair-copied with precision, taste and some considerable investment of labor and material resources because of their inherent interest and value to the individuals who made and saved them both for their own enjoyment and the edification of their fellows. Niles notes that the Rule of Benedict requires that each brother at the beginning of Lent check out "his own book from the library and read it through, in its entirety" (36), an injunction which would have been a substantial but doable task for this codex, though it may just mean a copy of the Rule itself. Even so, the design of the Exeter Anthology would encourage such comprehensive and systematic reading, since its many poems are written out continuously like prose and often not distinguished from one another by ornamental initials or other kinds of spacing and punctuation. There is no list of contents, titles, or other headings to ease selective choice, as in modern editions.

This point undermines a long-standing assumption on the part of this reviewer that the Exeter Anthology may have served as a kind of "party book" at the convivia of the monks and their secular guests, one just full of good things to be read aloud on different occasions, depending on the mood and interests of a gathering. Alcuin famously complains of monks listening to secular poetry at their mealtimes in a by-gone age in the north of England. And we find some of that same legendary lore in the Exeter Anthology's Widsith and Deor, in addition to much funner, lighter, more amusing fare among its numerous brain-teasing riddles and tense personal dramas, like The Wife's Lament, that have an ambiguous, riddling quality of their own--conversation starters. But of course, the volume is just as full of devotional, celebratory or spiritually chastening poems like Doomsday to sober up the tone of a festive occasion where the carbs have been largely consumed in liquid form. Such admonitory poems could be used to "knytte up al this feeste and make an ende," as Chaucer's Parson says at the conclusion of another diverse party book. Like the Exeter Anthology, The Canterbury Tales contains many entertaining, even salacious contributions that are finally subsumed into that miscellany's penitential conclusion as its pilgrims approach the end of their "wandrynge by the weye" on the cusp of time and eternity.

Yet, the Exeter Anthology evinces no signs of the wear and tear, spills and stains, that we would expect from a volume that was hauled out regularly as a convivial resource or even a devotional volume. Nor is it glossed, annotated or dog-eared in a way that might suggest its use in a classroom or for private study (35). Niles suggests that this codex was originally conceived as a schoolbook or teaching text, but that it was just too beautiful and valuable for such pedestrian use: "The number of persons who ever had access to...the Exeter Anthology must therefore have been very small indeed" (35). Its prosody and themes may have sprung from an ancient oral tradition designed for communities of ordinary listeners; it may have expressed the communal values of spiritual quest cultivated by the monks of the Benedictine Reform. But this elegant anthology, even in its own day, came to be seen as a "special collection," one possibly created for the enjoyment of one or two privileged, perhaps even only abbatial, readers.

John Niles has undertaken a very welcome and thorough study of this important compendium of Old English poetry, a codex that has rarely been considered as an integrated whole--an intentional work of art in and of itself--rather than as a mine for the poetic gems of its particular parts. His arguments for its rationale and unity of purpose in the time and place of its creation are compelling. Yet in the very same way the composers of the Exeter poems selectively chose which forms and themes from their vernacular tradition they were inspired to renovate and "make new," it is no surprise that we, too, claim that privilege in our own time and place. "The Wanderer," "The Seafarer," "The Wife's Lament" and some other poems have been endlessly extracted, re-translated and re-anthologized for a reason, one which may disappoint Niles's hopes that "in another generation or two [his] main argument about the Anthology's intellectual coherence in the context of late Anglo-Saxon monastic learning will by then be taken for granted" (vi). Maybe...but however much its devotional agenda mattered to the creators of the Exeter Anthology, its poems will live or die for posterity on their own terms without much help from us. As W. H. Auden says in The Dyer's Hand (1962): "Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered." The same is true for the poems of the Exeter Anthology.

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Notes:

1. Joseph Harris, "Beowulf in Literary History," Pacific Coast Philology 17 (1982): 16-23.