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21.04.04 Lapidge, Bede’s Latin Poetry

The Medieval Review

21.04.04 Lapidge, Bede’s Latin Poetry

Bede's poetic works have been gathered here for the first time in a critical edition that has collated all extant manuscripts, in effect an editio princeps of the poetic corpus of one of the finest poets of medieval England (or Britain, as both Aldhelm and Bede were raised in regions still significantly populated by Britons). Michael Lapidge mentions in his Preface having begun teaching Bede's Versus de die iudicii and Vita metrica Sancti Cuthberti (hereafter, DDI and VCM, following Lapidge's abbrevations) in the early 1970s in an Anglo-Latin track newly added to Cambridge's Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic (v). Though demurring that he had not worked continuously since on Bede's poetic corpus, Lapidge has, more than anyone else in the past half-century, delineated, edited, and explained the entire corpus of Anglo-Latin literature, Bede included. [1]

This edition is Lapidge's fourth effort to appear in the Oxford Medieval Texts series, the others being editions of Wulfstan's Life of St. Æthelwold (Lapidge and Winterbottom 1991), Byrhtfeth's vitae of Oswald and Ecgwine (2009), and the early vitae of St. Dunstan (Winterbottom and Lapidge 2012). In this edition of Bede's verse, Lapidge has texts that require somewhat more substantial apparatus given the number of manuscripts collated, the history of textual transmission, and the large number of parallels to and citations of classical and patristic authors. Indeed, the typesetting is overwhelmed at times with pages approaching one-half full with criticalor testimonial apparatus.

The corpus of Bede's poetry as edited by Lapidge consists of the Versus de die iudicii (Lapidge collates for the first time all 33 complete and 10 fragmentary manuscript copies; a long section 45-66 divides the manuscripts into major 'English' and 'continental' recensions); the metrical Vita Sancti Cudbercti (Lapidge restores the Northumbrian spelling as Bede's own); the 'reconstructed' Liber epigrammatum (the title and proposed contents follow on Bede's own mention at HE V.24.2 of librum epigrammatum heroico metro siue elegiaco); and the 'reconstructed' Liber hymnorum (at HE V.24.2 Bede also mentions among his works a Liber hymnorum diuerso metro siue rythmo [112]; Lapidge introduces the ten liturgical [I-X] and paraliturgical [no. XI, on the Feast of St. Æthelthryth] hymns and four "hymn-like poems" [119] at 112-153, which section also contains a valuable discussion of the "Old Hymnal" in Anglo-Saxon England).

There are six appendices: the "Besançon Recension" of the metrical Vita Sancti Cudbercti in full from Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale MS 186 (459-504); "Anonymous Hymns Doubtfully Attributed to Bede" (505-13); "Carmina computistica Attributed in Manuscripts to Bede" (514-41; of the eight computistical verses proposed as Bedan, Lapidge finds none worthy of inclusion in the canon, disqualifying the last three metri causa). A fourth appendix considers and mostly rejects, often again metri causa, "Poems Attributed to Bede in a Medieval Latin Poetic Anthology" (542-45), though the first verse considered is the poetic preface to Bede's De natura rerum and appears as no. VIII in the reconstructed Liber epigrammatum (328-9). The fifth appendix considers the "Hexameter Verses on the Observance of the Four Ember Feasts" attributed to Bede in Johann Herwagen's eight-volume edition of Bede's writings published in Basel in 1563 (546-52): while these verses are closer to the Bedan in their patterning of dactyls and spondees, they depart from "the poet's treatment of hexameter clausulae" (55) and were very likely a later composition. The sixth appendix presents "Bede's Death Song" in the old Northumbrian form Lapidge sees as closer to the poet's original words taken down in Cuthbert's Epistola de obitu Bedae (553-55).

To begin with, the 153-page introduction is itself a veritable monograph on "The Poetic Art of Bede," and, as to the metrical concerns that figure prominently in the introduction, there is a nod in the direction of The Poetic Art of Aldhelm by Lapidge's former student Andy Orchard. [2] Lapidge begins his introduction with an apologia of sorts for prior neglect of Bede's poetical skill (1-3), and seems to be answering a perceived Aldhelm-versus-Bede rivalry--which the poets themselves may have shared, at least insofar as Bede's sentiment is recorded: he referred to Aldhelm at HE V.18 as sufficienter instructus, though this is in regard to matters rebus ecclesiaticis et in scientia scripturarum. [3] Neither man was particularly modest, apart from in the expected religious sense; indeed Aldhelm in his Epistola ad Acircium (or De metris et enigmatibus ac pedum regulis) seems to put himself in the company of the Mantuan himself. [4] In all fairness, both Aldhelm and Bede had a heady sense of their poetic achievement as scholar-poets of the remote northern isles, far from the "Hisperic" crowd. Orchard's very valuable study of Aldhelm's "poetic art" to some extent mounted a defense against charges of his "puerile pomposity," the "rhetorical pyrotechnics," and "rather thin narrative content" of the verse De virginitate. [5] Indeed, after working through Aldhelm's De virginitate, its relentless 2904 hammering hexameters, one is relieved to read here Bede's marching Vergilian hexameters of the VCM or the iambic dimeter of his Ambrosian hymns:

Primo Deus caeli globum molemque

terrae condidit, terram sed umbris

abditam abyssus alta texerat (418).

Though globum and molem fairly thud, the opening stanza to Bede's hymn De opere sex dierum et de sex aetatibus mundi calls to mind "Cædmon's Hymn," embedded in Bede's HE, the subject of which is here recast for the Hours. If Orchard had advanced that "Aldhelm, almost alone of Anglo-Latin poets, was possessed of a truly poetic imagination," some answer is given in Lapidge's Bede: "the question of 'inspiration,' and hence originality, as a criterion of poetic excellence is not one which Bede himself would have recognized, and is not one which is relevant to the study of early Medieval Latin verse" (2-3). [6] One might be forgiven for disagreeing here, as Lapidge provides ample evidence for both Bede's "inspiration" and "originality."

The opening section to Lapidge's introduction (1-34) is a densely detailed and enormously valuable discussion of Bede's own ars metrica. Bede had written his own treatise on the subject, but here Lapidge analyzes Bede's own employment of the rules and norms he had outlined, such as with the classical "golden line":

ignea sidereis fulgescere castra maniplis (VCM 122)

Here noun + adjective combinations (in Bede the order is often adj. + noun; 3-4) surround the central verb form; such "embracing" syntactic structures abound in Bede's verse. And a volley is returned in the observation: "Bede's skilled use of enjambement makes a striking contrast with the hexameter verse of Aldhelm, who relentlessly uses end-stopped lines much to the tedium of his readers" (3 n. 14). In this first section on "Bede as Latin Poet" Lapidge strives "briefly to illustrate (what strikes [him] as) the brilliance of Bede's Latin poetry" (4). Both Aldhelm and Bede limited variation to the first four feet of their hexameters. While Aldhelm in his De virginitate used four patterns (of sixteen possible) a little over three-fourths of the time, namely DSSS, DDSS, SDSS, and SSSS (where D = dactyl, S = spondee) [7], Bede in his DDI uses DDSS, DSSS, DSDS nearly 60% of the time, and in the VCM the same four patterns about 56% of the time. Statistics generated about meter often seem less impressive than they are meant to be, but general patterns here do obtain about compositional preference. Lapidge's discussion of the "placement of the caesura" sees a maturing in Bede's poetic craft in his increasing use of the rarer "feminine" caesura (placed after the long and short syllables in the third foot of the verse); so too Bede's use of internal rhyme (donauit tetricas humanae noctis ut umbras; VCM l. 2). This last example is from the praefatio to the VCM, and it might serve, for a moment, to note the strength of Lapidge's translations:

Multa suis Dominus fulgescere lumina saeclis

donauit, tetricas humanae noctis ut umbras

lustraret diuina poli de culmine flamma (VCM ll. 1-3).

The Lord bestowed many luminaries to shine on His world,

in such a way that the divine flame from the summit of heaven

should illuminate the dark shadows of human night (187).

Lapidge's translations are often fairly literal, but here they are perhaps more literary than in previous editions of Anglo-Latin works, and strive to preserve Bede's rhetorical devices as far as possible. Here Lapidge collapses the plural suis...saeclis to singular, and renders figuratively; the translation by Janie Steen has: "The Lord gave many lights to shine in their times, so that the divine flame from the summit of heaven would illumine the gloomy shades of human night." [8] Very rarely a device of Bede's is elided by the translation, as with the tricolon at VCM 267: nube domum, nimbo panem, dat pocula saxo, "Who created a residence in a cloud, bread from a cloud and water from a rock" (225). Might this not be better as: "Who gave refuge in a cloud, bread from heaven, and water to drink from a stone"? (The context is Exodus).

The emphasis on metrics in Lapidge's edition fills an introduction that begins with "Bede as Latin Poet" and then turns to introduce each poem or poetic collection, with detailed examination of all manuscript witnesses to every poem attributed to Bede, securely or not. That Bede wrote a treatise De arte metrica is pressed into service in examining Bede as metrist in his own verse, and can be used to emend metri causa and to support attribution of verse to Bede that had been considered doubtful or spurious: so with Hymn XIII (Apparebunt ante summum saeculorum iudicem; 428-39), in which the use of trochaic tetrameter catalectic follows Bede's own "idiosyncratic definition" (28) that the third foot must be a trochee, a pattern not followed by Hilary of Poitiers or other early Christian Latin poets. Bede wrote most of his verse in hexameters, and Lapidge observes that "Bede's hexameter cadences are thoroughly classical" (15), though he does vary his model with "his placement of monosyllabic words in the final foot" (his model again is Vergil; 15). Lapidge turns to "elision and hiatus" (notable is Bede's avoidance of hiatus; 10-11), "placement of the caesura" (11-14), "poetic diction" (16-19), including use of "archaic passive infinitives in -ier" (17), rhyme leonine and internal (19-23), and his "knowledge of earlier hexameter verse" (23-25). This last section has a very valuable register of Bede's knowledge of earlier Latin verse (classical and Christian), first- and secondhand, placed in the footnotes (notes 61-83: this information is valuable enough that perhaps it merited its own section to the introduction). A last section to part 1 of the introduction serves as a sort of conspectus metrorum to Bede's verse: hexametric, elegiac couplets, trochaic tetrameter, iambic dimeter, and rhythmical trochaic septenarii (23-34).

At VCM 285 nauigero patrium nos calle reducet ad aruum the collocation nauigero...calle occasions the interesting note: "the phrase may possibly be a Latin calque on an Old English (poetic) kenning for the sea, such as scip-pæð ("ship-path")" (225 and note to l. 285); Lapidge also notes that it had first been used by Aldhelm, at Aenigmata 92.4 (nauigeros calles ut pandam classibus index). At VCM 510 mors ubi languentes diffunditur atra per artus Lapidge draws attention in the testimonial apparatus to line 250 (tristis languentes pallor perfuderat artus) of the Aegritudo Perdicae, an epyllion transmitted in the Anthologia Latina; the echo certainly looks promising, but Lapidge adds that "Bede, however, is most unlikely to have known this poem, which is preserved in a single fifteenth-century manuscript [Harley 3685]" (253 note to l. 510). The poem was once ascribed to Dracontius, and may derive from the late Roman milieu that produced the verse of the Anthologia Latina in North Africa. [9]

Lapidge notes that Bede's aenigmata (= Liber epigrammatum [Reconstructed] II) begin somewhat clumsily with the first riddle Nil Herebo (i.e., Erebo) melius: "they form a rather feeble beginning to a poem which contains a number of intriguing puzzles" (317, note to ll. 1-2). Among these "intriguing puzzles" are the following "logogriphs," reminiscent of those of Symp(h)osius (whose century of riddles appears in the Anthologia Latina), Aldhelm, and Tatwine. Bede's "riddles" appear in a single manuscript, Cambridge, CUL Gg.5.35, at fols. 418v-419r, the "Cambridge Songs" manuscript of medieval (and excerpted classical) Latin poetry. The aenigmata were edited by Tupper in 1905, and are placed by Lapidge in his reconstruction of Bede's Liber epigrammatum. Lapidge parries Tupper's charge that the riddles are not likely to be Bede's on account of grammatical and metrical mistakes, which Lapidge attributes rather to the copyist of Gg.5.35. [10] As to the meter, Lapidge reduces the alleged faults to a single "minor" one (95-96). Somewhat more tentatively, Lapidge sees further corroboration for Bede's authorship in the balena riddle (aenigma 17), on the count that "[t]he reference to the whale and the use of its blubber for lighting purposes, could square with an origin in Northumbria, where (for example) whalebone was used for artistic purposes (e.g. in constructing the famous Franks Casket); and the veiled reference to the Day of Judgement (line 22) is consonant with one of Bede's abiding preoccupations" (96). Certainly the balena riddle, and other "logogriphs," exhibit a number of the rhetorical flourishes Lapidge pointed out in the rest of Bede's Latin poetry; for one, the figura etymologica at line 25, that the whale A nullo pastus pascit populum numerosum, for which Lapidge translates "eaten by no other sea-creature it feeds a numerous populace" (321). One might have wanted to see the "logogriphs" translated in somewhat more enigmatic fashion--perhaps here a more literal "by none other fed on it feeds a people populous." Bede the poet has a great fondness for such wordplay: compare the polyptoton os illius ex ossibus in Hymn XII here: the forms of os embrace the line (bone of bones, flesh of flesh [Gn 2:23]) and contrast the closely enjambed splendida/ plasmatur Adae femina (424, ll. 57-8). Within the brief compass of "Ambrosian" iambic dimeter Bede has told the story of the creation of man and woman.

In an edition of such complexity as to sigla, notes, and apparatus, misprints are exceedingly rare. I note only three: at 273, in the note to line 653 of the VCM, in the reference to the corresponding line in the Besançon Recension of the VCM (which Lapidge presents in full as Appendix I, 457- 504), read, for the line number, "650" in place of "655"; in the bibliography, at 565, read "Hall, T.N." for "T.N. Hall" and "Izydorczyk" for "Izdorczyk" for the entry listing Zbigniew Izydorczyk's article on the Evangelium Nicodemi.

An intriguing orphaned line, Auriferum solium uariabat tristega duplex ("A double storey adorned the golden throne," 350-51) appears as XXI in the reconstructed Liber epigrammatum, and it occasions an interesting and relatively lengthy commentary from Lapidge in the introduction (110-11): the "unlocated line" appears in the works of two thirteenth-century grammarians, Roger Bacon's Greek grammar, explaining the word τριστέγα tristega "having three storeys," and an anonymous commentary on the Carolingian hymn Ut queant laxis. As Lapidge notes, Bede knew the Greek adjectival form as he explains it in his Retractatio in Actus apostolorum at Acts 20:9: στέγε enim Graece tectum et τριστέγα triplicia tecta dicuntur (111). The attribution of the line to Bede seems fairly secure as Bacon cites Bede by name (sed Beda maior est qui dicit "auriferum solium variabat tristega duplex"; 110 n. 419) and as Bede himself commented twice on the Greek form from Acts 9:20, the episode at Troas when a young man named Eutychus, sitting in a window on the third floor of the building where Paul was preaching, is plunged into a deep sleep as Paul goes on and on (disputante diu Paulo); he falls downward from the third floor window and perishes, but Paul is moved to go downstairs, lean over him, take him into his arms and proclaim: nolite turbari anima enim ipsius in eo est, and the boy is led off alive. Bede was moved enough to return to this passage in his commentary to Acts where the nominal form occurs: ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἔπεσεν ἀπὸ τοῦ τριστέγου. This Bede reads tropologically: Tria vero coenacula, in quorum supremo Paulus disputat, fides, spes, et caritas, sunt. This second gloss to the Greek loan might be added as further corroboration that the "unlocated line" does indeed belong to Bede.

With this editio princeps of Bede's Latin poetry in hand the monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow may be the better known henceforth as, too, the poet of Wearmouth-Jarrow, that of Bede it might now be said--as he wrote of Cuthbert--scandere celsa suis docuit iam passibus Anglos (VCM l. 29). And we are to be grateful that an editor expertly fitted to the task has shared with us the fruits of nearly half a century of research, and fitted Bede into his proper place in the history of English poetry.



1. Cf. Michael Lapidge, "Some Remnants of Bede's Lost Liber Epigrammatum" English Historical Review 90 (1975): 798-820.

2. Andy Orchard, The Poetic Art of Adhelm (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

3. Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm, 2-3.

4. Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm, 2-3.

5. Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm 1, citing, quite interestingly, Charles Plummer in his edition of the works of Bede; and 11, this latter assessment his own.

6. Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm, 15.

7. Orchard, The Poetic Art of Aldhelm, 85.

8. Janie Steen, Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008) 24; a work not cited in Lapidge's bibliography.

9. Lapidge uses Riese's old Teubner for citation of the Latin Anthology; this has been superseded by the late D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Anthologia Latina. Pars I, Carmina in codicibus scripta (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1998); the Aegritudo Perdicae has a 2001 Teubner of its own, edited by Loriano Zurli.

10. Frederick Tupper, Jr., "Riddles of the Bede Tradition," Modern Philology 2.4 (1905): 561-72.