Monday, January 9, 2012

Old English Poetry

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I agree with the statement Old English poetry lacks meaning without reference to the heroic society that produced it as, especially in the poems “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament”, as the elements at the core of Germanic heroic society are the essence of both poems as well as other Old English poems. When reading Old English poetry it is important to refer to such aspects as the duties of the Germanic comitatus, the importance of this kinship group, the origins of England and the invasion of the Germanic peoples, the emphasis on war, gnomic verses- loss of poetic and moral meaning through translation and the Germanic principal of keeping emotions unspoken.

From the first to the fifth century, England was a province of the Roman Empire and was named Britannia after it’s Celtic-speaking inhabitants, the Britons. The withdrawal of the Roman legions, in an unsuccessful attempt to protect Rome itself against the threat of Germanic conquest, left the island exposed to seafaring Germanic invaders (Norton. 000, p.). It was they who, overcoming the Britons, set in train the events through which the country came to be called ‘Englaland”, land of the Angles (Quirk et al. 175, p 5). The basic Germanic values were loyalty to chosen aristocratic leaders even to death and beyond; the sacredness of the ties of kinship; and the supreme duty of avenging a slain leader (Wrenn. 167, p.74). This heroic spirit manifested itself most strongly in Old English poetry.

The poem “The Wanderer” has strong references to kinship, which is at the heart of the heroic code. A kinship group was called a comitatus, a group of voluntary companions, the comitatus is ruled by a chieftain, who in “The Wanderer” is referred to by the speaker as “his gold-friend”, who surrounds himself with a band of men, many of whom are his blood kin, who become members of his party, he leads his men into battle and rewards them with the spoils, as the speaker in “The Wanderer” recalls “how in youth his gold-friend made him accustomed to feasting” (Norton. 000, pp. 4-6, 101). In “The Wanderer” it’s main subject is an exile visiting many places in search of “…a mead-hall who should know of my people, or would comfort me friendless, receive me with gladness…”(Norton 000, p 100), a leader whose comitatus he may join, since his own lord and former comrades are slain (Wrenn.167, p. 141). “The Wife’s Lament” also touches upon episodes of kinship from the Germanic heroic tradition. The wife, who speaks in the first person throughout, expresses her feelings of longing and grief for her absent husband and her current marital wretchedness (Wrenn.167, pp.15-). It seems that that this women is a “peace-weaver”, a women who has been married off to make peace between warring tribes and “the man’s kinfolk hatched a plot to separate” them (Norton 000, pp.10-). Readers could not understand the sorrow that the speakers in “The Wanderer” and “The Wife’s Lament” are feeling without reference to kinship and how highly it was valued in Germanic heroic society. That it was valued so highly that man and woman who had “…vowed that death alone � nothing else � would drive us apart” (Norton 000, p 10); would let his kindred part them, as in “The Wife’s Lament”; and that a man would wander around in exile after the death of his lord and kinsmen, like in “The Wanderer”.

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A further point on the importance of kinship in Germanic heroic society in reading Old English poetry is how dependent the speaker in “The Wanderer” appears to be on his “gold-friend”, the chieftain of his kinship group, also how much he appears to love and admire him. In reading the poem we see how the speaker “covered my gold friend in the darkness of the earth” and how miserable he now is that his companions are gone, especially his leader who “made him accustomed to feasting”; as he says “All delight is gone” (Norton. 000, pp.100-1).

The Anglo-Saxon period was a violent one. Warfare dominated its history and shaped the nature of its governance. Indeed, war was the natural state in the Germanic homelands and the patchwork of tribal kingdoms that composed pre-Viking England. Chieftains engaged in a seemingly endless struggle against foreign enemies and rival kinsmen for authority, power and tribute. This aspect of the Germanic society is evident in the poem “The Wanderer”, where the speaker comments on “fierce-war slaughters � the fall of dear kinsmen” (Norton 000, p100) and he refers to these same kinsmen as “a company of warriors” when he, floating on the sea in a haze of grief and weariness, imagines he sees them (Norton 000, p. 100-1). Without the reference to the prominence of war in the Anglo-Saxon period the reader may understand that it was war that separated the speaker from his group, but not how common it was and what they were fighting for. This is also true for “The Wife’s Lament” in which, as mentioned above, it seems that the female speaker is a peace-weaver between warring tribes. In Norton (000, pp.10-) it is suggested that the husband shares the wifes exile, however in the Handout (5th February 00) it seems that the Husband is part of the hostile opposition to the Wife as “Harshly my lord bade lodge me here” (Handout, 00) means that, possibly, even her Husband has conceived a deadly hatred for her (compared to the Norton introduction, 000 p.10)

To those who are unaware of the origins of England would not know that it was a Roman province before the invasion of the Germanic peoples. Therefore, when “The Wanderer” talks of coming across ancient ruins, “the works of giants” (Norton 000, p101), the reader wouldn’t know that these are, most likely, Roman ruins, that appear to have been left “idle, devoid of the noise of the stronghold’s keepers”, after the departure of the Romans in fear of the Germanic invaders. It is here that the speaker reflects on how useless it is to cling to transitory, earthly pleasures and earthly reward, contemplating this, the speaker thinks of the revelries that once went on within its halls and his mind, involuntarily, passes to his own lost mead hall and asks the old question Ubi sunt? “Where has the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where is the giver of treasure? What has become of the feasting seats? Where are the joys of the hall?”(Norton 000, pp.100-1). These questions depict an obviously Germanic setting, not Roman, therefore this part of the poem would lack meaning because without knowing that these images are ones of a Germanic tradition, the reader would be unaware that the speaker is reflecting on his own experiences.

It was common place in Old English poetry to use what are termed gnomic verses, that is groups of familiar proverbs and clich�s which all the audience must have known by heart since childhood, because the poet, probably, wouldn’t have introduced such moralising matters unless they were sure that their hearers would have found pleasure as well as being able to relate to it (Wrenn 167, p 1, 5, 164). In the translation from Quirk et al (175) line 4 states

wod wintercearig ofer waþema gebind

Which in Norton (000, p.100) is translated as “I crossed the woven waves, winter sad, downcast…” which doesn’t fully convey the complete poetic content of this line. “Waþema gebind” means something similar to the freezing sea because there was an ancient Germanic folk-idea of the frozen sea as being bound by ropes (Wrenn 167, p5). Therefore, with gnomic verses modern day readers lose not only the poeticism in translation, but also the true moral meaning.

The principal of keeping one’s troubles to oneself is Germanic and heroic (Quirk et al, 175) and it is something that the speaker in “The Wanderer” contemplates before he speaks of his grief “I know indeed that it is a fine custom for a man to lock tight his heart’s coffer, keep closed the hoard-case of his mind…”(Norton 000, p.100). Although it still isn’t the norm for men to express their emotions, to modern day readers it may seem strange that despite the awfulness that the speaker has seen and done he is unable to release it from his “breast’s coffer”.

The poems “The Wife’s Lament” and “The Wanderer” are both meaningless without taking note of the heroic society of the Germanic people that created it. Both poems have as their essence, exile and separation from one’s kinfolk. “The Wife’s Lament” shows the significance of war in Germanic heroic society with the concept of a “peace-weaver” for communities at war. Without reference to the Germanic heroic society readers would be oblivious to the importance of the comitatus, the prominence of war and other Germanic values central to both poems.

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