Category Archives: Old English

The Cosmic Scope of Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Caedmon’s Hymn.

Although the Old English corpus is rich with history, homilies, and saints’ lives, I suspect that most students of the language are most enthusiastic about the poetry: the elegies, the riddles, the rune-poem, the hymns, and Beowulf of course.  I certainly am.  So it was with great joy that I was able to decipher Caedmon’s Hymn:

Nu sculon herigean   heofonrices Weard,
Meotodes meahte   on his modgeðanc,
weorc Wuldorfæder,   swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece Drihten,       or onstealde.
He ærest sceop    eorþan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,  halig Scyppend;
þa middangeard  moncynnes Weard,
ece Drihten,       æfter teode
firum foldan,     Frea ælmihtig.

Now (we) should praise   of the kingdom of heaven  the Warden,
Of the Creator the might,  and his mind-thought (purpose),
the work of the Gloryfather,  just as he of wonders,
eternal Lord, created the beginning (of each).
He first created  for the children of earth
heaven as a roof,  holy Shaper;
then Middle Earth  mankind’s Warden,
eternal Lord,   after created
for men the earth,  Ruler almighty.
(Translation taken from Dennis Baron)

To get a taste of the sound:

Although we have this hymn preserved in several manuscripts, we learn its background only from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History.  He writes that Caedmon was a monk of little musical talent, who would walk away from singing contests in shame.  One day, however, God revealed this hymn to him in a dream, thus beginning Caedmon’s career as a hymn-shaper whose skills came directly from God.  Pope and Fulk date his career between 657-680, but the earliest manuscripts we have of the poem come from the eighth century.

Scholars have written reams about the way this poem uses Anglo-Saxon pagan terminology for gods and kings, applying them to the God of Bede’s Christianity:

  • Wuldorfæder, “father of wonders,” echoes the Norse epithet for Woden, “Father of Armies”
  • heofonrices Weard, “ward of the heavenly kingdom,” echoes the Anglo-Saxon phrase for kings as “guardians of the realm” (Mitchell, A Guide to Old English, 228).  (Note that the rices, “kingdom/realm,” is cognate with the modern German word Reich.)
  • Drihten, “Lord,” also referred to lords such as King Hrothgar in Beowulf (Barney, Word-Hoard, 9)
  • Frea, “lord, king,” is perhaps cognate with the name of the Norse goddess Freya (Barney, Word-Hoard, 53)

My take away from this poem, apart from its mixing of literary-religious cultures, is its technique of appositive variation.  It proliferates titles for God.  It’s very associative.  Take the last two lives, with their contrast of ece Drihten and Frea ælmihtig: “Eternal Lord” and “Ruler Almighty.”  Each epithet for God conjures up another set of associations, mapping the attributes for God onto the attributes of a king or ruler.  Pope and Fulk are right to remark that this hymn is very psalm-like.

The epithets in this poem relate to the power, the transcendence of God the Father.  It’s very cosmic.  God created the universe, He holds it together, He fashioned it like a lord’s hall, like the Heorot hall in Beowulf, with heofon to hrofe (“heaven as a roof”).  In Sunny California, thinking of the universe as a hall does not mean much: what’s wrong with the great outdoors?  But surviving a snowy winter was a big deal.  Anglo-Saxons measured someone’s life by how many winters they had lived.  Being in a hall with a fire meant survival.  The vast universe, mostly inhospitable to human life, is like the killing cold of an English winter.


Cozy, eh?

If anything, this poem reminds me of what we Episcopalians affectionately call the “Star Wars Prayer” in the Book of Common Prayer:

God of all power, Ruler of the Universe, you are worthy of
glory and praise.
Glory to you for ever and ever.

At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of
interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
and this fragile earth, our island home.
By your will they were created and have their being.

From the primal elements you brought forth the human race,
and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us
the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed
your trust; and we turned against one another.
Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

Amen, Caedmon.

Review: A Gentle Introduction to Old English, Murray McGillivray.

When I look back on this summer in 20 years, one of the strongest memories will be the amount of insight I have gained from my Old English study group.  My university does not teach Old English, but a group of five of us — an English faculty, three recent grads hoping to become medievalists, and myself — have been learning this tongue under the tutelage of a husband-and-wife Anglo-Saxonist team.

There is plenty more to say about that — but it will have to wait for another post.

9781551118413We began learning the grammar with Murray McGillivray’s A Gentle Introduction to Old English.  McGillivray’s book is meant to be a primer to get students into the original texts as rapidly as possible.  In twelve brief chapters, he takes students from pronunciation to the meter of Anglo-Saxon verse.  Along the way he includes exercises and brief readings from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Luke’s Gospel, the story of Ohthere, and a riddle.  The back of the book contains extended readings in Luke’s infancy narrative, Abraham and Isaac, the Voyage of Ohthere, and Aelfric’s Colloquy.  The readings have glossaries and notes on tough passages.  McGillivray also has an accompanying website.

I appreciated that he simplified the grammar greatly, making it possible to start in on real texts as soon as possible.  But now that I am starting to read Anglo-Saxon poetry, I find my understanding of the language (particularly thorny issues like strong verbs) lacking.   While he does lead the student into the grammar step-by-step, he primarily wants the student to learn Old English inductively, through reading texts with glossaries.  The chapters do not have vocabulary lists (let alone principal parts of verbs) for the student to learn, and the grammar is not presented as systematically and step-by-step as it is in Wheelock’s Latin.

Is this book useful?

It depends on your goals in learning Old English.  If you want to work with Old English, follow scholarship about the literature, and be able to look up a few words here and there, it is very useful.  But it is not the kind of primer that will build your knowledge of the language deductively.  Nor will it give the finer points of grammar; Bruce Mitchell’s Guide is a necessary supplementary volume for that.  I would have preferred something halfway between the gentleness of McGillivray and the linguistic overload of Mitchell, which is more of a reference grammar.

One of my main frustrations for this book was the readings in the back.  The Bible readings were useful, and Biblical translation is often a good place to start in any language because, well, you know what it’s going to say!  But the Ohthere and the Aelfric readings were very tedious.  The Ohthere reading included a lot of nautical vocabulary that I doubt I will see again — not perhaps the best vocabulary builder.  The Aelfric reading was written as a pedagogical exercise for children — not the most exciting stuff!  I understand McGillivray’s desire to stick to the simpler syntax and smaller vocabulary of prose readings, but he could have included Bede or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle instead, readings found in Mitchell’s text.

Within the next few days, I will explain what I have gleaned about language learning from my experience with Old English.  Stay tuned!