This paper considers the interface between the native, inherited, secular, vernacular, and oral legacy in Anglo-Saxon poetry and that of the foreign, imported, Christian, Latin, and written tradition that subsumed and largely supplanted it, at least in the extant record. A variety of Anglo-Saxon poets and poems are considered, including Aldhelm, Bede, Alcuin, and Boniface in Latin, and Cædmon and Cynewulf in Old English, as well as a range of anonymous poems including Beowulf, Andreas, Guthlac B, The Seafarer, and The Paris Psalter. The shared roles of memory, imitation, and self-conscious coinage in both Latin and Old English are considered, and it is suggested that traces of a once-thriving oral tradition that was partly shared by literate and illiterate poets alike can still be detected in the surviving written record.
Fore thaem neidfaerae naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnotturra, than him tharf sie
to ymbhycggannae aer his hiniongae
huaet his gastae godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege doemid uueorthae.
In the face of that needful journey no one turns out to be wiser in thought than that it is necessary for him to ponder before his journey hence as to what may turn out to be the doom on his soul of good or evil after the day of death.
O uere quam beatus uir! Canebat autem sententiam sancti Pauli apostolici dicentis: Horrendum est incidere in manus Dei uiuentis, et multa alia de sancta scriptura, in quibus nos a somno animae exsurgere, praecogitando ultimam horam, admonebat. In nostra quoque lingua, ut erat doctus in nostris carminibus, nonnulla dixit quod ita latine sonat: “ante necessarium exitum prudentior quam opus fuerit nemo existit, ad cogitandum uidelicet antequam hinc proficiscatur anima, quid boni uel mali egerit, qualiter post exitum judicanda fuerit.” Cantebat etiam antiphonas ob nostram consolationem et suam, quarum una est: “O rex gloriae, Domine uirtutum, qui triumphator hodie super omnes celos ascendisti, ne derelinquas nos orphanos, sed mitte promissum Patris in nos, Spiritum ueritatis. Alleluia.”
O truly what a blessed man! He used to sing the thought of the blessed Apostle Paul saying: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and many other things from Holy Scripture, in which by drawing attention to our final hour he used to urge us to rouse ourselves from the sleep of the soul. Likewise in our own language, since he was learned in our poems, he spoke some words, and it sounds like this in Latin: “Before the necessary exit no one exists who is wiser than that he needs to ponder, before his soul departs hence, what good or evil it has done, how it will be judged after death.” He also used to sing antiphons to console both us and himself, of which one is “O King of Glory, Lord of Might, Who didst this day triumphantly ascend far above all heavens, we beseech Thee leave us not comfortless, but send to us the promise of the Father, even the Spirit of Truth; Hallelujah.”
“No one can delay for any time the precious journey, but he has to endure it.”
Guthlac B(lines 1325b-35a; Roberts 1979:122-23 and 179-80):
Beofode þæt ealond,
foldwong onþrong. Ða afyrhted wearð
ar, elnes biloren, gewat þa ofestlice
beorn unhyðig, þæt he bat gestag,
wæghengest wræc, wæterþisa for,
snel under sorgum. Swegl hate scan,
blac ofer burgsalo. Brimwudu scynde,
leoht, lade fus. Lagumearg snyrede,
gehlæsted to hyðe, þæt se hærnflota
æfter sundplegan sondlond gespearn,
grond wið greote.
That island trembled, the earthly plain burst up. Then the messenger, deprived of courage, became afraid, went in haste, the hapless warrior, so that he embarked on the boat. The wave-stallion stirred, the water-speeder went, swift under sorrows, the hot sky shone, bright over the dwelling-places. The timbered ocean-vessel hastened, light, keen on its course. The flood-horse scudded, loaded to the harbor, so that the wave-floater, after the water-play, trod on the sandy shore, ground against the gravel.
Andreas(lines 422b-425a; Krapp 1905:17; Brooks 1961:14; parallels are highlighted in bold italics):
Mycel is nu gena lad ofer lagustream, land swiðe feorr
to gesecanne. Sund is geblonden,
grund wið greote.
There is still a great journey over the ocean-stream, land very far to seek. The sea is stirred up, the deep with gravel.
Cynewulf’s Elene(lines 225-55; Krapp 1932:72-73; Cook 1919:10-11; Gradon 1958:36-37; parallels with other Old English poems extant are given in bold italics):
on Creca land. Ceolas leton
æt sæfearoðe, sande bewrecene,
ald yðhofu, oncrum fæste
on brime bidan beorna geþinges,
MS yð liofu
hwonne heo sio guðcwen gumena þreate
ofer eastwegas eft gesohte.
Then a multitude of men quickly began to hasten towards the ocean. Sea-stallions stood poised at the edge of the deep, surge-steeds tethered alongside the sound. The lady’s expedition was widely known, once she sought the wave’s protection with her war-band. There many a proud man stood at the edge, by the Mediterranean. From time to time there traveled over the coast-paths one force after another, and loaded the wave-stallions with battle-shirts, shields and spears, mail-coated fighters, men and women. Then they let the steep ocean-speeders slip, foam-flecked, over the monstrous waves. The ship’s side often caught the billows’ blows across the surge of the deep; the sea resounded. I never heard before or since that a lady led on the streaming ocean, the watery way, a fairer force. There, one who watched that journey, would be able to see forging through the streaming path the timbered ocean-vessels scudding under the swelling sails, the surge-steeds racing, the wave-floaters wading on. The warriors were happy, bold-hearted, the queen delighted in the journey, after the ring-prowed vessels had crossed over the watery fastness to the harbor in the land of the Greeks. They left the keeled boats at the sea’s edge, driven onto the sand, ancient wave-vessels, fast at anchor, to await on the water the outcome for the warriors, when the warlike queen, with her company of men, should seek them out again along roads from the east.
Cynewulf’s Christ B(lines 850-66; Krapp and Dobbie 1936:26-27; Cook 1900:33; parallels with other Old English poems extant are given in bold italics):
Nu is þon gelicost swa we on laguflode ofer cald wæter ceolum liðan
geond sidne sæ, sundhengestum,
flodwudu fergen. Is þæt frecne stream
yða ofermæta þe we her on lacað
geond þas wacan woruld, windge holmas ofer deop gelad. Wæs se drohtað strong ærþon we to londe geliden hæfdon
ofer hreone hrycg. Þa us help bicwom,
þæt us to hælo hyþe gelædde,
godes gæstsunu, ond us giefe sealde
þæt we oncnawan magun ofer ceoles bord
hwær we sælan sceolon sundhengestas, ealde yðmearas, ancrum fæste.
Utan us to þære hyðe hyht staþelian,
ða us gerymde rodera waldend, halge on heahþu, þa he heofonum astag.
Now it is most like when on the liquid-flood, over the cold water, throughout the wide sea, we journey in ships, ocean-horses, travel flood-wood. The surge is perilous, waves beyond measure, that we ride on here, throughout this frail world, windy swells over the deep water-way. That plight was severe, before we had crossed to land over the rough ridge. Then help came to us, so that there led us to the safety of harbor God’s spiritual son, and gave us the grace that we might know beyond the ship’s planking where we ought to tether ocean-horses, ancient wave-steeds, secured with anchors. Let us fix our hope on that harbor, holy on high, that the ruler of the firmament opened up for us, when he ascended into the heavens.
Quamuis adhuc rerum perturbationibus animus fluctuet, iam tamen spei uestrae anchoram in aeternam patriam figite, intentionem mentis in uera luce solidate. Ecce ad caelum ascendisse Dominum audiuimus. Hoc ergo seruemus in meditatione quod credimus.
Although the soul may still waver from the disturbances of things, nonetheless fasten the anchor of your hope on the eternal homeland, and make firm the aspiration of your heart on the true light. Behold, we have heard that the Lord ascended into heaven; let us keep this in contemplation, as we believe it.
Per pelagi fluctus et per vada caeca gubernans,
Euboricae ad portum commercia iure reduxi;
Utpote quae proprium sibi me nutrivit alumnum,
Imbuit et primis utcumque verenter ab annis.
Haec idcirco cui propriis de patribus atque
Regibus et sanctis ruralia carmina scripsi.
Hos pariter sanctos, tetigi quos versibus istis,
Deprecor ut nostram mundi de gurgite cymbam
Ad portum vitae meritis precibusque gubernent.
I, an inexperienced sailor, steering through the ocean’s waves and dark channels, have rightly brought cargo packed in a vulnerable ship back to the harbor at York, who fostered me as her own product, and reverently raised me from my earliest years, and therefore it is for her that I have written these crude verses concerning her own bishops, kings, and saints. Likewise it is to those saints, whom I have touched on in these verses, that I pray to steer our vessel by their merits and prayers from the whirlpool of the world to the harbor of life.
The Seafarer(lines 117-24; Krapp and Dobbie 1936:146-47; Gordon 1960:48):
Uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen,
ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen,
ond we þonne eac tilien, þæt we to moten
[MS se for second we]
in þa ecan eadignesse,
þær is lif gelong in lufan dryhtnes,
hyht in heofonum. Þæs sy þam halgan þonc,
þæt he usic geweorþade, wuldres ealdor,
ece dryhten, in ealle tid. Amen.
Let us consider where we have a home and then think how we may arrive there, and then we may strive that we are allowed to enter the eternal blessedness, where there is life derived from the love of the Lord, hope in heaven. For that let there be thanks to the holy one, because he has honored us, the prince of glory, eternal lord, forevermore. Amen.
Paris Psalter(Psalm 106 verses 22-29; Krapp 1932:88-89; the parallels with Christ B are given in bold italics):
Hi drihtnes weorc digul gesawon
and his wundra wearn on wætergrundum.
Gif he sylfa cwyð, sona ætstandað
ystige gastas ofer egewylmum,
beoð heora yþa up astigene.
[MS æt standeð]
Þa to heofenum up heah astigað,
nyþer gefeallað under neowulne grund;
oft þa on yfele eft aþindað.
Gedrefede þa deope syndan,
hearde onhrerede her anlicast,
hu druncen hwylc gedwæs spyrige;
ealle heora snytru beoð yfele forglendred.
[MS for gledred]
Hi on costunge cleopedan to drihtne,
and he hi of earfeðum eallum alysde.
He yste mæg eaðe oncyrran,
þæt him windes hweoðu weorðeð smylte,
and þa yðe eft swygiað,
bliþe weorðað, þa þe brimu weþað.
And he hi on hælo hyþe gelædde,
swa he hira willan wyste fyrmest,
and he hig of earfoðum eallum alysde.
Those who seek the sea, travel on ships, they work many works in the rush of waters.
They have seen the secret works of the Lord, and the multitude of his wonders in the watery depths.
If he himself speaks, straightaway there stand up stormy spirits over terrifying surges, the waves of which are raised up.
Then they rise up high to the heavens, fall back down to the hidden depths; often they fall away into evil.
Then they are deeply disturbed, sorely stirred up, here just as any drunken fool would weave his way; all their sense has been evilly swallowed up.
In their trials they called out to the Lord, and he set them free from all their hardships.
He can easily turn the storm, so that for him the wind’s gusts grow calm, and the waves are silent again; they grow benign, that settle the waters.
And he led them to the safety of harbor, just as he knew was their most fervent wish, and he set them free from all their hardships.
Paris Psalter(at Psalm 142.9; O’Neill 1988; the text here follows the Paris Psalter, as in Krapp 1932:140):
Do me wegas wise, þæt ic wite gearwe
on hwylcne ic gange gleawe mode;
nu ic to drihtnes dome wille
mine sawle settan geornast.
Make the paths known to me, so that I know clearly on which I walk with a knowing mind; now I will most eagerly set my soul to the glory of the Lord.
URLs for websites, bibliographic references, and other online resources are reviewed, current, and valid at the time of publication. Oral Tradition cannot accept responsibility for the future availability of these online materials.
Center for Studies in Oral Tradition | 21 Parker Hall | Columbia, MO 65211
573.882.9720 (ph) | 573.884.0291 (fax) |
| Technical Support