Sunday, 2 March 2014

Caedmon's Hymn, Part IV (finally)

[The capacious Idiotic Hat sofa has many lost posts stuffed between and beneath its threadbare cushions.  I recently found this one down there, which I will publish now, if only for the sake of completeness.  If you have never read Parts I, II, and III, start here].

I thought it would be worth saying a few muddled words about Anglo-Saxon poetry, and to present Caedmon's Hymn itself. Feel free to simply check out the pictures and head off to another lecture blog.

I don't know about you, but -- despite a lifetime of poetry reading and a few years of intensive (OK, fairly casual) study -- I've never quite got the hang of "prosody", that poet's rule-book full of exotic names for the 57 varieties of "tum ti tum", not least because the point always seems to have been to break the rules at the first opportunity. It all seems a bit of a tease.

I can spot a sonnet easily enough, and an iambic pentameter feels like a favourite old coat, but don't look at me if you want to know about "villanelles" or "sestinas" (no, these are not models of Ford family saloon). I admit that I'm more of a wine drinker, as it were, than a wine taster, when it comes to poems. However, I think there are four things that need to be known about Anglo-Saxon poems:

1. They are composed in Old English. Obvious, but important. Old English is an inflected language, and a lot of the work done by prepositions and word order in Modern English is done by case endings. This means word order can be altered and jumbled for effect, although not as severely as in Latin poetry, in which the aim seems to have been to cut up and reassemble the words in the order most calculated to baffle the reader.

2. The surviving texts are written versions of an oral tradition. Oral poetry is different.  It is a communal experience, it has to be memorable, its effects have to enter the brain via the ears rather than the eyes, and its subtleties reside in the skill and ingenuity of the teller. If one wanted to be condescending, one could compare oral poetry to bedtime stories: familiar tales told over and over again, with variations and innovations gradually getting introduced, if only to stop the teller dying of boredom. So-called "kennings" are symptomatic: little poetic coinages that ring changes on common themes, but which are entirely formulaic: "whale road", "whale way", "sail road", "swan shop", "seal bath" and "fish toilet" would all be kennings for "the sea".  The sea comes up a lot in Anglo-Saxon poems.

3. Alliteration is the poetic glue, rather than rhyme. As such, it is particularly sticky, but does lack that wonderful ability of rhyme to construct anticipatory structures. When you hear the words "There was a young man from Caracas", you know exactly what sort of ride you're in for.

4. The Anglo-Saxon poetic line is implicitly broken into two halves, and is often printed with a break (or "caesura") between them, though this never appears in the manuscripts. I have no idea how anyone knows this, but I do like the effect. It reminds me of the "call and response" structure of that slightly demented poem "Jubilate Agno" by Christopher Smart.

Oh, and one other thing. No-one really knows whether the twenty-one surviving and suspiciously similar versions of Caedmon's Hymn are an authentically transmitted "text", or whether someone rendered Bede's Latin version of the original back into Old English when they translated the "Ecclesiasical History" back in the 9th century.  A case of "Anglo-Saxon whispers", perhaps.  Bede himself has some wise words to say on translation, talking about his own Latin version of the Hymn:
"This is the sense, but not the words in order as he sang them in his sleep; for verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another, without losing much of their beauty and loftiness."
Amen to that, Brother Bede.

Anyway,  next up, please give a big mead-hall welcome to Caedmon the Cowherd!  Take it away, Caedmon!

[Applause and foot-stomping]
Nu sculon herigean   heofonrices Weard
Now must we praise / heaven-kingdom's Guardian
Meotodes meahte   and his modgeþanc
the Measurer's might / and his mind-plans
weorc Wuldor-Fæder   swa he wundra gehwæs
the work of the Glory-Father, / when he of wonders of every one
ece Drihten   or onstealde
eternal Lord  / the beginning established
He ærest sceop   ielda bearnum
He first created / for men's sons
heofon to hrofe   halig Scyppend
heaven as a roof / holy Creator
ða middangeard   moncynnes Weard
then middle-earth / mankind's Guardian
ece Drihten   æfter teode
eternal Lord / afterwards made
firum foldan   Frea ælmihtig.
for men earth, / Master almighty.
[Silence, broken by the sound of various swineherds breaking wind]

Um, is that it, Caedmon? No monsters, no swordplay, no seafaring?  I suppose that's what they call modern poetry, eh?  Come on, someone, let's have a proper song!  What about "Big Bad Berghild from Bermondsey"?  All together now...


Zouk Delors said...

Stop me if you've heard this one before..., but could a port then be called a whale way station?

Mike C. said...

[groan] ... Trying to think what an appropriate kenning for "stage" would be (as in, "ay theng yow, now kindly leave the stage!"). Actor boat? Fame way?


Struan said...

bearded bloke / in bad hat
wrought wheels / and crafted cracks
filigree flames / loop the loop
while reader's mind / girdles, grinds,
gives up / and Googles Oskar:
girls in gowns / notes in bras
more for men / than mead and musings.

Mike C. said...


Bravo (I think). Had to check out the bra reference, purely in the interests of scholarship.