The legacy and long life of ancient English poetry
Through Robert E. Bjork
The Germanic people who inhabited England before William the Conqueror became sovereign in 1066 spoke a language known as Old English. Infused with the art of storytelling, theirs was largely an oral culture, and few tales were devoted to surviving manuscripts. Those who do bear witness to the rich heritage of his verse. The legacy and long life of Old English poetry, as well as the history of the reception of its stories, are the subjects of further research by Robert E. Bjork of Arizona State University.For a body of literature recorded in just four manuscripts, Old English poetry has a legacy that belies the small number of works that have survived the 1,000 years or more since they were first written.
The most famous is the eponymous epic “Beowulf”. Others include the biblically inspired “Dream of the Rood” and historical tales such as “The Battle of Maldon”. A major Old English verse manuscript, the “Book of Exeter”, comprises over 90 puzzles and some 40 poems, including “The Seafarer”, “The Wanderer” and “Wulf and Eadwacer”.
Housed in Exeter Cathedral in the United Kingdom, the “ Book of Exeter ” was recognized in 2016 by UNESCO as one of the main cultural objects of the world by placing it on its Memory of the World register. Noting the manuscript as “the basic volume of English literature,” the register also includes the Magna Carta, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Book of Kells and the Diary of Anne Frank.
No wonder, then, that the beyond of Old English poetry is long, despite the fact that for most people it is only accessible in translation from the original language. This translation process began relatively late, with the first modern English texts being published in the 19th century. These texts have since been translated into many other languages, allowing Old English poetry to migrate and, as the UNESCO list recognizes, are of global significance.
The links that some have found between “Wulf and Eadwacer” and “The Secret Agent” come from forced readings of the two poems.
As a result, not only did Old English poetry come to inspire writers and poets from JRR Tolkien to Ezra Pound and WH Auden, “Beowulf”, for example, also influenced many works in different genres and languages. Meanwhile, the academic study of texts continues at a steady pace, with Old English poetry seen through the prism of different literary theories and worldviews.
Robert E. Bjork of Arizona State University is a respected Old English scholar and editor. One of his recent articles examines the history of the reception of Old English poetry.
Reception theory stems from the concept of reader response popular with literary critics since the 1970s. The theory holds that the meaning and significance of a work of art is not inherent in the work but rather exists through report to its audience. The reader, spectator or listener interprets a poem, play, novel or other work of art according to their cultural background and life experience. The history of reception is therefore the study of the multiple ways in which a work of art is apprehended over time and in different cultures as it is transmitted, reimagined or appropriated.
“Beowulf” is the story of a fearless warrior, a prince of the Geats in modern Sweden. Beowulf travels to Denmark to help King Hrothgar get rid of a terrible monster, Grendel, and then, after years of peace, dies fighting a dragon that threatens his own land. In a recent article, Dr Bjork traces the fascinating history of the poem’s migration, from the publication of its first Latin translation in 1815 by Danish / Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin, to the present day. Dr Bjork explains that Thorkelin traveled to Britain on a “nationalist journey” to find documents related to Danish and Norwegian history. He found the obscure manuscript which he later named “Beowulf” in the annals of the British Library. As a result of Thorkelin’s transcription and translation, “Beowulf” has since been translated into at least 65 other languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean and the Indian language Telugu.
The most famous and successful story in recent years has been that of Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Other poets have imagined the tale from a different angle; for example the English writer Maureen Duffy wrote a poem from the point of view of the dragon. For Dr. Bjork, one of the most imaginative repetitions was that of the American author Michael Crichton, whose novel “Eaters of the Dead” was in turn the source of the film “The Thirteenth Warrior” with Antonio Banderas. .
Perhaps the greatest testament to the universal psychological appeal of Beowulf’s good versus evil narrative is its reimagining in various media that passed the story on to a new global generation. This includes comics, graphic novels, video games, board games, art and music, from choral works to operas and contemporary rock. As Dr Bjork notes, the character of Beowulf even appears in cult fantasy television series such as the American “ Xena: Warrior Princess ” and a Robert Zemeckis computer animated film that features the voices of ‘Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich.
Dr Bjork comments: “The influence of ‘Beowulf’ is therefore broad and continuous and dynamic, its history of reception constantly evolving.” Beowulf emerged from the manuscript and became a cultural icon that resonated in countless other works of art around the world.
Expulsion from paradise, illustration on page 46 of the Cædmon (or Junius) manuscript. In this illustration, an angel is shown guarding the gates of paradise. (wikiwand.com)
Conversely, while some argue that a modern work of art refers to Old English poetry, others may see the connection as tenuous. In another recent article, Dr Bjork examines the evidence for alleged links between the Old English lyric poem “Wulf and Eadwacer” and the poem by English poet WH Auden “The Secret Agent”.
Like the other major poems in the “Book of Exeter”, “Wulf and Eadwacer” is characterized by the melancholy themes of desire, loneliness and the passage of time. A monologue in which a captive woman talks about her unfulfilled love for a forbidden lover on a nearby island, it ends with the line “ þæt mon eaþe tosliteð þætte næfre gesomnad wæs ”, which translates to “ They can easily parting with what has never been reached. together’.
In his first poem “The Secret Agent”, the modern English poet WH Auden writes about a highly trained spy who is trapped. The agent falls in love with a “ fake guide ” who helps them get to a site the two men were supposed to go to. As the agent faces certain death, the poem ends with the line “Easily Separate From Two Who Have Never Been Joined”.
Named after the Anglo-Saxon saint Wystan, WH Auden studied Old English poetry while reading English at Oxford. It was taught, among others, by JRR Tolkien, author of the trilogy “The Lord of the Rings” which owes its own debt to the poetry of Old English. Written in 1928, the year WH Auden graduated, “The Secret Agent” has been the subject of much literary debate.
“Beowulf” has been translated into at least 65 other languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean and the Indian language Telugu.
The poem is considered by many to be in the tradition of the sonnet, not least because it consists of 14 lines. However, Dr Bjork argues that such a reading overlooks important aspects of Italian and English sonnet traditions. For example, the Italian sonnet is structured by having two quatrains in four-line verse followed by a six-line sestet, while the English sonnet has three quatrains in four-line verse and a final two-line verse. Everyone goes more or less from the statement of a problem to its solution. Dr Bjork explains that in Auden’s poem “there are only two quatrains and one sestet, loosely connected” without resolution. In addition, unlike the various rhyming patterns in Italian and English sonnets, WH Auden’s poem is without a hymn and has a meter or rhythm which is not characteristic of both sonnet forms.
For Dr Bjork, the links that some have found between “Wulf and Eadwacer” and “The Secret Agent” stem from “forced readings of the two poems”. Acknowledging that “Wulf and Eadwacer,” like WH Auden’s poem, is open to a range of interpretations, Dr. Bjork also rejects the views of critics who have attempted to find similarities between the stories of the two poems. He explains that trying to make such connections traps the reader and forces them to hear “the resonances of the Old English poem in the modern poem” where there is none. However, he agrees that there is a unique and “absolute” connection between the last lines of the two poems. Nothing more, he explains, is manufacturing. Applying Ockham’s razor – the principle attributed to medieval scholar William of Ockham, who argued that when faced with various explanations for a phenomenon, the simplest is usually the correct one – he emphasizes the friend’s observation of Auden, Christopher Isherwood, that some of Auden’s youth are hasty compilations of independent lines. This appears to be the case with “The Secret Agent” and the inclusion in it of a single line of Old English.
Old English poetry already has an impressive afterlife and it will undoubtedly extend beyond these days. This is thanks in particular to new works such as Dr Bjork’s own translations of the main poems and his novel “Freya and Wulf: A 9th Century Love Story of Violence and Redemption”. Based on “Wulf and Eadwacer”, the novel also references “Beowulf” and other texts in Old English and Old Norse. It is indeed proof that the poetry of Old English continues to provide a rich seam to other storytellers, new and old.
What is it about Old English poetry, especially “Beowulf,” that makes it appealing to people from so many different cultures around the world?
The poetry is captivating, complex, enigmatic and imbued with beauty and wisdom and sometimes terror. “Beowulf” teaches us about life and its vicissitudes. Reading it, we come to see how our struggles against negative forces inside and outside ennoble us in the end.
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