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Poems and Prose from the Old English

Poems and Prose from the Old English

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 254
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  • Book Info
    Poems and Prose from the Old English
    Book Description:

    In this restructured and greatly expanded version of Burton Raffel's out-of-print classic,Poems from the Old English, Raffel and co-editor Alexandra H. Olsen place the oldest English writings in an entirely different perspective. Keeping the classroom teacher's needs foremost in mind, Raffel and Olsen organize the major old English poems (exceptBeowulf) and new prose selections so as to facilitate both reading and studying. A general introduction provides an up-to-date and detailed historical account of the Anglo-Saxon period, and concise introductions open the literature sections of the book and many of the translations.Raffel's masterly translations of Old English poetry, praised as fine poems in their own right, reproduce much of the flavor as well as the sense of the originals. With more than 1800 newly translated lines and many revised older translations, the poems in this volume are organized into four genres-elegies, heroic poems, religious poems, and wisdom poetry. Raffel's new translations include more than twenty poem-riddles, with proposed solutions in a separate section. Prose translations-grouped in historical, testamentary and legal, religious, social and instructional, and medical and magical categories-feature writings by King Alfred, Aelfric, and Wulfstan, among others.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13041-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxii)

    The Anglo-Saxon or Old English period dates from A.D. 449 to 1066. The first date is shrouded in legendary history. According to theAnglo-Saxon Chronicle,the Romano-British king Vortigern hired troops from the Continent to help him in his wars against the Picts, the ancient inhabitants of north and central Scotland, following the Roman troop withdrawal from Britain. Shortly thereafter, the Germanic warriors who came to England at Vortigern’s invitation asked warriors from three Germanic tribes, the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, to come to Britain. The tribes, under the leadership of two brothers, Horsa and Hengest (which means...

  4. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)

    • Prosody and Style
      (pp. 3-4)

      Old English poetry is composed in lines that vary from seven to fourteen syllables. Each half-line normally has two stressed syllables, and two or three of the four stresses-never all four-alliterate.* In some poems an extra foot is added to a normal half-line, producing a line that is called “hypermetric.” In the first half-line, the extra stressed syllable participates in the alliteration of the line, but in the second, it does not always do so. Hypermetric lines tend to occur in groups, often for no apparent reason, though sometimes for narrative importance. Hypermetric lines are here indicated first by a...

    • Elegies
      (pp. 5-21)

      The brief poems known as elegies are lyrics (that is, songs) that form a group similar in theme and tone. The speaker (whether the author or a fictional persona) sings of loss, grief, and, above all, exile. Each of the seven poems suggests but does not narrate a story.

      The two most famous (and most frequently translated and anthologized) elegies areThe WandererandThe Seafarer.InThe Wanderer,the loss lamented is that of a lord, because of which the speaker is in exile. He says movingly, “I’ve drunk too many lonely dawns, / Gray with mourning” (8-9), and...

    • Heroic Poems
      (pp. 22-52)

      Even in times documented by written records, Old English society was warlike, and its people always valued heroic poetry. When Old English poets recounted stories that celebrate the virtues of Christian saints (the heroes of the Christian era), they composed them, too, in heroic form. Of particular interest isJudith,a retelling of an Old Testament book from the Septuagint version of the Bible, which is found in the manuscript containingBeowulf.The Old English Judith is both a biblical figure and a hero like Beowulf. Just as an Anglo-Saxon warrior serves his king, Judith serves the “All-powerful King” (92)...

    • Religious Poems
      (pp. 53-106)

      Caedmon’s Hymnis reputed to be the first Christian Old English poem. It uses formulaic language, labeling Godece drihten,“Eternal Lord”(7). (Drihten,fromdriht,“warband,” is a standard term for an earthly lord.)Bede’s Death Songis found in the monk Cuthbert’s account of Bede’s death. Although the eighth-century monk Bede was a learned author of Latin prose and verse, he was also, according to Cuthbert,doctus in nostris carminibus,“learned in our (that is, vernacular) songs” and recited a brief vernacular poem as he lay dying. The poem may have been improvised orally or composed ahead of...

    • Wisdom Poetry
      (pp. 107-136)

      This grouping of Old English wisdom poetry is a miscellaneous collection of works whose teaching is partly Christian, partly secular. It consists of riddles, succinct formulations of traditional wisdom, bestiary poems, and metrical charms.

      AsThe New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetrystates, riddles are “an ancient and worldwide form in both oral literature and written literature.”* The earliest known compilation of riddles in England is found inThe Exeter Book.This collection consists of one five-line riddle in Latin and some ninety to ninety-five riddles in English (the number depends on how the riddles are divided; for example, the material...

  6. PROSE

      (pp. 138-138)

      Fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum, si þin nama gehalgod. Tobecume þin rice. Gewurþe ðin willa

      on eorðan swa swa on heaofonum. Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg. And forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum. And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele. Soþlice. a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a a...

    • Old English Prose
      (pp. 139-140)

      A substantial amount of Old English prose has survived. That with the most literary merit is religious in nature. Much of the prose-including wills, charters, and legal texts-is documentary rather than literary, of principal interest to historians. A greater amount of this kind of prose survives in Old English than in any other European vernacular. Also extant is some late Old English prose dealing with scientific matters, such as Aelfric’s translation of Bede’s study of the tides, and herbal and medical books that display a considerable knowledge of plants. Included here are samples of the nonliterary genres that provide a...

    • Historical Prose
      (pp. 141-144)

      Chronicles among the Anglo-Saxons probably had their origin with the Easter Tables, long lists kept by the clergy and used for computing the date of Easter. It became customary to note the major events of each year in the margins, and these notations developed into true annals. In the year 891, a compiler-presumably a cleric in King Alfred’s service-used various sources (earlier annalistic material, genealogies, Bede’s History, and oral reports) to write a set of annals devoted to the history of the English from their settlement of Britain to the year of compilation. The copies were circulated to various monasteries,...

    • Testamentary and Legal Prose
      (pp. 145-161)

      Charters are documents recording or directing transfers of land and other property. Those dealing with the transfer of land are between a king and the Church, or a king and a nobleman, or private transactions between nonclerics; in addition to transferring land, wills may also bequeath personal property. These documents are of historical interest in part because of their lists of witnesses; Ealdorman Elfheah’s will, for example, is witnessed by “Edthelfryth, the king’s wife,” among others, showing that women witnessed legal transactions. The will of King Alfred is historically significant (it identifies the crown estates) and shows us that the...

    • Religious Prose
      (pp. 162-189)

      Anglo-Saxon prose flourished in the late ninth century under King Alfred (reigned 871-899). When Alfred began his educational program to make every free-born boy literate in English, he was less concerned to reproduce Latin texts than to produce books that would give his subjects a practical and liberal education. Alfred expanded his sources, using similes to clarify abstract arguments. And because he drew these similes from his own experiences, they provide insights into his character and time. Alfred’s version of Augustine’sSoliloquies,for example, contains the earliest extant definition ofbocland,“entailed estate,” a word he also uses in his...

    • Social and Instructional Prose
      (pp. 190-215)

      The goals of King Alfred in the late ninth century and of the writers of the Benedictine Reformation in the tenth century were pedagogical, aimed at teaching both the Christian religion and the literary tradition the Anglo-Saxons had inherited from the Romans. The central concerns of these learned men were the serious decline in spiritual and intellectual standards of their time and the need to bring about a state of learning and of faith and works that equaled those of the Age of Bede. The early eighth-century monk Bede (673-735), the father of English letters, had written calmly and reasonably...

    • Medical and Magical Prose
      (pp. 216-220)

      A wide variety of Anglo-Saxon scientific and medical texts is extant. One work is Bald’sLaecboc,or “Leechbook” (not here translated), a unique manuscript that dates to the mid-tenth century. It includes prescriptions said to have been given to King Alfred by Elias, patriarch of Jerusalem. But the recipes tend to be somewhat repetitive. Medical prose is therefore represented in this book by a selection of charms. These are often labeled “magico-medical” because they blend rational science with ritualistic magic and with prayers and incantations. The charm against warts, for example, uses seven consecrated wafers (seven being the number of...

  7. Glossary
    (pp. 221-224)
  8. Proposed Solutions to the Riddles
    (pp. 225-225)