226. Selections from The Exeter Book (960-990 AD)

From The Complete Old English Poems, translated by Craig Williamson, published by University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017 (ISBN 9780812248470)

Back to The Exeter Book, a manuscript of Old English poetry in the Library of the Exeter Cathedral in England. I sampled only some of the poetry from this huge book, mostly those works whose titles rang at least some small bell in my memory ….

The Phoenix : I confess I had never made the symbolic connection between the Phoenix’s rebirth from its ashes and the Resurrection of Christ before now, or how the Father and the Son are one. Not only does the Phoenix resemble Jesus in its resurrection, but also symbolises how the souls of the redeemed on Judgment Day will also be reborn. The phoenix collects herbs and flowers for its nest as we should collect pious deeds and thoughts.

This poem makes these points, but in great detail and with an effusive and abundant amount of alliteration, as was popular in the ninth century.

“…as the bird’s home is imbued with God’s heavenly heat. Each herb is an incipient oven, each flower an expectant blaze …. With a sudden sweet scent and bright flash, both bird and nest burst into flame. The funeral pyre blazes the bird’s body, engulfing his heart, devouring his home ….Out of this fire of apparent unbeing, the ashes gather into a miraculous ball, a hope of feathers, a hint of song ….. bright feathered, beautifully adorned, his flesh is revived, his form refreshed, separated from sin, resurrected, reborn”

The Wanderer :  The lament of a man whose lord and fellow warriors have been slain, and he must wander the cold land alone and homeless. This could equally be the cries of a modern homeless person – some parts of the human experience haven’t changed in a thousand years.

“often alone at the edge of dawn, I must wake to the sound of my own sorrow, the mute song of a muffled heart, sung to no listener …. no one waits to welcome the wanderer except the road of exile itself”

The Husband’s Message:  A rune stick carries a message to a wife from her exiled husband, reassuring her of his continued love and asking her to sail south and join him in his new life.

The Lord’s Prayer: Williamson’s complete collection of Old English poems contains three early versions of the Lord’s Prayer translated from the Latin. The first is in The Exeter Book:

Our Holy Father who dwells in heaven, abiding in glory, abounding in bliss, may your name be hollowed by each of your works, the wonders of creation and the children of men.

Surest of shapers, Saviour of Mankind, let your kingdom come far and wide, your will and wisdom be established, exalted under heaven’s roof and across the land.

Holy Father, Helper of men, give us this day a gift of grain, a blessing of bread, a glorious abundance. O steadfast Savior, do not let temptation batter us down, but deliver us, Lord from every evil, both now and forever.

The Ruin:  The poet laments the state of the ruined city (possibly the Roman remains at Bath) and conjures in his imagination the splendour now lost. Like the city it tried to capture, only a fragment of the actual poem survived.

“The old work of giants, crumbled, corrupted  – rooftops in ruin, towers tumbled down … buildings and brave men in the clutch of the grave”

Riddles: A favourite form of poetry in this period was a short riddle anthropomorphising an inanimate object and inviting the reader to guess its true name. The Exeter Book had over 90 of these. Sometimes there would be a double entendre with two answers, one ribald and the other innocent, for instance number 23

I am a wonderful help to women. The hope of something to come. I harm no citizen except my slayer. Rooted I stand on a high bed. I am shaggy below. Sometimes the beautiful peasant’s daughter, an eager-armed proud woman, grabs my body, rushes my red skin, holds me hard, claims my head. The curly-haired woman who catches me fast will feel our meeting. Her eye will be wet.

The answer of course (in my best Jimmy Carr voice) is, an onion.

Most of the riddles are very obtuse or outdated, making them almost impossible to solve or even guess. Thankfully the book provides the answers as an appendix.

Personal rating:  Old English poetry ranged widely, from the spiritual to the martial, the romantic to the bawdy, yet there is a lot of thought and complexity woven into them. Overall I give this selection 7/10.

In the years 900-950 AD

  • Ancient Empire of Ghana reaches its peak
  • Arab and Persian traders visit Chinese ports
  • Toltec Indians extend across central Mexico
  • Pope Sergius III has two of his rivals strangled
  • End of the T’ang Dynasty, China 907 AD
  • Khitan Mongols conquer Inner Mongolia and much of northern China 907-926
  • Edward the Elder, King of Wessex, defeats Northumbrian Danish army 910, recaptures much of central and eastern England 917
  • Muslim rule in Spain reaches peak with Abd ar-Rahman III

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

Next : Beowulf

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