The 13th-Century Revolution.

Eric Weiskott describes “the 13th-century revolution that made modern poetry possible” — namely, the change from alliterative verse (“the form of poetry used in Beowulf, Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”) to the accentual-syllabic meters that underlie what we think of as traditional English verse, which began around the end of the 12th century. Weiskott gives as an example “the opening lines of the Ormulum, a very long religious tract composed by a monk named Orm”:

Thiss boc iss nemmnedd Orrmulum
forrthi þatt Orrm itt wrohhte
(‘This book is called Ormulum because Orm wrote it.’)

(Gotta love both the spelling and the impeccable reasoning.) I liked the apposite Pound quote (“To break the pentameter, that was the first heave”) and this interesting paragraph:

So if alliterative metre doesn’t measure stresses, syllables or even alliteration, what does it measure? Scholars have been debating the answer to this question since the 18th century. Current thinking is that alliterative metre measures a more abstract unit termed metrical position. A metrical position might contain one syllable, or it might contain more than one. Specifically, any number of adjacent unstressed syllables count together as a single metrical position. So, for example, the run of three unstressed syllables in the second half of the line from Piers Plowman, –e was the, is formally equivalent to the run of two unstressed syllables at the beginning of the line, in a. That’s right: a metre in which 1 + 1 = 3. In Beowulf, the rule is fairly simple: four metrical positions make a verse. By the time of Piers Plowman, the arrangement of positions had got more complicated.

Thanks, Jack!


  1. I’m greatly enjoying Auden’s exploration of alliterative metrics in modern language in Age of Anxiety.

  2. I figure I should post some excerpt. Four strangers are in a bar during wartime, telling us their thoughts in alliterative verse, when the radio intrudes:

    Now the news. Night raids on
    Five cities. Fires started.
    Pressure applied by pincer movement
    In threatening thrust. Lucky charm
    Saves sniper. Sabotage hinted
    In steel-mill stoppage. Strong point held
    By fanatical Nazis. Canal crossed
    By heroic marines. Rochester barber
    Fools foe. Finns ignore
    Peace feeler. Pope condemns
    Axis excesses. Underground
    Blows up bridge. Thibetan prayer-wheels
    Revolve for victory. Vital crossroads
    Taken by tanks. Trend to the left
    Forecast by Congressman. Cruiser sunk
    In Valdivian Deep. Doomed sailors
    Play poker. Reporter killed.

    Lest I give the impression that he only does headline style, here’s one guy musing at his middle-aged mirror image:

    My deuce, my double, my dear image,
    Is it lively there, that land of glass
    Where song is a grimace, sound logic
    A suite of gestures? You seem amused.
    How well and witty when you wake up,
    How glad and good when you go to bed,
    Do you feel, my friend? What flavor has
    That liquor you lift with your left hand;
    Is it cold by contrast, cool as this
    For a soiled soul; does your self like mine
    Taste of untruth? Tell me, what are you
    Hiding in your heart, some angel face,
    Some shadowy she who shares in my absence,
    Enjoys my jokes? I’m jealous, surely,
    Nicer myself (though not as honest)

    …&c. And for fun, here’s one with advertising:

    Definitely different. Has that democratic
    Extra elegance. Easy to clean.
    Will gladden grand-dad and your girlfriend.
    Lasts a lifetime. Leaves no odor.
    American made. A modern product
    Of nerve and know-how with a new thrill.
    Patriotic to own. Is on its way
    In a patent package. Pays to investigate.
    Serves through science. Has something added
    By skilled Scotchmen. Exclusively used
    By upper classmen and Uncle Sam.
    Tops in tests by teenagers.
    Just ask for it always.

    It’s enough to render me resentful of said revolution. Or at least longing for more alliterating.

  3. Very nice — I’ll have to read it!

  4. David Marjanović says

    The thought of singing the Orrmulum to the tune of Amazing Grace…

    (Gotta love both the spelling and the impeccable reasoning.)

    The whole point of the entire poem seems to have been to teach English pronunciation, namely vowel length, to clergy who natively spoke French but were supposed to preach in English. The absolutely consistent use of doubled consonant letters after short vowels shows that consonant length was already lost*, and that English vowel length has undergone a few developments that would be very hard to reconstruct if we didn’t have that one text.

    Medieval German meter was similar to alliterative meter, but it was sensitive to syllable length and broke down catastrophically when the vowels in all stressed open syllables were lengthened (outside of Switzerland). German verse couldn’t get out of doggerel until Martin Opitz single-handedly instituted stress-and-syllable counting in his Buch von der deutschen Poeterey in 1624, 400 years after Orrm.

    * Though reading it with long consonants would make it sound much more dramatic. Wrohhte in particular would come down like a hammer.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I can never come across the Ormulum without Henry Sweet’s verdict coming to mind:

    Of the literary merits of the Ormulum, little can be said, for it has none whatever. The author was in fact a spelling-reformer and philologist who mistook his vocation …

    He goes on:

    the Old English picturesqueness and power disappears entirely from his verse along with the traditional alliteration …

    The Age of Anxiety is indeed worth reading, by the way. (But then I’m an Auden groupie, so I would think that.)

  6. You can see clearly there the Auden who admired the Great Mumbler’s oration of Beowulf so much that he decided then and there to go in for Anglo-Saxon, and later became Huxley to his Darwin, defending him to the gatekeeping elites: “Tolkien is not as great a writer as Milton, but in this matter [justifying God’s ways to man — and elves] he has succeeded where Milton failed.”

    ObLangHat: A New York Tolkien fan club invited Auden to come and talk with them back in 1966; he described Tolkien’s fascination with Finnish and its fifteen or sixteen cases. A high schooler in the audience, a Hattic before his time: “Fifteen!”

    Forthy that.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely “wrohhte” is not “wrote” but “wrought”, i.e. “made”?

  8. January First-of-May says

    Surely “wrohhte” is not “wrote” but “wrought”, i.e. “made”?

    It is, I believe (and this is in fact the gloss for the respective quote in The Adventure of English), though the context makes the two meanings similar.

    (As far as I can tell – mostly from Wiktionary – the verb wrought is in its origin an archaic past tense of work, but today it is almost limited to the the phrase wrought havoc, in which it is commonly reinterpreted as the past tense of wreak. No relation to write.)

  9. Also “wrought iron,” i.e. worked iron.

    I think wrought iron involved a low-carbon process which required a lot of hammering; cast iron involved a high-carbon process which allowed casting; steel has intermediate carbon levels with various techniques affecting crystal size and shape.

  10. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    January First-of-May, I’d have guessed the main usage of wrought remains in wrought iron. Google n-grams confirm, at least, that’s a much more common expression than wrought havoc. I’m unsure if native speakers in general have an intuitive understanding of wrought iron as worked iron, though the respective Wikipedia article very much seems to,

  11. Looks like wreaked havoc surpassed wrought havoc around 1980.

  12. Yes, but wrought in wrought iron is not a verb but the associated ex-participle adjective.

  13. Pogo Possum: What hath got wrought?

  14. Marja: I think wrought iron involved a low-carbon process which required a lot of hammering;

    In French this is le fer forgé, iron worked by a blacksmith (le forgeron) with a hammer when red-hot.

    cast iron involved a high-carbon process which allowed casting

    This is la fonte, a derivative of the verb fondre ‘to melt, to cause to melt’.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Very similar in German – Schmiedeeisen (Schmied “smith”, schmieden “to forge”), Gusseisen (gießen “to pour”).

  16. Pogo Possum: What hath got wrought?

    I go Pogo!

  17. January First-of-May says

    Yes, but wrought in wrought iron is not a verb but the associated ex-participle adjective.

    Which is why I added the “verb” clarification.

    (The original draft of my comment included both usages, but I couldn’t think of a semi-reasonable way to phrase it that didn’t make it look like a zeugma; so I decided to delete the other usage, and clarify its exclusion, to make the comment simpler.)

  18. Nelson Goering says

    ‘The next frontier which has been drawn, though not till recently, is that between the Dark and the Middle Ages. We draw it somewhere about the early twelfth century… In literature the old alliterative and assonantal metres give place to that rhymed and syllabic verse which was to carry the main burden of European poetry for centuries. At the same time the poets explore a whole new range of sentiment. I am so far from underrating this particular revolution that I have before now been accused of exaggerating it.’
    (C.S. Lewis, ‘De Descriptione Temporum’, in Selected Literary Essays, pp. 4-5)

    Incidentally, Weiskott exaggerates a bit when he says that ‘[c]urrent thinking is that alliterative metre measures a more abstract unit termed metrical position’. That is indeed one popular theory, but it’s hardly the only current framework for describing alliterative verse, and it’s not necessarily the best one (a number of verses in OE have either 3 or 5 ‘positions’, and as Weiskott points out, things start to get a bit awkward when you try and apply this metre to Middle English — much the same could be said of Norse metres, like ljóðaháttr, which are notoriously difficult to describe under a Sieversian framework). Probably the main serious alternative is Russom’s ‘word-foot’ metre (which holds, as you might guess, that the units counted are feet, of a sort). This sort of oversimplification is fine for a blog post, but it seems worth pointing out in a place like LH.

  19. It certainly is, and I thank you for doing so.

  20. Humph. It measures stresses that have not been demoted, and get off my lawn while you are at it.

  21. “…people are always asking me who is my favourite writer, and even though it’s obviously my own fault I am beginning to get just a little peeved by the repetition. So to crush this bug in the bud, as it were, I will tell all of you, and hope that you will tell everyone else.
    My absolute most favourite writer in the whole wide world is Orrm….”

    One of my silly radio essays from so long ago that Orrm only JUST missed hearing it
    Of Nice Orrmin

  22. When a wrought-iron worker* comes home at the end of a strenuous day, does his wife ask, “Did you wreak a lot of iron today, dear?”

    *Or do I mean a wrought iron-worker? Even when I worked sporadically as a copy-editor, hyphens and dashes confused me greatly.

    After an especially taxing day, he might be an overwrought wrought-iron worker, I suppose.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Or do I mean a wrought iron-worker?

    No, that’d be an iron-worker who’s a piece of work.

  24. Wrought iron has pretty much been superseded by mild steel nowadays (with up to four times as much carbon) because it’s much cheaper while still acceptable for most uses, being both malleable and ductile. Historically, mild steel was more brittle, but this is no longer true due to improved metallurgy. In particular, modern wrought-iron gates and fencing and such are almost always mild steel.

  25. One of my silly radio essays from so long ago that Orrm only JUST missed hearing it

    Very enjoyable!

    Poor old Orrm is devastatingly earnest, sincere, — and oblivious, and there lies his appeal. There is something he generates simply because he is lousy, some yearning for him to have had talent which leaves me with an overwhelming nostalgia for lost failure. He is all of human frailty. Anyone, and this is probably the whole point of this essay, anyone who could bother to devise a precise and regular method of spelling in an age when spelling was not highly regarded, and to apply it with consistency and accuracy in order to make it easy to read out loud a vast poem that no one in his right mind would read out loud for fear of lynching, needs every friend he can get. And Orrm, wherever you are — I’m that friend for this century!

  26. I would just like to register my appreciation of old John “Pa” Cowan, who chases the kids off our lawn so promptly that I never have to.

  27. Grampa, actually, but thanks.

  28. Thanks for featuring my essay! David Eddyshaw is correct that WROHHTE literally means ‘made’ rather than ‘wrote.’ Either is an acceptable translation in context.

  29. Lars (the original one) says

    “Did you wreak a lot of iron today, dear?” — the way things works, iron-workers and their wives might be the last to abandon the active usage of wrought as the pptc of work, or at least the awareness that wrought has nothing to do with wreak in this context (considered as English verbs).

    But who here is willing to entertain an alternation by Schwebeablaut between *werg- and *wreg-? ‘Do’ and ‘drive’ are not that far apart.

  30. We should mention the strange case of Höfuðlausn, a poem in end-rhyme and a pounding rhythmic meter of couplets of (mostly) four-syllable lines, attributed to the tenth century Icelandic poet and saga hero Egill Skallagrímsson. According to his saga, Egill composed this long poem in the honour of Erik Bloodaxe, then king of York, during a single night to save his own head. This would place its creation around the year 950. But it would be early even if it were created by the saga’s author, who may have been Snorri himself, in the early 13th century.

  31. Nelson Goering says

    Trond Engen, I’m not sure that Hǫfuðlausn complicates things that much, really, though it’s certainly an interesting poem (from a metrical perspective, at least). The end-rhyme is indeed fairly striking (and a bit over-bearing, really), and not so common for the time period. But it’s not entirely without parallels: we have one Old English poem that makes use of end-rhyme, and skaldic poetry in general makes very extensive use of internal rhyme (see the rules for the intricate dróttkvætt metre, which was in use before Egil’s time, if we can trust the traditional attributions in the slightest). Egil was unusual in turning this into extensive _end_ rhyme, and there doesn’t seem to have been much of a movement to imitate the form (maybe there would have been had Hǫfuðlausn been a better poem!), but it’s not necessarily totally a new principle as such.

    In any case, all the rest of the features of the poem are absolutely typical of Norse verse, and are in many ways very close to OE alliterative metre. The rhythmic rules are not based on alternating accents the way modern metres are, but are rather precisely those of traditional fornyrðislag, in a slightly terser skaldic variant. The skaldic uses of fornyrðislag (and of related metres, like kviðuháttr) are syllabically fairly regular (granting some wiggle room in a few particulars), but are not necessarily syllable counting as such — I suspect that the basic rules are the same as for the contemporaneous Eddic fornyrðislag (which, in turn, are very nearly the same as traditional Old English verse), just with fewer licences for including extra unstressed syllables.

    In any case, Hǫfuðlausn is, in all its rhythmic details, entirely in fornyrðislag (you can easily give every single line its Sievers letter), and even shows the traditional alliterative scheme carried out consistently for the whole poem. All Egil (or whoever) has done is to slap the additional element of end-rhyme onto an otherwise typical piece of skaldic fornyrðislag. Whether the piece is authentic or not, I’ve always thought that fit the story of the poem’s composition quite well: take what’s perhaps the simplest and ‘least classy’ skaldic metre, and add a veneer of fancy rhyme on it to make it look shiny enough to present to the king.

  32. Of course whether you think of the form as end-rhyme or internal rhyme is a matter of perspective. To the English, it would have been internal (“leonine”) rhyme, and probably rather jangly: “The electric light invades the dunnest deep of Hades. / Cries Pluto ‘twixt his snores: “O tempora! O mores!” (Pure English pronunciation here, please, not Anglo-Latin or classical.)

    On the other hand, Christopher Tolkien says that Old Norse verse is supposed to hit you in the eye, and Hǫfuðlausn certainly does that. GT’s translation certainly hits me in some parts of my anatomy:

    1. West went too far,
    but Iris is asking
    munstrandar mar,
    that’s my way too;
    pulled the oak off
    with ice breaking,
    loathed a branded object
    my crazy shot.

    2. Bold cloves,
    where there is an expression of courage,
    The bark of Odin
    on angel bard;
    lofat vísa won,
    certainly recommend that;
    sound he asks,
    because the propaganda too found.

    3. Think, point out, at
    well, that’s what
    how I am oblivious,
    if I feel too bad
    most of the people from,
    which fills wow,
    but the other saw,
    where it was too low

    And like that.

  33. Nelson Goering says

    That’s an… interesting approach to… I suppose ‘translating’ is one word.

    But fair point on the question of what a ‘line’ is — from the perspective of the old alliterative tradition, it was alliteration that marked out a line. Whether this still holds for Hǫfuðlausn probably depends on just how you’d want to break that poem down. There’s still a contrast with the, I’ll say verse-internal rhyme of dróttkvætt, of course.

    (Incidentally and trivially, the ‘hit you in the eye’ line is from the elder Tolkien, JRR: ‘To hit you in the eye was the deliberate intention of the Norse poet’.)

  34. I like this bit very much:

    that’s my way too;
    pulled the oak off
    with ice breaking

    If I saw that in a poem in, say, the New Yorker, I’d admire it.

  35. The Head-Lease

    1. I crossed the sea
    and brought with me
    the poet’s brew,
    that’s what I do.
    I set my ship
    as ice lost grip
    to bring a batch
    of poet’s catch.

    2. The king’s my host,
    now I shall toast
    in Óðin’s mead
    for England’s lead.
    A lauding lay
    I now will say.
    I cheer his grace
    with truthful praise.

    3. Beware, my lord,
    your humble ward,
    who now proceeds
    to list your deeds.
    Most men will know
    his winning row,
    but Óðin knew
    where weapons flew.

    4. The clang of blades,
    on shieldrim braids,
    on went the lord,
    as battle soared.
    And one could hear,
    all sharp and clear,
    the swords in swirls,
    the swooning hurls.

    5. Battle’s bounded,
    spearstrikes sounded,
    hitting shielding
    in rows unyielding,
    the sea was seeding
    with sailors bleeding,
    the wardogs raving
    while wafts were waiving.

    6. Men fell to dust
    as spears were thrust.
    Honour begat
    Erik by that.

    7. I’ll follow by it,
    if y’all keep quiet,
    for I have more stored
    from Erik’s scoreboard.
    Wounds were growing
    as he kept going,
    shafts were breaking
    and shields were shaking.

    8. Blades battering
    shields shattering,
    bad boneclipper,
    named blood-dipper.
    I’m recalling
    how men were falling,
    Erik aiming
    for more than maiming.

    9. And swords were swung
    and spearheads stung,
    Honour begat
    Erik by that.

    10. Blades turning red,
    ravens had the dead,
    spears taking lives
    deadly in their drives,
    The scourge of Scots
    gave wolves their lots
    as Hel set heels
    on eagles’ meals.

    11. Red is the staining
    from blood raining.
    Battle-cranes flying,
    bodies lying,
    Wolves were tearing
    when blood flaring
    hit the dead-gull
    on its head-hull.

    12. On sea and shore
    lie spoils of war.
    As wolves devour
    Erik serves more.

    13. Let widows miss
    their husband’s kiss
    as swords break shields
    and center yields.
    Points are stinging.
    Blades are clinging.
    The longbow harrows
    with pointed arrows.

    14. With spears pounding
    and panic sounding,
    with foes fleeing
    and wolves gleeing,
    the king’s unvawering,
    proud, unquavering,
    bows yammering
    hilts hammering.

    15. Swiftly drawing bow,
    letting arrows flow,
    as wolves devour
    Erik serves more.

    16. Now I’ll render
    what lavish spender,
    waisting treasures
    without measures,
    though with firm hands
    holding to his lands,
    is our sire.
    No name rose higher.

    17. From his cofferings
    run offerings,
    sharing most of it
    like men love it.
    Rich in his gifts,
    lacking in thrifts,
    most handsome of kings
    with golden rings.

    18. Shook his elbow,
    let his shield go,
    great gold-dowser,
    thriving anywhere,
    — being honest there!
    Well known abroad
    is Erik’s lode.

    19. Take a note, lord,
    how my words scored.
    Well did I hear
    that I had their ear.
    My mouth could reap
    from my mind’s deep
    a poet’s game
    to raise your fame.

    20. Loud did I praise
    my lord, your grace.
    I know my way,
    which words to say.
    My chest would bring
    hails for the king,
    thus did it go,
    now all may know.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Congratulations on the yielding center, but couldn’t you squeeze any shaken spears in there? 🙂

  37. Trond Engen says

    Shaking shields are alliterally better. But there’s much I could have done, now that I look at it again. I’m regretting that I didn’t use “honestly I swear!” in stanza 18. And that I didn’t also mark “that’s what I do” in stanza 1 as an exclamation.

    I forgot to add that I used the two versions at (one of them here, with a Danish translation below).

    While I’m at it:
    A couple of odd rhymes (e.g. (most) of it ~ (men) love it) were deliberate, since the original makes similar rhymes.
    Trying to be contemporary casual in tone, I mostly dissolved the kennings, but there are some places where the stacking of kennings is the whole point. There I made some of my own.

  38. Well done!

  39. Trond Engen says

    (Deleted a boringly trivial private message in Norwegian. Apparently I was picking the wrong app on my phone, and this thread was open.)

  40. Heh. I probably would have just assumed it was intended for this thread somehow; relevance is such a nebulous concept in these parts!

  41. Someone, I forget who, explained how kennings work by creating a double-stack kenning for the historical linguist Henry Hoenigswald, something like “the fruit of the bee in the home of the bear”. Obvious when you look at it, but reverse engineering the name “Hoenigswald” out of it, if it were part of a genuine poem, would be practically impossible.

  42. Trond Engen says

    I think kennings worked because the audience were already familiar with the story recounted in a poem. The purpose of the poem was not to tell a story but to make a story less forgettable, or supply a canonic version of it.

  43. Yes, sure, if you already know what the hero’s name is, you can identify him from the kenning, but if you don’t (and especially if the kenning is double-stacked), you have little hope.

    By the way, if our dating of events in the north of England is any good at all, the traditional story of this poem has to be false: Athelstan was dead five to ten years before Eric Bloodaxe rose to power in Northumbria, so the poet could not have fled from the latter’s court to the former’s.

    Scandinavian royal epithets.

  44. David Marjanović says

    the fruit of the bee

    Actually the puke of the bee, but never mind. 🙂

    The purpose of the poem was not to tell a story but to make a story less forgettable, or supply a canonic version of it.

    If that. The Rigvedic poem about Indra slaying the dragon (áhann áhim…) not only doesn’t tell the story, it only uses it as a source of material to praise Indra with, so the story occurs as snippets in an order that has nothing to do with the order of events in the plot. Fortunately for us, the poem is long enough that a coherent plot can be reconstructed from it.

  45. My favorite example of temporal problems in the Norse sagas is the placement of the great pagan army only two generations after Attila the Hun.

  46. I think I have misrembered the word “fruit”, but I am quite certain it wasn’t “puke”.

  47. January First-of-May says

    I think I have misrembered the word “fruit”, but I am quite certain it wasn’t “puke”.

    I think David was making a joke about the actual production method of the substance in question (note: I’m not enough of a biologist to comment more specifically).

  48. Nelson Goering says

    ‘If that.’

    Very true! The most elaborate kennings in Norse poetry tend to come from the least narrative texts, intended as praise or occasional verse of some sort. There are some poems, like Þórsdrápa, which do try and tell a story in an elaborate, kenning-heavy style, and they’re every bit as difficult you might expect (for Þoŕsdrápa, we do have Snorri’s prose version of the same myth, which might tell us what’s going on — though it’s been suggested that Snorri himself knew or invented a version of the story rather different from what the poem was trying to convey).

    But most narrative poetry is in the much simpler eddic style, where kennings tend to be rarer and much less elaborate. Some poems, like Þrymskviða, don’t have any kennings at all (under a perhaps anachronistically strict definition of ‘kenning’ as being metaphorical: the poem has plenty of epithets like þursa dróttinn or Óðins sonr, but they’re all literally true).

  49. try and tell a story in an elaborate, kenning-heavy style, and they’re every bit as difficult you might expect

    It’s funny, I’m currently reading Pasternak’s Повесть [‘(long) story,’ translated as The Last Summer], which is a prose prequel to his long autobiographical poem Спекторский [Spektorsky], and it’s every bit as difficult to read as the poem — it’s like he was trying to buckle down and tell a story in prose but couldn’t keep himself from the same kinds of digressions, inversions, wordplay, etc., that he used in his poetry. But it’s harder to accept in prose what you’re willing to struggle through in poetry, at least for me. I presume by the time he wrote Zhivago he’d figured out how to manage prose narration, or nobody would have read it.

  50. By the way, nasty typo in Trond’s verse 14: unvawering for unwavering.

    Повесть ‘novella’, perhaps?

  51. Yeah, except that “novella” seems to have different connotations for some people. I often use it as an equivalent, though.

  52. David Marjanović says

    I think David was making a joke about the actual production method of the substance in question

    Yes. 🙂

  53. Trond Engen says

    By the way, if our dating of events in the north of England is any good at all, the traditional story of this poem has to be false: Athelstan was dead five to ten years before Eric Bloodaxe rose to power in Northumbria, so the poet could not have fled from the latter’s court to the former’s.

    Egill’s saga is such a fantastic story that even if its protagonist is built on a real person, and even if the saga is built on popular stories in living folk memory, I’d assume that the well-known events were redacted and moved around to make a coherent whole, and that dramatic events were enhanced or invented. Égill making his famous poem during one single night while waiting for certain execution is one such event. The start of Hǫfuðlausn seems to say that Egill came travelling across the sea with his poem to present it to the king. That sounds to me as a long planned and carefully executed (ouch!) gesture of reconciliation. I haven’t thought of this before, but that discrepancy with the saga also speaks to the poem’s authenticity, or at least to its independent origin.

    Apart from that, Athelstan may well have been used as a default name for the English king by Norse saga writers.

  54. Trond Engen says

    Nelson Goering: The most elaborate kennings in Norse poetry tend to come from the least narrative texts, intended as praise or occasional verse of some sort.

    Display of technical skill for its own sake. Poems made on commission to kings as entertainment for important guests to maintain an image of high culture and deep knowledge at the court. Not remembered, except by small circles of dróttkvætt afficionados gathering in dark, smoky rooms, drinking cheap beer and repeating especially pleasing passages to eachother, over and over and over.

  55. Nelson Goering says

    Somehow I also doubt that Gunnhildr really shapeshifted into the form of a bird to distract Egil while he was trying to compose his poem during the night! But about the beginning of the poem, I suppose you could read it as Egil just being consistent with his story that he came intentionally to make peace with Eirik (if I remember right, he never actually lets on to the king that he’s really just shipwrecked there by accident, and made up his praise poem at the last minute — though I’m not sure anyone present really bought his story).

    The saga does seem to have some sense of chronological authenticity, though, if in a somewhat vague way — I mean that it’s not in the kind of generic ‘árdagum’ that we find for a lot of the more legendary material, and I suspect the author (whether Snorri or not) might have avoided anything that was too obviously wrong. It gives Aðalsteinn basically his correct genealogy from ‘Elfráðr’ down, and it (rightly) remembers that he fought a big battle that clearly corresponds to what the Anglo-Saxons called the Battle of Brunanburh (though none of the saga’s details need be terribly authentic). At least to me, the rather slight blurring of reigns by a decade or so in Egils saga seems to contrast with Aðalsteinn’s much more cut-and-paste role in, say, Jómsvíkingasaga.

  56. Athelstan may well have been used as a default name for the English king by Norse saga writers.

    I thought of that. It’s true that the King of Mercia from the death of the famous King Penda (the last pagan king of Mercia) in 655 until 704 was generally referred to as “Penda’s son”, although in fact there were three sons of Penda who occupied the throne during that period: Peada, Wulfhere, and Æthelred. But that’s not the same as calling them “Penda”.

  57. Coincidentally, I learned today that somebody out there claims that “Beowolf” is not the kenning bee wolf. Instead, it is supposed to be barley wolf, with the story really relating how a group of fertility cultists were wiped out by Aesir-worshippers. The nature cultists supposedly drank ergot potations, explaining the poison in the systems of some bog bodies. (The usual explanation being that ergot and drowning was a form of execution.). Reading up a little more on the background, I also learned that Snorri actually wrote about ergot poisoning, in the death of King Magnus Haraldsson.

  58. Nelson Goering says

    Not sure about ‘barley wolf’ and ergot and all that, but Rob Fulk (probably the leading textual critic of Beowulf currently active) has made a rather erudite argument claiming that the name basically means ‘Wolf of [the god] Byggvir’ (with ‘wulf’ having a similar import as the cú in Cú Chulainn — the whole thing is also parallel to Norse names like Þórólfr). I still prefer the ‘Bee-wolf’ etymology, but it’s hard to see why Fulk’s proposal couldn’t be right.

    Byggvir is the name of a minor Norse god, whose name in Old English would have been something like *Bēo or *Bēowe, and who seems to be recorded in a euhemerized (and often Latinized) form in royal genealogies as Beduuig (presumably for *Beouuī), Beaw, Beauu, Beo, and Beowius — and (whether or not you believe this etymology of Beowulf’s name) Bēow(e) is probably the actual name of ‘Beowulf I’ in the poem (the son of Scyld Scēfing).

    Byggvir/Bēowe is derived from the word for ‘barley’, but wouldn’t literally be barley. More like ‘the barley-ish one’ or ‘the barley guy’ — or, if we’re feeling Tolkienian, ‘Barliman’.

  59. Beowulf’s physical attributes like his enormous strength make him far more of a bear (a bee-wolf) than a wolf, whether associated with a god or not.

  60. David Marjanović says

    Could his name be a pun of Biblical proportions, then, with both meanings intended at once?

  61. Nelson Goering says

    To be the ‘wolf’ of a god would, presumably, basically mean to be that god’s servant or champion — unless all the Þórólfrs and Ingólfrs we read about have a lot more fangs than I’ve been imagining!

    Fulk tries his best to challenge the ursine associations of Beowulf, of course. The poem itself does rather bear his point out: things like the crushing of Dæghrefn and his lack of luck with swords bearly count as evidence. But in a bit of an embearrassment for Fulk’s theory, the Norse parallels with Bǫðvarr Bjarki do seem pretty good, and the bear stuff is pretty strong there.

  62. dróttkvætt afficionados gathering in dark, smoky rooms

    Well, that’s pretty much what happens if you try to use ordinary (wood-burning) fireplaces with coal instead, cf. Kolbitar, the society ancestral to the Inklings. Note, while I am at it, the alliterative nature of “Bird and Baby” (as opposed to the authentic “Eagle and Child”).

  63. Trond Engen says

    Nelson Goering: the Norse parallels with Bǫðvarr Bjarki do seem pretty good

    Thanks, I was only superficilly familiar with Hrólf’s saga and Bǫðvarr Bjarki. Interesting that in one story it’s Beo-wulf at Hroth-gar’s court, in the other it’s Bǫð-varr at Hróð-ulf’s.

  64. Trond Engen says

    Well, that’s pretty much what happens if you try to use ordinary (wood-burning) fireplaces with coal instead, cf. Kolbitar, the society ancestral to the Inklings.

    The kol of ON kolbitar refers to the charred pieces of wood left in the ashes in the fireplace. The kolbitar is a predessor of Askeladden, the culture hero and canonical good-for-nothing of the folktales. This is the boy who prefers staying inside and poke around in the ashes rather than doing real men’s work outside. I’ve been thinking that keeping the fire (barely) alive during the day was what every boy spent his day doing before the age of usefulness, but the youngest son had to keep doing it for much longer. This earned him scolding from his older brothers for being mummy’s sweetheart — as well as treats and comforting tales in the kitchen.

  65. Poul Anderson wrote a novel Hrolf Kraki’s Saga, based not only on the saga but on other traditional sources, rationalized into the conventions of modern fantasy: it is consistent, and it tells us why the characters do things and enters into their thoughts as no original Norse material does. Only after I finished it with enjoyment did I learn that the fan community frequently referred to it as Ralph Soggy-cracker.

    Those pieces of wood are called coals in English too. I note that Iceland has low-quality lignite coal (with volcanic ash mixed in), and imports a lot of coal today to run its heavy industry, though the residential sector runs on renewables.

  66. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I was wondering how Orm wrote long open syllables; WP tells me that he used an accent on long ones, so is the second one in forrthi really short (contrary to Wiktionary and my expectations)? I’m not sure about how the metre works, but I think it sounds better with a long i.

    Or maybe WP is wrong (the notion!). I found a glossary for the Ormulum, and it has a number of words with single or double accents, but none on final syllables that I could find.

  67. David Marjanović says

    Long – according to another Wiktionary article.

  68. David Marjanović says

    Six years ago I overlooked this:

    7. I’ll follow by it,
    if y’all keep quiet,
    for I have more stored
    from Erik’s scoreboard.

    That meter belongs to rap. 🙂

  69. John Cowan says

    All of Trond’s version can be rapped pretty well

  70. Byggvir/Bēowe is derived from the word for ‘barley’…‘the barley-ish one’ or ‘the barley guy’ — or, if we’re feeling Tolkienian, ‘Barliman’.

    dare i say… john barleycorn?

    and the timing of this poetic transformation has me wondering whether there could be any connection to the modernist poetic revolution that spread from arabic and hebrew verse in al-andalus to romance-lect verse in western europe at about the same time. they seem poetically quite different, but there are some fairly direct points of potential connection – roger ii’s (greater) sicily being the most appealing possibility to my aesthetic imagination.

    al-idrisi’s world map knows a reasonable amount about england but only a little about scandinavia; it’s hard to know who he was talking to, though, so i’m not sure we can take that as an indication of the depth of contact. and after all, it just takes one northerner getting really excited about the hot new muwashshahat or cansos he spent his shore leave drinking to, and teaching his hometown friends a catchy chorus he wrote on the way home.

  71. Hey, I like that! (As a fellow fan of Andalus and its influence.)

  72. David Marjanović says

    I’ve often seen it claimed that end rhyme, specifically, came to Europe from Arabic. That’s at least oversimplified, but I don’t know if it’s completely untrue.

  73. Trond Engen says

    John C.: All of Trond’s version can be rapped pretty well

    That’s what I thought too. And it follows the original pretty closely for both rhythm and rhyme, very much including pace-shifting, cranky verses like the one David quotes,

  74. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    @DM, actually the Wiktionary entry for ME for-thī is missing. But I found it in an ME dictionary-like thing that I forgot where I found the link. So we agree that it should be long in the Ormulum, but I still want to know how Orm wrohhte long open syllables, or if he just conflated them with short ones.

  75. Middle English Compendium: for-thī.

  76. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    That’s the one. So how is it pronounced in Modern English, if some archaizer uses it? FWIW, it’s /for’di:?/ in Danish.

  77. Trond Engen says

    Me: That’s what I thought too. And it follows the original pretty closely for both rhythm and rhyme […]

    That’s what I thought of the original. And the translation follows the original pretty closely for both rhythm and rhyme […]

    Admittedly an unusual to idiosyncratic interpretation of rhythm and rhyme in the original. Mostly rhythm.

  78. John Cowan says

    So I’d spell it forthy and say it /fərˈðɑi/. Except I wouldn’t, because it would inevitably be read as forth-y, with the adjective-forming suffix. It’s way beyond the range of archaizers, except for me trying to modernize the spelling of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from 1137.

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