List Poems in Old English
What were the characteristics of Old English (OE) poetry? In common with other Germanic poetries, the pattern on which the line unit was based was alliterative, that is a linkage of words with similar sounds, a chaining of consonants or vowels in initial stressed syllables, a sort of forward rhyme: this in itself suggests a repetitive origin for the technique, an almost ritual or magical enactment of the power that is deemed inherent in the words themselves.
In time the various Germanic cultures – more or less under the influence of Christian Latin culture – developed preciser (but diverse) metres out of this alliterative impulse. In Anglo-Saxon England, in Caedmon's Hymn, for example, we find a typical four-stress line of which the first and third stresses conventionally alliterate; the second may optionally join the alliteration. The apparent separation of the concepts of stress and alliteration suggest a conscious approach to the design of the poetic line. Whether there is further a sense of long and short syllables in Old English verse, and, for example, an equivalence of two short with one long syllable, seems more debateable: this is not measured verse in the Classical meaning of the word.
In this respect, the Old English line may be more regular or regulated than other Germanic poetries, which follow the same alliterative approach, but not quite the same line-scheme. In an Old Norse inscription of about 800 AD (the Rök Stone) we find a line of four stresses of which apparently any two may alliterate. In Old Saxon (e.g. The Heliand) the stresses form part of longer lines, and so on. These literatures may well have influenced each other, but do not exhibit any high degree of mutual conformity: the common basis would seem to be two alliterations to a line, and a tendency to a longer line balanced around a central 'caesura'; beyond that, the individual needs of the sound of the language would be the major factor influencing metrical development.
Among the 'early medieval' Germanic cultures, the Anglo-Saxons supplied the largest body of surviving poetry; the composition of most of this is datable to between approx. 700 and 1020 AD, but because of its relative consistency of line structure is hard to date within this span. That the verse was spoken rather than sung is suggested in many cases by the careful choice of word, the varied rhythm, the occasionally rather mannered dislocation of word order, and the complexity of ideas expressed. Such has given rise to our recognition of a 'high' literature, in the Classical sense of achievement within a recognised and defined field of artistic endeavour. .
In the late 10th century – the 990s – an attempt was made to simplify the rather elite poetry of the informed listener (presumably the educated layman or monk) by making the rhythm more flexible and using less special 'poetic' vocabulary, less of the teasing compound words. The Benedictine writer, Ælfric, is the major figure in this popularisation – his aim was avowedly religious and moral impact and his intended audience the growing number of ordinary members of the monastic community – but because he is not writing in the stricter style his work is often considered, by modern critics, not to count as poetry at all.(1)
List poetry is even less recognised as a valid literary form, yet it has some of the clearest examples of alliteration in the Old English record. It has been overlooked as the possible origin of more complex aliterative metrics.
Old Welsh texts, that may be pre-date the majority of OE compositions, include praise songs, funerary tributes and battle poems, some of which (The Gododdin, The stanzas of the graves) have a list structure at stanza level. The possibility of cross-cultural influence is tempting, but not essential to explain a basic quasi-repetitive metrics that plays with word-pattern and word-linkage (in sound or meaning). Sufficient to point out there is a body of list-based compositions in Old English that might go back to an early tradition, and which deserves rather more attention than it has received so far.(2)
Here, for example, are the ancestors of King Ethelwulf, the father of Alfred the Great, expressed in a formula that adds the suffix -ING to show paternity. There are interesting alliterative clusters. We start at the younger end of the line:
Ond se Eþelwulf wæs Ecgbrehting, Ecgbryht Ealhmunding, Eahlmund Eafing, Eafa Eopping, Eoppa Ingilding (Ingild wæs Ines broþur Westseaxna cyninges, þæs þe eft ferde to Sancte Petre 7 þær his feorh gesealde); 7 hie wæron Cenredes suna, Cenred wæs Ceolwalding, Ceolwald Cuþaing, Cuþa Cuþwining, Cuþwine Ceaulining, Ceawlin Cynricing, Cynric Cerdicing, Cerdic Elesing, Elesa Esling, Esla Giwising, Giwis Wiging, Wig Freawining, Freawine Friþogaring, Friþogar Bronding, Brond Beldæging, Beldæg Wodening…– and so it reaches Woden – and a most un-Wagnerian figure he proves to be, for in a few more generations we are back to Hraþra, who was born in Noah's Ark, and so to Adam 'primus homo'. (Does this imply a biblical inspiration for the art of listing ancestors?) It would be tricky to say whether, in this case, alliteration is imposed by a tidying of the past, or represents a concept of inheritance, a passing-on of some undefined quality.
A mnemonic role is more possible in the following list of herbs from the Lacnunga, a medical handbook written down about 1000 AD; it is part of a recipe for use with a charm.(3) Technically there are alliterating word-pairs, some possible alliterative lines with three or four stresses, and very occasional end-ryhyme. Is the rationale of the structure mnemonic, a sort of literary or ornamental exercise, or a function of ritual enactment?
Sceal betonican 7 benedicteThis list is made of credible if sometimes obscure (to us) plant-names. The formula that follows, the rocket fuel as it were, of the whole project, and which is to be chanted nine times in a row, is pure rubbish – as far as Old English goes – some have tried to detect Irish or Hebrew hidden in such words. But the words still alliterate, and that is presumably why they are considered effective.
acre acre arnem nonaThe significance of the sound of words is apparent also in the next example, where the alliteration is underscored by repetition (or at least parallelism). In form it more closely approximates to standard Old English verse lines. It lists the colours of diseases or poisons (attor) that a group of herbs should protect you against:
wið nygon attrum and wið nygon onflygnum:One more example: it is headed 'Wið cyrnel', that is, 'Against a lump or swelling or goitre'; and it names the nine sisters of Noþþe who turn into eight , eight into seven, and so on, until, like the excrescence itself, they hopefully disappear…
Neogone wæran Noðþæs sweoster;The structure here is partially alliterative e.g. Noðþæs/nygone, but its strength is as a rhythmic list, bound together by a progression. Does its list aspect alone justify us talking of it as poetry?
These three examples come from the same (Lacnunga) manuscript, but in case this seem over-selective, there are parallels in the Old High German Merseburg Charms, where unexpected figures like Baldur and Woden are mentioned. This is not to be taken to mean that the charms are necessarily pre-Christian or anti-Christian; the Christianity of early medieval Europe was perfectly able to embrace strange notions.
Phol ende uuodan uuorun zi holza.Against the tendency to write this off as very low-grade literature, if literature at all, it is important to remember that the same technique of alliterating word-pairs was a favourite of Wulfstan, the respected Archbishop of York in the early 11th century. Here he is inveighing against the sins of his time, in emphatic alliterating word-pairs:
þurh morðdæda 7 þurh mandædaThough a less flexible rhyme and stanza (or couplets) became the norm after the Norman Conquest through the multiple influences of the Latin hymn, Norman-French poetry, and perhaps Norse poetry, yet alliterative verse in English was still being written in the 16th century, as in the poem on the Battle of Flodden which was written in or after 1513.
And when even that tenacious tradition yielded, the alliterative word-pair has continued in English proverb, phrase and slang as a sort of hidden magic.(5)
time and tide