The Anglo-Saxons: Poetry as Cultural Commentary
For this journal, you need to respond, citing textual moments from all three Old English poems, effectively and clearly to the prompt:
These poems, all different in terms of thematic focus, each reveal something about the culture of the original, targeted audience. What does each poem teach about the things valued by the culture and society? HOW does each teach it? How does each “speak” with its audience to accomplish this?
As with all journals, I’m not interested in what I wrote in the lectures; I literally know that stuff. I’m interested in how you engage with those texts you read / watched and how you think about them.
MLA FORMAT 600 WORDS MINIMUM
I’ve posted the regularized (edited) Old English poems The Dream of the Rood and The Wanderer in this section of your class shell, so that you can look at them to see what I’m discussing in this lecture.
Last time, I discussed the grammatical nature of Old English. Now, looking at the texts, you should be able to see some of those characteristics. If you look at the case endings of words, you’ll see how poets stitched together language. Basically, if Yoda were dubbed in to an inflected language, he would not sound odd at all to that audience.
Because there is no particular value in word order, Old English poetry didn’t rely on rhymes the way you may be used to (you should be really quite familiar with end-rhyme, end-soft-rhyme, blank verse, and free verse from earlier in your educational experience). Here, the Anglo-Saxons used alliteration to create their rhymes. This means that the first sounds of a series of words in a line create the poetic markers that distinguish poetry from prose writing
The Wanderer, line 7:
wraþra wælsleahta, winemæga hryre:
— the W sound creates the poetic sensibility). Also, that Alliterative Verse helps distinguish Old English poetry from Middle English poetry (which may use a combination of Alliterative Verse and End-Rhyme). So, meaning is established differently than in Modern English, where word order is key.
That alliteration allowed poets to create imagery that spanned the poem – a sound combination that appears early in the poem might appear later, creating a thread of sound and meaning that ties together the ideas.
It also shows the nature of the poetry’s original composition as an oral text. Dr. Walter J. Ong coined the Oral-Formulaic Theory. He posits that many manuscripts containing early poetry in many cultures are actually from when the poem was finally written down, much later than its origin. He shows how certain textual markers (like repetition, epithets, imagery, and sound patterns) in these poems (like The Iliad or Beowulf) are signals that the performances were oral and the audience was auditory. Think, basically, of public speaking. An effective speaker knows how to move an audience through a variety of linguistic and rhetorical schema. An ineffective speaker does not engage that audience. However, the schema that a speaker uses do not necessarily translate well in to written text. The repetition and epithets that are useful in spoken-word compositions create, in a written composition, potential distractions for the audience. So, the things that might annoy you in reading something like The Iliad, where every time someone is killed, he “falls in a clatter of armor” – and hundreds of fighters die – actually would become an easy marker for a listener to catch up with the poem’s ideas. That repetition would work auditorily in a way it simply cannot visually. It also allows the poet, reciting a composition thousands of lines long, to have a place to mentally “pause” and regroup if the poet forgets part of the story.
Another marker of the poems is the use of a particular kind of epithet called a Kenning. While an epithet is a phrase used to add or illustrate value to a noun (for example, Beowulf, Son of Higelac – Son of Higelac is the epithet), a kenning takes the place of the noun to give the audience some idea of what is valued about that noun. In The Wanderer, there are a series of kennings the narrator uses to show the value of someone like his dryten (his lord) – like ring-giver and loaf-lord. That tells the audience that the value of his lord was not just that he was the ruler, but that he was generous and provided for his thanes. In The Dream of the Rood, the use of kennings gives the audience a sense of the value of the Rood and of the narrator’s place in his monastic society (he works for the monastery; the monks are “speech-bearers” – he does not consider himself one). Part of what kennings do is illustrate cultural values, teaching the audience something about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
There are two final poetic strategies present in The Wanderer that recur in Anglo-Saxon poetry: the genre of elegiac poetry and the thematic issue of “ubi sunt.”
Elegiac poetry is the poetry of loss, remembrance, and mourning. If you have experienced personal loss, you know exactly what an elegy is. You remember the thing lost, you mourn its loss, and you fondly recall the proverbial “good old days” of pre-loss. Elegiac poetry does exactly this. As you saw in The Wanderer, the narrator is alone in the world, all the good things in his life gone because he outlived everyone who knew him. This is a poem of mourning.
The “ubi sunt” (Latin for “where are they”) is a particular thematic movement in Anglo-Saxon elegiac poetry. When the narrator asks about the things lost, the poet is giving the audience the value system of the culture. The things that make life worth living are not so much the stuff as what they represent: security, safety, belonging, and stability.
For your purposes, these issues of Anglo-Saxon poetry will be particularly found in the next reading, Beowulf. As you read that poem, keep looking for these elements of Anglo-Saxon poetry. There are others, but they’ll be discussed in the next lecture.
Additionally, many of these elements recur when the post-Anglo-Norman English (Middle English) poetic traditions emerge in he 13th and 14th centuries.
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