Saturday, June 03, 2017

Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems


Some Sample Passages: Since it's an anthology of a large body of poetry, there's no one opening passage, but it makes sense to do a few from various works to give a sense of how Williamson does things and the topics covered. From Genesis A (p. 37):

It is right to praise the Lord of heaven
With wise words and loving hearts.
He is almighty, infinite, eternal, abiding--
Source and Shaper, Guardian of glory,
King of all exalted creatures, Lord of hosts.

From Andreas (p. 190):

Listen! We have heard the heroic stories
Of the twelve glorious disciples of the Lord
Who served under heaven in days of old.
Their faith and courage on the battlefield
Did not falter or fail after they separated
And were dispersed abroad as the Lord commanded,
The high King of heaven who shaped their lives.

From The Wanderer (p. 454):

Often the wanderer walks alone,
Waits for mercy, longs for grace,
Stirs the ice-cold sea with hands and oars--
Heart-sick, endures an exile's road--
A hard traveler. His fate is fixed.

Riddle 59 (p. 584):

Sometimes a lady, comely and proud,
Locks me up, boxes me tight--
Sometimes draws me out on demand
And hands me over to her pleasing prince,
Who shoves his hard head in my hole,
Slides up while I slip down--
A tight squeeze. If the man who seizes me
Presses with power, something shaggy
Will fill me up, muscle me out--
A precious jewel. Say what I mean.

From Beowulf (p. 607):

Listen! We have heard of the Spear-Danes' glory,
Their storied power, their primal strength--
The kings and princes whose craft was courage.

From Instructions for Christians (p. 1115):

Give to your eternal God a tenth share
Of the goods you own, the property you possess,
And he will greatly increase the other nine.
There are four things that lead finally
To full happiness and eternal blessing--
Try not to miss them when you meet them.
The first is honest labor; the second, spoken prayer.
The third is learning the laws of life.
The fourth is the fasting that we must perform.

Summary: The Complete Old English Poems is 1189 pages, but that also includes introductory material to the whole, introductions for the individual poems, an appendix discussing the proposed answers to the surviving riddles, and an index; all in all, the poems make up just a tiny sample from a civilization we know took poetry very seriously. What we have is quite a mixed group -- lives of saints (Andreas [the Apostle Andrew], Elene [Queen Helena], Juliana, Guthlac), verse translations and paraphrases of the Bible passages and liturgical prayers, bits of bestiary descriptions (phoenix, panther, whale), passages in historical chronicles that are or may be intended as verse, a few old charms and descriptions, in short, the wisdom literature of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England.

It is scarcely possible to cover the whole in a short space, but in any reading some things will stand out more clearly than others. While I don't have much to say about it, I was struck by how much the Old English Genesis poems sometimes sounded like Milton -- the descriptions of the devils in hell, in particular. Williamson explicitly at one point says that he thinks there is a connection, and this would be interesting to look at more closely at some point.

I greatly enjoyed Andreas; I knew the basic shape of the tale already, although I'm not sure if it was from having read the work before in a different version or just from a different source. God tells the Apostle Andrew to go to cannibal country in order to rescue the Apostle Matthew from the Mermedonians; it's across the sea and Matthew will be dead in three days. Andrew's response is priceless, and a nice bit of psychological rendering: he replies that he doesn't know how he can do it, the sea roads are hard, and these cannibals don't seem very welcoming. "This does not sound like a safe journey" (p. 195). God insists that he has a responsibility to go, and so Andrew finds a ship -- which turns out to be piloted by God Himself in disguise.

The Dream of the Rood, which I think is arguably the greatest surviving literary work in Anglo-Saxon, is very nicely handled by Williamson. The work turns a twist on Old English riddles, which often have an inanimate object speaking as a person in order to create an ambiguity requiring you to guess the object; here we have the tropes, but the object, the Cross of Christ, is revealed in order to develop the personification. The result is a many-layered work; the Cross that speaks is the slayer of Christ, but it also suffers with Christ, since it, too, is pierced by the nails; drenched with his blood, it is the token of victory over death; it is buried and later raised up to be a sign that can heal. In his introduction to the book, Tom Shippey notes that the Cross seems to have been itself one of the most eloquent arguments for Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. They put a great deal of emphasis on the tacen, the token or trophy that shows a promise to have reality -- a promise being merely an ambiguous possibility until its sign of being fulfilled is presented. Christianity, of course, brought massive promises; it recognized the fatalistic element of the world, this mass of short-lived human beings with little to do but have a few minor victories and face the inevitable end with courage, but it promised that this was not the whole story, that there was a victory over death itself, and it did not merely promise. It brought with it a victory-token, the Cross, a sign that the promise was being fulfilled, that a nobler death was possible and a higher victory could be won. And of course, for the Christian, the Cross is not an external sign, either; it is something we sign on ourselves. And thus we can have sympathy with the Cross itself, growing quietly in the forest until it is turned to the accomplishment of terrible things, killing its Lord and yet suffering with Him at the same time, all sin -- and yet, by God's grace, all victory, raised up as a sign of glory. It is a riddle indeed, and all the more riddling for the fact that we know the answer.

I have already done Beowulf, in Tolkien's prose translation, as a fortnightly book, so I won't say much more about it. I had noted there that I think one can fully understand the structure of the poem by taking it at its word -- it was written to speak of Danish kings. As I read it in Williamson's translation, this was even more obvious: on every page we are not just speaking of Beowulf and Hrothgar, but making references to other kings -- Sceald and Hrethel and Hengest and Heremod, and many others. It is very much a book of kingship.

The riddles were often amusing. A very common kind is the half-bawdy riddle, like Riddle 59 quoted above, in which a harmless thing -- in this case probably a shirt or a helmet -- is depicted in terms naturally suggestive of sex. It is a kind of fake-out one can still find today, with a not-so-innocent description of an entirely innocent thing, and then, wide-eyed, a "Well, you have dirty mind, don't you" -- a way of not only telling a joke but pulling one over on the person to whom you are telling it. Of course, a problem with this kind becomes fairly clear when you have a bunch of them all together -- they are so very similar that it's difficult to tell what, in particular, any given riddle is intended to represent.

Old English poetry, of course, is highly alliterative, and, while rhythmic, is very flexible in its use of rhythm, which means that it can be difficult to draw a line between poetic verse, properly speaking, and heightened prose, particularly since the distinction is not usually made in the actual manuscript -- thus Williamson has to end his work with a number of passages that may or may not have been intended as verse, because they are sections in prose works that loosely share some features of poetry. This is a sign of a healthy language; too sharp a distinction between prose and poetry, and you can be sure that one of the two is being strangled to death. The features of Old English poetry also contribute to one of its most important aspects, which is that it is very highly didactic in character. It is there to tell you something worth knowing. Later poets in English tend, under the influence of foreign models, to seek after epic ambitions or lyric evocations; these aren't inconsistent with the Old English roots, but they do represent a shift in focus. One sees this, perhaps, with Beowulf, which tends to be read as an epic -- but, as I've said, seems instead to be at heart an account of what it is (or perhaps, more sadly and elegiacally, what it was) to be a Danish king. Poetry was what you used when you really wanted people to think about something, to reflect and remember and let it echo inside. Some later poets tended to rebel against Renaissance and early modern didacticism in poetry, sometimes in the name of getting back to the real English in one way or another. But the didacticism was not a latinate imposition but legacy from the earliest roots of poetry in English, and, I think, if you really want a sense of the natural poetic diction of English, which so many poets claim to seek, you need to become comfortable with the straightforwardly didactic. It is there that one begins to draw out of mere prose the potential for great verse.

Modern English not being as alliteration-rich (or, for that matter, as alliteration-tolerant) as Old English, translating the one into the other is more difficult than one might think. Williamson goes for a light touch -- he focuses on stresses and pulls in alliteration as he can. This loses, no doubt, much of the poetry, but it does make things read more smoothly than a more rigorous attempt to alliterate would -- which is part of what makes a book this large readable in a fortnight.

Favorite Passage: Obviously there are quite a few good ones. This one, the twenty-third meter of Boethius, stood out for me on this reading (p. 886):

"A man would be happy his whole life on earth
If he could see clearly the purest stream
Of heavenly radiance, the source of goodness
That bathes us all in a shimmering bliss,
And could cast away the dark mists
That obscure the mind and veil the truth.
Yet with God's help, we can heal your heart
And uncloud your mind with old tales
And ancient myths. So listen to this story
And find your way on the righteous road
To your eternal home, the soul's haven."

It sums up a great deal of the value of "old tales and ancient myths", I think.

Recommendation: Recommended.


Quotations from The Complete Old English Poems, Craig Williamson, tr., University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia: 2017).

Poem a Day 3


Your sighs, my lady, school my ear,
imbue its curve with whisper dear
that, like a mote in cunning shell
will seed a pearl where wavelets swell --
a tickle, like the breeze on grass
that swift on flitting feet must pass,
has touched my heart and seized my soul
and made this part to see your whole.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Poem a Day 2

Indian Blankets

The hills are growing blood and gold;
a rust is rippling through the grass;
a flame now flickers through the fields
and covers where the carefree pass.

I dreamed of dancing with the dead.
Their steps were signs on every way.
A blanket billowed where they bled
like dooming dawn on judgment day.

The painter's pot adorns their place,
where blood and brilliance blanket all,
and finds no rival canvas raised
till fiery leaves in autumn fall.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Iustinus Martyr

Today is the feast of St. Justin Martyr, who is in a sense the patron saint of this blog. From his Second Apology (I've broken up the paragraph a bit for easier reading):

Our doctrines, then, appear to be greater than all human teaching; because Christ, who appeared for our sakes, became the whole rational being, both body, and reason, and soul. For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Word. But since they did not know the whole of the Word, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves. And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they attempted to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals as impious persons and busybodies.

And Socrates, who was more zealous in this direction than all of them, was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves. For they said that he was introducing new divinities, and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognised. But he cast out from the state both Homer and the rest of the poets, and taught men to reject the wicked demons and those who did the things which the poets related; and he exhorted them to become acquainted with the God who was to them unknown, by means of the investigation of reason, saying, "That it is neither easy to find the Father and Maker of all, nor, having found Him, is it safe to declare Him to all."

But these things our Christ did through His own power. For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine, but in Christ, who was partially known even by Socrates (for He was and is the Word who is in every man, and who foretold the things that were to come to pass both through the prophets and in His own person when He was made of like passions, and taught these things), not only philosophers and scholars believed, but also artisans and people entirely uneducated, despising both glory, and fear, and death; since He is a power of the ineffable Father, and not the mere instrument of human reason.

The quotation, probably from memory, is from Plato's Timaeus 28c.

Poem a Day 1

Prayer of Light

May we be worthy to bless you with praise,
most holy light, most ineffable light,
light beyond light shining from the Father,
the dawn of every dawn, bright in our hearts.
Straying from you, we had faltered in night,
we stumbled and fell into deep darkness;
by your grace and light, you saved us from death,
for you are the star that guides us to you,
invisibly bringing light to our souls.
To Christ, the light of God, all due honor,
on this day and all the days of our lives,
forever and world without end. Amen.

O Christ our light, you illuminate all,
for in truth you have created all things,
and being Truth have brought them all to light,
and manifested them as very good.
In the beginning God created light;
new light he brought to the Jordan river,
in which our darkness gives way to his grace;
divine light he showed us on Mount Tabor,
strengthening the mind of his apostles;
truly he will exalt us to God's light,
for in his light we will see the true light,
the end of our labors, the light most sweet.

Enlighten our minds that we may adore you,
with grace strengthen the light of our reason;
infuse your light throughout your holy church,
that all may be seen in light of the faith;
raise up your people, forgive us our sins,
give us the aid of your saints and martyrs,
grant your kingdom to the saints who have died,
and grant us your help that we may have hope
and join them in your splendid light. Amen.

From the beginning God has given light;
light made the virgin Mary to be born;
from her, the Mother of the light, light shone,
to be crucified for our darkest sins;
from the night he rose to a great dawn,
the sun of justice destroying all night;
he shines forever with undying light,
splendid to all pure souls that can see him,
as we shall see, waking to his face.
O source of all light, accept our prayers.
From your vaults of mercy, grant us pardon,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God,
forever and world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Isaac Watts on Education

An interesting passage from Watts's Logick (p. 218):

The Methods of our Education are govern'd by Custom. It is Custom and not Reason that sends every Boy to learn the Roman Poets and to begin a little Acquaintance with Greek, before he is bound an Apprentice to a Soapboiler or Leatherseller. It is Custom alone that teaches us Latin by the Rules of a Latin Grammar; a tedious and absurd Method! And what is it but Custom that has for past centuries confined the brightest Genius's even of the high Rank in the Female World to the only Business of the Needle, and secluded them most unmercifully from the Pleasures of Knowledge, and the divine Improvements of Reason? But we begin to break all these Chains, and Reason begins to dictate the Education of Youth. May the growing Age be learned and wise!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Holy Joan

First in the ranks see Joan of Arc advance,
The scourge of England, and the boast of France!
Though burnt by wicked Bedford for a witch,
Behold her statue placed in Glory's niche,
Her fetters burst and just released from prison,
A virgin phoenix from her ashes risen. -- LORD BYRON
Today is the feast of St. Jehanne d'Arc. (While in English we often translate her name as 'Joan of Arc', D'Arc or d'Arc was the family name, not a description; and although her name was spelled a number of different ways, and in French is usually 'Jeanne' today, her own signature spells it 'Jehanne', although as she was illiterate it is possible that her signature was done with assistance.) Despite the fact that we have an immense amount of documentary evidence of her life, we have no picture of her. But when the Parliament in Paris heard rumor of her deeds, the scribe, Clément de Fauquembergue, drew a sketch of how he imagined her in the margin of the Parliamentary register:

Joan parliament of paris

Jehanne D'Arc

A quiet garden path
        (St. Michael be our guide)
a scent of spring and day,
a field both green and wide,
and a girl--

and beauty bright and bold
        (St. Catherine, for us pray)
and fierce but calm resolve
(with militance like May)
of a girl--

the hope that step by step
        (St. Margaret, lend your aid)
will charge the raging host
and face the swinging blade
as a girl--

by one bright thread are bound
        (Lord Jesus, give us grace)
with frame of twining flame
and eyes set in the face
of a girl....

Soloviev on Truthfulness

The word is the instrument of reason for expressing that which is, that which may be, and that which ought to be, i.e., for expressing the actual, the formal, and the ideal truth. The possession of such an instrument is part of the higher nature of man, and therefore when he misuses it, giving expression to untruth for the sake of lower material ends, he does something contrary to human dignity, something shameful.

At the same time the word is the expression of human solidarity, the most important means of communication between men. But this applies only to true words. Therefore when an individual person uses speech to express untruth for his own selfish ends (not only individually selfish, but collectively selfish also, e.g., in the interests of his family, his class, his party, etc.) he violates the rights of others and injures the community.

[Vladimir Soloviev, The Justification of the Good, von Peters, ed. Catholic Resources (Chattanooga, TN: 2015), pp. 127-128.]

Monday, May 29, 2017


We live and move in space, here and there and everywhere, and this space seems in many ways to be an integral whole. If one attempts to consider the question of what constitutes our first basic experience of space, however, it turns out that things are not as simple as they may seem.

The locus classicus for this point is Berkeley's New Theory of Vision, in which he argues that we do not, strictly and properly, see distance but learn to associate distances with certain sights, given other things like the muscle-pressure of the eyes or the degrees of confusion in how objects appear. We see instead extensions of color. Since we don't perceive distance by vision as such but only by visual experience, there must be some other source, and Berkeley locates this in the sense of touch. When I see something, these are so closely connected to certain tangible sensations that we get when moving around that the one suggests the other automatically. If we think of this as visual space, visual space is not itself spatial but a sort of ancillary apparatus for thinking about tangible space, the space we think of ourselves as moving around in.

If this is the case, though, vision does not provide the only ancillary apparatus for thinking about space; obviously hearing does as well. This is perhaps most dramatically captured by the Doppler effect of a screaming whistle flying by, but all moving objects convey this auditory space. Berkeley himself recognizes this (NTV 46-47), although he does not dwell on it at great length. We also hear things in front of us, behind us, to the side, far and near. Berkeley suggests that the connection between the ideas of sight and the ideas of touch is much more intimate than that between the ideas of hearing and the ideas of touch -- we are less likely to think of sounds as 'in' the things we touch than we are to think of colors as 'in' them, for instance -- so that there is a kind of hierarchy here, in which touch gives us distance, sight gives us a strongly connected and very rich apparatus of signs (so much so that Berkeley thinks one can consider it a language), and hearing a more loosely connected and less rich apparatus of signs, in which the signs signify the tangible.

(One might ask if smell and taste, for instance, have their own space in the same sense we care considering here. One might think there's a case for taste; one tastes strawberry in one's mouth. The spatiality is clearly not that of the taste itself but of the touch, e.g., the tangibility of our tongues and the roofs of our mouths; but if Berkeley is right, this is true of sight and hearing, as well. Hume gives an example of putting a fig at one end of a table and an olive at another; we classify, so to speak, the taste of the fig with the fig's end of the table rather than the olive's end. One could take this as an argument for taste as another ancillary apparatus, although more loosely connected than hearing, and smell as perhaps even more loosely connected.)

Berkeley takes touch to be the fundamental ground here in part because of his strong empiricism; ultimately a spatial relation like distance must reduce to some sensible idea of some specific character; sight and hearing, in the kinds of contexts in which we say we see or hear distance, give us ideas that seem much more obviously to be functioning as signs of other ideas than any of the ideas of touch. But if we relax the empiricist assumption, it becomes clear that touch ends up as a fundamental because there's nowhere else to go if you are strict empiricist. If you are not a strict empiricist, it becomes possible to take tangible space also to be an apparatus of signs. Then phenomenal space, space as it appears to us in our everyday lives, becomes an interrelation of three different systems of signs, three different spaces that are capable of functioning as signs of each other; and the whole appearance of things, tactile, visual, auditory, is itself a sign of something not sensed but understood (something like this is Lady Mary Shepherd's view), or perhaps something recognized more fundamentally in our integration of these different kinds of sensation in the first place (as in views that posit an internal sense, like a sensus communis, capable of recognizing space).

Subjects to Be Respected

Environmental degradation comes in just the same way that moral degradation comes, through representing people and places in impersonal ways, as objects to be used rather than as subjects to be respected. The sense of beauty puts a brake upon destruction, by representing its object as irreplaceable. When the world looks back at me with my eyes, as it does in aesthetic experience, it is also addressing me in another way. Something is being revealed to me, and I am being made to stand still and absorb it. It is of course nonsense to suggest that there are naiads in the trees and dryads in the groves. What is revealed to me in the experience of beauty is a fundamental truth about being -- that being is a gift.

Roger Scruton, The Soul of the World, Princeton UP (Princeton, NJ: 2014) p. 139.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Eala þeodnes þrym!

"The Wanderer", I believe by the same person who did the "Wulf and Eadacer":

You can find a translation here.

Sanders and Myers on the Doctrine of the Trinity

There has been some very good discussion of the Trinity recently. Fred Sanders notes that Trinitarianism is alive and well and not itself in need of grand rejuvenation, even if people sometimes need a bit of correction here and there:

The kind of doctors who want to help and heal should attend to how much is already right with the patient. Every Christian church is inherently Trinitarian as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit; some of those churches need to hear about their Trinitarian foundation more often. Christians live by the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:13); some of them need this benediction placed on them more emphatically. Every Christian prayer that goes up finds its way to God the Father because of the mediation of the Son and the intercession of the Spirit; pastors should draw attention to the direction of that current so that the people who pray to the Trinity can see what is always already Trinitarian in their prayers. Every soul that is saved has been adopted by the Father who sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6).

And Ben Myers recently had a tweet storm on the subject. The first eighteen tweets are momented here (strictly speaking, it's eighteen plus a footnote). The only thing I would say differently (although I suppose I could go either way on Trinity Sunday) would be the handling of analogy; I would say something like:

Ancients: Analogies show that we aren't talking incoherently.
Moderns: Analogies are models of the Trinity.

When it comes to the Trinity, the Church Fathers develop analogies promiscuously but modestly and without putting very much weight on them; the Scholastics put more weight on the received analogies, but cautiously and modestly; but we moderns are all too often immodest about them. (Leading to the very misleading 'models of the Trinity' talk.) I've noted this about misreadings of Augustine's On the Trinity -- people will talk about Augustine's analogies as if they were intended to be direct descriptions, despite the fact that (1) the reason he talks about the analogies at all is to argue that we can make sense of the words used to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity; and (2) he spends a considerable portion of the last book emphasizing the ways in which even the best analogy fails.

Then he gives the principles underlying the doctrine (the tweets after the eighteenth have not yet been momented by anyone, so I'll give them here until they are):

The only thing I would add to the above would be the importance of baptism -- the baptismal formula keeps coming up, it's the fact that the Trinitarian heresies conflict with it that makes them so serious, and, of course, as far as we can tell the Creeds grow out of the liturgical practice of baptism -- the Symbolum Apostolorum being in its current form mostly a Frankish expansion of the Old Roman Symbol, which is a summary of the Roman baptismal declaration of faith, and the Nicene Creed being apparently an Eastern summary or summaries of unknown provenance (it used to be thought it originated from Caesarea, but this is less accepted now), with a similar function, that was (or were) modified by the first two ecumenical councils. The baptismal connection is also important for something Myers discusses a bit later, about the practical implications of the doctrine, and it is to some extent the root of what Sanders discusses in the article linked above.

Tweets 30-47 apply the above principles, and tweets 48-55 discuss the implications; I won't put them all here, but if someone moments them, I'll link to the Moment.

ADDED LATER: And Myers has put the entire tweet storm (up to 58, with the three final tweets wrapping up the whole) in a Moment.

ADDED LATER: Myers has put the whole thing in a blog post.