Anglo-Saxon Word Of the Week: wíd-síþ

IMG_0346.JPG Bore da, darllenwyr annwyl; I write this a few hours before dawn, on a train, tapping away on my phone’s touchscreen. It’s too dark outside to see the landscape; so far, the only view out the window, aside from my own reflection, has been a brightly lit Tesco car park in Welshpool, and Shrewsbury station. My theme of travel carries onward.

This week’s offering is both a word and a name: wíd-síþ. The word is a compound noun (too early in the morning for verbs!): wíd meaning wide, and síþ, meaning travel or journey. A far journey. Wide travel.

is also the name of another poem from the Exeter book, and the fictional narrator of the poem. The poem itself is a 144-line catalogue of kings both ancient and contemporary, peoples alive and long since gone, and heroes who lived only in legend. The narrating poet recounts the rulers he has known, the tribes he has seen and sung for, and the heroes he has encountered in his time as a traveling scop. Many of the events and people mentioned are attested to historically, but are spread out across far too great a span of time for one person to have witnessed them all, and the places listed cover too great an area for even a lifetime of travel. Wid-síþ, then, is not intended as a collections of facts, but as an act of historical creation – the poet weaves a long and storied past for himself and his people, and in so doing, claims for himself the voice of poetic authority. The poem closes with Wid-síþ reminding the audience that earthly fame, when remembered in song by a talented scop, brings lasting fame.

You can read the poem in Anglo-Saxon alongside an English translation here.

Deor, a shorter poem also found in the Exeter book, draws on similar material; I suggest seeking out Seamus Heaney’s wonderful translation.

Anglo-Saxon Word of the Week: Scop

beowulf_doc1Hello again! It’s week two in our month o’ story, and since we looked at stories and storytelling in Anglo-Saxon culture last week, I’m moving on now to poems and poeming. (I think I’m supposed to call it ‘composing poetry’ or something, but really, it is a process deserving of its own present participle.) So our question for today is: What should we call poets? Incidentally, this is also the name of my favouite tumblr.

The most common Anglo-Saxon word for poet is scop. A quick pronunciation guide: sc is a sh sound in Old English, and the o here is like the in option or pot, so the words sounds very much like the Contemporary English word shop. A cognate (meaning a word having the same linguistic derivation as another) exists in Old High German: scoph or scof. Remember when we talked about Proto-Germanic and Indo-European in this entry? Well, scop and scof may both be related to the Proto-Germanic verb *skapiz, meaning form or order. Both these words are also related to the modern English word scoff. Another similar word you might be more familiar with, especially if you’re a fan of German fanasty metal bands, is skald, which is the Old Norse word for the concept of poet. This word, etymologically, is linked to the modern English scold. Never get on the bad side of a poet, friends.

But what was a poet in Anglo-Saxon culture? How did you become one? It was quite easy, really – you had to die.

…no, no, wait, come back! Don’t hang up your iambic pentameter just yet. Let me explain: there is no written record of any real, historical person identifying himself, or herself, as a scop. Emily Thornbury, in her book Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, likens it to calling oneself a ‘statesman’:

The term [statesman] is not really a professional category, but rather a word for those who have excelled in politics and diplomacy. ‘Statesman’ is so commonly reserved for those retiring from public life – or, preferably, safely dead –  because of the force it carries, and while one can aspire to be a statesman, declaring oneself actually to be one would smack of hubris…it was something one could hope to be called after death.

Scop, therefore, could be seen as a sort of title; if your work is strong enough, if it’s heard and repeated enough, if you excel a enough in the craft of composing verse, then you might be honoured with the title of poet after death. It’s a pretty idea – and a pretty motivating one. But it still doesn’t explain where this wide-spread idea of scop as record keeper, as entertainer, as prolific verse composer comes from. For that, we have to turn to the poems themselves.

I mentioned that there are no historical figures in Anglo-Saxon written record who refer to themselves as poets; this does not hold true for the fictional world. There are two poets who refer to themselves by that title in poems: Deor, and the speaker in Riddle 22 from the Exeter book, who uses the metaphor of himself as a scop to describe a nightingale. Widsith, from the poem of the same title, almost falls into this category; the poem opens with another speaker introducing Widsith as a poet, and then relating Widisth’s words about himself to the audience. The first two poems are poets speaking as a persona; the last one is a poet speaking as a persona about another persona. Oh, dear. Why all the obfuscation?

I’ll tell you a secret: the romantic idea we sometimes have of Anglo-Saxon scops functioning like the Germanic bards of old, relating stories of great deeds and important tribal histories around by the fire of a mead hall and being honoured by the ruling war lord, was also a romantic idea they had about themselves. Most of our written Old English record comes from a time when the old Germanic tribes had been long settled on their new island, and conversion to Christianity was happening rapidly, or had already happened. The idea of the travelling bard singing for his supper and containing within his songs the identity and culture of his people was a vital part of the Anglo-Saxon ideal of their own ancestral past – as can be so easily seen in poems like Widsith and DeorBeowulf also epitomises this concept, and can be looked at as the story of a people struggling to preserve an identity, but unsure of what identity they are preserving: Germanic, or English? Pagan, or Christian? Tribal, or feudal? The desire to grasp onto something solid is palpable – and so is the tragedy of Bewoulf’s end. He dies childless, alone but for a single squire, leaving his leaderless people with a useless treasure – ancient gold will not help them against the Franks or the Frisians. It’s a grim view – what good are old stories against the onslaught of change? I suppose the answer to that question lies in the fact that we are still telling them.

And if you’re anywhere near Cambridge on the 25th of October, you’re cordially invited to come along to their Festival of Ideas and hear some of these stories told by participants in the Medieval Storytelling Project. You can find information about our event, and links to the programme for the whole festival, here.


day169This week’s word – the last of our September animal series – is delayed this week due to scribal illness, but I have other exciting things to share!

Lo,I have, this very day, while buried in the depths of the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, completely finished my prose translation of Judith! It’s been a year’s worth of work, painstakingly accomplished alongside dissertation research, conference presentations and travel, various academic workshops, poem writing, poem reading, teaching, and linguistic study – both the process of translating and the actual translation itself have proved invaluable to the poetic adaptation of Judith that I’m creating, and I don’t mind saying that incredibly pleased it’s been completed at last. In celebration, I bring you the ridiculously awesome video below, and a preview of my translation of the prayer Judith prayers before she beheads Holofernes. I’ll speak much more about my adaptation/translation project in April, for National Poetry Month (which is technically a US thing, but I like to remember the customs of my people here in this new land).

 Judith’s Prayer

Creator God                heaven’s guardian
I cry to you            for compassion.
My heart is                     grown heavy,
swollen hot with                      sorrow’s poison.
Give me a charm        for this grief.
What words                              will banish fear?
What herbs will          weaken sorrow?
I have no spell for what                     holds me still.
Holofernes waits like            a hungry wolf —
I must seem like               such easy prey.
He will fall to my                  hand, or I will fall to his:
this is the way of fate.
What I ask of you                           Maker of All,
is only this:
a hero’s mettle, a warrior’s          strength of mind.

….and now for something completely different. 🙂

I could just eat you up.

“We’re used to three-layer cake from you…and you brought us a pop-tart.”

“Oh, no…it’s at least toaster struedel.”

Poetry seems to work best, for me, when I am invested enough to feel it and objective enough to laugh at it. But they were not wrong, and I must not write pop-tarts.

Unless of course I write some sort of poem about pastry, which maybe I will do now.

On the subject of food, someone had McDonald’s in class last night. I haven’t had fast food in a very long while and suddenly a Big Mac became, to my opinionated tummy, the most important thing in the world. So I grabbed one on the way home, and couldn’t eat it all. Sometimes the memory of a thing is better than the thing itself. (Except when it comes to French fries. Fries are never not great.)

On the subject of…things that are not food, but equally necessary to (my) life, I am in love with a song. Maybe you will be too.

The arsonist stood up in court and said…

I am not an arsonist. I dreamt
the building was a phoenix
and needed my help. Before sticking me
in a sentence, like a four-syllable word
with only one meaning, consider
what becomes of the ashes: see
how after smearing a palm-full
hair grows on a bald man’s scalp, how
just a sprinkle makes irises sprout through
sidewalk cracks. You call me sick,
but have you ever seen a suicidal
parakeet, a homeless butterfly?
You want to know how you go crazy?
One marble at a time. It’s the law
of your language that dictates mess
is the precursor for messiah. You don’t
understand my logic to the hmph degree.
Your style of math is forty-three floors
beneath me. But you should have seen
the fire, a symphony of mayhem, people
leaping from windows, like lightning
bolts somersaulting out of a terrible cloud.

— Jeffrey McDaniel

I ran across this today (thank you, greatpoets!) and decided to use it for my literary criticism presentation next week; I’m using Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory.

Caution: books!

My Yahoo! radio thingy just started reading Allen Ginsberg to me. 0.0 Neat.

Speaking of neat:

I never read without making sure I am in a secure position. I have been like this ever since the age of seven when, sitting on a high wall and reading The Water Babies, I was so seduced by the descriptions of underwater life that I unconsciously relaxed my muscles. Instead of being held buoyant by the water that so vivdly surrounded me in my mind, I plummeted to the ground and knocked myself out. I can still feel the scar under my fringe now. Reading can be dangerous.

The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield

Best thing I’ve read in…well, a while. I need some sort of Reading is Dangerous icon…

Come Away, O Human Child…

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of the reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
Far off by furthest Rosses
We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Where the wandering water gushes
From the hills above Glen-Car,
In pools among the rushes
That scarce could bathe a star,
We seek for slumbering trout
And whispering in their ears
Give them unquiet dreams;
Leaning softly out
From ferns that drop their tears
Over the young streams
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

Away with us he’s going,
The solemn eyed:
He’ll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.

– W. B. Yeats