One shall break frost’s fetters: on Old English poetry

Many years ago a friend, who knew of my interest in medieval literature, gave me for Christmas a copy of Michael Alexander’s translation in Penguin Classics of The Earliest English Poets. I’d studied Old English (OE) as an undergraduate, and had worked on the OE version of the Life of St Mary of Egypt (about whom I’ve posted several times recently here) in my postgraduate career, so it was a pleasure to revisit these texts at that time when I was working in the Basque province of N. Spain. I happened to pick this volume from my shelf just now.

Front cover of the Alexander collection

Front cover of the Alexander collection (see below)

It’s divided into categories, including Heroic Poems (with an extract from ‘Beowulf’: The Fight at Finnsburg); Elegies (including ‘The Seafarer’, translated with notorious freedom and panache elsewhere by the inimitable Ezra Pound); Gnomic Verses – which tend to be maxims in the form of generalisations about the natural or human world, for example

Frost shall freeze

            fire eat wood

Earth shall breed

            ice shall bridge

One shall break

                                                                              frost’s fetters

 Some don’t fit into neat categories, like The Dream of the Rood – rood, of course, meaning cross (hence the presence in most medieval English churches of rood-screens, designed to conceal from the gaze of the vulgar congregation the holy secrets of the priest’s sacramental rites).

In his introduction Alexander points out the etymology of the OE word for poet: scop: it derives from the verb meaning ‘to shape, form, create, destine’, and to scieppand, ‘creator, shaper, God’. The scop would likely have been attached to the court of a noble lord, and like today’s poet laureates would have been called upon to compose works for special occasions, as well as to recite (or sing) well-known works about the heroes and events of the past.

The Scandinavian equivalent was the skald, and both types of poet may well have accompanied themselves on a lyre-like instrument (I did some bibliographical work for [the now late lamented] Professor John Stevens at one point on his book Words and Music in the Middle Ages – still in print at CUP – in which he discusses this more learnedly than I can; scholars still dispute the allegedly oral basis of most early medieval poetry). ‘Skald’ seems to have etymological roots in Germanic words denoting ‘song, ring, clang or resound’.

‘Scop’ also had derogatory denotations, ultimately becoming modern English ‘scoff’ (as in scornful),while ‘skald’ may have evolved into modern ‘scold’.

Welsh bards and Gaelic ollaves were the scops of the Celts.

The name scop is the equivalent of ‘poet’, derived in turn from the Greek verb ‘make’; in medieval Scots a poet was thus a ‘makar’. The Provençal and Catalan trobador (much loved by Pound, in his early work), Northern French trouvère and Italian trovatore take their names from another linguistic root meaning ‘finder’. Early medieval ‘found verse’, in fact.

‘Deor’ is one of the uncategorised poems in this collection of worthy rather than thrillingly Poundian translations; one of the few tags of OE poetry that’s stayed with me all these years since my first year of undergraduate study is the refrain from this lovely, haunting poem, translated here as

that went by; this may too

 referring to the catalogue of woes and disasters experienced by the eponymous exiled poet whose voice utters the poem’s words, and his unconvincingly stoical hope that things can only get better.

It’s more powerful in the alliterative original:

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

The first letter is a survivor of the old runic futhorc,

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS

OE Futhorc, from a 9C MS (via Wikimedia Commons)

which would have been incised on horn or wood. There’s a weird OE rune poem about these characters not in this Alexander collection.

There’s a useful article about runes at Wikipedia, from which I’ve taken this image of the 7C Northumbrian Franks Casket, a whalebone and tin box now in the British Museum, and inscribed with OE runes

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket

relating the story of Wayland Smith (cited in the first line of ‘Deor’; his name signifies ‘articifer’, originating in the belief that forged iron swords were said to possess magic powers; he’s the counterpart of the Roman Vulcan).


The front cover of this Penguin edition (included above) has a detail from this casket, depicting Wayland drinking out of the skull of one of the sons of the captor Nithhad, who had hamstrung him so that he would not escape; he did, killing the tyrant’s two sons and raping his daughter. They were a tough lot back then. The poet Deor takes comfort from this legendary miraculous escape from apparently hopeless circumstances, and goes on to relate several other misfortunes from the heroic tradition, all of which resulted in deliverance.

There’s hope for us all in a dreary world, is his message.


9 thoughts on “One shall break frost’s fetters: on Old English poetry

  1. Wonderful introduction to this area for the neophyte, Simon. Time to pick up a nice Peguin edition (love those!).

    Cheers! Maureen M.

    • Wow, that was a quick comment, Maureen! I’m pleased you liked it. There are some dusty verses in the OE canon, but some of it is worth visiting, even in translation. Pound’s are great poems, even if not always faithful to the original language – but that’s no bad thing.

  2. I can’t tell you how much this post cheers me. I’m having a very down day for some reason and although I am surrounded by books as soon as I saw that familiar cover (mine lacks the cream border, mind you) I reached over and pulled it off the shelf. I’ve had my copy over 30 years and never really done it justice. I think I shall read put it on my bedside table and spend a little time with it later. Thank you.

  3. Lovely for me, too, to meet a familiar book in the often modern world of book blogging. I did OE at university, too – in fact, we had to pass an exam in it to continue past the first year – and I studied Old Norse for three years (which led to a mighty confusing first year!). The Old Norse skaldic poems are so intense and concentrated, packed with thought, wicked intent and technique – we used to spend two hours reading just one!

    • Liz: you brought back some mixed memories! Our OE lecturer was a stickler of the old school. He insisted on scheduling his lectures at 9 am, knowing we’d all hate having to get up early. in a lecture once a student had the temerity to ask him a question in the middle of his piece; he was furious, and rebuked him, saying never to interrupt again…He was a dear, really, and helped me enormously when I was looking to apply for a postgrad place – his family had known and published Wordsworth and Coleridge when they lived in N. Somerset; Bristol was the nearest commercial centre. Some of Alexander’s translations adopt that annoying Tolkien-esque faux archaic style, like this in The Wanderer: ‘Who liveth alone longeth for mercy…’ OK, he wants to capture something ancient and alien, but it sounds too…whimsical for my ear.

      • OH my OE tutor was TERRIFYING! He was prematurely white-haired, the driest of dry academics, and made notes about us all in his crabbed brown-ink handwriting – I was “glasses, flippant” and my friend who is mixed race, “sallow”. Oh, he was scary. My Old Norse tutor was just as scary in different ways, and there were only three of us in that class!

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