Commonplace News Joshua Reyes

Þisses swa mæg

In the spring of 2003 (or thereabouts), my friends and I took a course called English 102: Old English Poetry. They had to take it to fulfill a requirement for their major. I took it because I thought it’d be fun and easy. I was about a quarter right—it was sometimes fun.

Over the course of the semester we took a tour of Anglo-Saxon literature in its original form.1 The tour began with a lightning review of the history of the English language, starting with Proto-Indo-European and stopping quickly at Old High German along the way. The only thing I remember definitively is that there was something called the Great Vowel Shift. I don’t remember what it was or why it was important, though. After that we had syntax, spelling, and grammar. It turns out that I had signed up for a philology and foreign language course by mistake.

The better part of the semester was spent translating all or large parts of many of the top hits from the Old English canon. Caedmon’s hymn? Check. Genesis and the Book of Judith? Duh. We even heard from the Cross itself. What about riddles? Oh, we got your riddles.2 We went to Roman ruins, sailed with a seafearer and wandered with a wanderer, and we witnessed Beowulf wrestle Grendel to the death—sort of—in that hallowed hall of King Hrothgar, Heorot.3

The icy blue North Atlantic
At the hranrad's end, slumbering giants turn to greet you from under their blanket of cold and mist. Also your friends are dead and you are alone in the world.

In the years since my introduction to Old English, I’ve gone back to Anglo-Saxon poetry more than once, usually in times of sadness or distress. There’s something about their helpless verse about hail and gulls and the sea that I find beautiful and familiar.

A thousand years ago, the English were stuck on their island, harsh waves and weather beating at their door, on the edge of a millennium, with Viking invaders sacking their homeland, during times of governmental confusion: in short, doom seem everywhere from all directions. By 997, at least for four or five of the seven signs of the Christian apocalypse had already been identified with full certainty. It couldn’t be much longer until the remaining two or three final signs heralded in the end of days.

As distant as these events were, somehow I can relate. But it’s like my mother used to say, “Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.” Except my mother never said that, the tenth-century poet Deor did.

The phrase repeats at the end of each of the poem’s stanzas. Each stanza describes a pretty terrible thing that had happened in Anglo-Saxon legend and pop culture. It means (roughly), “Well, that was a thing, but life goes on. Maybe we’ll survive this one, too.” Deor wrote the poem after he lost his job. (Not to mention that Vikings were setting the British isles on fire around this time and all that other doom.) The thing that I really like about the refrain is how unsure it is. It’s not cheerful. It’s not certain. It’s hardly even hopeful. It smacks of desolation, but I like to imagine that Deor dug in and kept on going anyway.

Distant view of one of the Vestmannaeyjar
I can't remember is this is Elliðaey or one of the Smáeyjar or somewhere else. But those white dots on the hillside are definitely sheep.

Obligation is a pervasive theme in Anglo-Saxon literature. A disproportionate amount of Beowulf is spent promising to do things. “I’ll honor you or die trying.” The doing takes up comparatively little space. And about the worst thing you could do was break your promise; better to die trying. Vows come in a variety of forms. Sometimes they’re overt calls from the Christian god to follow his will. But more likely and more often, they’re from individuals stating their loyalty to their friends, family, and feudal lords—which were kind of friends and family, too. As a New Englander, this sort of responsibility resonates with me. It’s not especially nice; but nice is different than good.

Right now I’m going through several transitions of my own. As has been the case before Deor’s words started to ring in the back of my mind. I turned to my shelf to seek out my old friend. This time I noticed someone next to him, whom I’d never met before: Old English Literature: A Short Introduction by Daniel Donoghue. I recommend it.

Ocean view from Helgafell
A view from a warm volcanic cone on Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar. This place is for those of you who want to escape the hustle and bustle of crowded mainland Iceland.

Donoghue takes you on a tour of the same literary landscape, but skips over the Great Vowel Shift and adds in a bunch of the prose works. It was like being back in school. This time, however, I had a leg up: I already knew the material. I got the inside jokes and could see the punch lines coming a mile away. This introduction is fun because it splits the work up not into genre (e.g., wisdom literature or lyric poetry) or time period or author but into five themes. They are: the vow, the hall, the miracle, the pulpit, and the scholar. Though, as he points out himself, Donoghue could have picked just about anything. The monster, war, the stranger, exile, the sea, the past, the future—all these would have worked just as well. Human experience is rich and malleable. It always has been. So life’s literature admits useful treatment by just about any system of categorization.

I really enjoyed seeing how Donoghue related individual works related to one another through his themes. (And it was a nice reminder how arbitrary categories are.) The second time around, I feel like I can better imagine the world that produced these works. And now I have some primary source material that I want typeset nicely and framed for my wall. Maybe part of the letter from King Alfred to Wærferth, the Bishop of Worcester, wherein he describes his plan to translate books from Latin to English and educate the masses in their native tongue. Or maybe the beginning of Ælfric’s Latin Grammar, written a generation after Alfred got things going:

It is fitting for young people that they learn some wisdom, and it is fitting for their elders that they teach some discernment to their youth, because the faith will be maintained by doctrine, and each person who loves wisdom will be happy.

They almost make me want to visit my other medieval friend Bœthius for more consolation. Alfred translated him to Old English, after all.

  1. Original but standardized. You can get only so much mileage out of a comparison of the philological differences in dialect between the Northumbrian and West Saxon versions of Cædmon’s hymn in a single-semester introductory course, after all. 

  2. In case you were wondering what kinds of high-minded riddles were painstakingly transcribed and preserved in medieval monastaries, here’s Riddle 44 from the Exeter Book (reproduced in Old English Literature on page 121):

    Wrælic hongað bi were þeo,
    frean under sceate. Foran is þyrel,
    bið stiþ on heard, stede hafað godne.
    Þonne se esne his agen hrægl
    ofer cneo hefeð, wile þæt cuþe hol
    mid his hangellan heafde gretan
    þæt he efenlang ær oft gefylde.

    Answer: Penis. (Or a key, but also a penis.) 

  3. The video I linked to claims that heorot means hart, but that sounds like too much heart not to clarify in a footnote. Hart is old-timey English for stag in modern English. P.S. — I love how boring that video is. The computer voice kills me. 

POTD: Life 14

Day 10. Today’s poem of the day is Life xiv.

Some things that fly there be,—
Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:
Of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be,—
Grief, hills, eternity:
Nor this behooveth me.

There are, that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the riddle lies! 1

I really like the pace and rhyme of this one, too. And is that zeugma? Well, maybe something zeugma-adjacent. I’m not sure what to make of riddle though.

This poem is a Goldilocks and the Three Bears of time scales.

The first scale is too short. It is beautiful and buzzes and flits and flies. It’s easy to get lost even in such a short amount of time. These measures of time are the realm of the short-lived distraction.

It’s like a mosquito piquing at your ear while you sit down to concentrate on work: someone sends you a text message. Buzz. Buzz. You check a few stories on Instagram. Buzz. Buzz. More email comes in. Buzz. Buzz. You think about that casually callous thing you to your friend last night and are struck with horror. Buzz buzz.

None of these tiny episodes amounts to much on their own. But one-by-one they pile up. Before you know it, you’re left wondering where the day went.

The second time scale is too long. Great things can happen over large expanses of time. Gravity can crush nebulous clouds of gas to form planets and stars given enough time. Human civilizations rise and fall over these times scales. And if you spend all day planning for distant and uncertain eventualities, the world will march on without you. Same, too, if you are stuck mourning things that happened the past without looking up to the here and now and the future beyond.

The third time scale is just right. It’s person-sized. These periods of time might last a day, a week, a few months. I am totally biased, but a week is about as long as a cycle of weather. So let me expound the skies! That’s about as far as people plan ahead in their day-to-day. A week is how long it takes to study for that exam, or hit up the gym, or take your car to the mechanic, or get that thing at work done.

Life isn’t either/or, though. It’s both/and. We need to live life at all three of these scales to some degree. “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” they say. So, of course, read that text message. So, of course, contemplate the cosmos. And while you’re at it, save regularly for retirement, too. But also plan it out and remember to live most of your life somewhere in the middle.

Here’s hoping that we get things done.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929) 

POTD: Nature 17

Day 9. Today’s poem of the day is Nature xvii.

Who robbed the woods,
The trusting woods?
The unsuspecting trees
Brought out their burrs and mosses
His fantasy to please.
He scanned their trinkets, curious,
He grasped, he bore away.
What will the solemn hemlock,
What will the fir-tree say? 1,2

This is a fun one! I’m not sure who the robber is. Is he the wind; is he Old Man Winter? He might have been me along with my hoodlum friends in high school. We spent a lot of time plundering and playing in the woods.

In any case, I like this poem a lot. It runs a good pace. There’s just enough rhyme mixed in to keep things moving. And I’ll never turn down an opening decked out with repeated wood.

The idea that hemlock is solemn makes me giggle. Imagine the face it made when hemlock killed Socrates. So of all the trees in the forest, maybe hemlock is the stickiest stick-in-the-mud. But the fir tree is a party tree. Always joyous, always bright!

This robber has hurt my friend the fir. Whoever he is, he must be stopped.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929) 

  2. Always ahead of her time, Emily beat out Ylvis by about 80 years. If only the internet had existed back then, she would have gone viral. 

POTD: Life 101

Day 8. Today’s poem of the day is Life ci.

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances,—
First time together thrown.1

Since I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parenting and management and dealing with people generally, this poem speaks to me about the kind of people who are in charge of others.

It’s unfortunate, because I think the person with such a “hateful, hard, successful face” probably thinks that being respected is the same as being obeyed. If you are the person in the poem and I get this wrong, please excuse me. I don’t think we’ve ever met. But I have met other people who fit the description in this poem. They say things like, “Respect my authority.” What does that even mean?

When I was in a funny little program at UMass Boston for Critical and Creative Thinking, I wondered what respect actually was. Here’s what I came up with:

Respect is the willingness to learn from another; e.g., yourself, other people, or a situation. To respect something is to want to learn from it.

Basically respect assumes something else has value. If you don’t think another person has anything to teach you, then you can’t possibly be respecting them. I guess that’s what these hard, successful faces want—to feel like there’s something in them worthy enough for you to want to incorporate what they know into your own life.

Maybe they’re worried they can’t stand on their own, though. That’s why they need the force of authority to sell themselves.

Respect is most easily trod on a two-way street. Authority is necessarily one-sided, however. It’s easier to sell something when you’re also interested in buying, too. Be forewarned: being respectful is humbling. It admits that you don’t have all the answers and that others know things that you don’t. This aspect of respect can be uncomfortable, even scary.

But in the long run, respect is kind of selfish like a sponge. You get to absorb all the hard-fought lessons other people suffered to learn. And because I’m lazy, I love that.

So, if you’re in charge of another person—and even if you’re not2—, stop and listen to them. See what you can learn.

Respect.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929) 

  2. For a while I used have a collection of mottos. One of them asked, “Who can you control?” The answer is “Just me, but only sometimes, and not well.” 

POTD: Time and Eternity 85

Day 7. Today’s poem of the day is Time and Eternity lxxxv.

They say that “time assuages”,—
Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
As sinews do, with age.

Time is a test of trouble,
But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no malady.1

This one makes me a little sad, even if it’s usually true. This short poem calls out the wisdom of the saying “time heals all wounds”. It doesn’t. And while, this is probably not the original intent, I read Time and Eternity 85 as a call to action.

Sure, driftwood stranded in the middle of sea might strike a lucky ride on a current to somewhere sunny. That driftwood might wash ashore on a tropical paradise without paying the the expense of energy or intention. But more often than not, if you blindly go with the flow, you’ll end up in a giant pile of trash in the middle of the ocean.

Instead, we should be intentional in our living—especially when it comes to solving our problems. When you’re up to your neck in the water of life, pick a direction and start swimming. If you don’t like where you’re headed, change course.

  1. Emily Dickinson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Little, Brown, and Company. (1929)