By Rupert Granville Glover  |  M.A. (Hons), LL.B. Hons (Cantuar)


The Poems


By Nick Doane

The predominantly Latin records left by Anglo-Saxon civilisation suggest times of cosmopolitan enlightenment and wide learning.  Neo-Classical Christian poetry and rhetoric flourished, while science, particularly chronology, was avidly pursued and modestly advanced.  Biblical studies were standardised, the Fathers faithfully copied and intelligently edited.  It seems an age of the book; its noblest and most popular profession, learning. Most famous Anglo-Saxons, as every schoolboy knows, were saints and scholars.

But squint beyond this aura and see the darkness pressing in from every side.  England and Ireland burned with a light as desperate as it was intense.  The soul of all Europe was focused there for two hundred years, as Italy and Gaul fell into political idiocy and intellectual mediocrity.  Only because Britain was remote was it relatively intact, offering the possibility of concentrated and continuous work.  Rome had disappeared as all but an example of power's transience, though still retaining a diminished spiritual empire, and with her went the possibility of political monarchy, at least between the times of Theodoric the Great and Charlemagne.  Man's power was diffused and hence lessened. Civilisation gave up the world, retired under a monastic carapace.  Mind regulated itself according to the quiet laws of Saint Benedict.

In Britain politics and economics were rudimentary if not anarchic.  Anglo-Saxon kings seldom rose above the state of petty rival chieftains impoverished by unending inter-tribal warfare, hamstrung by lack of communication and an increasingly non-functional traditional organization. Travel was unimaginably difficult and trade restricted to expensive luxuries.  More than one English bishop perished for his pallium on the long trip to Rome.  Economy was determined by ever-threatening forces - climate, sickness, hunger, age, - of which man had little understanding and no control.  The air and wind, earth, sky and sea were full of unseen and even more terrible powers. Spirits and monsters inhabited the dark places of the imagination.  Technically Christianity offered hope, but hope was the hardest of the theological virtues.  Religion could not overcome the bitter age-old habit of fatalism colouring the realities of life and death.  "Are Christ and his saints asleep?" is the recurrent question of clerks.  Even Bede, the brightest mind of his own and many another century, pictured life as a bird flying swiftly through a lighted hall: from darkness to darkness it goes, and man likewise goes as the unregenerate seed of Adam, bearing the wrath of God, trapped in a hostile universe, oppressed by things worse than any heathen monsters - devils, heretics, hell, and a sense of his own sickening sin.

In such an environment, the practice of poetry was no pastime but rather a solemn and ordered search for some means to power over the fearful forces surrounding man.  It was a serious activity, like the making of swords and ploughs, and was executed with the skilled cunning of traditional methods.  From the ancient days of the ancestors, man's only defence against his myriad enemies had been magic, the processes by which words were forced and beaten into powerful structures which we in hindsight call poetry.  Tradition passed down formulas for gaining power over the elements, seasons, growth, man's body, and the mind.  Christianity brought immeasurably greater resources to this search, the unseen power of the Cross and the practical power of ecclesiastical organisation.  Moreover it brought the new power of writing.  Here was a formulated process which gave man some control over his destiny, even over death itself, if only he could understand.  Thus much of Old English poetry is a structuring of words to old and new patterns to gain power: charms, riddles, maxims, creeds, prayers, hymns. Most of the rest formally springs from these types and represents diverse attempts to bring natural powers into relation with God's plan and to understand man's place in it, to obtain eternal life.  Poetry was a discovery of ordered rhythm in the cosmos and meaningful relation in otherwise inexplicable events.  A very beautiful and serious Old English riddle describes the wind, stirring the sea, making the storms, destroying ships, shaking earth, creating lightning, for the harm of man.  But the wise man knows who the master really is. "Say, thoughtful man," says the Wind, "who is it that draws me out of the sea's embrace, who moves me, when I rest not, who stays me, when I am still."

If this is poetry then the most venerable and important member of society is the word-master. The poet, whether monk, king, or professional singer, is the bringer of knowledge and control, a wise man who sings at times with a divine, even a prophetic voice.  The beginning of English poetry, as the Anglo-Saxons themselves imagined it, was the result of angelic teaching.  This is the way Bede tells the story in his famous Church History.

Caedmon (who lived about 670), an unlettered layman, knew nothing of poetry or wisdom. Whenever the harp, the sign of his turn to recite poetry, came to him at a party, he would get up and leave in shame.  One night, having left as usual, he went out to the stable and slept.  Suddenly, in a dream, he saw a man standing beside him.  "Sing something for me, Caedmon," said the man.  "But I cannot sing," Caedmon replied.  "Nevertheless, you shall sing for me," said the man, who was of course an angel.  Caedmon asked what he should sing about and was told to sing the hardest thing of all, the Creation of all things.  And this is the angelic song that Caedmon made, although he had never heard it before:

Now we must praise the heaven-kingdom's guard,

Measurer's might, and his all-forming thought,

The work of the Glory-father, for God eternal

In the beginning by miracle made all.

First he created for the children of men

Heaven as their roof, the holy Creator;

Then earth's enclosure mankind's guard,

God eternal, built round next,

Land-people's dwelling, the Lord almighty.

When Caedmon awoke he went to the monks at Whitby Abbey for explanation of his dream and his gift.  Hearing him sing, they agreed that Caedmon had indeed been graced by God.  He went on in later life to make many songs based on scriptural events and sound doctrine as interpreted to him orally, although he remained unable to read or write until his dying day.

The fact that Bede retold this story in his History, the most popular book of the early middle ages written in England, made Caedmon's legend influential throughout the Anglo-Saxon period, and indeed throughout the Germanic-speaking area. Caedmon was the English Moses and David both, and his experience was regarded as the pattern for all poets. For Bede to have told this story at all, it must already have been famous and widespread, and must have had a prominent place in the holy legends of Northumbria, a land notable for its abundant stock of saints and miracles.  Bede tells us that from the first Caedmon's verses stirred the hearts of men and led many to despise the world.  This was the characteristic power of the poeta vates, given the tongue to instill wisdom in men and sing the praises of God, the purpose for which Adam replaced the lost angels.  Even in Beowulf, a poem primarily concerned with warrior and kingly virtues, and a more limited sort of wisdom, a poet of the explicitly heathen Danes is made to sing of the Creation, a song which provokes the wrath of the fiends.  Creation is the ideal subject for a poet, and to show a poet singing heavenly praise and wisdom is merely, as it were, to show that he is a poet.

The poet's task had not always been conceived so widely.  The historical, as opposed to the imaginative beginnings of English poetry go back far beyond Caedmon and Christianity to the continental Germanic peoples of prehistoric times.  From these obscure beginnings until well into the eighth century in England and even later in Scandinavia and Northern Germany, song was oral and extemporaneous, composed according to an elaborate traditional system of metrics and diction.  Apart from a casual and practical use in primitive magic, such poems were probably short heroic narratives and songs for praise of dead warriors.  Compared to later Christian poetry, these Germanic songs were wise only in respect of the narrow warrior values of the traditional native society, which can be summarized as the total mutual loyalty of lord and retainer within a tribal kin-group.

Such poetry was the expression of heroic energy, expended not for abstract causes but for the sake of personal ties and personal valour - a vital non-intellectual force.  As such, it produces not meaning, but objective acts, a species of serious play.

Battle is in fact often seen as play, "war-play" being a poetic term for fighting. Indeed, the verb lacan means both "play" and "fight" with a basic connotation of violent motion.  The only moral consideration of heroic poetry was to exhort men to good deeds in defence of the tribe by displaying the truly done deeds of the past.  The reward for good deeds was dom, fame, the kin-group's long-lasting good opinion of a dead man's accomplishments as expressed in poetry; this was the only way to immortality of any kind in the face of an impersonal universe and a chaotic, careless pantheon of gods.  It is the songs of the deeds of others which move heroes to their own bold deeds, since such songs hold out the promise of further dom for themselves.  The dialectical relationship of practical performance and poetic glory is graphically shown in Beowulf when King Hrothgar entertains the as yet unaccomplished hero, Beowulf, by recounting the deeds of others: "Now sit to the feast and listen when the time comes to victories of heroes so that thy mind may be whetted."  Later, when Grendel is slain, Beowulf's deed is spoken of among the witnesses, and a song is composed on the spot concerning the "adventure of Beowulf.”  This is the beginning of the story of Beowulf as conceived by the poet who passed it on to us in its present form.  The record of one man's dom becomes the spur inciting yet another to win his own.

Unfortunately very little, if any, purely heroic pre-Christian poetry has been left to us.  The advent of writing, by which traditional poems could be preserved, also meant the stabilisation of texts, a process alien to true oral poetry.  It further meant the intrusion of a vast amount of alien cultural influence associated with Christianity.  Unlike the uncommitted tone of heroic poetry (an Englishman could enjoy hearing of the deeds of Goths, Danes, Heathobards, or Assyrians for that matter, so long as they were well done), Christian poetry demanded commitment, side-taking, moralisation, and in short, wisdom.  No longer was stimulation enough.  Holofernes was wrong, Judith was right, and heroic virtues in themselves no longer truly obtained.  But they appeared to, for they became the images of a host of moral virtues.  The old form and means of making poetry were available for receiving new meanings, and the heroic tone continued to prevail, since that is the inevitable effect of the traditional diction which continued to be the basis of the new poetry.  Even Caedmon's angelic song is composed entirely of formulas determined entirely by the old poetic.  For instance "Measurer's might", an epithet for God, may once have been a phrase for some pagan deity or an impersonal concept of fate; "heaven-kingdom's guard" is no doubt a transformation of some heroic formula such as "Angle-kingdom's Guard," intended originally for an earthly lord.  In shape and function, as opposed to meaning, Caedmon's song must be similar to many a lost heathen panegyric, only in this case the subject of praise is the Trinity.

The pre-Christian subjects of poetry, heroes (men fighting to fulfil promises made to their chiefs in order to gain personal glorification) and outcasts (men who have lost their lords and hence, their purpose in society), these purely Germanic types of happy and unhappy man in a warrior society, became extended in Christian poetry to images of man much more archetypal.  Christ is both the hero and lord par excellence; he is thought of as reigning in glory in a kind of heavenly mead-hall, with ranks of angels forming a company of divine retainers; the "joys" of heaven, the praise-songs sung by the angels, are called dreamas, a word originally pertaining to the more noisy mirth of the drunken retainers in a more mundane hall.  Dom, the good opinion of the tribe, becomes extended to mean the everlasting glory of the saved, God's favourable judgement on a man's life.  Adam and Eve become the most famous of outcasts, and Satan is the archetype.  The devil and his rout form an antithetical comitatus, praising their lord, fighting one another, and always stirring up trouble for God and his people in terms reminiscent of heroic warfare.

Old English poetry gained its strength from its vernacular origins, while its religious reorientation gave it a depth and significance and seriousness that was new.  The majority of Old English poems, including the ones in this book, are probably the products of monastic poetic activity, and certainly all, even the most "secular", are preserved as a result of monastic literary enthusiasm.  Behind them is the concept of poetic wisdom in the Caedmonian tradition, and nearly all are intended to make a man more aware of his cosmic situation, his religious duties, and his debt to God.

The one seeming exception is The Fight at Finn's Stronghold.  It is unique in being the only battle poem which contains no references to Christian concepts.  Several of its features indicate that it is more primitive than any other Old English narrative poem (primitive being meant to describe certain of its features, not as indicating a necessarily early date of composition).  It is a short lay, the type thought to have been the most common before the era of written texts.  Its extreme simplicity of syntax and the "negative metaphor" with which it opens are features common to the oral heroic poetry of several European traditions.  It is sad that we have only a fragment of the original poem, for its incomplete state makes it seem unwarrantedly obscure.  With the help of Beowulf, which tells the same story in an allusive, emotionally rich manner, it is possible to piece together the events and make sense of our incomplete poem.  Hildeburh, a Danish princess, had been given in marriage to the Frisian chief Finn, perhaps in settlement of a long-standing feud.  Many years later sixty Danes, led by Hildeburh's brother Hnaef, come to Finn's court on a friendly visit and are treacherously attacked in their sleeping quarters by Finn and his men at daybreak.  This is where our poem opens.  The Danes defend their building without loss for five days, but in the end Hnaef and many of his followers are killed and Hengest takes command.  The casualties are so great on both sides that a truce is called and the hostile forces must spend an uneasy winter together in enforced peace.  When the spring comes the Danes egg one another on to remember their griefs.  They renew fighting.  Finn is killed and Hildeburh is taken back to the land of the Danes.  The heroic tone of The Fight at Finn's Stronghold is best understood by realising that in Beowulf the story is told primarily from the woman's point of view, and develops her anguish when she is torn between loyalty to kin-by-blood and kin-by-marriage.

The economy and- pace of The Fight at Finn's Stronghold suggest a relatively short poem.  The sixty lines of the Waldere fragments on the other hand, with their elaborate tone, fully developed speeches, and numerous allusions to heroic legend, seem to be the only remains of a once-considerable poem, comparable to Beowulf in length and quality.  Like Beowulf, Waldere, is a sophisticated epic, thoroughly assimliated to Christian and monastic thought patterns, in which heroes trust in God as well as their own strength, but with a story that goes back to Germanic origins.  The fragments as they stand are rather obscure, even the correct order not being certain, though the one given in this book is generally accepted by scholars.  The story is well-known in several forms and had wide distribution, occurring in Middle High German, Norse, Polish, and Italian sources, as well as in Old English.  The most famous, ancient, and complete version is the Latin verse Waltharius Poesis, an imitation or paraphrase of a lost Old Bavarian poem composed by a monk of Saint Gall in the tenth century.  Its story, as it casts light on Waldere, is this:

Walter, an Aquitanian prince, Hagan, a Frank, and Hiltgunt, a Burgundian princess, are noble hostages at the court of Attila the Hun. Walter and Hagan are sworn brothers. Eventually Hagan escapes. Walter and Hiltgunt have become engaged and, fearing that they may be forced into separate Hunnish marriages, flee together. When Walter and Hiltgunt reach the Rhine, Gunter, the greedy king of the Franks and Hagan's lord hears of their approach and, hopeful for plunder, pursues the couple with eleven chosen warriors. Hagan comes along as ordered but at first refuses to fight his friend. The Franks attack Walter in a narrow defile and are one by one defeated and killed. Finally only Gunter and Hagan are left. Because Walter has killed his nephew in a single combat, Hagan is persuaded to fight, blood relationship and loyalty to his lord being stronger than sworn relationship. Next day, Gunter and Hagan catch Walter in the open. In the fight Gunter loses a leg. Hagan saves Gunter's life, breaks Walter's sword, and cuts off his right hand. With his left hand Walter draws a second sword he carries on his right side, strikes Hagan, and gouges out an eye and six teeth. With this grotesque maiming, the three are suddenly satisfied and reconciled. Walter and Hiltgunt are allowed to journey on, reach Aquitania, and Walter reigns there for thirty years as king.

The Waldere fragments seem to correspond to the last fight in the Latin version. In the first fragment, Hildegyth (Hiltgunt) exhorts Waldere to greater effort.  Her emphasis on the good sword, "Weland's work .... the sharp Mimming", seems to be heroic irony, for it is this sword which fails.  The second fragment opens with a speech most probably by Waldere himself, in which he praises his second sword in its jewelled sheath. Waldere goes on to taunt Guthhere (Gunter), "friend of the Burgundians", and this boast may be ironic if Guthhere has already lost a leg, as in the Latin version.  The ending of the Old English poem may have been different from the Waltharius Poesis with, perhaps, Waldere tragically dying at the hands of Hagena, his onetime friend.

Many of the poems translated here are lyrics, the so-called "elegiac" poems.  They play on the presentation of some conventionalised emotion, usually sorrow, in a modified heroic setting, sometimes with moral reflections on the contrast between this world and the one to come.  Such laments were probably an established type in pre-Christian heroic poetry.  Several occur in Beowulf: the lament of the old man who cannot avenge the death of his only son legally hanged, the lament of the father who has accidentally shot his son, the grief of the last surviving retainer as he hides the tribal gold-hoard.  Intensity and striking force are the characteristics of this type of poetry; narrative clarity seems to be deliberately avoided.  Situation was traditional, allusive, perhaps sometimes known to the audience, but more often probably not important.  Hidden meaning, proverbial wisdom, cunning word-play, deliberate obscurity of utterance were its stock in trade. In its tendency towards intricate difficulty and sententious wisdom it has many similarities to the learned Latin poetry popular in Anglo-Saxon England.

Deor: the Singer's Lament combines the features of such lyric poetry with a content of identifiable heroic material, while the overall form of the poem is that of a charm, a magic spell to effect some specific end.  Deor is a fictional singer who is represented as having lost his position at his lord's court to a rival singer, no less than the mythical Germanic bard Heorrenda.  Deor is thus a sort of "outcast" in the heroic mould.  In this rich poem the speaker manages to complain of his troubles, place them in a general framework of divine providence, exorcise them, and show off his skill as a traditional poet epigrammatically handling legendary material.  The charm form itself is certainly a device used by the real poet to unify all these traditional modes simultaneously.  Deor's troubles are mirrored in the series of famous heroic events that precede them, each an example of adversity overcome, each followed by the refrain "That passed away, so may this also."  The first two examples are from the legend of Weland, the elfish craftsman who was imprisoned by Nithhad and forced to smithy for him.  Weland was hamstrung to prevent his escaping, but he eventually effected a horrible revenge: he murdered his captor's sons, fashioning their skulls into drinking vessels, their eyeballs into jewels, and he raped Nithhad's daughter, Beadohild.  Thus Weland's sorrow passed away.  As for Beadohild, the son she bore to Weland turned out to be a great hero, Widia.  Deor's own experience conjures up a concrete mood of dejection, the state of the speaker now. With the passing away of earlier and more terrible troubles and the final repetition of the refrain continuing the established pattern so that it now refers to Deor's own plight, his sorrows (and by implication any we may have) are charmed away.  The general consolation offered by the poem is that fortunes change, good to bad and bad to good, and that this change is inevitable, the will of God.

Wulf and Eadwacer is the purest of the Old English lyrics.  The situation, whether or not it is based on some heroic story, is completely irrecoverable.  This does not matter; in fact it may have a deliberate riddling element in it.  The feeling of sexual longing verging on desperation, the brooding tension, the repressed conflict, and the reinforcing atmospheric effects come through all the more powerfully because of the lack of narrative significance.

In a similar way, the so-called Wife's Lament has a baffling situation.  The title is merely an inference based on several grammatical forms which suggest a feminine gender for the speaker, but it is not certain that a wife, or even a woman, is speaking.  The usual interpretations assume that a woman is lamenting the longing she now suffers because of an involuntary separation from her husband or lover by disapproving kinsmen of a jealous third party.  This separation is represented as an exile of the heroic kind, the husband being the "lord" of the tradition.  More important than the narrative or dramatic situation is the form of the poem.  As Deor is a charm, so The Wife's Lament is an elaborate literary curse.  It opens with a declaration that the speech about to follow is serious, sad, and uttered from the speaker's own experience.  It goes on to give the details of that sad experience - exile, loneliness, longing - until, from the interaction of explicit statement and gloomy setting, a mood-spell, a concrete re-creation of sorrowful emotion, is established.  Finally this keenly felt mood-spell is transferred to the person being cursed, the "young man."  "Let the young man always be sober-minded, steadfast in thought; likewise let him have a cheerful bearing; moreover let him have care in his breast, a multitude of constant sorrows...."

The Rune-Stave's Message, as it is called in this book, is usually linked with The Wife's Lament under the traditional title The Husband's Message.  It is satisfying to a certain romantic instinct to see in the one poem the unhappy separation, in the other the joyful reunion of the same couple.  In fact, the two poems are not linked in the manuscript in which they occur, nor are they similar.  The one is formally a curse, the other a riddle; The Rune-Stave's Message bears a strong formal relationship to the many other Old English riddles and The Dream of the Rood.  The poem represents the wood upon which a message is carved in runic characters as actually speaking the message.  It illustrates, in the first place, the wonder with which writing was regarded, the miracle by which brain and hand and eye could cooperate in communication without help from tongue or ear.  The wood (perhaps a willow or reed slip) tells its own story, how it grew up by the sea, washed by the ripples of the waves, before it was turned by hand and knife into a magical word-bearer.  The wood participates in the thoughts of the message-sender and elaborates as if the sender himself were speaking, giving voice to his love and joyful hope.  The message itself consists of five runes, letters of a traditional Germanic alphabet, actually used more for magical and memorial purposes than for lengthy communications.  In the translation, the names of the runes are given (corresponding to the names of actual objects as well as sounds) because these names make up the substance of the message as it is elaborated in the poem:  Go towards the sun (south) on a journey across the sea and find joy with the man.

In the lyrical poems the emotional force is gained largely by reference to physical surroundings which give rise to certain conventionalised responses.  "Mead-cities of men", song-birds, loud noises, blossoming summer, evoke joy; desolation, cold, the sea, carrion birds, silence, evoke sorrow.  The Ruin, a beautiful lament for an abandoned Roman town (perhaps Bath), operates on a purely descriptive level.  But the passing away of material things, man's works, is a projection of the transience of man himself.  The most powerful use of this kind of outward description for the evocation of inward states is found in the complementary contemplative poems called The Wanderer and The Seafarer.

The Wanderer establishes a mood of elaborate sorrow in order to construct a profound meditation on man's state.  The style is allusive, obscure, riddling.  Links between one idea and another are not made clear.  At times it is difficult to discern the beginning and ending of speeches or the identity of speakers.  It is not even clear if it is proper to think in terms of character and speeches at all.  Always when reading this poem one has the feeling that the poet is making us search and strain for answers which by their nature are not easy to come by. The Wanderer opens with a puzzling generalisation:  the necessity of seeking God's mercy when alone.  The exile motif of the first lines only partially links up with what follows, the thoughts of a "wanderer", an exile upon the earth.  His wanderings exemplify the impossibility of finding a solution to life's agonies within the mind itself, as it confusedly searches for some security and truth among the flux and disappointments of this world.  The mind moves from sorrow to repression, memory, dream, and hallucination, as it contemplates the cold of hostile nature, the loss of kinsmen and lords.  The external world, seen by an exile lost in wintry darkness, deprived of friends, is projected as emotion, and emotion in turn is projected as situation - the memory of the departed turning into a vision of unintelligible sea-birds.  Inner and outer coldness, mental and physical darkness are not clearly distinguished.

The state of sorrow built up in the beginning turns out to be rather hypothetical.  It is only a possibility, like Hell itself.  "Therefore I cannot think why in the world my mind does not despair.”  The form of the statement confirms that it does not.  The rest of the poem is a search for the answer to this not-unhappy dilemma.  The mind moves from "thinking of hardships" to "contemplating the lives of all the great warriors... and how they have suddenly left the halls" (that is, died).  Rational contemplation takes the place of random hallucination.  This is "wisdom", a calm survey of the necessary and typical disasters of life, expressed as undeniable concrete truths, not subjective reactions to a psychological-visual state of excitation.  The wise man realises that while the outer world is subject to violently contradictory impulses, prosperity and decay, the inner world must not be.  The mind is now not a mirror of events, a helpless receptor, but a mirror of general truths.  This established, the poet reveals the central paradox of the poem:  "Thus the Creator of men destroyed this settlement ...".  Decay is a part of creation, death a part of life; this is a natural fact.  But more than natural, for God destroys as a lesson lest man trust too much the things of this world.  With such wisdom secure, the man "wise in heart" may contemplate calmly, and without bitterness, with a detached sadness, the dark life of the past, many slaughters.  Moving from general reflections, now free from psychological oppression, he can clearly contemplate a particular scene of destruction: the walls of ruins left after the fall of the dear companions of his younger days.  But this dark stoicism is the best that the unaided mind can make of this world, and the fatalistic gloom is nearly unrelieved.  "All is fraught with hardship in the kingdom of the earth, the world under the heavens ...".  The riddle has to be answered by looking elsewhere, to God and heaven, "where all our security stands."  The ending goes back to the theme of the beginning, showing that the answer is the "invisible" world existing outside and parallel to the visible one.  Because the visible world exists as the sign of a better one, its reason-destroying tendencies must be resisted, its hardships used to build up fortitude and judgement, and from it a better home sought.

Behind The Wanderer lies the equation Life-Death-Life.  The poem expects the audience to supply the missing parts. Life on this earth always implies death, and death always implies a new and better life in Heaven.  The Wanderer approaches this sequence from the present reality of Death.  The Seafarer offers the same assumptions about the nature of things, but starts from the present reality of life in its full glory.  The poem opens with an intense description of the "seafarer's" toilsome life.  "I could hear nothing there but the roar of the sea, the ice-cold wave."  As in The Wanderer, the outer world of hardships, more exclusively conceived as life at sea, is projected as an emotional state.  Seafaring is an image of the deliberate renunciation of the "joys of the land", that is, earthly life itself.  The beauties of life are in full flower, but they are not enticements to remain "on the land" because by the nature of things they are precursors of decay and at death, just as decay and death in The Wanderer are signs of an impending future life.  "All these things urge the heart of a thinking man to voyage ......"  The wise man hastens to take up the life of the seafarer in order to get nearer to the destruction that must precede new life.  The impulse is the opposite of suicidal, however.  The voyage is to an alien place but by a reversal it is the familiar world of comforts and joys that is seen as alien, the unknown which is seen as the true home:  ".... for the joys of the Lord are warmer to me than this dead transitory life on land."  The Wanderer looks directly at the insecurities of this life, and infers the security to come.  The Seafarer infers the end from the prosperity of the present, and concludes with a vision of death, the necessary end of all earthly joy.  The glories of this life are but a reminder of the pains of the next, if "seafaring" is forgotten.  The invisible world is called forth in terms of Hell, not Heaven, for the best heroic life (an image of life in the world) leads to the funeral pyre of heroes and the everlasting fire of which it is an image.  Thus the Germanic code of fame, dom, is rewritten, so that truly noble deeds engage the Devil as adversary, not other men, and men learn to praise God, not each other.  God destroys this world to warn men; he glorifies it as a stumbling block to the wicked.

God's grace speaks less ambiguously in The Dream of the Rood.  Like the rune-stave, a product of man's intellect and art, the cross in this magnificent poem is a "speaking wood."  But as the instrument of life, the symbol of Christ, and the highest power in the visible world, it speaks with the experience of Christ, the authority of the Church, and the humility of the individual Christian.  This cross is apprehended as pure power, the power through which man may gain control of the chaotic forces that otherwise condemn him to everlasting death.

The poem takes the form of a vision in which a dreamer, asleep to the world, but watchful for truth, sees a magnificent cross spreading across the sky.  He does not understand what it means, but he immediately perceives its glory, its jewels and decorations, in contrast to his own weakness and sin. But as he watches the cross changes; sometimes jewels, sometimes wounds adorn it.  It is both gallows and tree.  Suddenly the cross speaks, and recounts its own experience of the crucifixion.  The familiar Gospel account is transformed into something alien and visceral.  The tone is lyric sadness, like other exile laments of the tradition. The cross does not understand the purpose of the great torment it must undergo along with the "young man", the "hero" who receives his death like a king receiving his tributes.  The cross suffers for Christ and as Christ, both tormentor and tormented, as the dark nails pierce and the blood flows down its side.  Furthermore, its attitude is that of the humiliated participating Christian, who would rescue Christ if he could but dares not, and who dies with him.  Like Christ, like the good Christian, it stands fast and performs its duty, in the guise of a hero.  When Christ dies, the cross is cut down, and as Christ lies in the tomb, resting for a time, the cross is buried, awaiting its "resurrection." It is dug up three hundred years later by the friends of Christ and honoured throughout the Empire as the symbol of victory.

Suddenly, its recounting of the blind, direct experience over, the cross assumes a tone of new authority and speaks with the voice of the preacher:  "Now you can understand, my dear friend ..." the significance that God intended man to see in the historical event of Christ's death.  Identified with the risen Christ, typifying the saved man, the cross calmly teaches the meaning of the crucifixion in terms of dogma and liturgy, holding out the Church's promise of life.  Pain and sorrow are past, glory is a reality and the triumphant cross itself is the proof.  The cross is symbol of punishment and means to salvation.  This tree is honoured above all trees of the forest, as Mary is honoured above all women, because both are mediators between man and God and both are instruments of salvation.  Mary overcame the Old Adam by chastely conceiving and bearing Christ in his human nature, and the cross fulfilled the pattern by giving that human nature its punishing death and hence showing forth the divine nature, true life.  The words of the Creed are recalled because the cross has established the way of life once and for all, and it is now up to the individual to achieve salvation by believing, and spiritually taking up the cross himself.

The cross is silent, leaving the Dreamer more awake than other men. Like Christ in the tomb, the Dreamer is alone in this dark life and joyfully looking forward to the new life of the eternal resurrection.  The paradoxical entities which united in the speaking cross are now united in him. The poem ends with a recollection of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ led Adam and the other Old Testament saints out of their long "torment":  in a similar way, "hope is renewed" for him who bears the spiritual cross in his heart.

The Battle of Maldon is a tailpiece to the history of Old English poetry.  One of the few dateable poems, and one of the latest, it commemorates an actual skirmish, the defeat of an Essex levy by a mixed force of Danish and Norwegian raiders in 991.  The battle itself was no more than one of many similar encounters, but it seems to have been remembered because the Essex ealdorman Byrhtnoth was killed in it.  Rather than the historical details the poet is interested in bringing out certain moral patterns.  Although the beginning and ending have been lost, The Battle of Maldon remains the clearest and fullest statement of the heroic code in Old English poetry.

As with many another great and long-lasting idea, the fully conscious expression of the comitatus ideal became possible only when its force was nearing extinction.  Eleventh-century England was no longer a part of the Germania described by Tacitus in the first century.  The country was rapidly becoming a complex feudal state, and even in the corrupt court of the ineffectual King Ethelred, a fledgling bureaucracy was flourishing.  Lords no longer sprang from the kin-group, but were chosen from great landowners, courtiers and even bishops.  They often neglected or were not expected to lead their people in wartime.  Personal ties between lord and retainers were fast fading, being replaced by purely legal and political bonds.  Society's will and ability to resist the ever more frequent Viking incursions were decaying, tribute was nearly always paid with haste and hastily regretted, and, in fact, in a few years England was to find itself ruled by a Danish king.

In such evil times, Byrhtnoth's spirited personal resistance must have seemed a singular example of old-fashioned virtue.  At any rate, the poet consciously presents his behaviour in terms of the old code, implicitly contrasting his bravery and decision with the general pusillanimity.  But the "feel" has changed:  Maldon is feudal and aristocratic in impulse rather than monastic-heroic, romanesque rather than archaic.  In spirit and tone it is closer to The Song of Roland than to The Fight at Finn's Stronghold or Waldere.  Like Roland, Maldon displays the fierce military Christianity that was in the air half a century before the First Crusade.  Byrhtnoth is cast as a Christian hero willingly sacrificing himself for Christ's sake in the face of the heathen enemy (ironically, the "wolfish force of viking warriors" was led in this case by Olaf Tryggvason, not only a Christian himself, but the eventual king and converter of Norway).  Battle-death in this milieu produces a new crusading dom: the glory throughout Christendom accorded to those military heroes who die fighting the pagan enemies of Christ.

Unlike The Fight at Finn's Stronghold where the vigorous confusion of battle is the main thing, the long description of the fight in Maldon is carefully structured to form a statement.  The action is divided into scenes, each clear and distinct from the others, yet each carefully graded in effect to produce a coherent, bright whole.  We are led by an ordered progression of events up to the central focus of Byrhtnoth's last speech and death.  The preliminaries show the horses being scattered - a sign of resolution; the hawk being thrown from the hand – a sign of renunciation; and the parleying and manoeuvering of the two armies - a sign that the English fought not from necessity but choice.  Instead of an historical chance, a mere mishap, the battle is seen as a resolute moral encounter.  The first phase of the battle makes proper loyalties explicit and ratifies them by the deaths near their lord of several retainers.  Byrhtnoth's wounding and determined resistance are an image of his moral state, his dying speech a joyful anticipation of his reward from "the Lord of angels" in a comitatus extending infinitely upwards.  From this climax the poem descends ringing the changes upon the varieties of loyalty.  Each fight makes explicit a further element of the complete code and is reinforced by a speech from its principal.  From bad retainers who flee, to loyal household thanes, loyal hostages, loyal peasants, we see every type and degree of military virtue.

The glorious paradox of Maldon is that the chaos of political disintegration becomes the occasion for the most complete expression of simple political order, and it is in the chaos of battle that the ideal form and purpose of human relations are fulfilled.  Byrhtwold's famous cry of defiant. fortitude may be taken as an epitaph for the characteristic values of Europe's most enduring and most articulate heroic culture:

Our pride shall be the fiercer and our hearts braver, / as our power decreases, our courage shall grow.