Archives For Wisdom

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 11 Comments

anglo saxonConsider how one humble Anglo-Saxon poet can teach us about the ancient transition from the oral to written delivery of poetry.

In recent study about the transition from aural to literary communication I came upon the following fascinating fact.

In an essay entitled “Oral to Written,” J.B. Bessinger writes:

As literate authors learned to assimilate oral materials to pen-and-parchment composition, and since cultural life and centres of writing were controlled so largely by the Church, it was inevitable that the oral transmission of pagan verse would die out, or at best leave few records of an increasingly precarious existence. Meanwhile the invasion of bookish culture into an oral tradition proceeded.

Amid the overwhelming anonymity of the period, Cynewulf was the only poet who troubled to record his name, not from motives of a new literary vanity, but against the Day of Judgement:* “I beg every man of human kind who recites this poem to remember my name and pray . . .”

I’ve read elsewhere that the names of a dozen Anglo-Saxon poets were recorded, although only four have any work that has survived. I understand, however, why Cynewulf is so well recognized—several thousand lines of his poetry are extant. You can access copies of his work for free at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive.

Curiously, we know no details about Cynewulf other than his name. This he included in his manuscripts, spelled in runic characters.

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

In his diary during the 1920s, C.S. Lewis describes reading Cynewulf and Cyneheard while he bemoaned that Old English Riddles continued to represent an obstacle to him.

I set to on my O.E. Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author . . .

[Following afternoon tea, Lewis] retired to the drawing room and had a go at the Riddles. I learned a good deal, but found them too hard for me at present.

J.R.R. Tolkien paid an unimaginable tribute to Cynewulf. He attributed to the ancient poet no less than the original inspiration for his mythopoeic conscience.

In the summer of 1913 Tolkien . . . switched course to the English School after getting an “alpha” in comparative philology. At this time he read the great eighth-century alliterative poem Christ, by Cynewulf and others.

Many years later from the poem he cited Eala Earendel engla beorhtost (“Behold Earendel brightest of angels”) from Christ as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”**

Cynewulf was an inspired poet. And, it is possible to discern some Anglo-Saxon words which have made it into contemporary English when passages are lined up, side by side.

We’ll close now with a passage from his poem, Christ. These words come from the beginning of Part II (Ascension) and comprise the beginning of chapter four. For those who would like to compare the texts, a parallel version follows.*** (Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Enjoy Cynewulf’s celebration of God’s abundant gifts, extended to poets, musicians, and all others.

Then He who shaped the world, God’s Spirit-Son,

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

can o’er the salt sea urge the ocean-bark

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

steeled sword and weapon. One knoweth the plains’ direction,

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.

cynewulf

_____

* Please don’t correct me regarding the misspelling of “judgment;” this quotation comes from a British text. ;)

** From Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez.

*** This image is derived from the 1892 translation of Cynewulf’s Christ by Israel Gollancz.

The lovely Anglo Saxon cross at the top of this page was discovered several years ago in the grave of a young teenage girl who had been buried near Cambridge.

I have blogged about Anglo Saxon legacy in the past . . . here and here.

Biblical Illiteracy

October 17, 2011 — Leave a comment

A person does not have to be religious to recognize the importance of the Ten Commandments on western civilization, literature and life. Even when one disregards their intrinsic merit, their literary significance remains. That said, it is important that those who consider themselves well educated should be acquainted with the message of this foundational document.

The statistics reveal a rather surprising picture. It turns out sixty percent of Americans cannot identify even half of the commandments. What I find stunning about that is the fact that since they are mostly prohibitions of destructive behavior, even the illiterate should be able to guess half of them. “Okay . . . we shouldn’t commit murder . . . steal from others . . . or lie about and slander others.” Pretty common sense, and we’re already over halfway there.

“Let’s see . . . the commandments are about God, so there’s probably one that says ‘worship the real God.’” Simple logic, and we’ve nearly arrived. Four out of the five and it wasn’t all that challenging. But how do we arrive at a fifth commandment? Here are two possible paths:

“Oh, doesn’t ‘religion’ believe that it’s sinful to cheat on your spouse . . . that’s probably on the list.”

or

“What’s that weird word the Bible uses about wanting stuff that belongs to others . . . oh yeah, ‘coverting’ or something like that . . . we’re not supposed to desire the possessions of others.”

Since our world has programmed us all with insatiable materialistic desires, it’s probably unlikely that someone would “guess” that coveting our neighbor’s property is wrong, so let’s substitute a more likely alternative.

“Christians get so worked up about swearing, especially when people curse using ‘God’ or ‘Jesus’ . . . so there’s probably something about that in the Ten Commandments.”

Congratulations, we’ve reached our goal of five.

As for the enumeration of the commandments—which varies among Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant communions—that’s a subject for another day.

Addendum:

Don’t forget the observance of this commandment which would transform our world: “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”