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This item is taken from PN Review 134, Volume 26 Number 6, July - August 2000.

Does English poetry start with the Old English chicken or the Middle English egg? Do we go as far back as 657, to Cædmon? The scholar A.R. Waller thought so. 'And from those days to our own,' he wrote a century ago, 'in spite of periods of decadence, of apparent death, of great superficial change, the chief constituents of English literature - a reflective spirit, attachment to nature, a certain carelessness of "art", love of home and country and an ever present consciousness that there are things worth more than death - these have, in the main, continued unaltered.' The changes may seem more than superficial, the thematic constants a little more complex, now than they did then.

Sixty years after Waller, his argument persisted. 'Microcosm and macrocosm, ubi sunt, consolation, Trinitarianism - these are but some of the ideas and motifs,' wrote Stanley Greenfield, 'that Old English literature shares with the works of later writers like Donne, Arnold, Tennyson, and Milton.' This pretends to be more specific than Waller. The English poets he calls as witnesses answer his four 'motifs', but those motifs, singly or in combination, are characteristic of almost any literature you might care to name.

Old English poetry is remote in time and temperament even from Chaucer and Gower, who are only three centuries removed, though it has affinities with Langland and the work of the Gawain poet, the alliterative verse of Rolle, and with popular verse. It strains credulity to draw the line too far, despite echoes and analogies. Hopkins, Pound and Auden used old techniques for their own ends, learning the craft and seeking antidotes to the lazy smoothness of their ages. But to them Old English was a language as foreign as Welsh or Icelandic, a poetic rather than a linguistic resource.

Paradoxically, more people are familiar with Old English poetry today than at any time since the Norman Conquest. In some branches of Waterstone's, groups meet week after week to study Beowulf. Is this a new atavism? Is the harsh Danish poem really among our 'roots'? I have not heard that sales of Klaeber's great 1922 edition have rocketed. People read in translation. Seamus Heaney is Irish in his introduction and diction and presents Beowulf as a major, not a national poem.

But Heaney's Beowulf and Pound's 'Seafarer' are the only Old English poems enjoying popularity. The most amazing poem of the age, 'Dream of the Rood', has yet to find a redeemer. This first English dream vision god-fathers a line that includes Piers Plowman, Gower's Confessio, Chaucer's vision poems, and much of the less achieved work of the fifteenth century. In it a sleeper, burdened with sin, sees the crucifixion. As in a riddle, the Rood, the cross itself, speaks a tale of pain and triumph. The poet wakes, the riddle that troubled his soul is resolved: he understands Christ's sacrifice in terms of his own, and each believer's, redemption. The idiom and values of a heroic tradition confront the most extreme human deed of all: man's crucifying of the incarnate God and that God's forgiving purpose. Christ is a hero of a new kind, allowing himself to be taken and tortured, showing his might in his will to forgive.

While some Old English verse in translation finds modern readers, Middle English poetry falls deeper into neglect. The battle to save Old English as a discipline was lonely, fought and lost with learned heroism by Anglo Saxonists seldom aided by Medievalists. Now the Medievalists' extinction looms. How might they be saved? Rumour has it that Ted Hughes translated, or partly translated, Gawain and the Green Knight, a source for his poem 'Wodwo'. If this is true and the work is published, Gawain will become current again. But why is it not current anyway? Where are Gower, Langland and even Chaucer (no longer widely taught even at A-level)? Where are the balladeers, lyric poets, the Scottish Chaucerians?

Middle English poetry is hard in several respects. Many poems are very long, Beowulf a mere lyric by comparison. Then there is the problem of making a text. To what extent is the orthography established by scholars 'authoritative', given that few manuscripts are in a poet's own hand, no two manuscripts are the same, and diverse editors provide diverse texts? Assuming a manuscript has authority, to what extent is its authority phonetic? If it possesses phonetic authority, can we say with any certainty what the language sounded like then, allowing for dialect, and the transcription of texts from one dialect into another? Can we with our very different ears respond to the sounds as contemporary listeners did?

Old English is read in translation. Translations of Middle English, even David Wright's passable Chaucer, are distractions from poems tantalisingly close yet evanescent. The fluttering pages of a glossary to which we must constantly refer distract us from the flow of verse and argument. The glossary says that Quhyl is While, Diluge is Deluge, Foul or Fowel is Fowl and Hepe is Hip (as in rose hip).

What turns new readers away from Middle English is orthography. What if editors plumped for accessibility? Chaucer is not difficult, and nor is Gower; the superficial difficulty is the look of the text, the familiar masked behind archaic spelling. A modernised, rather than translated, text might render a poem too transparent, but a reader progressing from such a version to an edition of a poet's work would be reading a poem rather than a text. The perils are clear: semantic nuances are blurred or lost; and some are anachronistically added by using the modern form of a word which includes modern meaning. But context qualifies and contains this tendency. So we might hear with astonishment the first great translator of Virgil, in mid-winter, having conjured the crushing cold, the night then the dawn, declare:

And, as I bowned° me to the fire me by,
Both up and down the house I did espy,°
And seeing Virgil on a lectern stand,
To write anon I hynt° a pen in hand,
For to perform the poet grave and sad,
When so far forth ere then begun I had,
And waxed annoyèd somedeal° in my heart
There rested uncomplete so great a part.
And to my self I said: 'In good effect
Thou must draw forth, the yoke lies on thy neck.'
Within my mind compàssing° thought I so,
No thing is done while aught remains to do;
 - And, though I weary was, me list° not tire,
Full loath to leave our work so in the mire,
Or yet to stint for bitter storm or rain.
Here I assayed to yoke our plough again...





This item is taken from PN Review 134, Volume 26 Number 6, July - August 2000.

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