OETG #6 – 26 January


Today’s lines (ll. 51-66) of the ‘Rune Poem’ led to many musings about how it possibly fits into wider Anglo-Saxon world literary traditions and concerns. We were also very happy to be joined by the Justers, before Mike’s talk later that day for CLAMS.

l. 51, Beorc byþ bleda leas, which Carl translated as The birch-tree is fruitless had us thinking about what trees meant to the Anglo-Saxons. It would seem that ‘Beorc’ could be understood as ‘Birch’, but was also given as a gloss in Latin texts for ‘Poplar’ – a similar looking tree, but one without the Norse mythological connotations that are so often read in the poem. Furthermore, Hana pointed out that many of the words, fruitless, for example, are used in the Old English Genesis (those interested in the natural world and the medieval should consult Della Hook’s ‘Trees in Anglo-Saxon England’ as a starting point!).

Further allusions to the world beyond the poem, and beyond the Germanic tradition were suggested by Mike Juster. He discussed the description of the birch branches as reaching to the sky: Heah on helme hrysted fægere; high in its crown, fairly ornamented, echoed imagery of the crucifixion. This might be an instance of Christian influence coming into the poem (which was presumably written down by a religious), and he also remarked how the description of the Birch tree as ‘fruitless’ further reminded him of Aldhelm‘s writing on sinfulness and the chaste life of being ‘without seed’.


Silver penny, King Eadberht of Northumbria (738-58): the Fitzwilliam Museum point out – the coin actually shows a ‘lion’, thought it has ‘features reminiscent of a prancing horse’. ‘Artists, never having seen the animal, had to use their imagination’! http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/gallery/anglosaxon/theme3.html?sf_function=print

L. 58, [Hors] biþ unstyllum æfre frofur; [horse] is a comfort ever to the unstill, also had us thinking about Anglo-Saxon conceptions of human nature, of being forever condemned to be restless, with the idea of seeking ‘frofur’, ‘comfort’ a key concern that also appears in Old English translations of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Whilst ll. 59-60:

[Man] byþ on myrgþe   his magan leof, sceal þeah anra gehwylc   oðrum swican…

[Man] in mirth is loved by his kin, though everyone must betray another…

reminded us of the dangers of betrayal in Vainglory, and arguments in Solomon and Saturn concerning trustworthiness.

Finally, linguistic elements throughout these lines in the poem (not being a fully versed grammarian, I’m sorry I can’t pull out particular examples!) reminded some of us of how the poem was playing with time even as it was written down. It would seem that the poem was written down in the 10th century, with linguistic features brought in with the Danelaw, but, it is deeply retrospective: drawing upon images and ideas from much earlier in the Anglo-Saxon experience of the world – whether this be related to various religious or mythical ideas, or its continual references to travel and movement of people.

We’re realising more and more as we read the poem that knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon attitudes to nature would be really useful. Furthermore, we’d like to think more about what exactly the poem is for: is it a sort of riddle? An acrostic as intellectual exercise? Please, share you thoughts on any of the above!

Fran, PhD on Anglo-Saxon things and contemporary creative and cultural practices, @franchesykia


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