OETG #7: meetings of minds in Maxims I

Following on from that striking imperative to frige mec frodum wordum! (‘Ask me with wise words!’) we’ve met again to inquire into Maxims 1 up to line 22b, and there found some other meetings of minds:

Eardas rume
meotud arærde     for moncynne,
ælmihtig god,     efenfela bega
þeoda ond þeawa.     Þing sceal gehegan
frod wiþ frodne;      biþ hyra ferð gelic,
hi a sace semaþ,     sibbe gelærađ,
þa ær wonsælge     awegan habbađ.

the Ordainer created for mankind,
– almighty God! – abounding countries,
as many peoples as customs.
The wise must hold a meeting with the wise,
their souls are alike,
they ever settle disputes, preach peace,
which the unblessed have previously destroyed.

(Maxims 1, ll. 15b-21, translation mine)

Here the poem echoes its own didactic interests – encouraging the ‘wise’ to hold a meeting (literally – and charmingly- a ‘thing’, Þing, l.18) and teach peace. The poem suggests that heterogeneity in peoples and their ways was a purposeful part of Earth’s creation. The þeoda ond þeawa (‘peoples and customs’ l.18) with their missenlicu mod (‘diverse minds’, l.13) were ordained to be different, and this encourages and even necessitates (that demanding sceal, l.18) communication with one another. Does alterity here become represented as a force which ought to unite, not divide?

How should we translate ferð in line 19? As Roland suggested, earlier in the poem we might use more mind-centric terms for these words which encompass mind/heart/spirit/soul – the interior of a person. Is this the case here? The context of the surrounding lines is important to consider. Some discussion was held over whether sibbe gelærað might be translated as ‘preach peace’ rather than ‘teach peace’, taking into account the Christian context of exchanging wise words, religious sayings, and of oral conversion. I found that interesting, and have chosen to illustrate this in my translation. Perhaps, considering this, ferð may be considered here in the field of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ to suggest the power of these meetings and exchanges, that the soul of the wise Christian is the same sort of soul as its brethren, all saved and blessed alike in the reception of the Word of God.

The power of communication between such ferð is positive, it brings sibbe, ‘peace’ (l.20). The wise must wrixlan their gieddum (l.4) – creatively exchange their wisdom-sayings, an action which echoes the act of divine Creation. Indeed, Maxims 1 urges us to use our words to first praise God, before we do anything else with them (l. 4). The ‘right’ and ‘wise’ exchange of words suggests an act that peacefully maintains that which God has measured out for us.

At line 21 we also meet some others, the wonsælge – those who ‘destroy’ this peace. Wonsælge poses a challenge for translation: Bosworth-Toller gives ‘unblest’, ‘miserable’, or even ‘evil’ as possibilities. Literally it means ‘lacking/wanting blessedness’, where sælig conveys spiritual blessing. The dreaded Grendel is famously wonsælig (Beowulf l. 105), there is a sense of unholiness. In conjunction with the Meotud as the Ordainer or Measurer of ordered creation, here we see the ‘unblessed’ directly oppose and reverse the action of the wise: they awegan — ‘destroy’ – the peace. This has a sense of taking something away (‘awaying’ it) but against the backdrop of creative action in this poem, ‘destroy’ provides a striking contrast. If the ‘wise’ (by implication, ‘blessed’) sort of  ferð come together to create peace, the ‘unblessed’  ferð unravel and disperse it, creating discord in a once-ordered world. This must be repaired through another ‘thing’ – the meeting of minds, and the sharing of wisdom.

– Rose Evans, King’s English Department Undergraduate

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