OETG #8: ‘natural’ orders of society and environment

In the final week of  term we discussed one of the most well-known passages from Maxims I, lines 71a-80b:

The extract begins apparently stating a list of eternal, cyclical truths relating to the turning of the seasons and the passage of time. It seizes the attention of the reader with its sudden change in rhythm. These lines are noticeably shorter than those in the passages preceding and following.

Sceal creates difficulty in translation in that it can be translated either as ‘shall’ or ‘must’. It is the most often repeated word in the Maxims, offering both structural and thematic functions, and therefore requires particular care from the translator. Sceal is a central thread shaping the Maxims, binding together the poem as a whole, and thus the world it describes. ‘Shall’ in Modern English is generally used to create the future tense, rather than the present continuous, so translating sceal as ‘shall’ here might indicate a consolatory tone: winter is difficult, but it will pass eventually. ‘Must’ indicates that frost has no option but to freeze, that it is in its nature. This draws attention to a larger thematic focus on the inexorable passage of time, which can never be altered except by felameahtig god (74b-75b).

Throughout the Maxims, we can glean meaning from the juxtaposition of everyday observable truths with larger societal truths, strengthened by the structural symmetry of equal half-lines weighted over the axis of the caesura. What has dom (80b) to do with frost? Dom is itself a rather slippery term, with an apparently very wide semantic range: the University of Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English lists thirteen separate categories of definition, including ‘jurisdiction’, ‘God’s judgement, especially the Last Judgement’, ‘good sense’, ‘discretion’, ‘authority’, ‘power (merging with senses of glory, fame)’. Each of us in the group seemed to have picked a different word for our translation, and I chose ‘honour’, as I felt it encapsulated the most of these possible meanings in Modern English. Perhaps dom, like frost, is cyclical and eternal, and this passage is relating societal cycles to natural ones.

In our discussion we came to an understanding that this passage seems to be describing funerary rites. This is indicated by the juxtaposition in lines 79a-80a between the apparent ritualistic burning of holly and the much more pragmatic practicalities of inheritance and redistribution of property. It is significant that holly is mentioned specifically. As an evergreen tree, holly links thematically to the earlier lines describing the turning of the seasons, in that it seems resistant to that cycle of life and death. As elsewhere in the Maxims, proximity indicates relationship, and regardless of whether or not holly held particular ritualistic significant, it seems to indicate here the balance between life and death.

Finally, we discussed the editorial difficulties raised by lines 77b-78a. Sund unstille and deop deada wæg are sometimes separated into two sentences. This distinction is not made in the Exeter Book manuscript, and potentially changes the meaning of the lines. The juxtaposition of the ‘unquiet sea’ and the ‘deep way of the dead’ indicates a symbolic relationship between death and deep waters: to the living, unknown and unknowable. Without the sentence break, this relationship is much more direct, but regardless, in these lines there is a close relationship between the lives of humans and the cycles of the natural world.

– Miranda, OETG 2016-2017

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