On Returning Home
a new poem in the style of Old English alliterative verse
for Poeta Atlantiae 2021
upon the Coronation of Eckehard and Jane
Family and friends in fond embrace
herald my homecoming with harp and song.
They rejoice and revel at the returning wanderer
with feasting fit for a favorite thane.
The heights of the hall, hewn by my ancestors,
echo with exaltation, interrupting voices
asking inquiries with increasing repetition,
until the eldest, aunt and hearth-mage
silences the squall, sitting with expectation.
Her placid demand pierces my heart
to beg the boon of the beloved prodigal
a song, a story, a sweet refrain
of the triumphs and trials of traveling afar.
This still of the storm is the center and the eye:
the focus of my folk frightens me.
They see me as sister, their sweetest kin
returned from roaming in remote lands.
I see them as strangers, by seasons transformed.
My perception passes to pinnacles of my journey:
crags and chasms, currents and floods,
the terrain’s tumult internally emulated.
I learned from the land legends and sagas.
Waters, weeping, wailed their songs.
Rain-washed rocks, rolled by ice-giants,
taught me tales of times unknown.
And open-hearted oaks of others whispered:
the selkies, the kelpies, the sweetest of kin.
I reached their ruler under the rowan and the yew.
Fair was the face; fairer the tongue.
No man can manage the multitudes I learned.
Changed is my heart, a child no longer.
But here in this hall I am homespun daughter,
reflecting a relic of repressed memory.
The person they praise I prize no longer.
Silence still. They sit, anticipating.
The ancient aunt embraces my hand;
her eyes gleam and echo history:
of women wandering for wordless knowledge,
of passages past, of patience on return.
We must now meet with measures newfound,
for all of us are altered by time.
I must know anew my natal clan
who salute a stranger as sister, as kin.
Family and friends are first-met again.
I hoist my harp to my hip to sing
bittersweet song of blossoming discovery,
making the music of the multitudes north.
The prompt for this poem was to “evoke the emotional experience of coming home at last after a long journey.” I chose to write a poem inspired by features of Old English elegy that covered the complex feelings of returning home after a life-changing journey.
History and Form of Old English Alliterative Verse
Old English alliterative verse was the primary form of verse from 400s to nearly 1100 in England. Unlimited on both length and topic, it was used for religious devotion, riddles, lamentations, and wisdom poetry.
The features of Old English alliterative verse are fairly straightforward:
- Each line is divided into two half-lines with a caesura (break or pause) between the two half-lines
- The two half-lines are approximately the same length
- Each half-line usually contains two stressed syllables (“lifts”) and at least two unstressed syllables (“falls”), but usually no more than four.
- “Hypermetric” lines could include three stresses and many unstressed syllables
- Lines can start with a number of unstressed syllables that are ignored when counting stresses (called “anacrusis”)
- The first and third stress must alliterate; the second stress might alliterate; the fourth stress does not alliterate.
- Alliteration usually falls on the first stressed syllable, but usually skips prefixes.
- Consonants alliterate with the same consonant. However, consonant clusters (e.g., s-, sp-, sk-, st-, sc-) do not alliterate. However, c- and ch- do alliterate.
- All vowels alliterate with each other (technically called assonance).
- Lines are usually unrhymed.
Alliterative verse applies equally well to Modern English, but allows for even more flexibility: all stresses may alliterate, or only one in each half-line, without a requirement for stress.
This poem was inspired by extant elegiac pieces such as The Wanderer and The Ruin. These poems combine a reminiscing narrative with lamentation for lost pasts, melancholy for the changing world, wisdom about understanding the changes, and a final resolve that oscillates between acceptance and nihilism. The spirit of these pieces suited the disorientation of returning home to find both it and you have changed. I particularly wanted to write a piece inspired by Old English elegy because I am slowly working towards writing longer narrative verse; this was a nice first step in that direction. While I attempted to stay consistent within the rules for Old English alliterative verse, I intentionally violated them for dramatic effect at certain points, such as with “silence still” (l. 35), where the missing unstressed syllable evokes the silence in the line.
Since one of my major focuses is seventh-century Northumbrian Anglia, imagery at the beginning of the piece intentionally emphasizes Anglian culture, such as celebrations with the lyre (harp, l. 2), the usage of “thane” (Old English þegn, a warrior or hero, l. 4), and the mead-hall (l. 5). Additionally, as this region was Christianized during the seventh century, I wanted to suggest that this society had not yet Christianized with the emphasis on the “hearth-mage,” a matriarchal figure (l. 8).
I wanted to suggest that the speaker had journey from that region into lands still under the control of the Gododdin and even further beyond (present-day Scotland). Because of this, the description of geography (ll. 20-1, 23-4, and 26) were deeply inspired by my own experiences in Scotland, as were the mythological references to selkies and kelpies (l. 27), the fair folk (l. 27 and 29), and obliquely to changeling children (l. 31). This passage could be read literally or metaphorically; “ice-giants,” for example, could be literal creatures or ancient glaciers that carved the Scottish landscape (l. 24). Repetition of “sweetest kin” (once for the speaker, once for the mysterious ruler) also emphasize the tension between perspectives that becomes critical at the end. Indeed, the whole section could be a metaphor for the changes that happen upon travel. Or perhaps the speaker actually met the fair folk. Who knows?
A Brief Bibliography
Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 2019, bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/.
Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader, Cambridge UP, 2004.
O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. “Old English Metre: A Brief Guide.” Daniel Paul O’Donnell, 23 May 2012, people.uleth.ca/~daniel.odonnell/Tutorials/old-english-metre-a-brief-guide.