Late-Period Old English Riddle in Alliterative Verse
Presented at Ruby Joust, Barony of Caer Mear, 2019, for the Poeta Atlantiae competition.
- Original Poem: “Corene Cneoris”
- The Form of Old English Alliterative Verse
- Exemplars and Inspiration
- Analysis of the Original Poem
|Hieraþ! Ic sprece spell ond geddung spyraþ ræselan
Fugol flicoraþ fleogenda eaðelic
Hleoþriende hearmleoþ se heofonfugol angenga
Ac þæt sorh-leoþ ofsendaþ wiþ þæs sundorgengan mægenfolc
Innan gildenan gifheale se gilla nestlian
Ic spræc þis spell ȝe spyredon ræselan
Corene ond coste se cneoris hat
|Listen! I speak a story and riddle. Search for the answer.
A fledgling flutters. A trifling flyer,
Singing sorrow-song, the sky-soul, isolated,
But the song of suffering summons a mighty company
In a golden gift-hall, the gladdened bird nests
I spoke this story. You sought the answer.
That company is called cherished and chosen.
For this poem, I had two goals. First, I wanted to compose Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse simultaneously in Old English and Modern English. Second, I wanted to use the forms of Anglo-Saxon riddles and laments to proclaim the greatest strength of our Society: its people. This required understanding the use of alliterative verse in both Old and Modern English, riddle and narrative traditions, and the languages themselves.
The Form of Old English Alliterative Verse
While the Anglo-Saxon period of England extends from the 400s to nearly 1100, most of the literature is from later in the period, following the literary revival of Alfred the Great (b. 847? – d. 899) (Marsden xv and 2). Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse does not limit itself in either length or subject matter: it may be of any length and on any topic, whether it is religious devotion, secular lamentation, or snippets of wisdom. It may be a seven-line riddle (as with Riddle 47, “Bookworm,” from the Exeter Book) or a several-thousand-line epic narrative (as with Beowulf). The verse form allows flexibility concerning length and topic, but the structure of each line of poetry is somewhat fixed.
In Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, each line contains four highly-stressed syllables and at least four less-stressed syllables (Marsden xxii; O’Donnell). Between the second and third stress there is a strong caesura (break), which divides the line into two half-lines. The first and third stress of the full line must alliterate. The second stress may also alliterate, but the fourth stress does not. For example, lines 4 and 5 from Riddle 47, “Bookworm,” are:
þæt se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes,
þeof in þystro, þrymfæstne cwide
(Then the worm devoured the words of certain men / thief in the dark, majestic thoughts,” my translation, with help from glosses in Marsden 316. The transcription is also from Marsden 316. Note that my translations for the purpose of documentation are as close to the literal meaning as possible; they are not poetic translations. )
In these lines, I have bolded the four most highly-stressed syllables and underlined the alliterating syllables; the half-line is indicated by multiple spaces, as is traditional in transcriptions of Old English verse (O’Donnell). In the first quoted line, only the first and third stressed syllables alliterate, while in the second quoted line, the first three stressed syllables alliterate.
Stress seems initially straightforward, but there are multiple variances based on word choice and sentence structure. Stresses usually fall on the first syllable of a word, unless the word begins with a prefix (O’Donnell). Verbs beginning with ge– are stressed on the following syllable, while verbs and adverbs beginning with other prefixes (such as wiþ– and æt-) are rarely stressed; prefixes on nouns are stressed more variably. Further, the number of less-stressed syllables is unimportant (Marsden xxiii). Although there are usually between two and four less-stressed syllables, Anglo-Saxon verse also used “anacrusis,” which fully ignores less-stressed syllables at the beginning of lines when considering meter (Marsden xxiii-xxiv). Furthermore, additional stresses, such as three in the first half-line, along with additional less-stressed syllables, create “hypermetric” lines that are used for poetic effect (Marsden xxiii).
There is also the question of what alliterates (O’Donnell). Overall, consonants alliterate with the same consonant. However, words beginning with s-, sp-, sk-, st-, or sc– do not alliterate with one another; one cannot alliterate sing with spring or sting. That said, one can alliterate words beginning with the sounds /k/ and /ʧ/ (for example, cleric and church), as both were spelled with c– in Old English and alliterate regardless of pronunciation (Linguistically speaking, it is likely that words that begin with the sounds /k/ or /ʧ/ once both started with /k/; Old English preserves this relationship even after the sound shifts. A similar shift happened with g–). The same follows for Old English words beginning with g-, whether they are pronounced as /g/ or /y/. Finally, all vowels alliterate with each other, with no exceptions.
While rhyme was not a feature of Anglo-Saxon verse, word choice was still particularly important in the creation of compounds, as with kennings. Kennings are compounds that use indirect, metaphorical words to create a poetic image of a concrete thing. The most well-known of these is hron-rad, “whale-road,” for “ocean,” but there are many others, such as lyft-fleogende, “air-flyer,” for “bird.”
In addition to the alliteration and stresses in verse, as a language, Old English used several letters that are not extant in Modern English: þ (thorn), ð (eth), æ (ash), and ȝ (yogh). Luckily, each of these letters’ names contain their sound (bolded), excepting yogh, as its lovely gargling sound has disappeared in Modern English. Though the sound of yogh is quite difficult for Modern English speakers, it can be approximated as /y/ or by voicing the –ch in loch and Bach. Yogh was rarely used in later Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, with g– often being used in yogh’s place. Similarly, thorn and eth were used interchangeably in manuscripts without any consistency.
Despite the many changes of and influences on English in the last thousand years, Modern English is still quite accommodating to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. However, alliterative verse in Modern English now allows even more flexibility in alliteration: all stresses may alliterate, or only one in each half-line, without a requirement as to which stress.
Exemplars and Inspiration
“Corene Cneoris” was inspired by the Exeter Book, an anthology manuscript from the tenth century, and two of the verse forms within the Exeter Book: riddles and laments.
The Exeter Book contains all extant Old English riddles, of which there are approximately ninety-five, depending on how the text is divided (Marsden 310). Because Old English, and specifically the Exeter Book, was written without line breaks and with only a punctus (dot) to show where lines ended, dividing the text is notoriously difficult; the numbering of the riddles in transcriptions reflects this. The riddles in the Exeter Book seem to be inspired by Anglo-Latin riddles (aenigmata) (Marsden 310). Some Old English riddles are religious; others are secular or even double entendres. Their answers may be mundane (“onion”) or ridiculous (“one-eyed garlic seller”). Many of the poems request that the audience give an answer to the riddle. While Anglo-Latin aenigmata sometimes included their answer as their title, the riddles in the Exeter Book do not, and the answers to some riddles are still in question (Marsden 310).
In contrast to riddles, the Exeter Book also contains multiple poems that centralize the often melancholic nature of Old English poetry, including The Wife’s Lament, The Wanderer, The Ruin, and Wulf and Eadwacer. Although all these poems have some elusive qualities to them, Wulf and Eadwacer is especially “full of undeveloped allusions and unexplained ambiguities” (Marsden 335). Indeed, because a section of riddles follows Wulf and Eadwacer in the Exeter Book, some have interpreted it as being intentionally cryptic (Marsden 335).
Exemplar 1: Riddle 8 (or 6) from the Exeter Book
In my original documentation, I used this transcription from Cavell and followed the numbering she uses; the translation below my own.
Through a mouth I speak with many voices,
Sing with melodious deceit, change frequently
My loud voice crying out.
I watch over my affairs, not hiding my voice.
An old evening bard, I bring to nobles
In their towns happiness, when in the city I
Rage with noise, as quietly in dwellings
They sit. Say what I am called,
that lady-jester who, with a jesting song,
Loudly imitates, in the warriors’ presence,
Many welcome guests with my voice.
Riddle 8 (or 6), whose answer is most likely “a noisy bird of some sort,” is a clear example of the difficulties in translating even a fairly straightforward riddle. The writing lacks prepositions and conjunctions that clarify syntax, relying instead on cases (particularly the dative case) to suggest relationships. Word order is flexible, and sentences cover multiple lines in an order unexpected by a Modern English reader. For example, the syntax of lines 5b and 6a is “I bring to nobles / in their towns happiness.” This is awkward in Modern English, which requires stricter word order. A clearer phrasing would be “I bring happiness to nobles in their towns.” Indeed, because of the poetic nature, even a literal translation like mine above requires some guesses based on grammar to determine meaning. To see this more clearly, a reader can compare the translations by Cavell and by Hostetter.
Line 5 is distinctly interesting in these translations. While Cavell and I both translated “eald æfensceop” as an epithet for the bird, Hostetter makes it part of what the bird brings to the nobility. However, all of us use multiple enjambments in our translations. We also limit our usage of complex tenses, as the original verse is written nearly entirely in simple present. Finally, we all translate “saga hwæt ic hatte” (8) as “say what I am called”; this is both a semi-set phrase in riddles and a straightforward line to translate.
Exemplar 2: Wulf and Eadwacer
The transcription of Wulf and Eadwacer and my translation are in my original documentation; however, I am not fully happy with this translation. This is primarily because, while a beautiful lament, Wulf and Eadwacer is a conundrum. Even though its female voice is confirmed by the gendered words referring to the speaker, no one can quite agree on the interpretation of these words (Marsden 335). Is Wulf the banished husband of Eadwacer? A fleeing lover? Her child? Is Eadwacer even the speaker, or is that the name of another person the speaker addresses? Is this, in fact, all a farcical drama about an actual wolf who had an affair with Eadwacer (“yard-watcher”), and the Anglo-Saxons who heard this poem were laughing at the image of a pet dog howling over her lost wolf-lover?(I cannot take credit for this fantastic interpretation; I was made aware of it by Jim Hala, Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Drew University.) All of these interpretations are supported by the text. It is this inscrutability that makes it a masterpiece but also, potentially, a riddle.
On a practical note, regarding structure, Wulf and Eadwacer is notable for the many half-lines lacking a second half-line. This refrain-like quality, particularly in the repetition of “ungelīce is ūs,” demonstrates the surprising flexibility of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. Poets played with the structure, and it could be a useful tool for emphasis; here the abandoned half-lines may suggest the speaker’s loneliness and solitude. This poem also indicates that the placement of alliteration and stress could be flexible:
Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc gife (1)
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre (4)
þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde (11)
While I have underlined the alliteration in these lines, I have not bolded the stresses, as in multiple lines, it is quite hard to place. Indeed, in lines 1 and 4, the alliteration seems to be controlling the stress placement and not the other way around.
Exemplars’ Effect on Composition
Based on Riddle 8 (or 6), Wulf and Eadwacer, and the wider Anglo-Saxon verse corpus, my composition may contain the following features:
- A rough adherence to Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, which may be flexed as needed for poetic emphasis
- Enjambment, which is allowed and even encouraged multiple times within the same sentence
- Kennings, though they should not overtake the poem
- Minimal passive voice and progressive verbs (the former barely existed in Old English, and the latter is not commonly used in verse)
- Subject matter that contains both a direct message and an underlying meaning
- A “say what I am called” phrase
I wish to imitate the combination of lamentation, narrative, and potential riddle found in Wulf and Eadwacer. However, based on these exemplars, I have decided that I want my Old English version to be more grammatically exact so that it can be easily read by new learners of Old English. Therefore, I will need to include prepositions and conjunctions where they are normally omitted in verse forms. This will necessarily increase my line-length and number of lesser-stressed syllables. To compensate, I will adhere more strictly to alliteration and stress to retain structure.
Analysis of the Original Poem
“Corene Cneoris” was composed simultaneously in Old English and Modern English. I knew from previous small translations that the interaction of the two Englishes can cause the form of the story to develop in exciting and unexpected ways, so I started with a loose purpose—to proclaim and elevate our members, the strength of our Society—and the image of a bird being freed from a cage.
My composition process was complex. First, I roughly sketched out a line in Modern English, focusing on grammatical simplicity and meaning. I then used Old English Translator to find translations of keywords, cross-referencing them with the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary and/or A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Hall to determine accuracy of meaning. I wrote down my preferred translations and paired them with synonyms in Modern English, seeking to establishing alliterations for the line in both Old and Modern English. At this point, new permutations and meanings of lines were often discovered through translation into and out of Old and Modern English. Because of this process, the same line often ended up with different alliterations in the different Englishes.
While compiling keywords, I was constantly aware of sentence structure in both forms, necessary declensions and conjugations in Old English, and other grammatical needs. I started to place the keywords into syntactically and grammatically complete units, adjusting Old and Modern English lines as needed to fit meaning, alliteration, grammar, and structure. I also referred constantly to Hasenfratz and Jambeck’s Reading Old English, Bosworth-Toller, and the charts and lists in “Old English” on Wikibooks to ascertain grammatical accuracy. A good example of this process is with line 8:
Old English: Fugol flicoraþ fleogenda eaðelic
Modern English: A fledgling flutters. A trifling flyer,
When composing this line, I was inclined to use the word “fledgling” in Modern English, as I wanted a sense of inexperience, fragility, and newness. However, despite both “fledge” and
“-ling” being of Old English origin, the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the word did not enter English usage until the 19th century. This is a common discovery in the simultaneous translation/composition process, and one of the greater challenges. While I could have made a neologism out of related period elements, I instead chose to use “fugol” (bird) with “flicorian” (to flutter) and “eaðelic” (trifling, insignificant) to indicate the bird’s inexperience as well as its solitude. I found appropriate synonyms for both “flicorian” and “eaðelic” in Modern English but had to play with the alliteration. Therefore, the alliteration is on the first, second, and fourth stress in Modern English, while it is on the first, second, and third in Old English. Though the Modern English version had to play with form, it more strongly conveys the sense of inexperience than the Old English version, which remains truer to form. This process also occurred with Old English vocabulary choices controlling a line’s composition; I have included glosses in the following “Language and Date” section to explain some of these.
Each line went through a finalizing process where I double-checked grammar, alliteration, stresses, and meaning. These were checked in the line itself, in its translation, and in the preceding and following lines, as any alteration might require a corresponding change elsewhere.
Poetic Structure, Orthography, and Format
“Corene Cneoris” uses three-stress alliteration almost entirely throughout the Old English version. The Modern English version plays with alliterating on the first syllable (as common in Modern English alliteration) or the first stress (as in Anglo-Saxon alliteration). Compare, for example, lines 7 and 12:
This dungeon detains a despairing treasure (7)
Where Study and Service preside with Courtesy (12)
I have underlined the alliteration in each line and bolded the stresses. In line 7, the alliteration is on the first syllable, not on the stress, while in line 12 the alliteration falls on the first three stresses. This mimics how the placement of alliteration and stress varies in Old English due to prefixes. This variance is also imitated in the Old English version of the poem; for example, see lines 6 and 12:
Græteþ ond agriseþ innan þæm grammodre scrine (6)
Æðelnes ond Ambihtnes asteoraþ þær mid Lare (12)
In line 6, the prefix a– in “agriseþ” is not stressed, while in line 12, the prefix a– in “asteoraþ” is stressed. There are additional exceptions to the strict alliterative form, as Anglo-Saxon poets themselves made exceptions. One line of note is line 8, “Ac þæt sorh-leoþ ofsendaþ wiþ þæs sundorgengan mægenfolc.” This hypermetric line is intentionally used to highlight the turn in the bird’s fortunes as it is discovered by its kindred.
Regarding orthography, I have maintained the use of thorn (þ), eth (ð), and ash (æ), as these are necessary parts of Old English. As in period, I have used thorn and eth interchangeably. I have used g in most places where yogh (ȝ) could have been used, as was done in later Old English manuscripts; the one exception is in line 14, “Ic spræc þis spell ȝe spyredon ræselan,” where I have used the yogh to set off “ȝe,” the second-person plural pronoun that addresses the audience. Though modern transcriptions set long vowels off with a macron (e.g., ē versus e), I have not included this, as it is a modern conceit and unnecessary with proper understanding of Old English pronunciation.
Concerning formatting, I have put the Old English version into the modern format used for transcriptions of Old English verse with the Modern English version in parallel, so that the relationship between the two forms is more apparent to all readers regardless of linguistic ability. I originally included a larger space at the caesura, as is common in Old English transcription, but this was difficult to keep in the online version (O’Donnell). However, I did not include punctuation in the Old English version, in keeping with the lack of punctuation in Old English; while a punctus (dot) was used in manuscripts to indicate the ends of lines, this is unnecessary when the lines are formatted in this manner (Marsden xxii). Stanzas were divided based on the Modern English version to aid in reading; Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse did not use stanzas.
Language and Date
I have given the poem a late Anglo-Saxon date (800-1066) because I did not control for the changes in Old English over time during my composition process (such as the influence of Old Norse). By choosing the latter end of the Anglo-Saxon period, any old-fashioned words are intentional archaisms. As much extant Old English vocabulary is both late period and highly poetic, this is not unexpected.
In order to comment on particularly interesting or pertinent word choices in Old English, I have copied lines from the Old English version below with explanatory glosses.
Line 1: Hieraþ! Ic sprece spell ond geddung spyraþ ræselan
The poem begins with a similar demand for attention as Beowulf and declares its purpose: “geddung” means both “riddle” and “parable,” while “ræsele” is a riddle’s solution. The content of the poem plays with both the story and riddle aspects of “geddung.”
Line 4: Heortwærc behydeþ innan Heofes Dreorseles
The preposition “innan” can be used with both the dative and genitive cases. I used the genitive (possessive) to suggest that the sorrowful hall is somehow possessing or trapping the bird.
Line 7: Modseocne maðum se morðorcofa egehieleþ
“Modseocne maðum,” corresponding with “despairing treasure” in the Modern English version, is more closely translated as “heartsick treasure.” This echoes “Heortwærc” / “Heart-Pain” in line 4.
Line 8: Ac þæt sorh-leoþ ofsendaþ wiþ þæs sundorgengan mægenfolc
In this hypermetric line and the following line, the grammatical structure differs between the Old and Modern English in order to accommodate the alliteration. In Old English, the company is summoned to “þæs sundorgengan”, the solitary creature. It was possible to omit this reference to retain alliteration without significantly changing the meaning in the Modern English version, which instead links “to the fowl” in the following line.
Line 11: Innan gildenan gifheale se gilla nestlian
“Gilla” means “a bird whose cry is heard.” In the Modern English version this is “gladdened bird,” placing the focus on how the company’s response to the bird’s cry affects the bird’s emotions.
Line 12: Æðelnes ond Ambihtnes asteoraþ þær mid Lare
The order of items is different in the Old and Modern English versions in order to accommodate alliteration. “Æðelnes” (nobility) is glossed as “courtesy” in Modern English and placed last, while “lar” (teaching/knowledge) is glossed as “study” and joins “ambihtnes” (service) in the first half-line.
Content and Devices
The content of the poem originated with a simple image: a bird in a cage being freed. As with much of Anglo-Saxon verse, this can be read both literally and metaphorically. The cage may be one of the bird’s own making, with kennings such as “Heortwærc” / “Heart-Pain” used for the bird and “Heofes Dreorseles” / “Hall of Sorrow” suggesting an emotional state that traps the bird (4). However, it was the word “leodwynn” in line 10 that crystallized the poem’s direction: “leodwynn” is a compound of “leode” (in the plural meaning “people of a country”) and “wynn” (meaning “joy”). It is most accurately translated as “home-joy” or “the joy of being amongst one’s people.” Because this word choice refined and advanced my initial image, I chose to use third person throughout the poem. Although much of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse is spoken by the subject of the poem, particularly in laments and riddles, an omniscient perspective allowed the poem to focus equally on the protagonist of the story (the bird) as well as the answer to the riddle (chosen family). Finally, I chose to use the answer to the riddle as the title, as was done in Anglo-Latin aenigmata. Because I expect that most of my audience will not understand Old English, placing the answer in the title in Old English increases the riddle-like nature of the poem. For my audience’s benefit, I also included a line at the end that answers the riddle so that the answer can be given during performances.
I am beyond pleased with this composition. Though I have translated into and out of Old English before, this is my first time composing a full poem in both Old and Modern English simultaneously. It was quite a personal feat, and developing the content while maintaining the poetic form in both Old and Modern English was immensely challenging.
In my next similar composition, I would like to place it in first person, increase the overall length, and carry sentences over many lines, as is common in longer poems. I would also like to reduce my use of prepositions and articles in Old English and rely more on declensions and conjugations for the meaning. Finally, a larger (and probably life-long) goal is to develop greater familiarity with dialects and time periods of Old English vocabulary in order to arrive even more closely to period composition.
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Chickering, Howell D., trans. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition, Anchor Books, 2006.
Hall, J. R. Clark. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Fourth Edition, University of Toronto, 2006.
Hasenfratz, Robert and Thomas J. Jambeck. Reading Old English: A Primer and First Reader, First Edition, West Virginia UP, 2005.
Hostetter, Aaron K. “Exeter Book Riddles.” Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project, anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/exeter-book-riddles/.
Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader, Cambridge UP, 2004.
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“Wulf and Eadwacer.” The Old English Aerobics Anthology, oldenglishaerobics.net/wulf.html.