Old English: this is happening.

This morning I had the chance to read one of the essays that constitute On the Aesthetics of Beowulf and Other Old English Poems.  It was a piece by Howell D. Chickering titled “Poetic Exuberance in the Old English Judith.”

The poem in question concerns the heroine’s beheading of Holofernes, a leader of the Assyrians, as he sleeps drunk in his tent.  It’s an Anglo-Saxon take on an Old Testament story – and, as Chickering shows, is characterized by an especially lively use of language.

Alliteration is properly understood as the outstanding feature of Old English verse – so much so that rhyme may seem to be wholly a French import.  But there’s this astonishing couple of half-lines in Judith that make wonderful use of off-rhyme:

                          sloh ða eornoste

ides ellenrof    oðre siðe

þone haeðenan hund,    þaet him þaet heafod wand

forð on ða flore.

Chickering translates:

                                                then in earnest she struck,

the courageous woman,    a second time

that heathen hound,    so that his head went rolling

forth upon the floor.

Chickering then quotes an analysis by T.A. Bredehof, author of Early English Metre:

the “hund”/”wand” off-rhyme pair implicitly evokes, for readers or listeners, each of the corresponding true rhymes, calling to mind both the “hand” of Judith, and the “wund” [“wound”] of Holofernes.  As the passage insists, this crucial moment of separation (Judith from Holofernes; head – and soul – from body) is simultaneously a moment of binding (Holofernes’s soul is bound in hell), and the use of rhyme and secondary alliteration serves to emphasize the binding aspects of the passage through a kind of linguistic or poetic interlacing.

I love stuff like this, and I’m not sure if I can explain why.  “Hund/Hand/Wand/Wund” – as concrete an example as I can think of to display on a small scale what the Beowulf-poet meant on a larger scale when he wrote “word oðer fand” (“one word found another”), describing the method of storytelling and singing as the Danes rode back to Herot from Grendel’s lair.  It’s the kind of thing Roberta Frank wrote about in her fantastic “The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Philologist.”  Words linked to words, sending echoes of meaning banging back and forth.

All this is a long way of saying that it’s time once again to try to learn Old English.  I never had the chance to take a course on the language in undergrad or graduate school, but I’ve got plenty of books and, I realize, enough time to give it another shot.  “Another”, because I’ve made probably half a dozen attempts over the past decade.  The closest I’ve gotten to a respectable mastery was around 7 years ago, when I memorized Brunanburh and in the process got a good handle on some of the vocabulary and grammar.  My problem is that I find my interests shifting to other things and as a result tend not to stick to a single language for more than a couple months.  Learning a language entirely solo also presents its challenges.

It’s time, though.  My mind rarely feels as stretched as when I’m trying to learn a language.  And don’t I owe it to the kids to bring them up bilingual?  They’ll thank me.

Damn right, Dad.  Get on it!

Damn right.





Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

I’ll grant the desperation, but where’s this “quiet”?

Being a parent means, for me at least, living with a tremendous amount of new noise.  Back when our house was freshly-built and relatively empty, there were long, luxurious stretches of time during which one could count on being the only sound-maker in the place.  My wife’s and my work schedules would sometimes conspire to leave one of us the uncontested master of the castle, completely alone at home.  Turns out you can get a lot of reading (and yes, a lot of computer gaming) done when you have basically no responsibilities – and no smaller version(s) of you giving voice to any number of needs.

Then the kids came – Eleanor, the last to be delivered, came home last, in the middle of Hurricane Irene.  We lost power for 7 hours that night, and she cried almost the entire time.

The house would never sound the same.

Of course crying isn’t the only noise.  There are sounds I wouldn’t want to go without, now:  Alice laughing on the inhale, chuckling like an old Downeaster; Paul carefully rounding his lips and trying to make the train sound, “choo-choo”; Ellie announcing my name – “Da-da” – with precision and enthusiasm.  Then there are the bleeps and tones of the scattered toys with their oddly exaggerated childlike electronic voices.  There’s the TV playing out the soundtracks to the shows we hypnotize the kids with when all hope seems lost; the radio (turned way up if we’re actually trying to listen) when things are better.

I never thought of myself as particularly sensitive to sound – I’m a visual guy – but the degree to which all this noise becomes, apparently, a substitute for thought is remarkable.  Things get done; time passes; it’s just that your mind has almost nothing to do with it.  Defying the chaos, you manage to make a rational observation (we need gutters for the porch):  retaining that thought long enough to act upon it becomes a feat of Herculean proportions.

Dan over at Our Wives are Mommy-Blogging  describes his strategy for dealing with some of the frustration that comes with the territory in a post called “Detachment Parenting”.  He writes:

They key tenet of my philosophy is not getting so close (emotionally? physically?) that his casual cruelty and selfishness overcomes my self control. Oh, there have been times when the rage builds up and I have to scream into a pillow. I’ve punched mattresses. I’ve ordered sandwiches. Lapses in self control that have not, because of my detachment approach, resulted in the lad’s death.

It’s a good way to put it – that odd ambivalence that comes with fatherhood.

Another way to put it is, sometimes you feel like Cuchulainn when the battle-rage seizes him.