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.
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.