VI. RIDDLES and GNOMIC VERSE
From Early English Poems Selected and Edited by Henry S. Pancoast and John Duncan Spaeth; Henry Holt and Company, New York; 1911.
A moth ate a word! To me that seemed
A strange thing to happen, when I heard that wonder, —
A worm that would swallow the speech of a man,
Sayings of strength steal in the dark,
Thoughts of the mighty; yet the thieving sprite
Was none the wiser for the words he had eaten!
There’s a troop of tiny folk travelling swift,
Brought by the breeze o’er the brink of the hill,
Buzzing black-coated bold little people, —
Noisy musicians well-known is their song.
They scour the thickets, but sometimes invade
The rooms of the town. Now tell me their names.
Wounded I am, and weary with fighting;
Gashed by the iron, gored by the point of it,
Sick of battle-work, battered and scarred.
Many a fearful fight have I seen, when
Hope there was none, or help in the thick of it,
Ere I was down and foredone in the fray.
Offspring of hammers, hardest of battle-blades,
Smithied in forges, fell on me savagely,
Doomed to bear the brunt and the shock of it,
Fierce encounter of clashing foes.
Leech cannot heal my hurts with his simples,
Salves for my sores have I sought in vain.
Blade-cuts dolorous, deep in the side of me,
Daily and nightly redouble my wounds.
BARNACLE ON THE HULL OF A SAILING-VESSEL
I’m found under water held fast by my mouth,
Swirl of the sea-tides goes sweeping beneath me
Fathom-deep sunk under surges I grew.
Bending roof of billows above me:
My body adrift on a floating beam.
You’ll find me alive if you lift me and free me.
Dull is my coat as I come from the deep,
But straight I am decked with streamers of white,
Bright when the freshening breeze brings me from underseas
Heaves me up and urges me far
O’er the sea-bath salty. Say what I’m called.
I’m prized by men, in the meadows I’m found,
Gathered on hill-sides and hunted in groves;
From dale and from down by day I am brought.
Airy wings carry me, cunningly store me,
Hoarding me safe. Yet soon men take me;
Drained into vats, I’m dangerous grown.
I tie up my victim, and trip him, and throw him;
Often I floor a foolish old churl.
Who wrestles with me, and rashly would measure
His strength against mine, will straightway find himself
Flung to the ground, flat on his back,
Unless he leave his folly in time,
Put from his senses and power of speech,
Robbed of his might, bereft and of his mind,
Of his hands and feet. Now find me my name,
Who can bind and enslave men as upon earth.
And bring fools low in broad daylight.
I war with the wind, with the waves I wrestle;
I must battle with both when the bottom I seek,
My strange habitation by surges o’er-roofed.
I am strong in the strife, while still I remain;
As soon as I stir, they are stronger than I.
They wrench and they wrest, till I run from my foes;
What was put in my keeping they carry away.
If my back be not broken, I baffle them still.
The rocks are my helpers, when hard I am pressed;
Grimly I grip them. Guess what I’m called.
My beak is below, I burrow and nose
Under the ground. I go as I’m guided
By my master the farmer, old foe of the forest;
Bent and bowed, at my back he walks,
Forward pushing me over the field;
Sows on my path where I’ve passed along.
I came from the wood, a wagon carried me;
I was fitted with skill, I am full of wonders.
As grubbing I go, there’s green on one side,
But black on the other my path is seen.
A curious prong pierces my back;
Under me hangs another in front,
And forward pointing is fixed to my head.
I tear and gash the ground with my teeth
If my master steer me with skill from behind.
(From the Cotton MS.)
The king shall rule his kingdom; castles are seen from afar,
Reared by giants they rise in the land,
Wondrous walls of masonry. Wind is swiftest aloft;
Far is the thunder heard. Fair are the glories of Christ.
Wyrd is strongest, Winter is coldest,
Lent is hoariest, ’tis latest cold.
Harvest is merriest, to men it brings
Fruits of the year, furnished by God.
Truth is plainest. Treasure is dearest,
Gold to the children of men. Gray hairs are wisest:
Who longest hath lived hath learned the most.
Troubles shall cleave. Clouds shall dissolve.
Comrades good shall encourage an ætheling
To be brave in the fight, and free of his gold.
Earls shall be daring. Iron shall ring
Against helmet in battle. Hooded, the falcon
Shall keep his wildness. Wolf in the forest
Shall outlaw be. Boar in the thicket
Shall tear with his tusks. Trusty earl
To praise shall aspire. Spear for the hand,
Gold-adorned javelin. Jewel in ring
Shall richly be set. River with sea
Shall mingle its stream. Mast in the ship,
Sail on the yard, sword in the breast
Iron that is doughty. Dragon in the cave
Fierce o’er his treasure. Fish in the water
Shall spawn its kind. King in the hall
Shall bracelets bestow. Bear on the heath
Surly shall roam. Stream from the hill-side
Gray shall gush. Together shall stand
Troops of comrades. Truth in an earl,
In councillors wisdom. The woods shall bloom
With brighterst hues; hills shall stand
Green on the earth. God is in heaven,
To judge our deeds. Door for the hall,
The building’s mouth. Boss for the shield,
Fingers to fend. Fowls in the air
Shall sport and play. Salmon in the pool
Shall dart and shoot. Showers from the skies
Windy and wet on the world shall fall.
Thief shall stalk in the dark. Giant shall dwell on the fen,
Alone on the moorland. Maid shall in secret
Go to her friend, if she fail to be bought
With gold before her folk. The flood shall be salt,
Waves of the ocean that wash the land,
And break on the shores. The beast of the field
Shall breed and bring forth. Bright in the heavens
Stars shall glitter, as God hath bid them.
Good against evil; youth against age;
Light against dark; life against death;
Host against host shall harry the land,
Foe against foe with feud shall come,
Stirring up strife. The sage shall ponder
This warring world. The “Wolf” shall hang
Pay for the wrong he wrought upon earth,
His guilt among men; God alone knows
The place that his soul shall seek hereafter,
Bourne of the spirits that speed to their Maker,
When the stroke of death hath sent them to God,
Where they wait for their doom. Dark is the future,
Dark and Hidden! He alone knows,
Our Helper in need; for none comes hither,
Revisits his home to reveal to men
What manner of mansions the Almighty inhabits,
What seats of glory are God’s abode.
(From the Exeter Book)
As the sea is smooth when storms are at rest,
So people are quiet when peace is proclaimed.
Ship shall be nailed, shield shall be bound
Lindenwood decked. Dear to the Frisian wife,
And wlecome the sailor that stands at the door.
Home is her husband, his boat’s in the harbor;
She bids him in, her own provide;
She washed his weedy coat; she gets him garments fresh.
’Tis dear on the land where a loved one is waiting.
Wife shall be true to the man she hath wedded.
Faithful are many, but many are froward,
The will love a stranger when their lord is away.
Long doth the seaman stay on his voyage,
Weary the wife that waits her dear one.
Though bitter her lot, she bideth her hour;
Safe again home she shall see her husband
Unless he is lying, lost and sunken,
Locked in the arms of the ocean vast.
Hapless outlaws shall house with the wolves;
The treacherous beasts oft tear their comrade.
When the gray-wolf kills, there are graves to be filled,
His howls are hears as hungry he roams,
Prowling for prey; no pity in his wail
For men he has murdered; he is greedy for more.
Prudent counsels are becoming to men.
To the gleeman his song, to the sage his wisdom.
As many men, so many minds:
Separate thanes have separate thoughts.
He longeth the least that hath store of lays,
Or with hands of skill can strike the harp,
On whom God hath bestowed the gift of song.
Wretched who lives alone in the world
Doomed by fate to dwell without friends;
’Twere better he had a brother in his house,
Both men of the self-same father.
There’s sport on the ship when she runs under sail
’Tis weary work against wind to row.
They call him a coward and craven shirk,
Whose oar is aboard with blade unwetted.
THE FATES OF MEN
(From the Exeter Book)
Full oft by the grace of God it happens
To man and woman in wedlock placed,
A child is born. They cherish it fondly,
Tend and teach it, till the time is come,
When the little one’s limbs, in the lapse of years
Have sturdy grown, and gained their strength.
So father and mother fondly rear it,
Nourish and guard it. But God alone knows
The gift of the years of the growing child.
Sudden death is the dome of one,
Snatched away in the spring of his youth
By a violent end, devoured by wolves
That range the heath: Her unhappy child
The mother bemoans, but man may not change it.
One shall famine slay; another the flood sweep away!
One shall the battle break; another the bolt o’ertake!
One shall In darkness drear drag out his life,
Groping to feel where his feet may stand.
Stricken with palsy in sinew and limb,
Another shall grieve and groan at his fate.
One shall fall from a forest tree:
Fearful he wheels in wingless flight,
Spins through the air and swoops top the ground;
From the crown of the trunk he crashes to earth,
Stunned and senseless, all still he lies
On the straggling roots, his soul is fled!
One shall wander, wear and foot-sore.
Far through the world, famished and needy,
Trudging at dawn along dewy trails,
In a land unloved and an alien soil.
Few are alive to befriend the wanderer,
Ever unwelcome his eyes of woe.
High on the gallows shall hang another,
Dangle and strangle till he stiffen in death.
Bloody-beaked birds on his body shall prey;
The plundering raven shall pluck out his eyes,
Tear and claw the carcass to shreds.
Helpless he hangs, — his hands avail not
To ward off the scavengers that swoop through the air.
Hope-of-life has left that livid corpse;
Senseless and stark he suffers his Wyrd,
Drowned in the death-mist: doom of the criminal.
One shall be burnt in the weltering blaze;
Flames shall devour their fated victim,
Swift and sudden his sundering from life
In the lurid glow. Loud wails the mother,
As she watches the flames enfolding her darling.
One shall be slain as he sits on the mead-bench,
Ale-brawl ended by edge of the sword:
The drunkard’s folly, — too forward his tongue!
So the Lord Almighty allots unto men
Manifold fortunes o’er the face of the earth;
Dealeth their dole, their destiny holds.
To some he gives wealth, to some he gives woe,
Gladness of youth to some, to others glory in battle,
Strength in the war-play with spear and with bow-string.
Fame and honor; to others he gives
Skill in the game of the checkered board,
Some become learned in lord of books.
Some have the gift of working in gold;
Of beaten metal they make bright ornaments,
And get broad lands from their lord in return,
Receive them with joy from the generous king.
One shall wait upon wassailing comrades.
Gladden the hears of heroes carousing,
Large is their joy as they laugh at the revels.
One shall be found at the feet of his lord;
With his harp he shall win a harvest of wealth;
Quickly he tightens the twangling strings,
They ring and they swing as his spur-shod finger
Dances across them: deftly he plays.
Another shall tame the towering flacon,
Hawk in hand, till the haughty flier
Grows meek and gentle; he makes him jesses,
Feeds in fetters the feather-proud bird,
With dainty morsels, the dauntless soarer,
Until the wild one is weakened and humbled,
Belled and tasselled, obeys his master
Hooded and tamed and trained to his hand.
So marvelously God in his might bestows
Skill upon men in many lands,
Shaping their lives , and allotting their fortunes
To dwellers on earth of every kin.
Let each man render Him honor and praise
For the gifts His grace hath granted to mortals.
VI. RIDDLES AND GNOMIC VERSE
In the Exeter Book is preserved a collection of some ninety riddles in alliterative verse. These riddles are descriptions or characterizations of objects, from which the object itself, which is not named, must be guessed. When the Old English poet, instead of naming the sea, called it the seals’ bath, or instead of naming the ship, called it the ocean-stallion, he resorted to a familiar device of Germanic poetry known as the kenning. Now the Old English riddles are in essence expanded kennings: given the characteristics of an object, to guess what it meant. In the larger number of the riddles the objects personified and describe themselves, and many of them attain a high degree of literary excellence. Their scope is wide. “Nothing human is deemed too high or low for treatment, and all phases of Old English existence are revealed in these poems; so that they stand out as the most important contemporary contributions of the everyday life of their time.” The reading and guessing of riddles of this kind seems to have been a favorite pastime with the Old English, and frequent references to the mead-hall in the riddles themselves make it likely that they were recited there along with lay and ballad. The Old English riddles have their parallels in Latin literature. A collection of one hundred Latin riddles, called the enigmas of Symphosius, was especially popular in England in the seventh
and eighth centuries. Aldhelm (640-707), Bishop of Sherborne, imitated Symphosius in a collection of a hundred riddles in Latin hexameters. A third collection of Latin riddles is party by Tatwine, who became Archbishop of Canterbury In 731, and party by one Eusebius, of whom nothing is known except that he was an English Churchman and composed sixty enigmas, which with Tatwine’s forty, made up the favorite one hundred of the riddle collections. While the riddles of the Exeter Book show the influence of these Latin models, that are in no sense mere imitations, but are full of fresh and close observation of life.
The English riddles, unlike those in the Latin collections, are not supplied with answers, hence their solution has long exercised the ingenuity of students of Old English. Wile most of them have been satisfactorily solved, the meaning of some is still in doubt. The theory that Cynewulf wrote the riddles has been effectually disproved. While no author is known, they show the workmanship of a single poet, and are not to be viewed as a random collection. For the whole subject of Riddle Literature, and the problems raised by the Old English Riddles, see Professor Tupper’s excellent introduction to his edition of the Riddles of the Exeter Book (Albion Series, Ginn and Co., 1910).
No. 48 of the Exeter Book. Perhaps more accurately, the Book Moth. The riddle is closely modelled upon No. 16 in the collection of Symphosius, which is given for comparison:
“Litera me pavit, nec quid sit litera novi.
In libris vixi, nec sum studiosior inde.
Exedi Musas, nec adhuc tamen ipsa profeci.”
The solution of the Latin riddle is given as “Tinea.”
No. 58 of the Exeter Book. This riddle has been variously interpreted as referring to swallows, or gnats, or starlings. The analogies from Latin riddles quoted by Professor
Tupper, seem to favor the solution, “swallows.” In that case we ought to read in l. 3:
Dark coated, dusky-winged, darting about,
and in the last line
Gable-roofed towns! Now tell me their name.
No. 6 of the Exeter Book. “Illuminated Anglo-Saxon Mss. usually represent the warrior as armed with no other defensive weapons than shield and helmet. The shield, circular, or slightly oval in shape, is usually of linden-wood, sometimes covered with leather with a metal-bound edge and in the center an iron boss, a small basin tapering at the top and ending in a knob.” — TUPPER
No. 11 of the Exeter Book. This puzzling riddle has been responsible for much ingenious guesswork. Among the answers suggested are the following: Ocean-furrow, Wake of a Vessel, Water-bubble, Anchor, Water-lily! Stopford Brooke (E. E. L., p. 179, note) suggest “Barnacle-Goose” as the solution. Giraldus Cambrensis, a medieval writer, gives the following description of this mythical bird: “Barnacle geese are like marsh-geese, but somewhat smaller. They are produced from fir timber tossed along the sea, and are at first like gum. Afterwards they hand down by their beaks, as if from a seaweed attached to a timber, surrounded by shells in order to grow more freely. Having thus in process of time been clothed with a strong coat of feathers, they either fall into the water, or fly freely away into the air.” Professor Tupper, in his note on the riddle, defends Brooke’s interpretation; and the additional evidence adduced by him seems now to me conclusive in favor of the Barnacle-goose. My own interpretation, made before I had seen his article, I have allowed to stand as a suggestion, although it will probably be
thought to be too fanciful. The “streamers of white,” “Hwite wæron hyrste mine,” were suggested to me by the way in which the green seas are churned into wavy lines of white foam by the barnacles undersides of a sailing-vessel when she heels to the wind. These “streamers of white” can be observed wherever the tide sweeps between the barnacled pilings of an old dock or bridge. On the other hand, the fact that “hyrste” is used of the feathers of the bird in the Swan riddle, favors the solution “Barnacle-Goose.”
No. 28 of the Exeter Book collection. Professor Tupper, in his note to this riddle (p. 132), quotes a number of interesting analogues. “Honey was more important to the ancients than it is to us, for it constituted the chief ingredient of mead, the time-honored beverage of the Aryan peoples.” — Sharon Turner (Hist. of the Anglo-Saxons, Bk. VII, Chap. IV) cites an Anglo-Saxon canon against drunkenness: “This is drunkenness, when the state of mind is changed, the tongue stammers, the eyes are disturbed, the head is giddy, the belly is swelled, and pain follows.” Both passages cited by Tupper. Tacitus, long before, made the observation that the people of Germanic stock were addicted to the vice of drunkenness.
No. 17 of the Exeter Book collection. this riddle has a parallel in the Symphosius collection.
“Mucro mihi geminus ferro conjungitur unco
Cum vento luctor, cum gurgite pugno profundo.
Scrutor aquas medias, ipsas quoque mordeo terras.”
(A double point is joined to me with hooked iron. With the wind I struggle, I battle with the surge profound. I scan the midmost waves, and bite the very bottom.) The Old English riddle offers a fine example of the way in which the poet╬s
imagination vitalizes and dramatizes his object. The anchor has become a hero fighting desperately for the safety of the vessel committed to his charge.
No. 22 of the Exeter Book collection. Professor Tupper has an interesting note on the ancient plough (p. 113), and gives references to pictures of ploughs in old Mss. “The illuminated Mss. are at variance regarding the form of the plough. In some the ploughs are of the rudest sort without wheels; in others they have wheels (so in the pictures of the Cædmon Ms.). All these ploughs are drawn by oxen, urged by a goad — usually in the hands of an attendant herd.” — 3.
My master the farmer, old foe of the forest.
The Old English has simply, “Har holtes feond,” hoary foe of the forest, which has also been interpreted as referring to the ox that draws the plough. — 10.
A curious prong,
etc. The coulter and share of the plough.
Proverbial sayings, maxims of wisdom, reflections based on experience, were popular among the Germanic peoples from the earliest times, and were handed down in the traditional alliterative form. Two compilations of gnomic verses are found in the Old English Ms. Collections, one in the Cotton Ms., comprising sixty-six lines, and given entire in the translation, the other in the Exeter Book, comprising two hundred six lines, from which a few extracts are given. but this by no means exhausts the store of “gnomic verse,“ in Old English literature. We find both the Epic and the Lyric verse of the Anglo-Saxons liberally interlined with gnomic sayings, sober moralizings, which to our mind often interrupt the movement of the narrative or the flow of lyric feeling. No doubt the cultivation of literature in the monasteries emphasized this preaching tendency; but it would be a mistake to suppose that wherever
our taste is offended by the intrusion of the gnomic genre, we are dealing with interpolated matter. In spite of the apparently loose and haphazard manner in which the gnomic sayings are strung together in our collections, there is a certain unity of structure and design. The verses are closely knit together by alliteration and “enjambment,” i.e, the running over of the sense from one line into the next, unlike, in this respect, to the favorite distich or heroic couplet of eighteenth-century didactic verse. The end of one “saying” and the beginning of the next are generally locked together by alliteration, but the alliterative line is rarely a thought unit. It is interesting to observe how alliteration is thus made to assist the memory in linking together a series of apparently disconnected sayings. The need of some such help probably explains the large preponderance of “run-on” lines in these gnomic collections. Here and there we seem to have remnants of an earlier stanzaic form. In their swift panoramic survey of life, and their delight in a huddled array of concrete observation, there is a curious analogy between these gnomic verses and some of the poems of Walt Whitman.