The Old English Maxims I: Part A

One of the more unusual genres of poetry you encounter when studying Old English (and Old Norse) is so-called wisdom poetry. Carolyne Larrington characterises a wisdom poem as one ‘which exists primarily to impart a body of information about the condition of the world’, usually paired with generalised advice, and notes that it is among one of the oldest genres of literature among any number of the world’s languages (p.1). Studying Old English wisdom poetry can be a strange experience for modern readers because it is so unlike the sort of literature we are used to, stitching together series of aphorisms in a way that is resolutely non-narrative and without the strong, introspective voice of the elegies. The poetry does, however, communicate its wisdom via beautifully wrought imagery in alliterative verse, the visual intensity of the descriptions underscoring the pithy (sometimes banal) counsel on offer.

Maxims I is the title of one such wisdom poem in the tenth-century Exeter Book, which is one of our main sources of Old English poetry. Editors usually split the poem into three different parts (A, B and C) on the basis of perceived stylistic and thematic differences, but it is entirely possible it was intended as one single composition. Part A begins with the poem’s speaker inviting the listener to question them and exchange their own wisdom, before going on to provide short vignettes of individual figures (like the blind man) interspersed with terser, more isolated sayings. Below is my full translation of this section.

Maxims I (A)

Why don’t you ask me about these old sayings —
just don’t keep a hidden heart, or conceal what you know most deeply,
because I won’t utter my secrets if you veil clever intentions,
your mind’s unseen workings. Wise folk exchange their stories.

First, you should fairly celebrate God the father,
since he made us at the start, our lives and short-lived longings,
those rewards he’d wish to remind us of.
The Maker must be in glory and we must be on earth,
the young growing old. Always God is with us
— events don’t disturb him, nor does care afflict
the almighty with illness or old age;
he doesn’t fade in spirt, he is as he’s always been:
our lord long-suffering, who lends us understanding
and diverse feeling, and myriad different tongues.
The measurer raised roomy lands for people,
broad islands embracing soulful beings,
with as many folk as there are fashions.

Wise with the wise must always assemble,
those alike in spirit setting matters aright,
teaching peace after others transgress.
Wise counsel should be with the clever,
and virtue too — good attends the good.
Two must make a match together,
one with the other bearing life into the world.
A tree should stand upright in the earth,
letting fall its leaves while the branches lament.

The eager must roam about, doomed to die,
each day contending against their parting
from this middle-earth. The Measurer alone knows
about death’s coming, who will depart their comrades.

Humankind prospers though plague snatches life,
in this way do folk thrive in the folds,
but there’d be little limit to people on earth
if the maker didn’t also diminish them.

Sudden death takes the fool who doesn’t know his lord.
Wise men shield their souls, keep their truth with principle.
The favoured flourish in their homeland, while wretches betray friends.
At times need must bind one whose own nest dwindles.
A baleless heart is cheerful. The blind must do without eyesight,
robbed of bright image — they cannot gaze at the stars above,
nor the sky-lit sun and moon. It’s a sorrow to them,
an unease when they alone know it won’t come home.
The ruler wrought this torment, he who can also give respite,
and if he sees a clean heart, make the head-stars whole again.

An ailing man needs a doctor. A teacher must tutor the young,
tempering their spirit and urging them to know good,
until they’re led to understanding — with fine clothes, and a full belly.
Don’t dismiss those young in years before they bare their souls,
and by doing so gain acceptance among their people,
thinking for themselves.

One must steer a steadfast mind. The sea often brings storms
in harsh seasons; they begin to hasten far inland,
grey and fierce with the wind as company,
to find if the cragged cliffs will hold out,
whether the the earth will be able to withstand.

But the sea stays quiet when the wind doesn’t wake it,
each nation is in concord when they come together,
gathering to sit in shelter; and when they stay true to their friends,
those brave of intention are strongest in nature.
The king is eager for authority, hates anyone itching for land,
but is fond of those who offer him more.

Glory is with pride, pluck, a warlike temper,
Both make battle together when the time comes.
An earl sits astride his horse, his thanes attending,
the troop standing fast. It suits a woman to be at the mead-bench,
— men reprove one who wander with slurs,
they complain bitterly while her beauty fades.

The shamed man moves in shadow, the good shines brightly.
The head guides the hand, the hoard expects its gold,
the lord’s throne waits ready when warriors deal it out.
A greedy one is caught by gold — they should be content on their high seat;
there must be reward, if we remain true, for those who show mercy.

Reading

Carolyne Larrington, A Store of Common Knowledge: Gnomic Wisdom in Old Icelandic and Old English Wisdom Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

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