In Our Time: Beowulf

The epic poem Beowulf is probably the best known piece of Anglo-Saxon literature – it’s certainly one I was aware of, and had an idea of the shape of the story before we listened to the In Our Time episode about it. However it was unknown until the 19th Century when a single manuscript copy dating from around 1100AD was discovered. The three experts who discussed it on the programme were Laura Ashe (University of Oxford), Clare Lees (King’s College London) and Andy Orchard (University of Oxford).

Even tho the surviving version of the poem comes from the 11th or 12 Century, it was probably composed around 750AD. It’s sometimes said to be a little earlier: “from the time of Bede” (who died in 735AD). But Orchard pointed out that Bede is known person from a known time so estimates tend to gravitate towards him. The subject of the poem is older still – it’s a poem about long ago & far away about history that the listeners were expected to already be aware of. Some of the characters in the poem are real historical personages who lived around the 5th Century AD (however this doesn’t include the hero Beowulf). This is a Christian English poem about the listeners’ pagan Danish ancestors, written in a time before the Danes were seen as a foreign threat.

There are three sections to the poem. The first tells of the hero Beowulf travelling to another kingdom and fighting the monster Grendel, who has been terrorising the country. Grendel is a misshapen man who fights without a sword and so Beowulf wrestles with him and wins the fight by pulling off the monster’s arm. Said arm is then hung up as a trophy when Beowulf returns to the king of the country. The second section tells us about Grendel’s mother who comes to avenge her son, as is her legal right. She lives beneath the sea and Beowulf goes to her lair (or hall) to fight her with a sword. The third section of the poem is set 50 years later, when Beowulf is an old man and has become a king in his own right. The story of how he came to be king is told in flashbacks, while the main plot of this section revolves around him fighting a dragon which is terrorising his country. Unlike the first two monsters this is a truely mythological beast instead of fantastical but plausible. Beowulf goes to fight it in its lair, and at first is losing the fight despite his heroic skill. With the help of his men, and using a sword from the dragon’s lair, he finally defeats the dragon but dies in his moment of triumph.

The poem has a very non-linear structure, and after its rediscovery 19th Century critics used the repetition as an example of how it was a poor poem. Modern scholarship strongly disagrees with that opinion! The narrative circles around the story with each repetition of an event giving you new details or nuances, or new references to other literature etc. For instance in the first part the poem first tells one about the fight, then Beowulf tells someone about the fight, then Beowulf tells the king of the country Grendel was terrorising and then Beowulf tells his own king. All have differences that tell you more about the event. This isn’t the only sort of non-linearity – there are also flashbacks (for instance in the third section as I mentioned above), and asides that tell you how some side-event turned out later. Or who owned a particular sword once the current owner died after the end of this story, and so on.

The poem was written to be heard rather than read. The experts read out sections in the original Anglo-Saxon, with Orchard in particular making it sound vibrant and alive (even if incomprehensible – I didn’t get very far the one time I started learning Anglo-Saxon). However it probably wasn’t an oral composition, instead it was written down with the intention that it should be read out. It is a very literate poem, with references to other literature of the period and before including classic Latin literature. Orchard pointed out parallels with things like the Aeneid, which the Anglo-Saxons of the 8th Century AD would’ve known.

It wasn’t just a story about heroes and monsters, and tales of derring do. The peom was also about the ending of one era and the beginning of the next. It tells the story of the pagan Beowulf from a Christian perspective, and contains Christian motifs and structural elements. Most obviously the three-part structure which is more of a Christian motif than a pagan one. And the narrative moralises about the actions of the protagonists – a running commentary of “that’s how it was then, but we know better now”. The pagan culture valued valour & honour, but the Christian one valued non-violence and godliness. The poem reflects that change and the tension between the old ways and the new.

I think the biggest thing this programme told me was how much more there is to Beowulf than I’d realised. I’m pretty sure we have a translation in the house (somewhere!), I should find it and read it sometime 🙂

Literature of the English Country House (Course on Future Learn)

I’d not intended to overlap courses on Future Learn, because I thought it might end up feeling like it was taking up too much of my time. I was right, but I’m still glad I took the Literature of the English Country House course even tho it has overlapped with two courses that I’d already signed up for. And to be honest it was part of why I found the Portus archaeology course so disappointing in the end (post), because this one was much more to my tastes!

This course was an 8 week course run by Sheffield University about, as you might expect, English literature that deals with or takes place in country houses. All the videos were filmed in country houses so that we could see the sorts of places the texts were talking about. The first seven weeks each looked at a particular aspect of country house literature, roughly moving forwards in time as we went. And then the last week was a review of the previous weeks, and a test to see if you’d got the right idea.

The first week also introduced us to the concept of close reading – it was a course pitched as being for everyone, so this made sure we were all aware of the technique. Whilst it wasn’t something I’d ever been formally taught I’ve been reading a few in depth analyses of books and book series online over the last few years so the concept was familiar to me. The general point is not just to read for the surface meaning, but once you’ve done that to go back and read more closely paying attention to word choice and the broader context of the piece. This doesn’t just show you how the author built up your impression of a scene, but might also give you greater insight into what they are saying (intentionally or unintentionally).

The texts we read were mostly excerpts from longer works tailored to demonstrate the points the course was making. In week one, as well as the skill of close reading (illustrated using a scene or two from Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night), we also looked at modern misconceptions about country houses and country house literature – namely that they were only places of harmony between the elite and the rest of the countryside, and that women didn’t write literature in the 17th Century. These were illustrated by a poem by Ben Johnson (To Penshurst) which by praising one place (and family) for its harmonious perfection also lets one know what normality really was. And we also read an excerpt from a work by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.

Week two focussed on entertainment in 17th Century country houses – both the amateur (illustrated by a poem written by a servant to celebrate a child’s 2nd birthday) and the professional (illustrated by the scenes from Hamlet where the travelling players visit Elsinore). In week three we looked at politeness in the 18th Century – which they explained was a bit of a broader concept than it is now. It wasn’t just about whether you said “please” and “thank you” in the right places, but also the way you spoke, the clothes you wore and whole sum of your public behaviour & presentation. Personally, I think we might still stretch politeness as a term to cover all of that sort of thing, but perhaps I’m not understanding the nuances here. This week was illustrated first with an excerpt from the Spectator, a humorous piece about the differences between country & town manners. And also by an excerpt from a novel by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire featuring a husband who was polite in the mode of the town but very much not nice.

Week 4 was devoted to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The passages we read were about Elizabeth Bennet’s visit to Darcy’s house – which is thought to be modelled on Chatsworth. And these passages were used to illustrate a narrative technique which Austen used that was revolutionary at the time. This is “free indirect discourse” where the boundaries between the narrator and the thoughts of the character are blurred. In week 5 we turned to the darker side of country house literature – the country house as a sort of malevolent presence or with a weird or reclusive owner. This was illustrated with a gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and also by Dickens’s Great Expectations. The latter was also used to look at points of view within the story – because the story is told by Pip when he’s much older so you get a mingling of the young boy’s reaction to Miss Haversham and the older man’s more considered view.

The 6th week was all about childhood and the literature devoted to it, which was rather fun. So we had some of Lear’s nonsense rhymes, and an excerpt from Alice in Wonderland. And the final week of reading brought us up to the end of the country house era – the 19th Century, and Oscar Wilde. The excerpts this week included a couple from The Canterville Ghost, which started out as a witty look at the trend of wealthy Americans buying up old British country houses from impoverished aristocrats. But by the end (our second excerpt) seemed to’ve turned into a rather saccharine piece of sentimental Victorian religiousness!

I enjoyed this course a lot. It’s a shame I had so many other things on at the time, I’m not sure I entirely did it justice while I was working through it – but the stuff is all still there to go back over again if I want to in the future 🙂

In Our Time: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a poem by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald which is a loose translation of several quatrains attributed to the 11th Century Iranian poet Omar Khayyam. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Charles Melville (University of Cambridge), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling), and they talked about both what is known about the original Persian verses and author as well as Fitzgerald’s version.

The programme started with Melville giving some brief context for Omar Khayyam. He lived in what is now Iran in the 11th Century AD, during the time of the Seljuk Turks. During his lifetime and in the initial period afterwards he was best known as a mathematician and scholar. He wrote an important treatise on geometry and was involved in revising the solar calendar so that it once again matched the seasons of the year. Melville said that this time period in Iran was a transition to a more conservative society and a return to the core values of Islam, and the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are out of step with this attitude. The first mention of Khayyam writing poetry comes 60 or 70 years after his death, as part of a denunciation of him as a heretic by holding up an example of a quatrain he supposedly wrote which contained heretical views. There isn’t actually any hard evidence that Khayyam wrote any of the quatrains associated with his name, but by the 15th Century there are manuscripts of collections of Persian quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. He may’ve written some of them, Melville explained that making up snippets of poetry was a sort of parlour game in the court circles that Khayyam moved in during his life. All three experts agreed that it was reasonable for Fitzgerald to believe that the manuscript he had contained at least a core of quatrains written by Khayyam and others that had later been attributed to Khayyam.

Edward Fitzgerald was a privileged member of the British upper class who lived in the 19th Century. His mother was one of the wealthiest women in the country, and the family took the Fitzgerald name because of a bequest from one of her relatives. He was educated at a public school in Bury St Edmunds, and went to Cambridge University at a time where he met people such as Tennyson. However he was also self-taught, and most of his knowledge of English literature & poetry came from his own wide reading. He is a sort of counter-example for the increasing professionalisation of writing and publishing during the Victorian period – self-taught, rather eccentric and wealthy enough to just publish his writing without needing to submit it to a publisher etc. Despite all his advantages he did not have a particularly happy life. His childhood wasn’t terribly happy, in particular his mother was rather distant. He didn’t marry young, and when he finally did marry it quickly became clear that it had been a terrible mistake for both parties. At around the same time his closest male friend, Cowell, went to India for two years and Fitzgerald felt abandoned – this was a time period (the 1850s) when there was a reasonable chance that Cowell would die in India. When Cowell left he gave to Fitzgerald a copy of a manuscript of Persian poems, the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Fitzgerald flung himself into learning Persian and translating these poems.

The basic format of the original poems is that each is a standalone piece consisting of four lines, or perhaps two lines each of which is split into half. In the original Persian collections they are organised alphabetically based on the the last rhyme of each. One of the experts (Melville?) suggested that in some ways they occupy the same sort of cultural niche as limericks do in British verse (except without the expectation of them being rude, that limericks have). They’re short pieces with a defined format that you might expect people to just make up on the fly. As well as a particular meter they also have two possible rhyming schemes – one is AAAA (ie all four lines end the same way) and the other is AABA. Melville said that this is a traditionally Persian form of poetry, pre-dating the rise of Islam, and although it has this defined format it’s much less rigid and formal in structure than Arabic poetry.

Fitzgerald’s translation of these poems is definitely not a literal translation. To achieve it, first he had to learn Persian and then he translated the poems into medieval Latin. From there, he translated them into English. He also organised the quatrains he picked into a single poem made up of four line stanzas. This follows an overarching narrative of “the day of life” – morning (birth), noon and night (death). Something that’s present in the original and that particularly spoke to Fitzgerald is a sense of nihilism and of needing to take your pleasures in the here & now rather than hoping for better things after death. In his letters, particularly to Cowell, Fitzgerald expressed many scandalously atheist & nihilistic views – Blair reminded us that he’s writing this translation at the time that people are beginning to question the literalness & accuracy of Bible translations, and during the time when the Origin of the Species is being written. It’s probably those elements of the poems that Fitzgerald seized on about a lack of belief in the afterlife and a hedonistic approach to the world that are the same elements that were being cited as indicators of Khayyam’s heresy back in the 12th Century.

During the programme Melville (who works on Persian history) read out some of the original Persian poetry, so we got a feel for the rhythm and rhymes of the original. Karlin and Blair both read parts of Fitzgerald’s verse (they’re English literature academics) and discussed how Fitzgerald made the unusual rhyme scheme (to English ears) work with the poem, for instance in this stanza:

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake!”

The third line with it’s non-rhyming end is the one talking about being awry and the whole quatrain is about this seeming awryness actually being done on purpose (as it is in the poem). Fitzgerald also wove into the poem a lot of allusions to other great works in the English language – including Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And that all gives it a richness and connection for an English reader that a more literal translation might lack.

Initially the poem was not a success – it sold only a single copy in its first year after publication. But this copy found its way to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who liked it, and once people heard of it via them then it became an incredibly influential poem. The experts were saying that a part of its popularity was in the way it embodied a decadent, hedonistic Orientalist view of “the East” that was appealing to the Victorians (I cynically think it’s so they could have their cake & eat it – get the pleasure of the poetry and of the images it conjures up whilst assuring themselves they’re better than that). Interestingly as the poetry became influential in Britain it sparked a revival in Iran – and Omar Khayyam is now more famous as a poet in Iran that ever before. In Britain after the Second World War there has been something of a drop off in popularity of the poem – Blair suggested this is in part because of a reaction by a new generation against something that was so popular in a previous generation. Blair and Karlin both said they don’t teach it at undergraduate level – in part because it’s so difficult to categorise. Is it a piece of 19th Century English poetry? But it’s heavily based on a Persian original. Yet how can you teach it as a work by Omar Khayyam, when it’s not really known whether it was by him and even if it was, Fitzgerald’s translation is so non-literal that you aren’t really looking at the original?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.