Maxims I – a bardic reading

Noone reading the poem (or poems) Maxims I can fail to be struck by what a shambolic farrago of a thing it is. Jumping from subject to subject like a demented mountain-goat, it is a glorious semantic and metrical muddle unlike anything else in the corpus.

The poem has massively more hypermetrical lines than any other in the corpus (see list of hypermetric lines in The Rhythm of Beowulf, Pope, J. C.). And even in the passages which are not characterized by gnomic riffing, the meaning constantly teeters on the edge of incoherence.

Take the following passage (between what is usually numbered ll.45 and 59), which is fairly representative:

1.      . . . . . .                            Læran sceal mon geongne monnan,
      trymman ond tyhtan þæt he teala cunne,    oþþæt hine mon atemedne hæbbe,
      sylle him wist ond wædo,                oþþæt hine mon on gewitte alæde.
      Ne sceal hine mon cildgeongne forcweþan,    ær he hine acyþan mote;
5.  þy sceal on þeode geþeon,         þæt he wese þristhycgende.
      Styran sceal mon strongum mode.           Storm oft holm gebringeþ,
      geofen in grimmum sælum;       onginnað grome fundian
      fealwe on feorran to londe,       hwæþer he fæste stonde.
      Weallas him wiþre healdað,       him biþ wind gemæne.
10. Swa biþ sæ smilte,       þonne hy wind ne weceð;
      swa beoþ þeoda geþwære,       þonne hy geþingad habbað,
      gesittað him on gesundum þingum,       ond þonne mid gesiþum healdaþ
      cene men gecynde rice.       Cyning biþ anwealdes georn;
      lað se þe londes monað,       leof se þe mare beodeð.

Metrical features, such as alliteration, rhyme and recurring word patterns have been highlighted. I’ve used my own numbering here, because editors can’t decide whether line 10 is one line or two.

Here we have a series of scenes, first bringing up children, then a storm at sea, followed by advice on running a kingdom. There is a clear logical sequence – bringing up children involves sacrifice and can be like weathering a storm, as can ruling a kingdom, and storms can be avoided by inclusive governance and granting land.

But metrically it is a mess. At line two we have a line with too many words, excess feet and three alliterating words in the first half-line. In line 10, the second half-line alliterates internally, but not with the first half-line. Line 8 and line 14 have both alliteration and rhyme. Lines 2 and 3 and lines 10 and 11 are also connected by recurring word patterns.

The number of syllables between the end of the first half-line and the first foot of the second half-line is at times quite large, raising questions as to how such lines are to be read in rhythm.

ln       leadin                                     syllables
2b      oþþæt hine mon a-                  5
3b      oþþæt hine mon on ge-           6
12b     ond þonne mid ge-                  5

There is a grammatical error in the storm passage, at line 8, where he seems to require land, which is neuter, as its antecedent. Probably the poet is thinking of the parent/king, the presumable subject of the metaphor.

This section is quite representative of the state of the rest of the poem or poems. Which raises a couple of questions:

  • Why was the poem not edited so as to tidy it up prior to being written down.
  • How was such a messy work meant to be read.

I would like to propose a rather imaginative explanation. I suggest that the text as we have it shows signs that its original (our text is known to be a copy, see Brian O’Camb, ‘Toward a Monastic Poetics: Exeter Maxims and the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry’, 2011 p102ff.) was an ex tempore composition. I’m not for a moment suggesting it goes back to some ur-germanic bard. I’m thinking more of monastic poetic experiments, in imitation of the traditional picture of bardic composition. Furthermore I suggest that, at least in the first part of the poem, there were two extemporisers, once again following the traditional model of bardic performance. And thirdly, I suggest that this piece was to be performed using a harp to emphasise the rhythmical features during performance.

The idea that Old English Poetry was improvised and performed to the harp has gone out of fashion. John Niles allows it only as part of a late Anglo-Saxon mythology of the bard. [John D. Niles, The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet,]. I note that my suggestion of late monastic expertimentation is quite consistent with this position.

In support of ex tempore composition, I adduce the irregularity of much of the poem, in particular the frequent defective line and alliteration schemes, with numerous two foot lines and non-standard use of alliteration.

It is hard to see why such a poem would be committed to a manuscript without major editing unless it had other redeeming features. If the poem is somehow the record of an ex tempore performance, this would adequately account for both the irregularity of the metre and the unedited preservation of the record.

With respect to my idea that there are two speakers, we have evidence from the opening words of the poem itself. The opening lines, which are an invitation to share wisdom, seem clearly to be spoken by two persons.

A: Frige mec frodum wordum!    B: Ne læt þinne ferð onhælne,
degol þæt þu deopost cunne!    A:Nelle ic þe min dyrne gesecgan,
gif þu me þinne hygecræft hylest    ond þine heortan geþohtas.
B: Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan.       . . . .

A: Ask me with wise words. B: Do not keep your mind concealed
hidden what you know most deepy. A: I do not wish to tell you my secret
if you hide your knowledge from me and the thoughts of your heart
B: expert men should share their tales       . . . .

“Ask me with wise words” and “Do not keep your mind concealed” do not make sense if the same person is speaking, as the second phrase amounts to “tell me”. However, “tell me” makes perfect sense if it is a response to “ask me”. Similarly, the phrase “I do not wish to tell you my secret” doesn’t follow from “tell me” unless it is a response -” I won’t tell you unless you tell me”. The following reference to “expert men” sharing fits this scenario perfectly.

So the poem itself starts with two speakers. There is no indication that the rest of the poem does not continue to be recited by two people. In fact there is strong evidence that it is.

Line 38 is one of the clearest indicators of two-person performance.

37. A: Eadig bið se þe in his eþle geþihð, B: earm se him his frynd geswicað.
38. A: Nefre sceal se [geþeon] him his nest aspringeð, B: nyde sceal þrage gebunden.

A: Blessed is he who thrives in his native land B: woe to him whom his friends betray
A: Never shall he [thrive] whose supplies run out B: needs must to circumstances be tied

Line 38a is missing a verb, because sceal (‘shall’) requires another verb in the infinitive. The best sense is obtained by supplying geþeon (‘thrive’) from geþihð (‘thrives’) in the first verse of the previous line. However, the intervening verse with a different verb (geswicað) makes this construction very strained. If, however, the verses were recited in turn by two persons, the missing verb would be supplied from the previous verse recited by the same person, which is much more natural.

Note that some scholars supply eadig wesan instead of geþeon. I prefer the first, but the argument also holds for the alternative.

In ll. 67-68 we have an example of a preposition in the second half-line, with a logical antecedent in the second half of the previous line, even though there is a grammatically matching word in the first half of the same line.

67. A: Hond sceal heofod inwyrcan, B: hord in streonum bidan,
68. A: gifstol gegierwed stondan, B: hwonne hine guman gedælen

A: Hand shall be laid on head B: treasure on its couch wait
A: The gift-seat stand prepared B: for when men share it

Hine in the second line refers back to hord, not to gifstol. This would more naturally occur if two people were alternating half-lines, as the second speaker would be thinking of his own previous half-line.

So we have evidence from the words of the poem that it might at some stage have been recited by two persons.

As for performance to the harp, the argument is more speculative.

Read aloud in normal speech rhythm, “intuitive scansion” (Geoffrey Russom, Beowulf and Old Germanic metre) would be difficult, as the only indicator of the metre would be alliteration. However, with the aid of a lyre, which could emphasise the main stresses, intuitive scansion would be easily achieved.

The significant variation in the lengths and foot numbers of half-lines seem to require some silence in the form of slow recitation and extended caesurae in the shorter lines to regularize the metre.

A slow beat and extended caesura pauses would certainly be assisted by beats being underlined and caesura pauses filled by the harp.

The traditional bardic model including two bards and a harp is set out in the poem ‘Widsith’, also from the Exeter Book manuscript, where at line 103-5 we find:

ðonne wit Scilling        sciran reorde
for uncrum sigedryhtne     song ahofan,
hlude bi hearpan         hleoþor swinsade

Then Scilling and I with our clear voices,
before our glorious lord, struck up our song;
sung to the harp, it rang out loudly

So any monks wishing to experiment with the traditional system would have had this traditional picture available as a model.

St Dunstan (who may have written Solomon and Saturn) was said to have played both the harp and the tympanum and sung sacred and profane songs. If true, this is evidence that the instruments were available in monastries and some monks knew how to play them.

I am aware that these suggestions are unorthodox. However, by keeping them in mind when I read the poem(s), I find that many features which would otherwise appear as defects suddenly appear as genial improvisation and praiseworthy artistic experimentation.

To anyone reading this poem, I strongly reccommend consulting the work of Blanche Colton Williams, Gnomic poetry in Anglo-Saxon, available online at Although the material on gnomic writing is dated, the critical apparatus in the form of notes to the texts is first-rate – straightforward readings, while at the same time demonstrating brilliant intuition and superb critical judgement. Much to be preferred to Brian O’Camb’s tortured interpretations.


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