Metrical Suggestion For Reading Maxims I A

The lines in Maxims I are so irregular that Sievers-style metrical analysis breaks down. True, the standard accentual pattern of four feet per line (the normal line in, e.g. Solomon and Saturn) is sometimes present in Maxims I, e.g. line 10:

adl ne yldo  ælmihtigne
SxxSx          SSxxx

often with anacrusis and long sequences of unaccented syllables, e.g. line 11:

ne gomelað he in gæste,      ac he is gen swa he wæs
xSxxxxS                                 xxxSxxS

But this is far from being the only line type. For instance in the introductory lines:

Frige mec frodum wordum!     Ne læt þinne ferð onhælne,
SxxSxSx                                      xxxxxSxSx
degol þæt þu deopost cunne!     Nelle ic þe min dyrne gesecgan,
SxxxSxSx                                     xxxxxSxxSx
gif þu me þinne hygecræft hylest      ond þine heortan geþohtas.
xxxxxSxSSx                                        xxxSxxSx
Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan.   God sceal mon ærest hergan
SxxxxSxSx                                                  SxxxxSx

where the each line has 3 feet in the first half and 2 in the second.

Or in lines 35-8:

Dol biþ se þe his dryhten nat,      to þæs oft cymeð deað unþinged.
SxxxxSxS                                       xxxSxSxSx
Snotre men sawlum beorgað,      healdað hyra soð mid ryhte.
SxxSxSx                                         SxxxSxSx
Eadig bið se þe in his eþle geþihð,      earm se him his frynd geswicað.
SxxxxxxSxxS                                         SxxxSxSx
Nefre sceal se him his nest aspringeð,      nyde sceal þrage gebunden.
SxxxxxxSxSx                                             SxxSxxSx

where the lines have 3 feet in both halves.

These three line types (2+2, 3+2, 3+3), together with a highly irregular 4+2 form, account all the lines in Part A of the poem:

Ln          Stresses
1-7         3+2
8-34      2+2
34-40    3+3
41           3+2
42           3+3
43-44    3+2
45           3+3
46           4+2
47-49    2+2
50-51    3+3
52-53    3+2
54-55    2          (2 half-lines. Better read together, producing one line of 2+2)
56          2+2
57           3+2
58-59    3+3
60-61    2+2
62-63    3+3
64          4+2
65           3+2
66-67    3+3
68           3+2
69           3+3
70           3+2

A moment’s consideration of lines like 37-38, with their sequences of six unstressed syllables jammed in between stresses in the same half-line, will lead to the conclusion that the stress accent and alliteration is the only thing holding this baby together.

Eadig bið se þe in his eþle geþihð,      earm se him his frynd geswicað.
SxxxxxxSxxS                                         SxxxSxSx
Nefre sceal se him his nest aspringeð,      nyde sceal þrage gebunden.
SxxxxxxSxSx                                              SxxSxxSx

So if we are to read it in a way which is at all sensitive to the material, attention to the rhythmic effect of the stress accents is essential.

The following regularities cover all line types.

    • Each first half-line has 2, 3 or 4 stresses
    • Each second half-line has 2 or 3 stresses
    • The number of stresses in the second half-line never exceeds the number in the first half-line
    • The total number of stresses in a line never exceeds 6 (i.e. if the first half has 4, the second has 2)
    • Stresses fall on accented syllables of primary words (nouns, adjectives and verbs)
    • All alliterated syllables are stressed syllables
    • Anything before the first stressed syllable of a half-line is anacrusis
    • Both half-lines can have anacrusis
    • Anacrusis can be multi-word and long

Clearly there must be some sort of pause between the end of the first half-line and the start of the second (medial caesura). This is demonstrated by the fact that the half-line operates as a unit and the break must not interfere with the semantic structure of the line. For the same reason there must be some sort of pause between the end of the line and the start of the next (terminal caesura). One can imagine that the terminal caesura is slightly longer that the medial caesura, to mark the line break. Its length could well vary depending on the number of feet in the line. The relation between anacrusis and these caesurae is unclear, but given the length of some of the anacruses in this poem, there is good reason to think that the anacrusis cuts into the pause time for the caesura.

We could read the poem so that the stresses occur at regular intervals and count caesurae and anacruses as equal to half a beat (or a single beat where extended), allowing us to reduce the variation in line lengths.

Type    Components                                                       Line duration
1.          2 stresses, caesura/anacrusis, 2 str., c./a.         5
2.          3 str.,  c./a., 3 str.,  c./a.                                        7
3.           3 str. ,  c./a., 2 str., c./a. (extd.)                          6.5
4.          4 str. , c./a., 2 str.,  c./a.                                        7

Note that types 2, 3 and 4 are now of similar length. This allows us to think of the poem as having two rhythmic variants, fast lines (2+2) and slow lines (3+2,3+3 & 4+2). If we analyse Part A of the poem this way, we get:

Ln             Rhythm
1-7            Slow
8-34          Fast
34-46        Slow
47-49        Fast
50-53        Slow
54-56        Fast
57-59        Slow
60-61        Fast
62-70       Slow

In summary, my suggestion for reading the poem rhythmically is as follows:

  • Base your reading on the stressed syllables in the lines
  • Read unstressed syllables between stresses quickly
  • If there is no anacrusis at the start of the next half line, pause for a caesura
  • If there is anacrusis, reduce the caesura pause
  • In the case of 3+2 lines, lengthen the terminal caesura, taking into account any subsequent anacrusis.

This should give a satisfying balance between regularity and variation. Enjoy.



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