How to write Dark Age poetry (yes, you can)

It annoys me when authors invent an olde-worlde society in which all the characters seem basically to be modern people with a greater tolerance for violence and a capacity for magic.

But then I am reminded, when writing pseudo-medieval stories or reading those written by others, that I myself don’t know or understand nearly as much as I should about European medieval culture and mindset. So for this and other reasons occasionally I like to read stuff that’s several hundred years old. I’ve just started a new reading project, which I expect to take several years, interspersed as it will be of course with other books.

I sat down the other day with three anthologies that we happen to have: “The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1, Medieval”, “Anglo-Saxon Poetry”  and “The Triumph Tree: Early Scottish Poetry.” The latter two and some of the first are of course in translation. I spent a happy time nerdishly organising these three anthologies into a List, an Order for Reading, starting with Introductions and Caedmon, and ending presumably with excerpts of Chaucer and Margery Kempe.

So I’m currently in with the Anglo-Saxons. Did you know that most of our British Anglo-Saxon literature is found in four collected books, the Junius Book, the Vercelli Book (found in the Italian city of Vercelli), the Exeter Book, and a book with the odd title of Cotton Vitellius A, which contains the only text of “Beowulf”?

I’m also, by happy chance, currently rereading “The Lord of the Rings.”

Any reread of LOTR since the 1990s is of course done in the shadow of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, of which I am a huge fan. I also know the books well. I’m trying this time to come at them without Jackson’s interpretation in my head, and pretending it’s for the first time, which is quite difficult.

But it occurred to me forcibly was that the book(s) contain a lot of poetry, most of which of course (not all) is omitted from the films.

Looking at the verses naturally ties in nicely to the Anglo-Saxon project. For Tolkien’s poems are very varied. The merry songs of the hobbits (“Sing hey! For bath at the close of day!”) are completely different from the lays in Elvish or translated (supposedly) from Elvish (“The leaves were long, the grass was green, The hemlock-umbels tall and fair”). But as I started Book 3 and arrived in Fangorn and Rohan, I was really hoping for something evocative of Anglo-Saxon England.

And with my new knowledge, gleaned from two learned Introductions, I found it. I can say boldly and boastfully that I now understand how to write Anglo-Saxon poetry.

According to the Norton Anthology, “The verse unit is the single line… The organising device of the line is alliteration, the beginning of several words with the same sound… The Old English alliterative line contains, on the average, four principal stresses and is divided into two half-lines of two stresses each by a strong medial caesura, or pause. These two half-lines are linked to each other by the alliteration; at least one of the two stressed words in the first half-line, and often both of them, begin with the same sound as the first stressed word of the second half-line (the second stressed word is generally non-alliterative.)”

I wasn’t sure I’d followed all that, but maybe this is easier, from “Anglo-Saxon Poetry”: “ a line divided by a caesura into two sub-units each commonly containing two principal stressed elements (but quite often three) and a varying number of unstressed elements, the whole line being bound together by an alliterative scheme crossing the caesura.”

So back to the LOTR: here we have Treebeard doing more or less that in his Lore of Living Creatures (I’ve added the caesura):

Eldest of all, /the elf-children

Dwarf the delver, /dark are his houses;

Ent the earth-born, /old as mountains;

Man the mortal, /master of horses…

Or the lore of Rohan, translated by Aragorn (I think it was Theoden in the film):

Where now the horse and the rider? /Where is the horn that was blowing?

Where is the helm and the hauberk, /and the bright hair flowing?

Where is the hand on the harpstring, /and the red fire glowing…?

Tolkien even uses Treebeard to cheekily update the scheme to incorporate rhyme rather than alliteration:

O rowan fair, upon your hair /how white the blossom lay!

O rowan mine, I saw you shine /upon a summer’s day…

So hobbits are not Anglo-Saxon, but the Ents and the Rohirrim, and maybe even the elves (“the leaves were long, /the grass was green”) are…

And I had a cheeky thought: I can do this! It’s surely not that difficult!

Unfortunately I said this in a letter, and pride came before a fall.

But still here is my Anglo-Saxon couplet on the subject of Tea:

Hot and healing, /held in a friendly cup,

Hail the brown brewing, /brightening the day!

(I didn’t say I could do it well.)

Love from the PPS Blogger

PS I attribute some of my taste for the medieval to two books: a lovely book of Romantic Ballads with wood-cut illustrations given me by two American students who lodged with us; and an anthology of narrative verse bought in a St Andrews second-hand bookshop in 2008, which taught me that modern people really can read and enjoy Spenser and Chaucer, with some help, in the original.

My pleasure was great this summer when we discovered that this shop, Bouquiniste, is still there, unchanged, and apparently flourishing.

  • Clint Redwood

    20th November 2020 at 4:55 pm Reply

    Next time you fancy a trip to Middle Earth, you should travel by radio. (I have the R4 series on CD and it’s by far the best dramatisation of LotR that has been done.)
    It was, I think, largely the reason my wife hated PJ’s TTT film so much.

    • Penelope Wallace

      21st November 2020 at 10:42 am Reply

      I remember enjoying the radio dramatisation, which came out when I was an undergraduate. What does TTT stand for?

  • Philippa

    21st November 2020 at 1:17 pm Reply

    TTT is The Two Towers!

    I love the BBC radio dramatisation of LotR too.

  • Malachi Malagowther

    22nd November 2020 at 10:56 am Reply

    It is good to see that Anglo-Saxon poetry is still flourishing in out-of-the-way places. This is surely how Treebeard should have gone about looking for the ent-wives. Surely one of them was a poet. He should have asked Bilbo who was much more of a poetry lover than Merry or Pippin.

  • Stephen Hall

    30th November 2020 at 5:07 pm Reply

    Seventh-century Saxon poets’ – songs fell silent
    Hard to handle – historic verse
    Lost in libraries – later works
    Like leaf litter – lay over the decaying words

  • Penelope Wallace

    30th November 2020 at 6:27 pm Reply

    Impressive, Stephen!

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