From The Oldest English Epic : Beowulf, Finnsburg, Waldere, Deor, Widsith, and the German Hildebrand, Translated in the Original Metres with Introduction and Notes by Francis B. Gummere, New York : The Macmillan Company, 1923 ; pp. 178-188.
IF the Beowulf and the Waldere were epic poems composed by that more deliberate process in vogue in the scriptorium, there are lays like the Hildebrand and Finnsburg, material of the epics, which seem to demand the living voice, the banquet in hall, the excited band of warriors who listen and shout applause to the singer. A minstrel of this type had in memory a store of favorite lays, old and new. He had, too, the technique of his art, and could on occasion improvise upon new material, using of course the traditional and conventional phrases which made a good half of all his songs. He was a striking figure. In two happy rescues from the wreckage of our old poetry, he not only tells the story of his life, but indicates the range of the material at his command.
On the face of it, this distinctly charming lyric is a kind of “Ode to Himself” in Ben Jonson’s vein. The aging minstrel has ceased to please the public, particularly the king; his place as court poet, even his home and lands, are given to a successful rival. Well, he has sung in his day of many a man and woman of the heroic time who knew fortune’s frown at its blackest, and yet came 179 into sunshine at last. The exempla shall give him hope; and hope is the overword of his breezy refrain. It is a manly piece of verse. The poet does not rail on lady fortune herself, does not whine or snivel over the king’s inconstancy, and does not the call the public hard names, — “dull ass” is Jonson’s way, — with insistence on his own superiority. Granting, what is true, that “Widsith” is a wholly ideal figure, composite, a type, and granting, what is probable, that Deor must pass as a definite man, it is highly gratifying that the first poet whom we can name as an individual in the long English list gives such an amiable account of himself
Careful reading of the lyric, however, takes away something of the immediate impression made by its plan and its seeming purpose. Deor, to be sure, stands before us as a definite and quite real man, but he is not an Englishman; he belongs on the continent, and his people, the “sons of Heoden,” are shadowy folk. He is even accused of getting into English by translation out of the Norse. Any actual personal poem that such a singer could have made about his own fortunes had a long and thorny way to travel before it came to its present estate as the oldest lyric in our tongue. From our point of view, it is the story of the typical court-singer, just as Widsith is a story of the typical wandering singer. Widsith, too, talks in the first person, tells what gifts he got, where he wandered, and how excellent was his art. “I and Scilling were as good poets as you could find, — and the best judges of poetry applauded us to the echo,” is his complacent account of the matter. The difference really lies in the fact that Widsith, for all his first personal confidences, makes no impression as an individual on any count; 180 he comes in sections; while Deor is artistically an individual, if not a definite man who tells us as matter of the witness-box his own emotion and thought. It is true that all the material of Deor’s song is continental; but Anglo-Saxon poets were quite capable of making such a compact and convincing “dramatic lyric” out of the old stuff. They were accustomed to “ego” verses : one thinks of the Riddles, and, still better, of The Dream of the Rood. The Wanderer is another case, not unlike this of Deor, though of much later origin; both poems are artistically sincere and sympathetic. Deor, old as it is, has the modern lyric note of annexing wide human interests and a sweep of history in order to illustrate the singer’s proper fate; and this conception on the part of an English poet would blend admirably with the tradition of some minstrel in the ancestral home, who took courage from his own stock of lays and fronted his evil hour with a smile. That, however, is an impression. There are facts which must be considered; and these facts seem at first to allow another inference.
The form of Deor’s Song is peculiar. It has a refrain-line which marks off the verses into sections or paragraphs, so that one is tempted to call it a poem in stanzas. Traces of the same structure are noted in the Rune-Lay, and naturally also in the Psalms ; but the mere recurrence of a refrain does not suffice to form the regular stanza. In part of the Gnomic Verses, or Maxims of the Exeter manuscript,1 however, and in what used to be called the first of the Riddles, there is an attempt to make those regular stanzas which are so familiar in Old Norse; and the result must be noted here, in order to reach a right judgment about 181 the structures of the old singer’s lay. The first of the Riddles was once interpreted as giving the name of the poet Cynewulf. Recently it has been taken out of the category of riddles and referred to an incident in the famous Saga of the Volsungs, a Norse tale, whose legend was familiar in far older form to the poet of the Beowulf. As Signy’s Lament, Professor Schofield translates it and explains its meaning. Signy is twin sister to Sigmund; she is married against her will to Siggeir, who slays her father and has all her brothers exposed and killed save Sigmund, who is helped by Signy to escape to the forest, where he lives as an outlaw. An outlaw man was often called “wolf.” The Wolf of the poem, therefore, is Sigmund. Signy is fain to revenge her slaughtered kinsfolk; her own sons by King Siggeir are nought; and she resolves to have by her own brother a son who shall show the Volsung mettle. Revolting as the deed seems to her, she must do it for the sake of revenge. Disguised, she goes to Sigmund in the forest, is entertained as a wanderer; returns to her palace; and in due time bears a son, Sinfiotli, the Fitela of the verses in the Beowulf,2 whom she rears for a while and then takes to her brother. Ignorant of his true relation, Sigmund trains up the boy as his nephew, and together they destroy Siggeir, with whom Signy also perishes, as a true Germanidc wife, though she is glad thus to avenge her father. Professor Schofield places this Lament at the time when Signy commit’s the boy to her brother’s care.
Such is the probable matter. It is the manner, the verse-form, which gives this poem such significance for the study of Deor. Its rimes are here and there inaccurate; the rhythm is close in some parts to the kind common 182 in Scandinavian but practically unknown in Anglo-Saxon; and therefore Professor Lawrence, who was first to study this phase of it, assumed it to be a translation out of the Norse. As it follows Deor in the Exeter manuscript, and Deor also has refrain and what have been taken for stanzas, the two poems are bracketed for similar origins.
Is Deor, then, a translation, and is his song to be ranged as an early specimen of those innumerable effusions, studied or improvised, of the Scandinavian bard, which are paraphrased in Saxo’s Latin and recorded now in the prose of the Sagas and now in the actual verse? Or is it an original English poem based on traditions of the old minstrel life in Germania, — a document for the Germanic singer in days of the common legendary store in which all Ingævonic peoples about North Sea and Baltic had their part? Here is Signy’s Lament for comparison, — if a Lament it be, and the supposed making of that tragic person.
My people suppose they are pleasured with gifts3 . . .
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
They will surely oppress him if peril comes o’er him.
Unlike our lots.
Wolf’s on an isle4 and I on another;
firm is the island, by fen surrounded.
Unmerciful are they, the men on the isle;
They will surely oppress him if peril comes o’er him.
Unlike our lots.
On my Wolf I waited with wide-faring hopes.
When rainy the weather and rueful I sat there,
then the battle-brave man embraced me beside him.
Delight had I of it; no less had I sorrow.5
Wolf, O my Wolf, my waiting and hope of thee,
’twas they made me sick, and thy seldom-coming,
my heavy-weighed heart, and not hunger for food !
Hear’st thou, O watchful !6 Swift whelp of us both7
borne by Wolf to the wood !
Full lightly is parted what never was paired, —
the song we two sang !8
Now as compared with Deor, translated below, this Lament shows signs of the Norse stanzaic structure which are not found in the companion piece. Deor’s so-called stanzas are due simply to a recurring and consistently applicable refrain line, such as, for modern instance, one finds in Tennyson’s Tears, Idle Tears. Parallelism, obvious in Deor at the start and so characteristic of all Anglo-Saxon verse, is not found in the Lament. Deor is 184 surely not a translation of the same sort as the Lament; it can hardly pass as a translation at all. Its refrain line is originative, is the core and suggestion of the poem. Indeed, this refrain looks as if it might serve, and had served, in other cases. Any number of exempla could be fitted to it and it could be shifted to another singer’s account. Many another poem, by such a refrain line, could draw lessons from a legendary past, of which the Englishman was once as fond as he was of maxim and moral. Moreover, the autobiographical part of Deor is too old in its allusions for a translation out of the Norse; and it is particularly this singer’s voice from the Germanic past which interests the student of songcraft in days before the epic. For this purpose, and in this sense, Deor surely seems to be an original English poem and a document, precious beyond words, of Germanic minstrelsy. Its value is not destroyed by the juxtaposition of Signy’s Lament.
Deor consoles himself by recounting the sufferings and trials of sundry characters in Germanic tradition. He begins with Wayland, smith divine, a favorite in epic and other old verse. Beowulf’s breastplate is “Wayland’s work”; in the Waldere, Mimming is best of swords and also “work of Wayland.” Gest and romance continue to speak of him into the fifteenth century; and King Alfred had called him greatest of goldsmiths. Localities were named after him. The famous Franks Casket,9 which Professor Napier assigns to Northumbria for place and the beginning of the eighth century for time, represents Wayland 185 “holding in a pair of tongs the head of one of Nithhad’s sons over an anvil,” — making a drinking-cup of the skull. In front of Wayland is Beaduhild, King Nithhad’s daughter, who went to the captive smith to have her ring mended. Wayland’s brother Egil is shooting birds; with wings made of their feathers, Wayland is to escape. Now this scene, which answers to the story of Wayland in a Norse saga, is also indicated by Deor’s allusions. Wayland is taken into bondage by the crafty King Nithhad, fettered (by some accounts, hamstrung), and robbed of the ring which gave him power to fly. But Beaduhild, daughter of his captor, and the sons as well, come to him; he mends the rings for the daughter and so recovers his own ring, and his old power — or, by more prosaic accounts, constructs wonderful pinions that enable him to escape. First, however, he kills the king’s sons, and puts the daughter to shame. Here are “two” cases for the bard — first Wayland, and then Beaduhild herself. The next case is extremely difficult; but Hild, if the name shall stand, was unhappy, and so were the exiles, whether Goths or whatever else ingenuity can suggest.10 Theodric is Theodoric the Goth, “Dietrich of Bern”; for traditions of Germanic verse knew that he was banished to the court of Attila for the thirty winters named by Deor’s song. But the allusion here is too vague for precise inference, and the text is evidently marred. Eormanric, again, is the typical tyrant, cruel and remorseless king, of the same traditions; led astray by evil counsel, he puts his only 186 son to death, has his wife torn to pieces, and ruins the happiness of many individuals and, at last, of his realm. From these luckless folk Deor turns to the picture of the Sorrowful Person, and for the first time theology peers over the shoulder of our cheerful bard. Then he tells of himself, his loss, his bad outlook; with a last and personal change rung on his brave refrain, and waking a fervent desire in the reader that the second clause of it “came true,” this sane and sound old singer ends his song.
Wayland learned bitterly banishment’s ways,
earl right resolute; ills enduréd ;
had for comrades Care and Longing,11
winter-cold wanderings; woe oft suffered
5when Nithhad forged the fetters on him,12
bending bonds on a better man.
That he surmounted : so this may I !
Beaduhild mourned her brother’s death
less sore in soul than herself dismayed
10 when her plight was plainly placed before her, —
birth of a bairn. No brave resolve
might she ever make, what the end should be.
That she surmounted : so this may I !
We have heard from many of Hild’s disgrace,
15 heroes of Geat were homeless made
till sorrow stole their sleep away.
That he surmounted : so this may I !13
Theodric waited14 for thirty winters
in Merings’ burg : to many ’twas known.
20 That he surmounted : so this may I !
We have often heard of Eormanric,
his wolfish mind ; wide was his rule
o’er realms of Goths : a grim king he !
Sat many a subject sorrow-bound,
25waiting but woe, and wished full sore
that the time of the king might come to end.
That they surmounted : so this may I !
— Sitteth15 one sorrowful, severed from joys ;
all’s dark in his soul ; he deems for him
30endless ever the anguish-time !
Yet let him think that through this world
18 the wise God all awards with difference,
on many an earl great honor lays,
wealth at will, but woe on others.
35— To say of myself the story now,
I was singer16 erewhile to sons-of-Heoden,
dear to my master, Deor my name.
Long were the winters my lord was kind ;
I was happy with clansmen ; till Heorrenda17 now
40by grace of his lays18 has gained the land
which the haven-of-heroes19 erewhile gave me.
That he20 surmounted : so this may I !
1 See note to Beowulf, v. 1250.
2 See B., 859 ff.
3 The stanza is obscure and much discussed. Lines are thought to be lost which would make up the quatrain.
4 In the forest, as an outlaw.
5 Concentration of the tragic moment. Signy loathed her unnatural mission; she joyed in the anticipated vengeance thus made possible.
6 By Schofield’s interpretation. She now addresses her husband, “the vigilant”; perhaps here in mocking use of the epithet?
7 Herself and Sigmund. She has given the boy to her brother. — Or is “of us both” a reference, like “vigilant,” to Siggeir’s belief that he is father to Sinfiotli?
8 Emended to “the way we two walked.” The short even verses and long odd verses, as in Norse, make a plain stanza here, just as in certain gnomic verses one gets a stanza by arrangement. In the first and second stanzas, as assumed, of this poem, a refrain, and also repetition of a line, mark off the bounds.
9 See Napier in An English Miscellany (Furnivall Volume), pp. 362 ff., with reproduction of the figures.
10 Grein’s explanation still seems the best. Hild is really the Odila of the story told in a Norse saga, and Eormanric was the author of her disgrace; “heroes of Geat” would be Gothic subjects who suffered in the consequent turmoil. Others read “Mæthhilde” as the woman’s name, and in the next verse “the love of Geats.”
11 Perhaps an allusion to one of the two Wayland stories, where his wife, once swan-maid, resuming her swan-raiment, leaves him, and he pines vainly for sight of her.
12 A slight change in the text would square the account with that version of the story which has Wayland hamstrung: —
When Nithhad put such need upon him,
laming wound on a lordlier man.
13 Some editors and translators omit this refrain, and make one “case” of the two treated in III and IV; also, as noted above, reading “Mæthhilde” and “the love-longing of Geat had no bounds.”
14 Lived there, that is, at some castle of the Huns, as Attila’s vassal. See notes to the Hildebrand lay.
15 That is, any person who has lost his situation and has fallen on evil times. If the strict dramatic-lyric scheme be assumed, this could pass as interpolation. The writer of these lines could hardly have taken Deor’s own tonic.
16 In the original, Scop. He was court-singer to the king of the Heodenings. See Widsith, v. 21.
17 Horant is the sweet singer in Gudrun (a late offshoot of the Hild story) whose song makes all the birds cease their own lays and listen to him.
18 Literally but awkwardly —
lay-craft’s man, the land has received. . . .
19 The king. Frequent kenning in the Beowulf.
20 Who? Is the refrain here a kind of echo? Is this Deor who surmounted his troubles, as also may the hearer or reader who repeats the poem? Was the whole a general poem of consolation?