Saturday, 7 February 2015

'Unwinding the water's chains': Spring, Thaw, and Some Anglo-Saxon Poems

BL Cotton Nero C IV, f. 40v (with the beginning of 'ver' on 7 February)

Three months ago, on 7 November, I looked at some poems marking what was in early medieval calendars considered to be the first day of winter - what one Anglo-Saxon poem calls 'Winter's Day'. 92 days later, we've now reached the first day of spring. The same poem, the Old English Menologium, says of 7 February:

And þæs embe ane niht
þæt we Marian mæssan healdað,
cyninges modor, forþan heo Crist on þam dæge,
bearn wealdendes, brohte to temple.
Ðænne þæs emb fif niht þæt afered byð
winter of wicum.


And then after one night [of February]
we keep the feast of Mary,
mother of the King, because on that day Christ,
the Ruler's child, she brought to the temple.
Then after five nights winter is
carried out of the camps.

'Five nights after Candlemas' might look at first glance like an arbitrary date, but these calculations were worked out with great precision by experts in the science of computus: today falls halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and as spring lasts from now until May, the equinox will fall in the middle of the season.

In case you're objecting 'if it's officially spring now, why is it still so cold?', I can only refer you to the poem Maxims II, which notes:

Wyrd byð swiðost, winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost, he byð lengest ceald.

Fate is most powerful, winter is coldest,
spring is frostiest, it is the longest cold.

Spring may not be the coldest season, but it's cold for the longest time (or maybe it just feels like it, because we're impatient for the weather to improve). Ælfric, in his De Temporibus Anni, a vernacular summary of learned scientific opinion on time, the seasons, and the natural world, explains (perhaps anticipating similar questions from his audience) that in spring 'the lengthening day is cold because the earth is permeated with the winter chill, and it takes a long time before it is warmed again'. Early spring is also wet and muddy, as you can guess from the fact that one possible interpretation of the Old English name for February, Solmonaþ, is the unappealing-sounding, yet undeniably accurate, 'mud-month'.

Diagram of the months (BL Harley 5431, f. 4)

But there's much more to spring than coldness and mud, and in this post I want to gather together a few assorted extracts from Old English poems which, when read together, have some interesting things to say about the power of spring. There are others I could have chosen; this is just an exercise in juxtaposition, really.

If, as we saw in November, winter is a time of confinement, when the earth is held prisoner by ice and snow and people are trapped within their houses, spring is when everything gets free again. An extract which I quoted in my post on winter makes the point beautifully; it's from a poem known as Maxims I:

Forst sceal freosan, fyr wudu meltan,
eorðe growan, is brycgian,
wæter helm wegan, wundrum lucan
eorðan ciðas. An sceal onbindan
forstes fetera, felamihtig God.
Winter sceal geweorpan, weder eft cuman,
sumor swegle hat. Sund unstille,
deop deada wæg, dyrne bið lengest.


Frost must freeze, fire burn up wood,
the earth grow, ice form bridges,
water wear a covering, wondrously locking up
shoots in the earth. One alone shall unbind
the frost’s fetters: God most mighty.
Winter shall turn, good weather come again,
summer bright and hot. The never-resting sea,
the deep way of the dead, will be the longest hidden.

Spring is a liberation, a loosening of the chains; everything is free again, and the waters run. In selecting extracts from Old English wisdom poetry like Maxims I, it's always hard to know where to stop the quotation: many of these phrases sound like stand-alone proverbs, but they've been put together for a reason, and the relationship between each maxim and its surrounding context can be an intriguing thing to consider. Here I've included a little more than the last time I quoted this extract, another line and a half: 'The never-resting sea, the deep way of the dead, will be the longest hidden'. What's the link between the turbulent waters of the deep - mysterious, concealed, and never still - and the return of spring? It does make sense: as the frost's chains are unwound, water's covering (helm) is broken, and the sea surges. All waters on the earth are related, after all; as Ælfric expresses it in De Temporibus Anni:

Ælc sæ, þeah heo deop sy, hæfð grund on ðære eorðan, 7 seo eorðe aberð ealle sæ, 7 ðone micclan garsecg, 7 ealle wylspringas 7 ean ðurh hire yrnað. Swa swa æddran licgað on þæs mannes lichaman, swa licgað ða wæteræddran geond þas eorðan.

'Every sea, however deep it may be, has its bottom on the earth, and the earth carries all the seas and the great ocean, and all wellsprings and rivers flow through it. Just as veins lie in a man's body, so these veins of water lie throughout this earth.'

The world with its rivers and seas, from an 11th-century map (BL Cotton Tiberius B V)

Only God can unbind the frost's fetters, and even the sea, with its mysterious depths, is not hidden from his sight:

He selfa mæg sæ geondwlitan,
grundas in geofene, godes agen bearn,
and he ariman mæg rægnas scuran,
dropena gehwelcne. Daga enderim
seolua he gesette þurh his soðan miht.

He himself, God's own Son,
can look beyond the sea, the bottom of the ocean,
and he can count the rain-showers,
every drop. The course of days
he set himself through his true power.

This comes from the beginning of a poem known as Christ and Satan, part of a description of the creation of the world, and it juxtaposes God's oversight of the waters with his establishment of times and seasons. Things which seem beyond human power of counting - days and raindrops - God can calculate better than any student of computus. (Even Bede himself.) There is a Biblical basis for this, of course - Job 38 is a particularly relevant example, and we can also compare Psalm 147: he "giveth snow like wool: scattereth mists like ashes... He sendeth his crystal like morsels: who shall stand before the face of his cold? He shall send out his word, and shall melt them: his wind shall blow, and the waters shall run." In the Old English translation of the psalm:

He snaw sendeð samed anlice
swa þu wulle flys wolcnum bringe,
and þone toweorpeð wide swa æscean.
He his cristallum cynnum sendeð
swylc swa hlafgebrece of heofonwolcnum;
for andwlitan celes þær ænig ne mæg
him standan stiðe mode.
He his word sendeð þuruh windes gast;
blaweð beorhtlice, burnan floweð
and to wætere weorðeð sniome.

When the waters run, they infuse all the world with life. It's in this context of God's power over the waters, seasons, and the spring thaw that we can place an extended simile from Beowulf (lines 1605-11), which I also quoted in the other post. It comes when Beowulf has ventured into the underwater cave where Grendel and his mother live. After his own sword fails him he picks up a huge sword which happens to be in the cave, and is able to kill Grendel's mother and cut off Grendel's head. Their blood surges up to the surface of the water, where Beowulf's companions think it's his, and begin to grieve for his supposed death. Meanwhile, down in the cave, the giant sword has begun to melt away:

Þa þæt sweord ongan
æfter heaþoswate hildegicelum,
wigbil wanian.
Þæt wæs wundra sum,
þæt hit eal gemealt ise gelicost,
ðonne forstes bend Fæder onlæteð,
onwindeð wælrapas, se geweald hafað
sæla ond mæla;
þæt is soð Metod.

Then that sword began
to waste away because of the war-sweat,
the blade into battle-icicles. That was a great wonder:
it all melted, just like ice
when the Father loosens the bonds of frost,
unwinds the water's chains, he who has power
over times and seasons. He is the true God.

heaþoswate, 'war-sweat', is a kenning for blood; the sword melts like an icicle in its heat, blood and water mingled together. Again we see the link between the thaw and 'he who has power over times and seasons' - þæt is soð Metod. Metod is a common epithet for God in Old English poetry, but it's not a straightforward one: it seems to mean something like 'the one who metes out', the force which controls not just frosts and times and seasons but the shape and duration of human lives. You can translate it as 'the Measurer', the one who controls fate and time and all the mysterious chaos of the never-resting waters.


He his word sendeð þuruh windes gast;
blaweð beorhtlice, burnan floweð
and to wætere weorðeð sniome.

He sends his word through the spirit of the wind;
it blows clear, the rivers flow,
and swiftly turn to water.

The wind which makes the waters run in spring is the west wind, Zephyrus, described by Ælfric as follows:

se blæwð westan, 7 ðurh his blæd acuciað ealle eorðlice blæda 7 blowað, 7 se wind towyrpð 7 ðawað ælcne winter.
'It blows from the west, and through its breath all earthly plants quicken and bloom, and that wind casts away and thaws each winter.'

At the breath of the wind, and the surging waters of life, everything in the world ðawað and acuciað - human beings too. I've previously quoted here Ælfric's sermon for Ash Wednesday, where he says that although it is true that 'you are dust, and to dust you shall return',

Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum
ac be manna lichaman þe formolsniað to duste
and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte
ealle of eorðan arisan þe æfre cuce wæron
swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan
þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.


This is not said about the souls of men,
but about their bodies, which moulder to dust,
and shall again on Judgement Day, through the power of our Lord,
rise from the earth, all who ever lived,
just as all trees quicken again in the season of spring
which were deadened by the winter's chill.

'The season of spring' is lenctenes timan; from lencten we get the name for the period we now call Lent, but in Old English (and in Middle English too) it referred to the whole season of spring. In spring, and especially through the observance of Lent, human beings can be quickened with life like the natural world around them. This quickening can manifest as an eager, restless longing to be out and abroad, to search for new things and a new life. In The Seafarer, the return of spring urges the restless spirit to set out to sea, to put out into the deep waters:

Bearwas blostmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld onetteð;
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe, þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan.
Swylce geac monað geomran reorde,
singeð sumeres weard, sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord. þæt se beorn ne wat,
esteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.
Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas, cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig, gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu. Forþon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif,
læne on londe.

The woods take on blossoms, towns become fair,
fields grow beautiful, the world hastens on;
all these things urge on the eager mind,
the spirit to the journey, in one who thinks to travel
far on the paths of the sea.
The cuckoo too gives warning with mournful voice,
summer's watchman sings, foretells sorrow,
bitter in the heart. Of this that man knows nothing,
the warrior blessed with wealth, what some endure
who furthest tread the paths of exile.
And so now my spirit roams beyond the confines of the heart,
my spirit over the sea-flood;
it wanders wide over the whale's home,
the expanse of the earth, and comes back to me
eager and greedy; the lone flier cries,
incites the heart to the whale's way, irresistible,
across the ocean's floods. And so to me
the joys of the Lord are warmer than this dead life,
lent on land.

The speaker leaves the comforts of life on land to journey across the whale's way (hwælweg), over the cold waters to find 'warmer joys' in heaven. He becomes a pilgrim, of a sort; to compare a later but probably more familiar example, you might remember that it's when springtime signs of life appear in the natural world - singing birds, the sap rising, and Zephyrus 'with his swete breeth' - that, Chaucer tells us, "than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages".

Through Lent and spring we come to Easter, of course. Spring is a yearly liberation from the confines of winter, but it can also be read as a confirmation, through the signs in nature, of the greater liberation brought about by Christ's death and resurrection. At the moment of Beowulf's victory, blood and water gush forth, as if from Christ's side upon the cross; in The Dream of the Rood, both Christ and the tree bleed blood and water, beswyled mid swates gange, and 'all creation weeps' thawing tears. In Norse mythology, just such a liberating thaw almost weeps Baldr out of the underworld, 'as all things weep when they come from frost into warmth' - a spring-like resurrection vividly re-imagined by C. S. Lewis in his description of Aslan's return to Narnia.


The diagram above is from BL Harley 3667, a manuscript made at Peterborough Abbey in the twelfth century. It was designed by the monk Byrhtferth of Ramsey, and shows the correspondences between the four seasons of the year, the months, elements, winds, astrological signs, and more, as well as the seasons of human life, from childhood to old age. It's a work of art as well as a clever act of synthesis; the course of the year is a complex interweaving of patterns, and the intricacy of the arrangement has a beauty of its own. To begin to appreciate this view of the world is to see all the universe as interconnected, with pattern and order running through it like those 'veins' of rivers which thread across the earth. In this view all the seasons of human existence have their correspondences in the heavens and in the year, and our lives, which can seem so random and meaningless, are part of a great pattern as ancient and as huge as the universe.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a hoard of delights!

How vivid the Paris Psalter Psalm 147 is! I love (what I take to be) the particularity of "hlafgebrece" - something like 'broken-off fragments of bread' (where the Vulgate has 'buccellas').

And thanks for your attention to 'Metod'. When I first learned about it, it made me think of the beginning of the Canon in the Holy Communion service in the Book of Common Prayer: "It is meet and right", "It is very meet" (translating 'dignum' and 'vere dignum'). How familiar is that today, I wonder? (Are there lots of 'Prayer Book' services about, in England?)

In the Seafarer, "hweteth" caught my eye, too! We 'whet our appetites' and 'our curiosity' and still have whetstones. Is it easy to tell how vivid or, instead, how customary, 'hwettan' is in a given place in Old English?

You've got me wanting to read "Christ and Satan" - its Wikipedia article links to one translation and the "Caedmon manuscript" article to another, but the only facing text and translation I can find is Thorpe's 1832 book, Caedmon's metrical paraphrase of parts of the Holy Scriptures in Anglo-Saxon, scanned in Internet Archive. (The Wikipedia article had me wondering if Tolkien's "Akallabêth" is indebted to it...)

An Old Mertonian

Clerk of Oxford said...

'Christ and Satan' is a very interesting poem, and there are various translations available on the internet, but I'm afraid I don't know of a more recent facing-page one.

As for 'hwettan', I'd say it certainly has a vivid sense here at least; the verbs in this section of 'The Seafarer' are notably urgent and forceful (onetteð, gemoniað, hweorfeð, gielleð, etc.).

Matt G said...

Cool! I found the Menologium and some other OE poems here: http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/aspr/

*runs off to the online Old English textbook, web pages metaphorically in hand*

Anonymous said...

Thinking about the imagery of 'lucan', '(on)bindan', 'fetera','bend', '(on)laeteth', '(on)windeth', 'rapas'(and perhaps 'toweorpan' and the 'loca' of 'hretherlocan'?) and your remarks about Baldr got me wondering if it is typically Old English, or perhaps more commonly 'Germanic', and what traditional analogies it might have elsewhere.

It also called to mind "Adam lay i-bowndyn,/ bowndyn in a bond,/ Fowre thowsand wynter / thowt he not to long", where I suppose the juxtaposition with "winter" may be largely fortuitous, but perhaps also not without an immediate resonance for the original audience.

(Have you posted anything on counting in 'winters', and, if not, might you consider doing so? I remember we were generally discouraged from translating with 'winters' lest it sound distractingly like Fenimore Cooper or an old 'western' or whatever!)

An Old Mertonian

KirstenM said...

Oh what a wow of a post. Chimes with current sermon series in church and my own feelings of hope for Spring after winter of ill-health.
thank you.