Hwæt

After the over-whelming success of a post titled in Russian – I have never experienced silence like it – I have taken a different path through the complex manifold of spacetime in my hunt for today’s moniker.  I’ve stuck with the lingua franca of my current location, but have travelled back through time (you may wish to imagine a harp-based glissando at this point) to the heyday of the kingdom of Wessex and called upon the ghost of Anglo-Saxon or Old English.  Out of the goodness of my heart (I store all my virtues in a pump of some description – my humility is held in an old ballet shoe), I have spared you the Runic version (but this will only prove a brief respite for the regular reader).

We have a curious relationship with the Anglo-Saxon, using it to name an economic system which would be anathema to a housecarl or thegn.  It is not even used by those descendants of the Angles or Saxons who chose to stay at home, but only by those who left and were later subject to the Danelaw and Norman conquest (secondhand Vikings in all but name).  I really feel that economists could have put more effort into finding a better adjective – it is not as though they have covered themselves in glory with the meat of their subject, so a little time off considering their nomenclature might have benefitted us all.

But why is the old duffer using Anglo-Saxon in the first place and what the Sam Hill does the title mean?  Parsing backwards through that last sentence, the title can have a number of meanings, the Anglo-Saxons liked to sweat their lexical assets, but I’m using it in the sense of “listen” or “hark”.

Today is Bloomsday, but I find myself at some distance from Dublin’s fair city (where the girls are – allegedly – so pretty and, according to the WHO, more than 80% of them will be obese by 2030) though I may yet sample a pint of the black stuff in its honour.  I have never read Ulysses (always more of a fan of Odysseus as a boy, in fact Greek myth over the Roman derivative every time) but still know that the book’s characters have recourse to language described as Anglo-Saxon on a regular basis.  However, this is not the reason for the title – but did tilt the balance of my mind to thoughts about writing (and the good stuff, not just this nonsense).

One of the two books acquired on Sunday was Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf – a work I have been meaning to acquire for many, many years (though less than fifteen it would seem).  Whilst I shouldn’t really be starting it yet, I couldn’t resist a quick peek at the opening stanzas – and I don’t think it is going to disappoint (despite the years of anticipation – all my own fault).  Even better, for the first page (and only that page) the translation is accompanied by the original in Anglo-Saxon.  The first word of the epic is hwæt – and hence we have our title.  I have never studied Anglo-Saxon, but can recognise a thorn (from my time in Iceland) and an eth (did she ever marry Ron?) when I see them and, with a little creative fudging via German, I can have a go at reading a few stanzas in an approximation to the original language.  Even in this hopelessly amateurish form and with my voice (which others may appreciate, but is hopelessly commonplace to me), it sounds incredible – you can immediately understand why it might have survived for so long.  I find myself prey to a strange urge to learn Anglo-Saxon – so many enthusiasms, so little time!

Words were very much the currency last night at 451 – the regularly poetry night at the Nuffield.  As well as a swathe of open-mikers we had headline sets from Jemima Foxtrot and Stephen Morrison-Burke (that rarest of creatures: the boxer-poet).  Coupled with my recent listening to The Verb‘s close reading of the Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock this has reminded me of how incredibly varied and powerful poetry can be.  It has also suggested that I may have misjudged T S Eliot by basing my opinion solely on the musical Cats – perhaps not entirely typical of his full body of work?

Finally, this morning between breakfast and serious foundational training for my life as a gymnast, I found myself with a few minutes in hand.  So, I read the next short story from All the Rage – in the mere nine pages of These Small Pieces, A L Kennedy reduced me to tears.  It might be thought that tears before 10am are not a good thing, but the universe is having those few minutes back over my dead body (and I fully intend to rise from my grave and continue the fight, if necessary).

Given the number of written (or spoken) works deserving my attention far exceeds my ability to consume them (unless the singularity arrives a lot earlier than I’m expecting), I sometimes wonder why I do anything else.  I think the answer must lie in the need to reflect on, and recover from, writing of quality and power.  My poor brain cannot accept such rich input too often without suffering even greater degeneration than is already evident.  Plus, I’m both too tall and physically graceless to swoon with any style (and, more importantly, injury-free).  Once again, it seems the therapeutic effect of GofaDM (on me, if no-one else) is laid bare.

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2 thoughts on “Hwæt

  1. Lucy says:

    I have also found myself suddenly attracted to learning old English. I bought a book. It was really hard going, so I bought another one to start with, that has pictures and a character called ‘Leofwin’ who has a dog and domestic Anglo-Saxon adventures, and I now know that ‘cawel’ means cabbage and ‘lobbe’ is a spider, so next stop Beowulf 🙂

    • Stuart Ffoulkes says:

      I think in the near-term, I could live with just knowing how to pronounce the words – even without much (or any) grip on the meaning. The ability to speak Old English convincingly, like the bards of old, would be rather a pleasing skill – though may have limited practical utility. Sill, Old English orator would look good (or at least unusual) on my CV.

      I like the idea of a picture book approach to learning Old English, but would caution you that cabbages and spiders may not play a major part in the epic of Beowulf.

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