30 October 2011

W.H. Auden from "The Runner"

The poet W.H. Auden was commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada to write the commentary for a short film called "The Runner." He introduces the subject of the film like this:
It is meet we praise in our days fleet-footed
Bruce Kidd from Toronto.
The script includes prose and rhyme and, unexpectedly, a section of alliterative verse. Here is part:
(FIRST VOICE) Rivals should ride to the race together
Be firm friends.
                                (SECOND VOICE) Foolish is he
Who, greedy for victory, grits his teeth,
Frowns fiercely before contests,
And no neighbor.
                                  (FIRST VOICE) It is nice to win,
But sport shall be loved by losers also:
Foul is envy.
                           (SECOND VOICE) False are those
With warm words for the winner after
A poor race.
                         (FIRST VOICE) Pleasing to the ear
Are clapping crowds, but the cold stop-watch
Tells the truth.
                             (SECOND VOICE) There is time and place
For a fine performance. Fate forbids
Mortals to be at their best always.
God-given is the great day.
I found this under the title "Six Commissioned Texts" in Auden's Collected Poems. (pg. 610 in my edition).

21 October 2011

In praise of good design and fine workmanship

The Beowulf poet cannot seem to mention a tool of a warrior's trade without giving a physical description of it, sometimes the name of its creator or original owner, and its fine protective or offensive qualities.

He sometimes does this for swords (in lines 1694-1698)
Engraved in the gold of the glowing hilt,
the uprights of runes, rightly inscribed,
set down and said the sword's first owner,
the man it was made for, that matchless blade
and winding-snake hilt.
Sometimes, helmets (in lines 1446-1451)
The shining helmet that sheltered his head
and would swirl up mire from the mud below,
creating currents, was crusted with treasure
in elaborate bands for long before
a weaponsmith worked, wonderfully lengthened,
and fastened boars as a firm sign
that not blade at all could ever bite.
But, invariably, shirts of mail.
“But if I sink in death, send Hygelac 452
“the wonderful armour worn over my breast,
“the best of hauberks that Hrethel left me,
“Wayland's handwork."
“An aid against foes, my armoured shirt 550
“strong and hand-linked, helped me withstand,
“safeguarding my breast, my braided sark
“adorned with gold"
The modern reader might wonder why so much attention goes to an item of protective clothing, but the listeners apparently never tired of hearing such details. Perhaps we can understand them by describing items of narrow but deep interest to particular groups. For example, passages like this would interest one segment of society.
His vehicle waited,   a V-8 turbo
with twin overhead cams   that came from his father
an avid collector.   The Camaro was painted
in metallic red.   A racing stripe
adorned its length   and leather seats,
factory-fresh,   in front and back.
An over six-thousand   cc engine
carefully tuned   by qualified techs
zoomed in three seconds    from zero to sixty.
If you are aware whether Camaros had 6000 cc V-8 engines, you are a perfect audience for this type of description. Other people would pay attention to
A chinois Chanel   shaped to perfection...
A Mac computer   from Cupertino...
I begin to appreciate why Richard  Wilbur chose alliterative verse to praise objects (and discarded objects at that). That function is common in alliterative verse.

XXVI. The Sermon Ends, and the Last Night at Heort

Hrothgar continues his moral advice to Beowulf, first because he values the man himself and second because he senses that Beowulf may eventually become a king. The specific sin he highlights is covetousness: attempting to accumulate wealth for its own sake, rather than using it to recognize and reward his supporters. A covetous man, he says, gives up the "place of honour" he should have.

Hrothgar then focuses on mortality, as it applies to man in general and to Beowulf and himself in particular. The points he makes about his own life later apply to Beowulf's. Hrothgar ruled his people for fifty years, as Beowulf will; Hrothgar's prowess in war brought security to his people for a time, as Beowulf's will. The peace he forged for the Danes was shattered by the monster Grendel, as the Geats' peace would be by a dragon. Finally, Hrothgar speaks of his satisfaction at seeing his enemy lying, dead, as Beowulf will see the dragon. In a way, as Hrothgar seems to recognize, Beowulf is a younger version of himself.

Night comes. The men sleep.

In the morning, the raven announces that a new day has come, and Beowulf begins his farewells. First, he returns Unferth's sword to him, politely praising its quality, although it had not helped him in the fight against Grendel's mother. He then approaches King Hrothgar.

Then under the armour they enter the heart,
the cruel shafts. He cannot resist
crooked counsel of the cursed spirit.
It seems too little, what he had saved too long.
Greedy and cruel, he keeps for himself
the rings of fine gold. The future is then 1750
forgotten, foregone, which God had intended,
the Prince of Glory, a place of honour.”

It always comes in the end to this:
the living frame loaned to him fails;
it falls, as it must. The man who follows
gladly gives out golden treasures
the earl had hoarded, heeding no fear.”1

These wicked ways, beware, Beowulf, dear man,
first among men, and favour the better,
the timeless truth. Turn from self-pride, 1760
famous soldier. We celebrate your power
a little time. Not long from now
illness or edge will end your strength,
or flow of flood, or flame's embrace,
or clutch of sword, or course of spear,
or hideous age, or the eyes' reflection
will dull and dim. The day will soon come
that has you, hero, humbled by death.”

So the Ring Danes I have, these half-hundred years,
held under heaven, and helped in war 1770
with many a tribe of Middle Earth,
with ash-wood and sword, till it seemed that none
under sky's cover counted as foes.”

NOW. Those times in my country came to an end.
Grief followed joy since Grendel became
a familar foe forced upon me.
I bore without pause his persecution.
I grieved greatly. God then be thanked,
Lord of Ages, that life remains
so on that head, hacked and bloody, 1780
our fight at last finished, I can feast my eyes.
Take your seat now; attend our glad meal,
graced by your trials. Time and again,
I will share wealth, when morning comes.”

The Geat felt glad, going at once
to his waiting seat, as the wise man said.
Then, as before, the fighting-tough,
the seated guests, were given a banquet,
another time. Night’s helmet darkened,
black over the war-band. All warriors rose. 1790
The aged one wanted his bed,
the grey-haired Scylding. The Geat very much,
brave warrior, wanted to rest.
An attendant took the tired wayfarer
from far away, went as a guide
as courtesy called for, and cared for each
of the soldier’s needs, for such, in those days,
seafaring heroes had as a right.
The big-hearted one rested. The building reared high,
gabled and gilded.
                               The guest slept inside 1800
till the black raven, bliss of the sky,
sang light-hearted, then swift brightness came,
shine after shadow. The shield-bearers hurried.
The nobles were, away to their people,
eager to leave on the long journey;
the great-hearted guest, to go to his ship.
He told the tough man to take Hrunting;
the son of Ecglaf was offered his sword,
beloved iron, along with thanks.
The war-friend2 was warmly praised 1810
by war’s master. No words slighted
the broadsword’s blade. He bore himself well.
And then, wanting to go, their war-gear on,
the warriors waited. He went, loved by Danes,
the noble to the throne. There was the other.
The great in heart greeted Hrothgar.

1With no fear of the dead lord’s ghost.


11 October 2011

XXV. Hrothgar's Sermon

Once Beowulf arrives back at Heorot with Grendel's head, he hands over to Hrothgar a hilt. This is all that is left of the giants' sword that had killed Grendel's mother. It is a "sign of glory," he says, then summarizes the fight. He credits God for timely help. He promises that the danger to Hrothgar's people is over now and that appropriate revenge was taken.

Hrothgar examines the hilt and then speaks. He praises Beowulf, of course, but obviously sees a great future for him, and offers the benefit of his experience to prepare him for it.

He tells Beowulf to keep hold of the credit he has won by protecting and comforting those set under him. His admonition is the same as that in Luke 12:48: "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." More concisely, He is reminding Beowulf that noblesse oblige.

Heremod is again mentioned as someone whose strength and position gave him a potential for greatness, but who forgot his duty, killed his own people and failed to reward with appropriate gifts.  He died alone and unhonoured.

Hrothgar then paints a more general picture of a man to whom God gives a rich and easy life, so his pride in himself grows to the point that his soul is in danger from "the killer / whose arrows' aim is always good."

This speech is sometimes called "Hrothgar's Sermon," and it is continued in the next Fitt.

Lines 1705-7 are the poem's second use of hypermetric lines (a specific form that produces longer-than-usual lines). They are marked with an asterisk (*).
Beowulf spoke, the son of Ecgtheow.
“NOW. This sea-won hilt, Healfdene's son,
“Prince of the Danes, we are pleased to bring you.
“You see before you a sign of glory.
“To leave with my life was less than easy,
“war under water. The work I did
“required all my strength. Still, and quickly,
“that grapple would have ended, but God shielded me.
“With Hrunting I held no hope of success;
“it worked no effect, though a fine weapon. 1660
“But the Lord of Men allowed me the grace
“to behold on the wall, hanging in beauty,
“a potent old sword—often he points out
“a way to the friendless. I forced out the blade
“and felled in the fight, when fate allowed,
“the home's defenders. Then that fighting sword,
“wave-patterned, burned up as blood washed over,
“the hottest war-sweat. The hilt, though, I carried
“here from the demons. I redressed the crime
“of Danish deaths, as due and right. 1670
“You have my word that you will, in Heort,
“sleep without sadness with your soldier band,
“and each thane, too, all through your kingdom,
“father and son. Fear no more evil
“to come from that quarter, King of the Scyldings,
“no more of the death-wounds you dreaded before.”
Then the golden hilt was handed over
to the aged fighter, the august king.
The old work of giants joined the possessions
of the Danish king after the devils' fall: 1680
a wonder-smith's work, when the Earth lost
the furious fiend, the foe of God,
guilty of murder, and his mother, too.
It went to the keeping of kings of this world
who excelled the others by either sea
of Northern lands in lavish giving.
Then Hrothgar spoke. He inspected the hilt,
the ancient heirloom, etched with the story
of the old dispute, when the ocean slew
the race of giants in rushing floods. 1690
They fared poorly, a people divided
from eternal God. They got in return
rising waters as the Ruler’s gift.
Engraved in the gold of the glowing hilt,
the uprights of runes, rightly inscribed,
set down and said the sword's first owner,
the man it was made for, that matchless blade
and winding-snake hilt.
                                               And the wise one spoke,
Healfdene’s son. The hall fell silent.
“One who treats men with truth and right, 1700
“remembers old times, protected this land,
“may tell you this: Truly, this lord here
“was born to excel! You have built a name
“to the farthest fringes, my friend Beowulf;
* “credit comes from all quarters, so now keep hold of it
* “steadily, with strength from wisdom, and I still shall give you
* “support, such as we spoke of. You must spread comfort to those
“who live in your care, through long years to come,
“and help heroes.
                                    “Heremod did not
“to Ecgwela's sons, the Honour-Scyldings. 1710
“He bore no blessing but bitter slaughter
“dealing out death to Danish folk.
“He felled in fury friends of his table,
“companions in the press, till he passed alone,
“that lofty king, from life's pleasures.
“Though mighty God gave him strength
“that made him more than men about him,
“garnered him greatness, there grew in his heart
“a breast’s treasure1 of blood-thirst. No bracelets were given
“to honour Danes. Dour, he existed 1720
“enduring the pain of daily strife,
“a plague on his people.
                                                “Profit from this
“to understand virtue. This story's teller
“is wise from his winters. How wonderful to say
“how mighty God gives to mankind
“wisdom—He draws it from deep knowledge—
“stout heart and estate. He stands over all.
“He delights, at times, to allow a man
“of fine family his fondest wish,
“awards in his birthplace the best of this world: 1730
“to have command of men in a hold,
“to put under his rule part of the earth,
“a wide kingdom. He cannot himself,
“blind to its cause, believe it will end.
“He lives in plenty. No pain arrives
“from illness nor age; no anguish afflicts him,
“darkens his spirit; nor disputes arise
“stemming from hatred. Instead the world
“wends as he wills it, no worse than before.
“Meanwhile, inside him, his measure of pride 1740
“grows and engorges till the guard is asleep,
“the soul's keeper. The sleep is profound
“and caught up in distractions. The killer is near
“whose arrows’ aim is always good.”

1The breast’s treasure is the heart.

04 October 2011

XXIV. Beowulf Kills Grendel's Mother

Beowulf rises to his feet, but unarmed. He spots a weapon that might help: it is truly ancient (from before the flood!) and larger than life (forged by giants!). His extraordinary strength allows him to lift it and cut through the neck of Grendel's mother. He then takes the sword on a search for Grendel's corpse and cuts off its head. The act has consequences. Beowulf sees the ancient blade dissolve like an icicle on a hot day; his waiting friends see waves turn red and mount higher. They feel this is a sign of Beowulf's death. "At the day's ninth hour," the Danes give up their vigil, though the Geats "stared into the lake, / and longed without faith that their lord and friend / reenter their sight."

Beowulf picked the hilt of the melted sword and Grendel's head to take with him. He swam to the surface. No monsters attacked; they had disappeared. The water was calm. His friends rejoiced to see him. Teams of four men took turns carrying Grendel's heavy head to Heorot. They marched in with it and placed it in the midst of the men and women who were drinking there, amazing them all.

This Fitt describes a wide range of emotional states in a limited space. There is Beowulf's berserk rage against Grendel's mother, his vengefulness against Grendel, the hopeless longing of the Geats who thought Beowulf was dead, their unrestrained joy as he returns, the satisfaction of their trip back, and the stupefaction of the Danes as they saw Grendel's head dumped among them. There is irony, such as Grendel lying "seeming at rest" (though he suffered in Hell). There is also fine simile, such as this:
The sword then changed:
The blood of the slain dissolved the blade
like spears of ice. It inspired awe
that nothing remained, as melting ice
when the Father frees frost from its bonds,         1610
unwinds water-ropes, the one who rules
the times and seasons, the true Creator.
I'm not sure exactly what it means that the Father "unwinds water ropes." If an unwound rope looks somthing like this

Then it might look like this

But the other image that comes to mind is an icicle with water running down it, twisting into exactly the shape of a rope. I can't find a picture of it, but I've seen it.

Or "water rope" could simply be a term for an icicle.

One of the joys of literature is that you do not have to choose between competing interpretations. They all contribute meaning to the metaphor.

He saw among weapons a well-tested sword
with firm edges forged by giants,
an honour to wield. This one was the best        1560
but oversized for other men
to bear away to a battleground.
It was made well, this work of giants.
The Scyld-lord seized the sword by its ring-hilt.
Enraged beyond reason, he raised the sword,
not hoping to live. He hit with such anger
that it clutched her neck, cut into it hard,
broke through the neckbones, and next passed through
the doomed body. She dropped to the floor.
The blade was bloody. Beowulf rejoiced.        1570
The hall was lit by a light from within,
much like the bright illuming beams
of the sky’s candle. He scanned the room
and followed the wall, his weapon in hand
with bristling hilts. Hygelac’s thane
held one angry thought: The weapon had use
to the warrior’s will. He wanted now
to make Grendel pay for his many raids,
for the war he waged on the West-Danes,
returning to attack more times than the once        1580
that Hrothgar saw his hearth-companions
while slumbering slaughtered, while sleeping devoured.
The fifteen dead were Danish fighters.
Countless others were carried away,   
pitiful victims. The vengeful prince
repaid him sorely! Seeming at rest,
Grendel was lying, life’s pleasures gone,
robbed of existence, ruined as he was
by Heorot’s battle. The body heaved
when the corpse received a cut of such strength,        1590
so heavy a blow, its head came away.

They saw at once, the wise companions
that were watching the water with Hrothgar,
that the troubled waves were tossing higher
and stained with gore. Greybearded men,
respected elders spoke of the good man.
They had little hope the high-born lord,
exulting in triumph, would return and seek
the glorious monarch. Many agreed
that he had been slain by the sea-wolf’s hands.        1600

At the day’s ninth hour, the noble Danes
left the sea-cliff. He set off for home,
the gold-sharer, but his guests looked about
distraught at their loss, stared into the lake,
and longed without faith that their lord and friend
reenter their sight. 
                                        The sword then changed:
The blood of the slain dissolved the blade
like spears of ice. It inspired awe
that nothing remained, as melting ice
when the Father frees frost from its bonds,         1610
unwinds water-ropes, the one who rules
the times and seasons, the true Creator.

The war leader of the Weder Geats
retrieved no trophies from the treasures there,
except the head and the sword’s hilt,
so brightly adorned. The blade had melted,
its wave-pattern burned, the blood came so hot
from the poisonous spirit that perished within.

At once, in the water, the war survivor,
death to his foes, dived and ascended.         1620
The clashing waves were clear of danger,
endless expanses where evil spirits
had given up breath and this borrowed world.
The sailors’ leader set out for land,
swimming strongly, his sea-loot a joy,
the heavy burden he bore with him.

Then the thanes approached, with prayers of thanks.
The group of earls grinned and shouted
on seeing at last that their lord was safe.
Then the hardy man had helm and byrnie         1630
quickly loosened. The lake grew calm.
Below the sky lay blood-stained water.

They travelled the trails that took them back
with happy hearts. They held to the path,
the familiar route. With royal pride,
they carried the head from the clifftop heights,
with much effort from all of the men.
Four at a time, full of spirit,
they lifted and carried the litter pole
with Grendel’s head to the gold-hall.            1640
The time arrived that they reached the hall,
the fierce fighters, fourteen in all,
Geatsmen going with their great leader,
proud in the pack. They passed over the lawn.
The men’s captain then came marching,
fearless in action, exalted to fame,
the gallant hero, to greet Hrothgar.
The head was lowered by its hair to rest,
the monster’s head where men were drinking.
The earls were awed, as were the ladies,        1650
on seeing the marvel. The men all stared.