Syntax in Old English Poetry

These past couple weeks, I have started translating Old English poetry, which has been interesting to compare to the prose I was previously reading. As one might expect, Old English poetry employs more varied syntax than prose. The most basic explanation for this phenomenon (which, as far as I know, exists is in basically every language) is that poetry places “constraints” on composition, such as meter or alliteration, and authors additionally might prioritize effect over clarity. Though this difference in word order certainly exists in Modern English poetry, it is much more apparent in case languages (those that mark grammatical function of nouns with endings), such as Old English. In Old English, an author is free to put an object or verb before a subject to fit a meter or achieve an effect. One great example of this was in “The Battle of Maldon,” a poem I began reading this week. After describing how Byrthnoth, the Earl of Essex, prepared his troops for battle against the vikings, the poet says, “Þā stōd on stæðe, stīðlīċe clypode // wīċinga ār, wordum mǣlde.” the first line simply means, “then stood on the shore, firmly called out” — the poet does not name the subject before the verb, leaving us in suspense over who is calling out. However, the next line begins, “a messenger of the vikings,” with this phrase in the nominative (subjective) case. This is hardly possible in Modern English, as we almost always have to name our subject before our verb. The last two words mean, “he spoke words,” but “words” comes before “spoke.” This allows the word “clypode” or “called out” from the previous line to match the almost synonymous verb of the next line, “mǣlde” or “spoke.” It is possible to do this in Old English because “wordum” is in the accusative case, so, even though it precedes the verb, there is no doubt it is the object. Through the varied word order allowed by cases, the author can achieve effects impossible without cases and unnecessary in prose.

In addition to interesting syntax, I have noticed the prevalence of a common Old English device, variation, in the poetry I have read. This describes the renaming of a phrase (especially a noun phrase) in close proximity, usually for emphasis. Again, Old English’s case system allows for this. While in Modern English, we have to place appositives directly next to each other, Old English authors could separate such phrases with other words without any ambiguity because the two appositive phrases were in the same case. For example, again in “The Battle of Maldon,” the poet says, “Ēac him wolde Ēadriċ     his ealdre gelǣstan // frēan tō ġefeohte,” meaning, “in addition, Eadric wished to serve his leader, his lord, in battle.” “Ealdre” or “leader” and “frean” or “lord” are appositive phrases and a good example of variation (“frean” restates “ealdre”), but they are not next to each other in the Old English, separated by “gelǣstan” or “to serve.” However, there is no ambiguity because they are each in the dative case, demonstrating their apposition. Thus, it is easy to see how Old English’s grammar provides a whole new set of possibilities in poetry from Modern English. I am excited to eventually study how this differs from Latin poetry, as Latin uses a similar case system and probably even more varied syntax.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *