More Poetic Syntax: Parallelism

The past couple weeks, I have continued to read the Old English poem “The Battle of Maldon.”  I want to write this blog post as a short continuation to my topic from last week, which was the syntax of Old English poetry. So, another common syntactic device is parallelism, which is the use of successive phrases which, with respect to some grammatical feature, match in word order.  That sounds complicated, but a simple example from “Maldon” is, “Æþelrēdes eard     ealdres mīnes folc” or “Æþelrēd’s country, my lord’s land.” The two genitive nouns, “Æþelrēd” and “lord,” are placed before the subjects of those nouns, “country” and “land” (this quote is also an example of variation, which I discussed last week). Thus, the two phrases are parallel because they match in word order with respect to case. However, parallelism can be much more complex, even with just four words. Later in the poem is the line, “Hēt þā bord beran, beornas gangan” or “he commanded to bear shields, the men to go” (with “shields” placed before “to bear”).At first glance, this may seem to be a normal parallel construction: “shields” and “men” are both in the accusative case and are followed by the infinitives “to bear” and “to go.” So, the phrases seem to match grammatically. However, there is a crucial difference. “Shields” is the object of the subsequent infinitive “to bear,” whereas “men” is the object of “commanded” and the subject the subject of the infinitive “to go.” In a way, “men” acts as the implied subject of “to bear,” but the poet clearly tries to create a sense of parallelism by placing the objects and infinitives in the same position. However, there is also an almost chiastic feeling to the line (chiasmus is “ABBA” word order), as the two things that are commanded — “to bear” and “men” — are placed back-to-back as the “B”s of the structure, and the two concepts that follow from these — “shields” and “to go” — in the “A” positions. This interpretation is supported by the fact that in a different line, the poet uses the same verb “command” without naming a direct object, meaning one can either command something to happen or command someone to do something. If Old English had passive verb forms, I wonder if “to bear” would be passive, meaning “he commanded the shields to be born, the men to go” — a much clearer example of chiasmus. No matter what, this is a great example of how Old English poets can combine inflection with syntax to create a certain effect while preserving the intended meaning.

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