In my "Norton Anthology of English Literature," the first entry is Caedmon's Hymn. It's our first poem, first song; if you take the vast pile of English literature and peel it away, year by year, back through time to the oldest scrap, this is it. Dated sometime between 650 and 680 C.E. Before Shakespeare, before Chaucer, before even "Beowulf" (in the form it has come down) is Caedmon. I love most Anglo-Saxon verse, but I can't stand Caedmon.
"The earliest English poem," of course, is really just the oldest one to have survived. As the Caedmon story makes clear, a rich tradition of poetry flourished around him when he composed his hymn. Random shears cut through history and blindly decide what survives, what doesn't. A Sappho poem sits faded but intact on papyrus stuffed in a barrel bung, while teething moths have devoured the one next to it. Not so in Caedmon's case. His little praise-song survives exactly because it killed off the rest.
In an England still half heathen, where one king set up Ing's idols on the altar in his priest's church, Caedmon was the first to discover that the rich lode of old songmaking could be perverted to the purpose of the new, alien religion. He took a full-flowering pagan art and forced it to the baptismal font and invented the church-hymn. He was the first Christian-rock star. We're the future where Beethoven and the Beatles are forgotten, but Kenny G. still sounds, where Jane Austen is gone but Danielle Steele endures.
The miracle-story of Caedmon is in Bede's history of the English church. To Bede the background is the setting for the gem. Caedmon lives in a settlement around an abbey. The people gather in the evenings after chores in some public hall. There, amid warm fires and laughter, they pull down the harp and pass it around. Everyone takes a turn singing and strumming the chords. They make music as a social function, to win attention, to show affection, to move or amuse one another. Perhaps they tell great adventure-songs from their people's past. Perhaps they sing some raunchy limerick to get a laugh.
But every time this starts to happen, Caedmon gets up and leaves. He slips out of the warm hall into the cold starlit night, on the excuse of tending the sheep. But the truth is, he can't sing, and he's ashamed. When the harp comes near, he ducks out, and he lies in his cold bed and listens to the distant laughter.
One night, after this happens, he dreams an angel stands at the head of the bed and commands him to sing. Caedmon pleads that he can't sing. "Yes, you can," the Angel says. "What shall I sing?" Caedmon asks. The Angel tells him to praise God the creator, and Caedmon burps out this tubthumper hymn about the making of the world.
In Bede's version, he wakes up the next day and tells his aldorman, then the local abbot, and the miracle story begins.
But in my version, Caedmon gets out of bed right then and stalks up to the mead-hall, flings the doors open, stands there and croaks out his sermon song. The whole place turns to watch him. cups half-raised to lips, harp passing from hand to hand of men whose frozen faces now turn toward Caedmon's eruption. And as he sings the whole room begins to fade -- the food, the hands that grip it, the frozen faces, the harp, till the song ends and Caedmon stands alone at the head of a hall as vacant and dim as starlight. And he pulls the doors to and turns to face us.
Now he's all we have.
In the 20th century readers of English re-connected with the bloody, cunning sagas of 1,000 years before, and that says a lot about the 20th century. Regarded as embarrassingly crude by the 19th century, "Beowulf" and similar tales now seem shockingly cinematic, violent as the nightly news. Young Robert Graves, after serving in the trenches in World War I, found himself at Oxford among other returned soldiers resuming the education they had interrupted in 1914. His Anglo-Saxon lecturer was almost apologetic: "It was, he said, a language of purely linguistic interest, and hardly a line of Anglo-Saxon poetry extant possessed the slightest literary merit." Graves disagreed.
"I thought of Beowulf lying wrapped in a blanket among his platoon of drunken thanes in the Gothland billet; Judith going for a promenade to Holofernes's staff tent; and Brunaburgh with its bayonet-and-cosh fight -- all this came far closer to most of us than the drawing-room and deer-park atmosphere of the eighteenth century." [Good-Bye To All That]
The poet Julia Kasdorf wrote somewhere about the Old Order Mennonite community where she was raised, that its dialect only has words enough for farming and gossip. Old English has something of that innocence. To a degree, that simplicity is deceptive -- there are complex linguistic knots around the ideas of fealty and guilt, revenge and fate, but we miss them because we no longer hear such things so elaborately, and we translate half a dozen fully nuanced Anglo-Saxon words into one vague modern one, like "glory."
Yet it is a direct speech, and its directness is the root of both its power and its charm. Nothing is affected about a language whose word for the little finger is eorcleaner. A politician who speaks such a tongue could not bury you in a slurry of canting prose. The French Latinate words flooded into English because clerks and clerics who came across the Channel with William the Bastard after Hastings needed terms for their theology and lawsuits. The pollution that fouled the language seeped from the twin stacks of serfdom and dogma.
Even more than the lexicon, however, the grammar makes the tongue strong. Despite the entanglements of gender and its oblique cases, Old English was actually less complex in some ways than Modern English. Best of all, from the point of clear writing, is that it had not yet discovered the cursed copula, where "to be" is the main action and the real verb dissolves into the sentence, sapping the life out of it and strewing about soporific "-ing" endings. Its structure also made Old English unfriendly to those other essential tools of dull writing: the passive voice, the unspecified "it," and the continuous tenses.
"It is raining," is just not a possible sentence in Old English. The old language forced you to stand up and say what you meant, not hide it behind copulas. The rain falls. Or it floods. At any rate, a word must come forth and declare itself the subject of the sentence, and then it must do something. Passive voice, continuous tenses have their uses; they allow writers or speakers to deftly describe complex and subtle relationships. But they are used far more commonly to curtain the speaker's ignorance, or to deflect attention from what ought to be the important facts of a case.
Old English did have the "-ing" words, but it wasn't infested with them, like its modern cousin. Anglo-Saxons were more likely to form their gerunds in -aþ or -oþ for masculine nouns. At least it's a real syllable, not a mumble. It used -ing or -ung in feminine gerunds like gaderung ("gathering") or ræding ("reading"). Wilnung is a good word meaning "desire." The "-ing" suffix also served in Old English as an converter of adjectives into nouns, but again it was rare. Æþling, which turns the adjective "noble" into a word meaning "nobleman," is the one I see most frequently.
You can read page after page of Anglo-Saxon and never meet a word that ends in -ing. Try to write just a paragraph in Modern English without one. Even the past perfect tense was folded into the verbs (through a ge- prefix) and it was possible for Anglo-Saxon writers to write narrative prose uncluttered with "haves" and "hads" (when groping with any but the simplest statements, however, they cluttered it up with other words instead).
It was an English without all the cobweb words that end in "-shun," however you spell it. It was an English with far more strong verbs, with their juicy evolutions (the past participle of "help" was not the whiny "helped" but the more muscular holpen). It was an English that had far more plurals of the "man-men" type, where a stem vowel changes, and more possessives with a suffix -an rather than the hiss that's now tacked on to the end of words in both cases.
I've read that only about 20 percent of the Modern English vocabulary is directly descended from Old English. The open-door policy of English is part of the reason for its global popularity, of course, but unlike in more conservative languages, English words keep slipping away to make room for new ones. And other words live on as toothless relics of their former selves. Old English thunderheads of power, like mood and grim, have survived in debased, pip-squeak form. Some 23,000 or 24,000 Old English words have come down to us, which is doubtless only a fragment of the corpus. But even among that list are a few gems that we never should have dropped in the philological dustbin. These words are gone, and now we fumble around for want of them. I've modernized the spellings to indicate pronunciation, though if these words had really survived to modern times this is how they'd probably be spelled.
SHRITHE - Bruce Mitchell's "Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England" gives this account of the word: "The [Beowulf] poet uses the verb scriþan four times -- of hellish monsters, of shadows, of Grendel, who is both a hellish monster and a sceadugenga 'shadow-goer' and of the dragon. The word seems to imply smooth and graceful movement (it is used elsewhere of the sun, clouds, and stars, of a ship skimming over the sea, and of darting salmon in a pool) and an element of mystery (other poets use it of the coming of May, of the beginning and ending of the day, and of the gradual passing of human life). In Beowulf, there is also a suggestion of menace and danger which is echoed in other poems, where the word refers to the spread through the body of a disease which could be cancer and to flames raging unchecked. Had it survived, poets would have used it as a rhyme for 'writhe' and sports writers would have turned it into a cliche applicable to footballers, cricketers and baseballers, tennis-players, and boxers."
WER - male human being. The word "man," used in Modern English for both "adult male" and "human being," causes much confusion and bad feeling. It seems to make males the true humans and females a sort of afterthought, which is consistent with Christian theology but not with biology or chivalry. Never mind that the "Human being" meaning of "man" is the older of the two; most people don't know that. Other Germanic languages have adopted different forms of the word for the two senses (German has Mann and Mensch). English had a similar distinction, with the word "mennisc," but it vanished by the 13th century. But the Old English terms to distinguish the sexes were wer and wif. "Woman" is actually "female human being" from a compound of "wif" and "man." Wer survives obviously in "werewolf" and, more obscurely, at the root of "world." But why not revive it to mean "male human" and root out the difficulties of "man." "Wer and woman" has a healthy, Anglo-Saxon alliterative ring to it.
SWITHE - strong, harsh, right, very, quite. This adverb once had a wide range of meanings, including "right hand," but it generally was used simply for emphasis, like the modern words "very" and "really." It's in this sense that I'd revive it. It sounds nifty and "very" and "really" have certainly been beaten to death by overuse, so they could take a break for a couple of generations and let swithe do their work. It often worked together in Old English with MICKEL, another one I'd like to bring back, which meant "more" and became "much," though the original form survived in Viking-tinged Scottish dialects much longer than in the rest of England. Its comparative and superlative forms survive as "more" and "most," but the root word has a more satisfying taste than "much."
FRODE - It meant "old" and "wise" at the same time. In a similar vein would be DOUTH, as a sort of counterweight to "youth," derived from the old verb dugan, meaning "be good for, be strong" (surviving, barely, in the archaic "doughty"). It would make a more vigorous and honorable word than "middle age" to describe the accumulation of life experience and maturity.
SEVA - As a noun, it meant "mind, heart, spirit," but with a sense of perception, of knowing through the heart. It could serve as a word for the concept we fumble at with words like "emotional intelligence" or trivialize with phrases like "women's intuition."
NESH - The word has a soft, timid, delicate sound, which is exactly what it meant: "soft, timid, delicate." It grew out of Old English hnesce, and was a much-used word in Middle English. I had written that this word survived till the early 20th century in North England and Midlands dialects, which is what the dictionaries assured me. But I've since heard from several Yorkshire folks who assure me it still thrives in conversation there. Good news! Yorkshire against the world! I am told as well that the word is in daily use in Liverpool and most of Lancashire.
TUNGOL - Used to mean "star," and is evidently at the root of modern words like "twinkle," but I like it as a homely alternative to the icy "star." And "astronomy" is nowhere near as magical a word as its Old English equivalent, tungolcræft.
NITHE - "Malice, enmity, violence, persecution." Except perhaps "malice," none of the synonyms come close to the nasty sneer of niþe. The word nithing survived into the mid-19th century in parts of England, meaning "vile coward, wretch, villain of the lowest type;" and a nithing post was a stake set up as a form of insult.
Learning an ancient tongue brings strangeness into the world. The familiar turns out to be exotic. Here's some of the strangeness of English that you discover when you wash away the soil and examine its roots.
The bulk of the core vocabulary of English is made up of recognizable Indo-European root words, shared by most languages from Iceland to India. But there also are a number of words from a hypothetical "Northwest European" provenance, which would be a cluster in the Indo-European family that comprises the ancestral tongues of the Italic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, and Germanic languages. These words presumably descend from a common Bronze Age culture, and they consist of roots not found elsewhere in Indo-European languages, or which have different meanings in them. The vocabulary itself is largely cultural -- many of the words are agricultural terms or names of animals and plants found across this range. Grain, apple, sow (the pig) and seed are among them. But we can't know whether these words were borrowed from some long-extinct language of the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of these lands, whether they developed independently, or whether they were words from within the Proto-Indo-European lexicon that have been lost by all the other languages (this seems the least likely explanation).
English is a Germanic language, under the French, but a surprising number of our most basic words are unique to the Germanic languages -- bath, boat, drink, drive, evil, finger, hand, sea, and possibly earth and little.
Names of colors turn out to be among the most slippery words. I had already encountered Homer's "wine-dark" -- oinopos -- an adjective which Homer uses 17 times of the sea and twice of oxen, and Sophocles uses once to describe someone's arm. And ancient Greek references to the star Sirius, an icy blue to us, as "red." When I started reading Anglo-Saxon, I saw that the spectrum of color there, too, was not divided as it is now. In "Beowulf," yellow is the color of linden wood (used to make shields). The favorite color-adjective for gold, however, is red.
Many surviving color words from Old English -- dun, wan, sallow, bleak, dusky, swarthy, bright, murky, dark -- refer to colors which are not hues. These words have more to do with chroma (reflectivity, brightness, quality of light) than with hue (wavelength). We tend to think of color only as hue. Out of all this you can get an insight into that world. Look aound you and subtract all the artificial, man-made pigments from your world. Then look at what is left, and you may see why glitter and dark mattered more than pink and purple in naming what you see. Northern Europe through most of the seasons is a landscape of brown, gray, and dull green. The eruptions of color in spring and fall must have been brief and amazing, with an almost hallucinogenic intensity.
Old English brun and hwit both meant "bright, shining," though now both are used to mean hues (although we still speak of "burnished" wood or metal). One of the knottiest linguistic problems in Old English is blaec, which is the common ancestor of the seemingly irreconcilable modern words black and bleach. The Old English word seems to have been used to refer to a type of colorlessness.
INDEX - AUTHOR