I know why I've headed this page with the name of Roberta Frank, born 1941. It's because of her article in Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature: essays in honour of Stanley B. Greenfield, edited by Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton, Fred C. Robinson, 1986. Roberta's article is entitled 'Mere' and 'Sund': Two Sea-Changes in Beowulf. Discreetly charming and unbearably light, her wickedly witty analysis merits examination, especially as regards sund. Reading her words, here and elsewhere, gives me a comfortable sensation that life's a jest, and all things show it. And why not ?
Frank says, page 154, that "sund in poetry signified 'sea', but in prose it stood for the abstract act or power of 'swimming', a mental construct separate from the physical world of nature." This is an assertion which gives me serious pause, and also jolts me strongly aback. The idea that Anglo-Saxon words carry different meanings in poetry and prose does not originate with Frank, but has long ancestry. However, let us focus here on sund. It does not seem to me that sund can possibly mean either 'sea' or 'swmming'. Except, conceivably, in the sense in which 'swan's way' or 'whale road' can be taken to mean 'sea'; or where 'roof' means 'house', or 'keel' means 'war-ship'. Metonymy --- thanks, RF. However, I query whether a word can have different meanings in different places: I am rather taken with Ludwig Wittgenstein's perception that "A is the same as the letter A". Scroll down to the bottom of that page. I'll concede that a word can be used in different ways in different places. But its meaning is fixed; ie heals simply, and always, means "throat", never "prow". Scroll down, skipping Mr Magoun.
On page 156 Frank lists brim, holm, sund, yð, wæter, flod, stream, lagu as sea-words used in Beowulf, other than mere, to describe Grendel's dwelling. Harking back over 65 years, to my youth as a death-dealing duck-hunter, gifre and grædig, on the arable fields of coastal Skåne, I am personally inclined to think of Grendel's lair as an outsize, and magically bottomless, märgelgrav. This will only have meaning to readers few, though fit.
Curiously enough, sæ itself is not included in Frank's list, but maybe it was not used to describe Grendel's dwelling, although, by my count, it is mentioned 11 times in Beowulf, and is used in 18 compounds.
Let me now be clear and plain. I cannot believe that the root senses of holm, sund, yš, lagu have anything whatsoever, intrinsically, basically or fundamentally, to do with the sea or even water; and I'm suspicious about brim. However, let's concentrate on holm and sund for the present. The focus, prospect and viewpoint, have shifted, remarkably oddly, to another page: here.
A sentence by Frank which I find irresistible is this one, page 163: Obfuscation is taken as elucidation; what was straight is made crooked; and we conclude finally that the poet did not know what he was doing. Hallelujah ! Nor, in the Anglo-American world of Anglo-Saxonists, does anyone else know what they are doing.
Another fascinating passage comes from A Plan for the DOE, 1973, page 7. See R.I.Page, for this opus. Here we go, on opinions concerning "the exclusion of etymologies, of proper nouns, and of bibliographical information from the Dictionary, unless they were essential to the establishment of the meaning of the word in Old English." Gee, that antiquated, jingoistic and offensive term really does make me shudder. "The omissions proposed by the editors generated even more spirited interchanges than the inclusions". Yah, you betcha --- dig those Coens --- they must of, in these interchanges. Interchanges ? How does one exclude etymologies in the establishment of meaning? Something only the DOE would be capable of achieving.
A constructive footnote, evidently inserted as an afterthought, mentions the anticipated works of Alfred Bammesberger, which now, 43 years later, comprise a daunting reading list. Not sure I can face it.
A last reflection before departure. One of Frank's latest essays must be her really interesting afterword to a new edition, 2008, of Raffel's translation of Beowulf, first published in 1963. This translation had been followed in 1982 by another, entitled A Readable Beowulf, the work of Stanley B. Greenfield, but I don't suppose the modification hides any veiled comment on Raffel's version, in spite of their not seeing eye to eye elsewhere. Greenfield had earlier considered that Raffel falsified both the æsthetics and meaning of The Seafarer, in at least one instance.
However that may be, I had somewhat been anticipating that in her afterword Frank would unite with Hollander and Raffel in what I'd slowly come to regard as a uniquely North American take on Anglo-Saxon words, and texts in general. This, it seemed to me, consisted in the mysteriously thorough misinterpretation, if not direct falsification, of the originals, perhaps to match American language usage and cultural preconceptions; although, of course, Greenfield was an American. As, indeed, was Pound.
It was therefore a pleasant surprise to discover that restraint had replaced the fulsome, and in my view wrong-headed, praise foreworded by Robert P. Creed to Raffel's Poems from the Old English, 1963. Frank, 45 years later, restricts comment on Raffel's Beowulf interpretation to "vivid", p 141, and adds, p 147, that "Unlike Raffel's vivid concreteness, Old English verse is composed in a highly patterned, formulaic style, studded with vagueness." Vagueness and obfuscation, in passing, seem to me characteristic of almost eveything written about Anglo-Saxon literature, but no matter.
On page 148 of the 2008 Signet Classics edition I'm reading, Frank offers a "word-for-word gloss" on lines 2455-62 of Beowulf. Comparison of this with Raffel's version gives me an impression of two quite different poems, which is not to say that Frank's glosses are invariably more accurate, or closer to the source language. She translates wongas as "plains", for instance: see here. Realization that the langage spoken by the Anglo-Saxons began its existence as Old Scandinavian, and can never live up to its latter-day title of Old English, would have prevented countless similar errors of interpretation.
That Anglo-Saxon Literature is Distinct from English Literature
Émile Legouis, 1926.