"Very little has been done hitherto to investigate the exact shades of meaning in Old English words."
Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language, Chapter 3, § 52; 1938.


From Old English Verse, 1972, by T.A.Shippey

"Scholars belong to guilds held together by common opinions, attitudes and methods. As a rule, innovation is welcome only when it is confined to surface details and does not modify the structure as a whole"
Cyrus H.Gordon. Forgotten Scripts, 1982, page 35.


Here we go again. The central crux. Although Shippey, admittedly, wrote his study of Old English Verse now over 40 years ago, I feel that he is considerably more perceptive than the general run of Anglo-Saxonists, but perhaps that's because I share some of his cultural background. He seems tempted by what Smithers had to say, but then fails to follow the full implications. Was it too much of a challenge to received and established opinion ? Don't make waves, as they mutter in hell.

Uniquely, Shippey starts his central crux quote from line 62, not line 58. This implicitly recognizes that, as posited by Smithers, gifre ond grędig refers to the anfloga, and not the seafarer's hyge or modsefa. It doesn't require a lot of thought to realise that a wandering mind can improbably be described as "ravenous". The punctuation can be entirely dispensed with. The Ango-Saxon didn't need any. Sadly, however, Shippey covers himself by saying that the seafarer's mind ranges over land and sea and returns to him, supposedly gifre ond grędig. Much hinges on the translation of cymeth eft to me. It is not merely a question of the poem's tone, but its lexis.

Here are some comments from Shippey that could be profitably explored. "The Seafarer contains several problems ..... all of them contribute, some might think deliberately, to make it a poem of considerable ambiguity." p 68. "Wisdom grows out of experience alone ..... the poet can rely on the very looseness of much Old English verse." p. 70. "Even his vocabulary shows signs of deliberate ambiguity." p. 71. These remarks seem a cut above what is otherwise turned out by the Anglo-Saxon faculty.

Something that has greatly puzzled me is the incorrigible obtuseness of the average Ango-Saxonist. A summary of a PhD thesis recently prepared by Anne Favier-Townsend reads thus: Over a range of studies from Physicians to Professors to CEOs, the mean IQ of intellectually elite professionals is about 125. The probability of entering and remaining in these professions increases with IQ to about 133. It then falls about 1/3 by 140. By 150 IQ the probability has fallen by 97%. If your IQ approaches 140, you may be facing career challenges. If your IQ is over 150 your career prospects are very poor.

It is not advisable to look too good, nor talk too wise.
If you have any ideas, take care to conceal them

Anglo-Saxonists are reviewed by their peers. Richard Horton has noted: "We know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong."

Recapitulated comments.

The two opening words of The Seafarer, namely, Mæg ic, are extremely frequently translated "I can". This is wrong, and occasionally its wrongness is realised, and the issue is dodged. In my first draft I dodged it myself. Interestingly, before spiralling off into his baffling journey's jargon, Pound began correctly, with "May I". This opening can hardly be other than an echo of Psalm 19, Verse 14: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, rendered in the King James Bible as: Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight. Here is an alternative opening line, in the King James vein, for this site's Modern English version: clickety click.

The only extant fragment of Psalm 19, done into Anglo-Saxon, appears to be:

Do, drihten, cyng     dędum halne,
and us eac gehyr     holdum mode,
swylce we še daga,     drihten, cigen

I read in Klinck, p 161, that Bruce Mitchell, in Old English Syntax, 1985, has this to say: "Magan + infinitive does not express a wish in OE". Mitchell appears to me to be simply wrong. In this context "May I" is virtually interchangeable with "Let me". In Deor, the refrain could effectively be translated, "That passed, let this do likewise." Mitchell, with Homer, must be allowed to nod. Click.

Adieu mein Kleiner, möge das Glück mit Dir sein.

Samples from the glossary included in A Guide to Old English, by Mitchell & Robinson, 1988

Although I've said it before, I find I'm saying it again and again: eft cannot mean "again", and never does. It means "then", "later", "subsequently", "afterwards", "behind" or "in back of". If eft meant "again", then eft ongean would mean "again again", since ongean actually does mean "again". Meanwhile, sið means "way", not "journey".

The word mag, at left, book-ending magan, is of interest. Like so many Anglo-Saxon words it has an almost identical Swedish cognate, måg. Måg today means "son-in-law", thus only technically kin, or not by blood.

My Victorian-mannered grandparents drew a strict line between "can" and "may". If I said "can" I do, or have, such-and-such, they would answer: I dare say you can. I had to say "may" I do such-and-such, when they might give me permission. They also said there is no such word as "can't".

If unwearnum is an adverb meaning "irresistibly, eagerly, greedily" it might just as well mean "truly, madly, deeply".

Bruce Mitchell was obviously a fair dinkum cobber, and a hugely respected authority for his reputed mastery of Anglo-Saxon syntax. His command of lexicography, though, leaves something to be desired.

Mæg ic is in fact identical with Swedish må jag, and German möge ich.:   May I.     "I can" should definitely be permanently canned.
See here, for a spot of extra variety. And here's another recapitulative reminder: the phrase eoržan sceatas refers to the womb-like earthen tomb to which man returns, when he dies, or she dies. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes; into the tomb the great queen dashes. Gielleš means "yells"; possibly "screams" or "shrieks", and I originally said, nothing less. However, the immediate Swedish cognate of gielleš is "gala", which can be used of a cock crowing, and even of the call of a cuckoo. But a secondary Swedish cognate would be gäll, pronounced "yell", an adjective meaning "shrill" or "high-pitched", which might aptly be used of the ravenous scream of an excarnator.

Here's a further look at sceata, this time from Beowulf, lines 750-753, compared with Wickberg's Swedish translation, 1889. Swedish sköte does not remotely mean "regions": the word means "lap, bosom, womb".       Shakespeare called Falstaff's final destination: "Abraham's bosom".

Sona þæt onfunde       fyrena hyrde
þæt he ne mette       middangeardes
eorþan sceata       on elran men
mundgripe maran

Snart kunde illdådens herde märka,
Att han ej träffat uti midgård,
På jordens sköte, hos någon annan
starkare handtag.

Moreover, unwearnum cannot by any cogent stretch of the imagination mean "irresistibly". Because unwearnum means "defenceless", anfloga implies onslaught by --- The Death Bird.

"Much of the literature of translation is not about errors in translation; it is about errors in understanding the original."         E.Bruce Brooks.

Of what value is a study of a poem when its text is imperfectly understood ?

See: The Ritual Use of Wetlands during the Neolithic: a local study in Southernmost Sweden, by Lars Larsson.
In Wetland Archaeology & Environment, edited by Lillie & Ellis, 2007.

Click for another anfloga.

seafarer essays and papers
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" ... to the dilettante the thing is the end, while to the professional as such it is the means; and only he who is directly interested in a thing, and occupies himself with it from love of it, will pursue it with entire seriousness. It is from such as these, and not from wage-earners, that the greatest things have always come."

Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851

Gide said: "Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again."                            

Le traité du Narcisse. 1891, or 1892; second paragraph.

Marsden R.: The Cambridge Old English Reader, 2004

Marshall McLuhan

"Publish or Perish is the beanery motto".
See Wikipedia on Publish or Perish.
"to get published you must be dull, and stupid and harmless"
"teachers are unable to be critics of their own world"
"teachers distrust any of their number who has ideas"

"publish profusely: just make sure you say nothing unwelcome. Tread on no toes."
Remember, your career is important to you.

"There are many mathematicians [read Anglo-Saxonists] who are more or less honest.
But almost all of them are conformists.
They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest."
Grigori Perelman.

"Have no respect for the authority of others." Bertrand Russell.

Reckless of that, my thought is thrown
beyond my heart's cage now.

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© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2015
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"Brief and powerless is man's life; on him and all his race the slow, sure, doom falls pitiless and dark."
Bertrand Russell
Thanks, Bertie. I really like that.