upholding the anfloga

elaborated from ambiguity

The world, especially the also-ran academic world of Anglo-American Anglo-Saxon studies, is infected with what psychologists call “confirmation bias”, which is the tendency to notice evidence that supports a pre-existing belief, but to ignore information which contradicts it. "Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence." Consult Wikipedia. "Some psychologists restrict the term 'confirmation bias' to a selective collection of evidence that supports what one already believes while ignoring or rejecting evidence that supports a different conclusion. Other psychologists apply the term more broadly to the tendency to preserve one's existing beliefs when searching for evidence, interpreting it, or recalling it from memory."

Since about the year 2000 AD, this website has engaged in would-be demolition of two substantial semi-learned errors. One is the belief that virtually all extant translations, since 1842, of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Seafarer are acceptably accurate. The other is that the widely received but dismal reputation of the painter Peter Monamy, since the prejudiced 18th century notices of George Vertue and Horace Walpole, is justifiable. I have only gradually come to realise how difficult it is to persuade the entrenched establishment of the truth of what I say. This, I now understand, is because of the phenomenon of "confirmation bias", which ignores information which contradicts the preconceptions of those who owe their jobs to the status quo. The irrefutable evidence which is contrary to their beliefs is massive, I maintain. My concentrated study of The Seafarer began in 1996, and of Monamy in 1980.

Setting the matter of Monamy to one side for the time being, while waiting to see what the latest foray into the world of maritime painting, by Yale, comes up with in September 2016, let us use what is left of this page to consider The Seafarer. Yet again.

The trouble with beliefs about the overall meaning of The Seafarer, or even individual words in the poem, is that they are not scientifically based, and therefore not falsifiable. The matter is similar to the understanding of history or appreciation of art: you are welcome to believe or set a value on whatever takes your fancy. Falsifiability or refutability of a statement, hypothesis, or theory is the inherent possibility that it can be proved false. A statement is called falsifiable if it is possible to conceive of an observation or an argument which negates the statement in question. In this sense, falsify is synonymous with nullify, meaning to invalidate or "show to be false". Karl Popper stresses the problem of demarcation—distinguishing the scientific from the unscientific—and makes falsifiability the demarcation criterion, such that what is unfalsifiable is classified as unscientific, and the practice of declaring an unfalsifiable theory to be scientifically true is pseudoscience. Wikipedia.

So, art history and Anglo-Saxon literature are pseudosciences. They boil down to a consensus of opinion: votes by the ignorant, seriously impressed by those claiming academic stature. It's not what is said, but who says it. Proponents of a theory, or a point of view, succeed in accordance with the endorsement of a silent majority, the financial muscle that can be flexed, or the number of backscratchers that can be summoned up. More often than not, the democratic vote in matters of genuine science is worthless, whereas, in pseudoscience, consensual numbers rule. The art of government is the archetypal pseudoscience.

It is possible to demonstrate, and effectively prove, that the world is not flat but round, and that it goes round the sun. This is in spite of the opinions of the elders of the Vatican in 1616. It is not possible effectively to debate the existence, or non-existence, of God, with his vicar upon earth, whether self-appointed or popularly endorsed. God's existence cannot be tested. The closer and more stringent the tests of falsifiability, the more the catch-all concept of God recedes, and remains impenetrable. Nobody can explain what human beings, or any other animals, are supposed to be doing on this spinning globe.

As long ago as 1937, in The Seafarer: An Interpretation, O.S. Anderson put it that "the only way to find the true meaning of The Seafarer is to approach it with an open mind, and to concentrate on the actual wording, making a determined effort to penetrate to what lies beneath the verbal surface". Since 1842, and the reprehensibly careless and ill-informed translation offered by Benjamin Thorpe, virtually no English or American study of The Seafarer succeeds, even minimally, in penetrating below its verbal surface. In fact, the majority of the Anglophone scholarly studies addressing this composition lead readers badly astray. The notable exception is G.V.Smithers.

Although he was Swedish, and lived and studied in Lund, Sweden, where I happened to be born in 1937, Anderson wisely wrote in faultless English. The reverse ability could certainly not be demonstrated by any British or American scholar. The Old Scandinavian language, which evolved into Anglo-Saxon, was a lingua franca to the inhabitants of what is now modern Scania, Denmark, and Frisia, before being brought to the British Isles by the migrant Angles, Saxons and Jutes, after, and perhaps even long before, the departure of the Romans, circa 410 AD, en masse. Consequently, most Scandinavian scholars, Swedish, Danish and, to a lesser extent, German, are superior to their Anglo-American fellows, as regards a proper comprehension of Anglo-Saxon literature. Alas, they may also be misled by deferring to those self-same sorry fellows.

The biggest single step into the boggy morass called "Old English" was taken by Henry Sweet, who appears bitterly and jingoistically to have resented what he saw as the superior scholarship of the Germans in particular. He may not have given the Scandinavians any consideration at all, although it is perfectly evident the Angles came not from Germany, but from Angeln, in modern Denmark, as well as most probably from Ängelholm, or Engelholm, in modern Sweden. Nevertheless there are a few modern Anglos who are not totally adrift. Apart from the excellent Smithers, these include E.G.Stanley and T.A.Shippey; and, among Americans, one should perhaps allow Greenfield. At least he had the moxie to rumble Raffel, whose modesty almost out-does the self-deprecation of Pound.

The blurb for E.G.Stanley's book, The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, 1975 and 2000, usefully notes that it has implications as a case-history of how scholarly predilection becomes prejudice and orthodoxy. Stanley seems to be the only European who has any involvement in what is laughably called "the" Old English Dictionary. But he is now 92 years old.

T.A.Shippey, born as recently as 1943, is a worthwhile scribbler in these pastures. His foreword to the translations of Craig Williamson, 2011, deserves study, which I must get round to. Didn't go for Williamson's Seafarer, though. Here are some comments from Shippey, Old English Verse, 1972, 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-Saxonist fraternity. Shippey even shows a tendency sensibly to favour the term "Anglo-Saxon". However, even Shippey goes seriously adrift in the TLS, 2 December 2016, when he places Skellefteå in Norway.


This page is disintegrating. Time to post it.

A sentence from A Short Comparison of Place-Names in England and Sweden: "The more I checked with the experts' writings ..... the more I realised how they are in thrall to inherited rule-sets and how confusing the terminology is; in true academic tradition perhaps, lest the uninitiated begin to understand."


Familiarity with Professor S.B.Greenfield's remark, in The Old English Elegies, an essay in Continuations and Beginnings, Nelson 1966: "...the Seafarer poet approaches a more complex Empsonian type of ambiguity in his use of equal and opposite semantic values of the same word to underline ambivalences in attitudes and levels of meaning", Page 158 . "The duality of interpretation proposed for the projected voyage in The Seafarer has its counterparts not only in the ambivalence of attitude expressed by the speaker toward that peregrination in the passage itself, but in a deliberate ambiguity of diction throughout the poem." P 156, The Old English Elegies, Greenfield, 1966.

Casting around for something useful to say about the critical comments on The Seafarer, and dipping into A Survey of Modernist Poetry, by Riding and Graves, 1928 edition, the following phrase, page 215, leapt out at me: "bigoted inefficiency of criticism"

William Empson acknowledged his indebtedness to Robert Graves, and was churlishly rebuffed by that belligerent bruiser. However, Empson's landmark Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1930, is one the few studies to reveal the workings of genuine poetry, of any age. Investigate other pages. Both Graves and Empson were practitioners of a pseudoscience; hence liable to lack manners, or restraint.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said what amounts to: No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong. If he said that, it would seem to me the reverse of the truth, historically demonstrated. One crucial experiment, or test, I thought, proved him right, beyond any doubt.

Helen Morales noted in the TLS of 2009, May 15 : "A scholarly myth can spread like a computer virus until it becomes accepted historical fact." See a myth spread, below.

erroneous myth en route to becoming historical fact
unwearnum is the dative case of a singular strong adjective
it is not an adverbial dative plural

The perception that unwearnum is actually the dative case of an adjective receives support from consideration of the grammatical function of the -um ending. This ending is only applied to nouns, whether masculine, feminine or neuter, when they are in the plural. Whatever else it may be, the appearance of unwearnum in either The Seafarer or Beowulf is certainly not plural. But the -um ending does occur as the dative case in both singular and plural strong adjectives, masculine and neuter. In spite of his angenga position, Leo seems to be thinking along the right lines when treating unwearn as an adjective. A man who is unwearn is a man who is unguarded or defenceless, not one who is obstacle- or hindrance-less. See here.


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The Amber Route
The Aviary of Death
Death's Sting: Daily Telegraph, 28 Oct 2000

Semi-Nutritious Reading Matter

1969: Medieval Literature and Civilization, edited by D.A.Pearsall & R.A.Waldron.
1972: The Interpretation of Old English Poems, by Stanley B.Greenfield.
1979: Old English Poetry: essays on style. Edited by Daniel G.Calder
1982 A Readable Beowulf: by Stanley B. Greenfield
1983: The Old English Elegies; edited by Martin Green
1986: Modes of Interpretation in Old English Literature. Edited by Phyllis Rugg Brown, Georgia Ronan Crampton, Fred C.Robinson. Essays in Honour of Stanley B.Greenfield.
1989: Hero and Exile: The Art of Old English Poetry, by Stanley B.Greenfield. Edited by George H.Brown


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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, Bert. I really like that.

"It is not who is right, but what is right, that is of importance."
Thomas Huxley, 1825-1895

There is no profit in debating the existence of God with his vicar on earth.

Remarks on the DOE by R.I.Page

essays & papers
annotation       commentary       anglo-saxon text       modern version
versions of the central crux
seafarer cuckoo
seafarer fidelity
biblical echoes


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© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2016