THE OLD ENGLISH RUNE POEM,
FREDERICK GEORGE JONES, JR.
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
For Siri, Lisa, and Adel
I am greatly indebted to my supervisory chair-
man, Professor John Algeo--lareowa craeftlicost--, for his
learning and his support of my work from beginning to end,
and I am grateful for the criticism and scholarly example
of the other two members of my committee, Professor Aubrey
Williams and Professor Oscar F. Jones. I would also like
to extend my hearty thanks to Professor Alton Morris for
his reading of this thesis and also for his kindnesses in
The earliest records of any of the Germanic languages
are written in the runic fupark, a name taken from the first
six letters of this ancient and mysterious alphabet. The
origins of the fupark are obscure, but most scholars now be-
lieve it to have been developed by a Germanic tribe which
was in contact with certain North Italic alphabets sometime
in the period c. 250 to 150 B. C. The runes, each of which
signifies a sound and a common noun, were in the beginning
used primarily for casting lots and for divination, being
scratched on sticks and dice, and only secondarily for in-
scriptional purposes. But during the next five hundred
years, as a result of the Germanic migrations, the fupark
became the common property of all the Germanic peoples and
its inscriptional uses were realized, so that early forms
of the Germanic languages are preserved to this day, scratched
on various bits of wood, metal, and stone, from Greece to
Apart from a few isolated instances, the runes occur
but rarely in manuscripts. Most inscriptions are brief,
consisting only of a few words or sentences at the most,
but they provide a significant body of evidence in the early
cultural and linguistic history of the Germanic peoples. The
magnificent Golden Drinking Horn of Gallehus (fifth century)
contained, until it was stolen and melted down, one of the
earliest examples of Germanic alliterative verse:(M
NAH,^tlIT HRt 1fh 'WI : ek hlewagastiR holtijaR horna tawido:
I, Hlewagast, Holtts son, made the horn. Inscriptions on
tombstones and monuments abound in Sweden and Denmark, and
coins, swords, and stone cross fragments contain some of the
earliest examples of Old English. One of the noblest works
of art of early England is the Ruthwell Cross, with its in-
scriptions from the Dream of the Rood and the triumphant
*kItP PhI1 Fi RP#M : Krist waes on rodi. As recently as
the last three years, hundreds of new runic inscriptions
have been dug up from the wharf foundations in Bergen, Norway.
Most of these date fromHanseatic times and include scratching
on combs and mirror cases, shipping labels, business letters
written on sticks, and some are not without literary interest
as one verse epistle which reads:
Unn pu mer,
ann ek ker
kann ek Pik.
(You love me; I love you. Gunnhild. Kiss me: I know you
well.) Runic traditions are vigorous in Scandinavia as late
as the sixteenth century, but in England, after the intro-
duction of Christianity in the seventh century, the runes
seem to have fallen into disuse.
The Old English Rune Poem, a product of this period
of declining vitality of the English runic traditions,has
not suffered from the neglect of the scholar. Like all
runic documents, the Rune Poem has been devoted close
study, and because it contains a wealth of both runic and
cultural lore, a large body of scholarship has built up
around the poem, nearly all of it dealing with the runes--
their values, names, and meanings. This edition makes use
of the annotations of Dickins and Dobbie, but the main pur-
pose here has been to place the poem in the literary tradi-
tions of the period, so that the poem can emerge as a poem,
and not merely a document of linguistic interest. There-
fore, in addition to a summary of the manuscript history
and language, annotations and glossary, the present edition
offers a study of the genre of the poem, from the point of
view of both the vernacular and Latin traditions, a study
of the stylistic techniques, and a study of the theme and
structure of the poem.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS ... . . . . ... . . iii
PREFACE . . . . . . . . . . . iv
INTRODUCTION. .. . . . . . . . . 1
Manuscript. ... . . . . . . 2
Language and Date . . . . . 9
Sources and Genre . . . 16
Techniques and Themes . . . . . 38
TEXT. . . . . . ... . . . . 73
TRANSLATION ......... . . .... . 79
ANNOTATIONS . . . . . . . . . 85
BIBLIOGRAPHY. . .. . . . . . . .. 114
APPENDIX. . . .. . . . . .... 123
GLOSSARY. ..... . . . . . . . 130
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . ...... 14
The unique manuscript of the Rune Poem was extant
as MS Cotton Otho B. x. fol. 165 until the fire of 1731,
which destroyed it and so many other early English manu-
scripts. Fortunately, however, George Hickes (1642-1715),
pamphleteer, divine, and antiquarian, had printed the poem
in the Grammatica Anglo-Saxonica of his ponderous Thesaurus
(1705), which contains among other things grammars of Old
English and Gothic, Old High German, and Icelandic, specimens
of these languages, some runic and numismatic lore, and Hum-
phrey Wanley's catalogue of Old English manuscripts and'
printed books. All subsequent editions of the Rune Poem have,
therefore, been based on Hickes' printing of the poem in the
The earliest notice of the MS Cotton Otho B. x. oc-
curs in a note of Sir Robert Cotton in the 1621 catalogue of
the Cottonian collection (Harley 6018, f. 162V). The note
records the loan to William Camden of "A Saxon book of divers
saints lives and the Alphabett of the old Danish letter amonghs
Mr. Gocelins." N. R. Ker infers from this that the MS along
with the Rune Poem folio belonged at one time to John Josce-
lyn (1529-1603), Archbishop Parker's Latin secretary and
sometime Cambridge Latin and Greek lecturer, who collected a
number of important Old English manuscripts,2 and Ker suggests
that the Rune Poem MS folio, a single leaf, was bound with
the MS of saints' lives "perhaps by Joscelyn."3
In Thomas Smithts Catalogus Librorum Manuscriptorum
Bibliothecae Cottonianae (Oxonii MDCXCVI) occurs the first
complete description of the contents of the MS, yet Smith
fails to mention the Rune Poem, which, according to Wanley's
Catalogus, was found on f. 165. In Smith we read the follow-
ing description of the verso of that folio:
Characters Alphabeti peregrini, numero
tantum decem. Aliqui ex his videnturh
esse literis Runicis similes. 165 b.'
In Humphrey Wanley's copy of Smith's Catalogus now in the
Bodleian Library as Add. MS. 18041 (Gough London 54) there is
the annotation in Wanley's hand: "Litterae antiquae Runicae
numero plane viginti et nouem cum observatt. Saxonicis." And
in Wanley's own Catalogus, published in the same volume as
Hickes' Thesaurus, folio 165 is described as follows:
XXVIII. fol. 165 Folium quod olim ad alium
quendam librum pertinuit, nunc hujus pars,
in quo continetur Alphabetum Runicum cum
explicatione Poetica, Saxonice, quod non
ita pridem descripsi rogatu Cl. D. Hickesii,
qui in Gram. Anglo-Saxonicae, cap. 22 de
Dialecto Normanng-Saxonica. P. 135. illud
Hempl has proved beyond reasonable doubt that the
rune values and several variant names found in Hickest edition
are borrowed from MS Cotton Domitian A. ix. f. 11v, which fuporc
Hickes reproduces on the next page after the Rune Poem (Thesau-
rus, p. 136).7 And C. L. Wrenn has produced further evidence
that Hickes added the runic paraphernalia to the facsimile:
Hickes himself was quite candid about
his additions when printing the Runic
Poem. There is, he says, on p. 165 of
the MS. 'Runarum Danicarum, tam sim-
plicium quam duplicium, description
quaedam poetica, Anglo-Saxonice expli-
cata.' It is of this 'Descriptio' that
he writes as follows:
Plane quasi ab omnibus doctis spectatu
dignam, hic cum runis aere incisis,
operate et sumptus pretium exhibere judi-
camus, Latinis additis ex adverse elements,
ad ostendendam runarum potestatem, una cum
iis nominibus quibus appellantur ipsae runae.
The italics are my own: but, with the corrob-
orative evidence of Wanley quoted above /The
description in his Catalogus 7, I think There
can be little doubt that Hickes, as Hempl
long ago suggested, added the marginal rune-
names and rune-values deliberately for the
better carrying out of his purpose, which
was, of course, primarily philological.
Wrenn has also pointed out the likelihood that Hickes' tran-
scription was actually made by Wanley,9 since in the descrip-
tion of Galba A. ii. (Catalogus, p. 237) Wanley says:
IV Alphabeta Runica divers, quae cum
aliis ex hujusce Bibliothecae Codd. MSS.
descripta D. Hickesio imprimenda dedi.
Wrenn comments: "It may be, therefore, that the whole of
Hickest transcriptions of runic fuparks and alphabets rests
on those originally made by Wanley."10 Ker also asserts that
the Rune Poem was printed "no doubt from Wanley's transcript."ll
The history of the Rune Poem MS may therefore be re-
constructed, from the evidence given above, as follows: The
medieval scribe transcribed the poem including only the single
runes and the verses. A later Old English scribe added the
names of the runes as a gloss. The Rune Poem folio became
detached from the original manuscript (if it was ever bound),
and was bound with a MS of Aelfric's Lives of the Saints, per-
haps by Joscelyn (1529-1603). The MS (now Cotton Otho B. x.)
was acquired by Sir Robert Cotton, apparently from Joscelyn,
and was lent to William Camden. In 1696 Thomas Smith de-
scribed Cotton Otho B. x., overlooking the Rune Poem but not-
ing ten runes on the verso of f. 165. Wanley transcribed the
poem as'.well as the fuporcs of Cotton Galba A. ii. and Domi-
tian A. ix., noted Smith's omission in his copy of Catalogus
1696, and described Otho B. x. for his own Catalogus 1705.
Hickes published Wanley's transcriptions of the Rune Poem
and the fuporcs, adding to the facsimile of the poem (if they
were not already present in Wanley's transcription) the Latin
values, the variant names, and variant runes from Wanley's
transcription of Dom. A. ix. In 1731 MS Otho B. x. was
badly damaged by the fire and f. 165 was destroyed.
Since the Rune Poem folio did not originally belong
to Otho B. x., the few leaves that survived the fire can be
of no value in determining the peculiarities of the hand,
nor can we even be sure just how the poem was arranged on
the page. But from a comparison of the letter counts of
single pages of several representatives MSS and of the Rune Poem
it seems likely that the poem was transcribed on both the
recto and the verso of f. 165. It is also probable that the
MS scribe, quite in keeping with Old English verse trans-
scription, did not divide the poem into stanzas as Hickes
has done. And if the runes occurred within the lines, this
situation would account for Smith's overlooking the poem,
which followed hard on the heels of a Saxon penitential, and
would account for his noting (incorrectly?) only ten mis-
cellaneous runes at the end of the poem, perhaps the nine
runes which Hickes includes at the bottom of the facsimile:
Hos characters P P p 1 ad alia sestinans
/sic, read festinans 7, studios lectori interpretanda re-
In arranging the text of the poem for this edition,
I have taken the liberty of dividing it into stanzas, but
the rune names, Latin values, and the variant runes, have
1N. R. Ker, A Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing
Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957), p. 228.
20n Joscelyn's antiquarian activities, see Eleanor
N. Adams, Old English Scholarship in England from 1566 to
1800 (New Haven, 1917), p. 3b.
3Ker, p. 230.
4Quoted from R. Derolez, Runica Manuscripta (Brugge,
1954), P. 17.
5Cited by Ker, p. 230.
H. Wanley, Catalogus, p. 192.
7G. Hempl, MP, I (1904), 135-141.
C. L. Wrenn, "Late Old English Rune-Names," Medium
Aevum, I (1932), 25. The question of the relationship between
the Rune Poem folio and Hickes' facsimile is complicated by a
runic alphabet found in Hickes' Icelandic grammar later in the
Thesaurus. On a page filled with tables of runic alphabets
from various sources (including Dom. A. ix., St. John 17, Galba
A. ii) is an alphabet "e Cod. MS Bib. Cott. Otho B. 10." (Gram.
Is., p. 4, table II, 3), which contradicts the evidence from
The facsimile of the Rune Poem: (1) The incorrect values Y
and Z are given to Y and f but the values are.correct in
the runic alphabet of Dom. A. ix. (MS source of the Rune Poem's
accretions) and the facsimile of the Rune Poem. (2) Thetwo
H variants, the N, EO, and ING variants are included (all of
which are found in Dom. A. ix. and the facsimile), but the DC
and A variants are not included (found in Dom. A. ix. and
the facsimile). (3) The A rune, having neither name nor
value in the facsimile, is given the value Z, whereas it has
the value K in the Dom. A. ix. alphabet. (4) The values of
daeg and man are reversed (presumably following the evidence
of Dom. A. ix. against the evidence of the correct name glosses
found with the poem; see line 59n). This reversal was not
an idle slip since Hickes in his charts of the derivations of
the runes fro Greek and Latin (Gram. Is., p. 4) gives the
value M to and D to At least one conclusion may be
drawn from all these inconsistencies: The additions Hempl
and Wrenn ascribe to Hickes are really those of Wanley, and
although Hickes knew that some elements had been added to
Wanleyts transcription of the Rune Poem, he either did not
know, or did not distinguish te ---S evdence from the ad-
ditions in making up his alphabetical charts. These in-
consistencies have little bearing on the text of the Rune
Poem, but in view of our dependence on Hickes alone for
the runes of the lost MSS Galba A. ii. (destroyed by fire
in 1865) and Otho B. x., and in view of the contradic-
tions in the descriptions of Otho B. x., the question of
the reliability of Hickes' reproductions needs further
9Wrenn, p. 27.
1Ibid., p. 27.
11Ker, p. 230.
LANGUAGE AND DATE
An analysis of the language of the poem reveals few
forms that can be assigned only to any non-West Saxon dia-
lect, and the relatively few unexpected spellings can in al-
most every case be seen as the result of the levelling of
vowels of unstressed syllables and the smoothing of early
West Saxon diphthongs, both of which are to be regarded as
late West Saxon changes (see Kemp Malone, "When did Middle
English begin?", Curme Volume of Linguistic Studies, Language
Monograph, No. 7, 1930, pp. 110-117). In addition, the change
m > n in final unstressed syllables is evidence for a
late MS date (see Campbell, Par. 378). Deviations from the
standard Alfredian texts are discussed in detail below:
A. Vowels in stressed syllables:
1. The tendency throughout the text to confuse
the graphs i and y: The byp-formula which begins nearly
every stanza is spelled byp, except in 45, 48, 49, 52, 58,
and 81, where we find bib. In line 6 is is written beside
s 8, and wile for drihtne 3, beside dryhten wyle 61. Other
instances of i alternating with y include hihte 45, unstyl-
lum 58, and gerysena 72. This spelling of i where we should
expect y and vice versa can tell us nothing positive about
the rounding or unrounding of the front vowels, and the oc-
currence of alternations in words which occur more than
once further precludes any final decision as to their pro-
2. Syllan 33 for earlier sellan must also be
regarded as a 1WS change common to the group sel- (Camp-
bell, Par. 325).
3. Byrneb 17 is 1WS Z for biernan (Campbell,
Par. 299a), eWS variant of birnan < *brinnan, class III
strong verb. BreneS 43, on the other hand, is a variant of
the causative baernan, a weak verb ultimately from -brannjan
(Campbell, Pan 193d).
4. Hlehter 38 and wexeo 42, e < ea, are examples
of 1WS smoothing (Campbell, Par. 312), or Anglian smoothing
(Bulbring, Par. 313).
5. Wature 42 and waetere 26 (beside waetre 89)
exhibit the parasitic vowel in the dative singular, u (prob-
ably representing /F9 7) written for e. Since OE ae and a
coalesced in 10E times in a, wature may be further evidence
for a late MS date (c. 1100?, cf. Campbell, Par. 329.3).
6. Trywe 48 for trTewe is a WS feature (Bil-
bring, Par. 188). Hwyrft 25 shows a similar WS monophthong-
ization of ie to Z (Campbell, Par. 300).
7. Est 68 beside East is more than likely a
reflection of the 1WS monophthongization of diphthongs
(Campbell, Par. 329.2).
8. The vowels o/a are commonly in free varia-
tion before nasals as in onfeng LJ, and anfeng 8, the a/o
variation presumably being extended to the noun by analogy
from the verb onfon.
9. Beb 46 beside baek 79 and semannum 45 for
expected saemannum is quite possibly a Kentish character-
istic. The raising of a to e in the Kentish Gospels is
a tenth-century change (Campbell, Par. 288).
B. Vowels in unstressed syllables:
1. The unstressed vowels a, u, o, e and i
fell together as schwa in late OE, and the large propor-
tion of inconsistent spellings in the Rune Poem testifies
to a certain confusion on the part of the scribe as to how
this schwa should be represented. Thus we find fr'ofur 1,
11, 58 for expected frofor, oftust 17, 41 and gelTcust 30
beside oftast 73, faerylde 49 beside faerelde 86, wynan 37
and magan 59 for expected wynnum and _agun, stapule 82 for
expected staoole, herenys 19 for herenes, underwrebyd 37
for underwrepod, tudder 52 for tuddor, and nepun 64 for
2. Syncopation in bridles 66, fCdres 88, waetre
89 (Campbell, Par. 388, 389) and haefb 23, 41 (Campbell, Par.
732). The uncontracted hafab 88, beside the expected haeft
23, 41 may be WS, since the form does occur in prose texts
(Campbell, Par. 762), or it may be Anglian, since it is
found regularly in Vespasian Psalter (Campbell, Par. 762)
and in Anglian poetic texts (Sievers-Brunner, Par. 417c).
The syncopated hwyrft 25 for hwyrfbl is also probably WS
(Campbell, Par. 732). The regular WS hylt 82 beside un-
syncopated healde6 48 is given by Sievers (Beitr., X, 474)
as evidence for a Southern origin of the poem. Verb
syncopation in Anglian texts is rare, and if the poem were
Anglian, line 82b would read stede rihte halde6. Such a
measure cannot be made to conform to any of Sievers'
five verse types (or Creed's, cf. PIMLA, LXXXI, 23); hence
it must be inferred that the line, if Anglian, violates the
patternsof OE versification. It is therefore likely that
the poem is not of Anglian provenance. In line 48 however,
either healda or hylt would give a metrical line (Sievers'
1. There is metathesis in 1WS /sk/ to /ks/,
as in fisces 46 and fix 87 (Campbell, Par. 440).
2. Assimilation of 3 sing. pres. ending of fb
> ft as in hwyrft 25 is rare. J. Hedberg (The Syncope of
the Old English Present Endings, Lund, 1945) cites no in-
stance of f> ft occurring in the prose texts, and accord-
ing to Campbell (Par. 481.5) the change f) > ft which oc-
curs in, for example, 1WS peoft, does not occur in the
verbs. In the case of hwyrft there are two possible ex-
planations: either (1) hwyrft represents scribal confusion
with the noun hwyrft 'a turn, going, course'; or, (2) what
is more likely, with the syncopation of feb > ft, the f
became devoiced, and the final spirant dissimilated to a
stop. It is doubtful that the t of hwyrft represents a
spirant (Campbell, Par. 57.7), or that t is here an alterna-
tive phonological form .et of the 3 sing. pres. ind. (Camp-
bell, Par. 735b).
On the basis of the evidence above we can say that
the scribe confuses the graphs i and z in stressed position
and that the schwa of unstressed syllables is represented
variously by u, o, a, y, and e. These are common features
of 1WS, but there are a number of pairs of variant spellings
which indicate the absence of a vigorously standard scribal
tradition (wature/waetere/waetre, est/East, onfeng/anfeng,
beb/baeb, hafa//haefl, healde/hylt, fisces/fix, etc.). In
addition to the pairs of variant spellings, there is a cu-
rious bunching up of less expected forms between lines 37-
L6, and these lines will bear closer examination.
While one would not go so far as to say (as has J.
Dover Wilson in regard to the compositor of the First Folio)
that these lines were copied in a state of eagerness to get
on with the job however carelessly, "after an interval for
refreshment from 'a stoup of ale,'" nevertheless in line
37 we find two instances of final m> n, a alternating with
u in the dative plural, and y for o in the past participle:
wyrtrumun underwrebyd wynan on tle. In addition, within
these lines we find the most significant vocalic variant
spellings, those reflecting 1WS or Anglian smoothing (hlehter
38, wexe6 42) and the quite possibly tenth-century Kentish
raising of ae > e (semannum 45 and beh 46). And here also
is the form wature 42 with the less expected parasite vowel.
In addition to the high frequency of unexpected and possibly
dialectal spellings peculiar to these ten lines, it is here
that we find the only gap in the text of the poem. Some-
thing has been omitted from the line wlancum rar wigan sittap
39, although the omission is not noted by Hickes. It is, of
course, entirely possible that the omission was made by Wanley
in his transcription, but it is just as likely to be the error
of a scribe who, rather carelessly repeating dialectal accre-
tions and adding a few of his own, failed to understand some
of the runes and their accompanying verses, and who conse-
quently in his confusion omitted two or three words from the
MS. It is not therefore coincidental that these spellings
and omissions should occur within these two stanzas, (peorp
and eolh-secg), the rune-names of which are quite rare in OE
and the significations of which would have been preserved
only in a strong runic tradition.
Three tentative conclusions may be drawn from the
linguistic evidence of the text and from the mixture of forms
and the lacuna of lines 37 to 46: (1) The MS of the Rune
Poem is tenth or eleventh century, when the vigor of the
runic traditions had been all but lost. Such 1WS spellings
as n for final m, the levelling of unstressed vowels, and
the smoothing of diphthongs preclude an earlier date for
the MS. (2) The MS had a checkered history, and may have
been copied by Anglian and Kentish scribes before its final
redaction by the West Saxon Cottonian MS scribe. (3) The
original dialect of the poem cannot be known with certainty
although, because of the several syncopated verbs, notably
hylt 82, the poem is presumably not of Anglian origin, but
rather is Southern. The occurrence of the Tor rune, with
its Kentish connections (see line 87n), and the Kentish
spellings shemannum 45 and bet 46 suggest at least the pos-
sibility of Kentish origin, though the poem is more than
likely of West Saxon provenance.
SOURCES AND GENRE
Understanding the relationships between the pagan
and Christian traditions has always been one of the larger
concerns of Old English studies. Most of the disputes have
been waged around Beowulf, beginning with F. A. Blackburn's
essay "The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf" and contin-
uing to the very recent attack on the Christian-patristic
point of view in "Beowulf and the Pitfalls of Piety."2 It
would not be appropriate to discuss here the various ap-
proaches to Beowulf that have been made, nor to consider the
question of the fusion of pagan and Christian elements in
Old English poetry as a whole, but an attempt will be made
in this section to show that the assumption of earlier edi-
tors and critics that the Old English Rune Poem is derived
from a much older pagan Germanic rune poem is merely an as-
sumption, and to demonstrate that there are reasons some- -
what more compelling to place the poem within the Latin-
Christian poetic traditions of the early Middle Ages. Any
search for the source or the genre of the Rune Poem must
be directed toward these traditions.
The histories of Old English literature nearly al-
ways discuss the Rune Poem in the sections on survivalss
of the Germanic-pagan traditions," and there is justifica-
tion for this since clearly the runes themselves are a sur-
vival of a tradition reaching back as far as the first or
second century. But the suggestion that the Old English Rune
Poem itself is a survival of an ur-poem can be based on noth-
ing but sheer speculation.
Alois Brandl makes perhaps the earliest suggestion
(1901) that the Rune Poem is drawn from a heathen poem:
WAhrend aber dieser Dichter, wie aus
seinen Anspielungen auf den Himmels-
k6nig hervorgeht, bereits Christ war,
fihrt uns der Vergleich mit zwei ver-
wandten skandinavischen Runen gedich-
ten bis zu einer heidnischen Urform
The one-page introduction of the first critical edition of
the poem (1915), that of Bruce Dickins, is based largely on
Brandl, and suggests that the poem is early, "pre-Alfredian
at least (with traces perhaps of an original from which the
Scandinavian poems are derived)."4 One of the more judicious
statements concerning the origin of the poem is to be found
in Dobbie's edition (1942), where the poem is called a
"miscellaneous compilation from all kinds of sources, both
literary and popular.'5 But although Dobbie acknowledges
the obscurity of the exact nature of these sources and their
combinations, and although he suggests the possibility of
accretion, nevertheless he asserts, probably rightly, that
the poem as we have it "gives the impression of a complete
and unified work by a single compiler." Dobbie sees its
unity consisting in the bib-formula, the conformity of the
length of stanzas, and the effect of finality in the last
stanza. Kemp Malone in A Literary History of England
(1948) has lent his weighty opinion to the discussion, and
in a chapter entitled "The Old Tradition: Popular Poetry,"
he says in regard to the source of the Rune Poem:
It seems altogether likely that the
runes from the first were learned by
means of a poem in which each rune-
name began a section, though in the
original poem the sections may have
been quite brief--possibly no more
than a short verse each. From this
original poem the three runic poems
were presumably descended.
Thus the notion of an original Germanic rune poem has per-
sisted, but on the basis of no evidence at all, except the
two later Norse rune poems.
These two poems, the source of the ur-poem specula-
tion from the beginning, can however offer no evidence for
an original: In the first place, the Old Norwegian Rune
Poem may have grown out of someones having heard the Old
English poem in the thirteenth century, and the Old Icelandic
poem, of the fifteenth century (Bruce Dickins' dates), may
have been derived from one or the other. Furthermore, the
only similarities between the Norse poems and the English
poem are those that are a necessary consequence of the simi-
lar rune names and a shared storehouse of kennings. Sec-
ondly, in regard to the stanza form, the second half of the
Old Norwegian line is in each case an independent gnome
with an end-rime:
Fe vaeldr fraenda roge;
foSesk ulfr i skoge.
Ur er at illu jarne; / 9
opt lypr raeinn a hjarne.
In the Old Icelandic poem each stanza is a series of three
kennings which define three aspects of each rune name, and
this is punctuated by the Latin equivalent of the name and
a synonym for 'king':
Fe er fraenda rog
ok flaeoar viti
ok grafseiSs gata.
Ur er skyj gratr
ok skara pverrir
ok hirsis hatr.
Thus on the basis of stanza form it may be doubted whether
there is any connection between the two Norse poems, much
less between either of them and the Old English Rune Poem
or a Germanic ur- rune poem. And finally, the structure of
the Old English poem, the extension of the Germanic fupark
of twenty-four runes to twenty-nine runes, and our poet's
sense of order and finality in the twenty-ninth stanza,
makes derivation from an earlier Germanic rune poem un-
likely. For all the secular lore that the poem does con-
tain, it has closer affinities to the Latin genres of
aenigma, gnomic catalogue poem, and abecedarium than to a
hypothetical Germanic-pagan rune poem genre.
The riddling quality of the Rune Poem has often been
noted, and if the runes were not originally accompanied by
the name glosses, each stanza would be a riddle for some-
one unfamiliar with the names. The riddle itself is an an-
cient and respectable genre: We see it in the riddle of
Odysseus to Polyphemus, in the riddle of the Sphinx, in
the riddle of Samson to the Philistines, and the riddle is
found in the early literature of England in both Latin and
the vernacular. Aldhelm at the abbey of Malmesbury, under
the influence of its Irish founders, composed a series of
one hundred Aenigmata modelled after the riddle cycle of
Symphosius, perhaps a sixth-century scholar of the Vandal
kingdom. Aldhelm's riddles, like the Rune Poem, glorify
the creation, and the introductory poem has the line Ald-
helmus cecinit millenis versibus odas,in acrostic and
telestich.1 As testimony to the relative wealth of the
English libraries, Aldhelm's knowledge of Latin authors
included his favorites Virgil and Sedulius, Ovid, Horace,
Terence, Perseus, Juvenal, Lucan, Juvencus, Paulinus of
Nola, Ausonius, Prudentius, Claudian, Prosper, Sidonius
Apollinaris, and, of course, the Fathers.12 And this Ald-
helm was the same who, according to William of Malmesbury,
used to sit at the bridge and.sing Old English lays to lure
people into church. Another collection of riddles, written
by Tatwine, Archbishop of Centerbury, testifies to the pop-
ularity of the genre, and Eusebius (Hwaetberht, abbot of
Wearmouth in 716) has a series of riddles of which four are
on the letters alpha, X, U, and I.13 Whatever the currency
of the riddle may have been in pre-literary Germanic times,
the riddles of the Exeter Book, especially the adaptations
there of Aldhelm's Creation and Lorica, are evidence of the
widespread tendency in the Old English period to fashion
compositions in the vernacular after classical modes; and
the Rune Poem has some affinities with the riddle in its
enigmatic runes, its brevity of stanza, its overall cyclic
structure, and, however tenuously, its preoccupation with
letters as in the Aldhelm acrostic.
In addition to the riddle, a second medieval kind
in which the Rune Poem seems to participate is the cata-
logue poem. A poet may wish to have a catalogue of heroes
or gods fixed for posterity, or a catalogue of cities, or
rivers, or trees. The thulas of Widsith are the best-known
examples in Old English literature, but the two poems the
Fortunes (or Fates) of Men and Gifts of Men are closer
stylistically to the Rune Poem.14 An early example of the
gnomic verse catalogue is found in Hesiod's Works and Days,
though since it may be doubted that the Old English poets
knew Hesiod, there are the Distichs of Cato, which every
scholar who passed through the medieval schools knew.15
Curtius has commented on the popularity of such gnomic
catalogues in the Middle Ages:
In the antique poets there were hundreds
and thousands of lines which put a psy-
chological experience or a rule of life
in the briefest form. Aristotle dis-
cussed such apophthegms in his Rhetoric
(II, 21). Quintillian called them "sen-
tentiae" (literally: "judgments") because
they resembled the decisions of public
bodies (VIII, 5, 3). Such lines are
"mnemonic verses." They are learned by
heart; they are collected; they are ar-
ranged in alphabetical order that they
may be ready at hand.16
There is, of course, nothing peculiarly English about sen-
tences or gnomic verses: They are found in all literatures
throughout the world. But the fact that Anglo-Saxon
scholars did know collections of verses, catalogues, per-
haps arranged alphabetically, indicates the possibility
that the Rune Poem was composed by someone familiar with
the Latin genre. As in the case of the Old English rid-
dles, we find an example of the easy commerce between Latin
and the vernacular in the Old English Panther, Whale, and
Partridge of the Exeter Book. Whether these poems repre-
sent only a fraction of a larger Old English Physiologus
is debatable, but the point here is that this bestiary has
its analogue in the manuscripts of the Latin Physiologus,
particularly the ninth-century Bern MS: 233, and the elev-
enth century versified Physiologus.17 Here, as in the case
of the thulas and the gnomic verses, we have a series of
descriptive verses, organized to form a catalogue, which
becomes a source for the Old English physiologus-catalogue
A third medieval genre to which the Rune Poem has
probable connections is the abecedarium, and the abecedarium
grows out of a rather simple notion that the letters them-
selves can be more than merely a way of representing the
sounds of a language, that letters may function in more
than one way. Both the Germanic runes and the Latin let-
ters, as shall be shown, were thought of as capable of mul-
The runes, on the one hand, wereintimately asso-
ciated with rite and magic. The word rune itself means
'mystery' or 'secret,' and (in spite of their "baptism" in
such monuments as the Ruthwell Cross) as proof that the
pagan uses of the runes were quite alive in Anglo-Saxon
England, we find in Bede the story of Imma.8 This young
follower of the Northumbrian King Ecgfrith was taken pris-
oner, but his brother, believing him dead, said a mass for
him every day, and because of this mass, his fetters con-
tinually gave way. Bede tells the story to show the power
of the sacrament but also reports that Imma was asked by
hwaeder he Sa alysendlecan rune cube,
ond pa stafas mid him awritene haefde,
be swylcum men leas spel secga5 ond
spreoca8, paet hine mon forpon gebindan
Even as late as the eleventh century, Aelfric equates runes
and magic in a homily: ourh drycraeft oode Nurh runstafum,
'through magic or through rune-staves.'19 A curious synthe-
sis of the pagan and Christian occurs in the poetic Solomon
and Saturn debate, where the Latin letters are accompanied by -
the runes to spell out the opening words of the Pater Noster.
The passage advocates the use of the Lord's Prayer as a bat-
tle charm, each letter and rune symbolizing an angelic war-
rior who overcomes the devil. For instance:
T hine teswaS and hine on 6a 94
tungan stica3, / wraeste3 him lae
woddor and him &a wongan briece8.
The Greek and Latin alphabets were likewise con-
sidered to have various powers, though probably these powers
were never as clearly defined as those of the runes. Isidor
says in the Etymologiae, known by all scholars in the Middle
Litterae autem sunt indices rerum, signa
verborum, quibus tanta vis est, ut nq is
dicta absentium sine voce loquantur.
Concerning the mysticism of the Greek letters he asserts:
Quinque autem esse apud Graecos mysticas litteras.
Prima X quae humanam vitam significant, de qua
nunc diximus. Secunda e, quae mortem significant.
. Tertia T figuram demonstrans Dominicae
And according to Curtius, the Gallic grammarian of the seventh
century, Virgilius Maro, also discusses the mysticism of the
alphabet.23 The best illustrations in Old English of the
fondness for playing with letters, of allowing a letter to be
understood both literally and symbolically, or literally in
more than one way, are the Pater Noster of the Solomon and
Saturn, the Cynewulfian runic signatures, and the runes of
the Husband's Message. This allowing runes (or letters) to
function in more than one way has an analogue in the Latin
acrostic poems, though of course in the case of both the
runes and the acrostics, the device illustrates only a turn
of mind, a way of conceiving of the powers of letters, an
understanding of the multiple functions of letters. Like
these uses of the runes, the acrostic device affords an op-
portunity to display the ingenuity of the poet, but it func-
tions in a more practical way, to facilitate the memoriza-
tion of the lines.
Turning now to the acrostic and abecedarium genres
in Latin, we see that the acrostic poems are characterized
by the acrostic of the initial letters of each line, the
telestich (final letters), criss-cross, or any number of
other combinations. As an illustration of the complexity
to which the Carolingian poets aspired, a pupil of Alcuin's,
Joseph the Scot, has a poem of thirty-seven lines, each of
which lines contains exactly thirty-seven letters.24 The
acrostic text, a poem itself whose subject matter is the
cross, takes the shape of a temple with peaked roof within
which are three crosses. Greatly reduced and schematized
the whole text resembles the figure below:
xxxxx 0 xxxxx
xO xxMMMxx Ox
xOx I xMx Ix Ox
x 0 I IMI I 0 x
x 0 x I x M x I x 0 x
x 0 xI x M x I 0 x
xOxlxMxI xO x
0 xxI xMxIxx0
The first line of the poem reads Inclyta si cupias sancti
sub culmina templi, and the c of sancti is the first letter
of the acrostic text which begins at the roof peak and con-
tinues down to the left: Crux mihi certa salus Christi
sacrata cruore. The acrostic continues through each of the
three crosses. Another illustration of the device is the
brief Versus Bernowini Episcopi ad Crucem:
Conditor aeterne, quem laudo versibus istic
Rex requiem Bernwini da, pater atque redemptor
Virtus virtutum victor victoria Heisu
Xriste tu iustus iudex miserere mei rex.2'
The alphabetical poems sometimes tick off the letters with the
initial of each line, or with the initial of each stanza.
Both acrostic and alphabetic devices are mnemonic, but, ob-
viously, the acrostic sets up a secondary text (a word or
even whole sentences) in addition to the primary text of the
poem; the alphabetical, only the alphabet. It would not be
too great a claim to say that the acrostic and alphabetical
device is one of the most prevalent structuring devices of
Christian-Latin poetry, from its beginnings, through the
The earliest extant Christian verses in Latin are
those of Commodian, and all of the eighty poems which make
up his Instructiones are in acrostic or alphabetical form.
The poems are didactic, and according to F. J. E. Raby are
clearly intended to provide a solid grounding in the faith,
by polemics against Jews and heathen gods, by admonitions
to pursue the Christian way, and warnings of the terrors of
D at tuba caelo signum sublato leone
E t fiunt desubito tenebrae cum caeli fragore.
S ummittit oculos dominus, ut terra tremescat,
A dclamat et iam, ut audiant omnes, in orbem:
E cce diu tacui sufferens tanto tempore vestral
C onclamant pariter plangentes sero gementes,
U lulatur, ploratur, nec spatium datur iniquis.
L actanti quid faciat mater, cum ipsa crematr?
I n flamma ignis dominus iudicabit iniquos.
After Commodian, the most important hymn writer is Hilary of
Poitiers (c. 310-66), two of whose three surviving hymns are
alphabetical.27 That Augustine, a century after Commodian,
should have chosen the alphabetical structure for his Psalmus
contra partem Donati is testimony to its currency. He proba-
bly intended the hymn to be sung by his congregations, and
remarks, "Tales autem abecedarios appellant."2 The device
seems to have been ignored by the greatest of the early Chris-
tian hymn writers; apparently the poetry itself made demands
which transcended such tricks of rhetoric. Thus Prudentius
(c. 348-405), the first great Christian poet,2 and Ambrose
(c. 340-397), the father of Christian hymnody,30 produced
no alphabetical hymns, nor did the poet of the Vexilla regis
and Salve, festa dies, Venantius Fortunatus (540-600).31
A minor Latin alphabetical poet of fifth-century
Italy, Sedulius, became "a Christian classic, cited by the
grammarians, read as a model of style, and imitated by gen-
erations of versifiers."32 Sedulius, fame rested largely
on his long and allegorical Carmen Paschale, but he has two
hymns, one of which is alphabetical and is particularly rele-
vant to this study because it is quoted by Bede in the De
Metri and is found in no fewer than twelve English and con-
tinental eighth- to tenth-century MSS.
A solis ortus cardine
Adusque terrae limitem
Christum canamus principem,
Natum Maria virgine.
B eatus auctor saeculi
Servile corpus induit,
Ut care carnem liberans
Non perderet, quod condidit.
C lausae parents viscera
Caelestis intrat gratia,
Venter puellae baiulat
Secret, qusenon noverat.
The acrostic poems of Eugenius of Toledo, archbishop from
646 to 658, also were known by Bede, and according to Raby,
"it is supposed that Alcuin took them over to Frankish soil,
where the Carolingian poets admired and imitated them.3
It is well known that the English were taught to
write by the Irish, whose conversion to Christianity ante-
dates the mission of Augustine in 597 and who were largely
responsible for the preeminence of Celtic Christianity in
Northumbria. The early dependence on Ireland for the train-
ing of English scholars is evidenced not only in the adapta-
tion of the Irish half-uncial rather than the Italian script,
but also in a letter of Aldhelm's to Eahfrith boasting
that stylistic conceits can now be acquired in England--
that one need no longer go to Ireland to learn the scholar's
One can observe, however, that the genre of the al-
phabetical hymn was strong in Ireland from the very begin-
ning, and in addition to Augustine of Hippo, Sedulius,
Hilary, and other continental alphabetical poets, the Irish
must have been one source for the genre in England. The
very earliest Irish Latin verse is the alphabetical hymn of
Sechnall (or Secundius) on St. Patrick.36 At least a half-
dozen other alphabetical hymns from the period of the great
Celtic monasteries of the sixth and seventh centuries have
survived, not the least important of which is the hymn Altus
Prosator, possibly written by Columba, founder of the mon-
astery at lona, which tells the story of the world from cre-
ation to doomsday.37
Turning again to England, in the eighth century
there is a vigorous production of Latin hymns, and Bede him-
self says that he is the author of a hymnal of both metrical
and rhythmical verse. This has not survived, but we do have
his hymn in honor of St. Etheldreda in the Ecclesiastical
History (Bk. IV, ch. xx). The hymn is alphabetic from A to
Z with the last four couplets spelling in acrostic AMEN.
It also employs the "serpentine" or echoing device of repeat-
ing the first phrase at the end of each couplet:
A Ima deus trinitas, quae saecula cuncta gubernas,
adnue iam coeptis, alma deus trinitas.
B ella Maro resonet, nos pacis dona canamus:
munera nos Christi, bella Maro resonet.
C armina casta mihi, foedae non raptus Helenae.
luxus erit lubricis, carmina casta mihi.
D ona superna loquar, miserae non proelia Troiae,
terra quibus gaudet: dona superna loquar. . .
Unfortunately, Alfred's translators did not put the hymn into
Old English. After the Viking invasions in the tenth and elev-
enth centuries there is little Latin poetry of any consequence:
Frithegode (fl. 947) and Wulfstan (c. 950) are almost solitary
voices.8 But the alphabetical traditions are strong enough
that Wulfstan has several hymns which, like Bede's hymn, are
both apanaleptic ("serpentine") and alphabetical.
The devices of acrostic and alphabet spring into full
flower in the poetry of the Carolingian revival, aided
partly by Alcuin, who carries on the traditions of the Irish
alphabetical poems of Aldhelm and Bede. Several of his acros-
tic poems have survived, and in verses on the library at
York, Alcuin mentions most of those whom we know to have writ-
ten in the alphabetic genre: Hilary, Augustine, Aldhelm, Bede,
and Sedulius. Others cited are Ambrose, Fortunatus, and Vir-
gilius Maro.39 Suffice it to say here that structuring a poem
after the letters of the alphabet was a common practice in the
Carolingian age. With respect to a large body of non-
classical verse, written for the most part by Frankish and
Italian poets, Raby has said, "One striking feature of this
collection is the large number of alphabetical poems."O
And he continues, "This was an almost universal form, culti-
vated in Italy and Spain as well as in Ireland and England,
and its appearance here cannot be traced to any one partic-
The one conclusion that this study of the alphabetic
genre leads to is that probably any Anglo-Saxon cleric or
scholar who could write, or could read Latin, would have been
in touch with some of these poems. And it is generally agreed
that the bulk of extant Old English literature, including its
poetry, was composed by men who could read Latin.
Two Latin poems, however, stand even closer to the
Rune Poem in form and intention than all the alphabetic poems
mentioned so far. They are both the product of the late
Latin rhetorical schools.42 They both are exercises in in-
genuity and preciousness. They ave both alphabetical poems
which take as their subject matter the letters of the alpha-
The first, De Litteris Monosyllabis Graecis ac Latinis,
is by Ausonius (mentioned earlier in connection with Aldhelm),
Gallic grammarian, rhetorician, and consul. The poem is in
the Technopaegnion, a rhetorical exercise of several poems
in which each line ends in a monosyllable. In a remark we
might speculate the Rune Poem poet to have echoed later,
Ausonius says in a letter to his friend, Paulinus of Nola:
You may well exclaim, then: "Heavens, what time
and toilI" Of a surety I have spent my pains upon
a useless task: it is small, yet it brings a sense
of surfeit; it is disjointed, yet a hopeless
tangle; though it is something, it is proved to be
worth just nothing. Nevertheless, I have taken
pains to give it something of learning and lore; for
the rule I was bound to keep debarred the lighter
graces of poetry and rhetoric.43
A few verses will suffice to show its form and quality:
Dux elementorum studiis viget in Latiis A
et supreme notis adscribiturArgolicisl .
H-TR quod Aeolidum, quodque E valet hoc Latiare E.
praesto quod E Latium semper breve Dorica vox E .
Aldhelm of Malmesbury knew both Paulinas of Nola and
Ausonius; there can be little doubt that Ausonius is one
source of the mannerist extravagances of the Anglo-Saxon Latin
poetry and the Carolingian.4 That Ausonius, alphabet poem is
a source for the genre of the Old English Rune Poem is only
a remote possibility. But they are both abecedaria whose sub-
ject matter is the letters themselves.
The other alphabet poem is somewhat closer to the
time and the place of the Rune Poem: it is the Versus Cuius-
dam Scoti de Alphabeto, found in several continental manu-
scripts and in the eleventh-century Cambridge University Li-
brary MS G. g. V. 35:
A Principium vocis ueterumque inventio mira
Nomen habens domini sum felix uoce pelasga;
Exsecrantis item dira interiectio dicor.
B Principium libri, mutis caput, alter et ordo,
Tertia felicis uere sum syllaba semper;
Si me graece legas, uiridi tum nascor in horto.
C Principium caeli, primis et luna figures;
Et me clerus amat, legeris si graece, latinus;
Littera sum terrae pedibus perscripta quaternis.
D Ablati casus nox sum et pars septima linguae,
Omnipotentis habens nomen, cum 'us' bannita iuncta;46
Sum medium mille et ueterum mala nota deorum. . .
The poem is a series of enigmas on the letters from A to Z,
generally describing the articulation of the letters and
sometimes their use and form. Thus, C is luna figures; R,
Est nomen durum; X, Per me saepe patet numerous de lege
Sacratus. Whether these verses were well known in England,
or whether they have influenced the four letter-riddles of
Eusebius (Hwaetberht) cannot be proved. But the Versus has
affinities with the Rune Poem which may not be fortuitous:
It is a series of verses on the letters themselves; there is
a stanza descriptive in kind for each letter; the stanzas of
the Versus are three lines, of the Rune Poem nearly all are three
or four lines long; they are both riddling.
The Rune Poem may be said, therefore, to participate
in at least three genres, the riddle, the gnomic catalogue,
and the abecedarium. Of the first two of these there are
clear examples in both Latin and Old English, and in some
cases, we can say with assurance that an Old English exam-
ple is modelled on the Latin genre or even that a particular
Latin riddle, the Lorica for instance, is a source for the
Old English riddle. We cannot point to any Latin abecedarium
and say that this is the source for the Old English Rune Poem,
but for a poet familiar with Sedulius, the Irish hymns, and
Bede, the alphabetical tradition would have been difficult to
ignore. And the Versus Cuiusdam Scoti might have provided
the necessary link between the alphabetical hymns and a poem
on the letters of the alphabet, or the fuporc.
As was said at the beginning of this investigation,
the precise relationship between the Christian literary
traditions and the pagan literary traditions is still a mat-
ter for conjecture. Perhaps there is a tendency to place
almost all Old English literature within the Christian tra-
ditions solely on the negative evidence of the dearth of
surviving pagan Germanic literature. But when we have a
poem such as the Rune Poem which has affinities with Latin
genres, which is clearly Christian in its treatment of its
clearly pagan runes, and which has several points of con-
tact with monkish antiquarianisms, with the kind of rhetor-
ical mannerisms we know to have been cultivated assiduously
in Anglo-Saxon England from the seventh to the eleventh
century--then we may see the poem for what it really is: a
product of Christian Latin traditions. Like Beowulf, or
the Seafarer, or the Dream of the Rood, the poem, however
minor, is another attempt to bring together the best of both
cultures, to Christianize the heathen fanes, to translate
the runes into that kind of world, created and governed by
a benevolent God, in which men can live in charity and peace.
1PMLA, XII (1897), 205-225.
2John Halverson, University of Toronto Quarterly,
XXXV (1966), 260-278.
3Grundriss der germanischen Philologie (2nled.),
ed. Herman Paul (Strassburg, 1901-1909), II, 1, 964.
hRunic and Heroic Poems (Cambridge, 1915), p. 6.
5The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems (New York, 1942), p.
Ibid., p. xlix.
Cf. OIce Rune Poem, kaldastr korna 7; OE Seafarer,
coma caldast 32; OE Rune Poem, hwitust coma 25).
9Norse rune poems quoted from Dickins, Runic and Heroic
10F. J. E. Raby, A Histor of Secular Latin Poetry;.in
the Middle Ages vol. I Thereafter cited as SLPT) Oxford,
19-7), p. Tl- -
11SLP, p. 171.
12M. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe,
A. D. 500 to 900 (London, 1931T7 pp. 120-1; F. J. E. Raby, A
History of Christian-Latin Poetry from the beginnings to the
close e M iddle Ages (hereafter cited as CLP) (Oxford,
19277, p. ~7 3.
13Erika von Erhardt-Siebold, Die lateinischen Ritsel
der Angelsachsen (Heidelberg, 1925), pp. 251-256.
1'Cf. their sum sceal-, sum bi_-formulas to the byp-
formula of the Rune Poem.
15SLP, p. 44.
16Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and
the Latin Middle Ages (New York, 1953), p. 5. An ex-
ample of such an alphabetical gnomic catalogue, the Sen-
tentis of Publius Syrus, is found in J. Wight Duff aTn
Arnold M. Duff, Minor Latin Poets, Loeb Classical Li-
brary (London, 1931 pp. 14-111.
1ASPR, III, 1.
18Ecclesiastical History, Book IV, ch. 22. Pagan
uses of the runes include casting of lots (Tacitus, Ger-
mania, X), spells (Sigrdrifumal in the Poetic Edda), and
inscriptions (see Sven B. Jansson, The Runes of Sweden,
19Quoted by R. W. V. Elliott, Runes (Manchester,
1959), p. 69.
2ASPR, VI, 35.
21PL, 82, col. 74.
22PL, 82, col. 76.
23Curtius, p. 313.
2Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini, ed. Ernest Duemmler
(Hanover and Berlin, 1881), vol. I, p. 159.
2Ibid., p. 423.
2CLP, p. 13.
27Analecta Hymnica Medii Aevi, vol 50, pp. 4ff.
28PL, 43, col. 23.
2CLP, p. 44.
30CLP, p. 43.
31CLP, p. 86.
32CLP, p. 110.
33Analecta Hymnica, vol. 51, p. 340.
SLP, p. 151.
35Laistner, p. 119.
36Analecta Hymnica, vol. 51, p. 340.
37CLP, p. 134.
38CLP, p. 153.
39Poetae Latini Aevi Carolini, vol. I, pp. 224-7.
0SLP, p. 209.
4SLP, p. 209.
2LP, p. 55.
43Ausonius (Loeb Classical Library), ed. H. G. E.
White (London, 1919), vol. I, p. 289.
44Ausonius, pp. 303-4.
5cf. Curtius, "Mannerism," pp. 273-291.
46A. Baehrens, Poetae Latini Minores (Leipzig, 1888),
vol. 5, pp. 375-378.
TECHNIQUES AND THEMES
The Old English Rune Poem has never suffered from
scholarly neglect. But the attention it has been paid is
of two kinds only: one, that of the curious delver after
runologic lore; and the other, that of the editor, who must
necessarily erect a vast critical apparatus, which being
so far out of proportion to the size of the poem only
serves to obscure it. The poem hangs lost amid a maze of
Bruce Dickins in his Runic and Heroic Poems makes
no comment on the style except to say that "the versifica-
tion is quite correct."l In Charles W. Kennedyts critical
survey, The Earliest English Poetry, the Rune Poem is men-
tioned only in connection with the fuporc: the poem "is
hardly a literary composition, but represents a kind of al-
phabetic descriptive verse intended to facilitate memoriza-
tion of the meaning of the several runes."2 Stanley B.
Greenfield, in his excellent Critical History of Old Eng-
lish Literature, only notes that "as poetry the verse needs
little comment, though one may observe the Christian em-
phasis in stanza 1, the use of formulas, the humor in the
stanza on riding, and a pervasive riddling quality."3
Now there can be, as Dickins has said, no doubt
that the verse is correct; but it is precisely the
assimilation of a large number of traditional devices in a
relatively short poem that calls for comment. The poem is
correct, and it is neat. That this fact has some bearing
on the meaning of the poem should become clear as we inves-
tigate the various technical and thematic aspects of the
poem in the course of this chapter. The poem as we have it
must have been composed by a scop who was fully aware of the
potentialities of the oral and literary traditions and who
moved easily within the restrictions of his form.
Kennedy's statement that the poem is primarily
mnemonic has been repeated by Kemp Malone, who, however,
sees the poem as having descended from a much briefer orig-
inal ABC poem,4 but any mnemonic poem must have a kind of
brevity or catchiness, as the Norse rune poems do, which
facilitates memorization of the names. The stanza lengths
in the Old English poem obviate such a mnemonic use: it
would surely have been a greater task to memorize the
stanzas than twenty-nine rune names; the order of the stan-
zas is entirely dependent upon the traditional order of
the runes, which would therefore have to be learned first;
and furthermore with the possible exception of two or three,
the rune names were everyday nouns and therefore the stanzas
do not give the apprentice runemaster any new information.
Greenfield's brief comments are a step at least in
the direction of a critical interpretation, yet here only
a few isolated devices are noted. The Christian emphasis
in stanza one is merely observed; Greenfield makes no at-
tempt at seeing this fact through or at making any analysis
of the poem as a whole, although each of his observations
is, no doubt, accurate.
Such commentary on the Rune Poem is typical: the
problem of reading it as a coherent and unified poem has
been universally side-stepped or at least ignored, and that,
because of its apparent sententiousness. What has probably
discouraged critical consideration of the poetry as much
as anything is that the poet seems indeed to have a firm
grasp on the obvious. Everybody knows that wealth is a com-
fort for every man and that one must bestow it freely on
others if one wants to obtain dom from the Lord. The sen-
tence is as familiar to the Old English Christian audience
as the commandment to love one's neighbor or the gnomic-
like "where your treasure is, there is your heart also."
But underlying the sententiousness of the lines there is
the implication of the kind of generosity the heroic poets
Widsith and Deor have sung about--of the necessity for be-
stowing gifts, rings and treasure, in the meadhall--so
that the seeming sententiousness of the first stanza is
alleviated by its working in both directions, Christian
and heroic. Or to put it another way, the stanza seems to
embrace both points of view, thus moving to a level some-
what more complex than the merely gnomic. Likewise, dom
means 'favorable judgment' and by extention 'earthly glory,,
but it also works in another direction, to domesdaeg, to
all that is unknown and terrible in death. Now as anyone
familiar with runes knows, runes as well as words are capa-
ble of evoking powerful associations. And as Professor
Randolph Quirk has shown recently, Old English words linked
by meter may "'interanimate' each other"5--words such as dom
and deap, or eorl and aepeling:
The name Grendel, for instance, is allit-
eratively linked in more than half its two
score occurrences with words congruently
indicative of fierceness, especially gu6
and gryre: and it is surely unnecessary
to point out that there is no question of
the poet's being obliged to make such se-
lections by reason of a scarcity of words
which will alliterate. Frequently, the
lexical connexion is in unison with the
grammatical one; for instance: 'he hra6e
wolde Grendle forgyldan gu6-raesa fela'
(Beowulf 1576 f.; and similarly 483, 591,
and elsewhere). But we find notable in-
stances in which the lexical connexion is
maintained without a grammatical one, an
effect which can be achieved not only be-
cause the particular type of lexical con-
nexion is already established in the poem,
but also because the whole metrical tradi-
tion has, as we have seen, established an
expectation of lexical connexion.
The interanimation of deap and dom is documented by Profes-
wyrce se be mote Beowulf 1387
domes aer deape
and ealle ta gastas be for gode hweorfaS Maxims II 59
after deaddaege, domes bida6
on faeder fae~me
ic me mid Hruntinge Beowulf 1490
dom gewyrce, op6e mec dea_ nime6
holen sceal inaeled, yrfe gedreled Maxims I 79
deades monnes.. Dom bib selast.
The lexical association of dom and dea_ was well enough es-
tablished that the connotative effects of dom, even when not
linked to 'death,' must have at least radiated in that di-
rection. Treasure is a comfort to every man, yet with the
word dom we are given our first clue of the outcome of the
poem. The poet has subtly undercut his argument of the
consolation of possessions right from the beginning of the
The first stanza, therefore, although it may at
first glance appear even heavyhanded in its didacticism,
in its sententiousness, points to virtues both Christian
and heroic, and the connection of feoh with dom as glory
and dom as death hints at the impending doom of the final
stanza. The feoh-stanza can thus be seen as a paradigm of
the structure and meaning of the poem as a whole. But any
meaning that the poem may have can emerge only after a con-
sideration of its participation in the traditional modes of
Old English poetry; it is only by attempting to see what
the poet has done with this common store of metrical devices
and themes that the poem can be seen as much more than
Oral and literary traditions
A great deal of effort has gone into attempting to
discover whether an Old English poem is the product of a
live performance by a scop, transcribed in the hall, or
whether it is from its beginning a product of the pen of
the poet, alone in his closet. Professor Magoun's appli-
cation to Old English verse of Parry and Lord's researches
in oral literature has demonstrated the close connection
between formulaic poetry and oral poetry, but as Profes-
sor Larry D. Benson has pointed out recently, the use of
formulas in an Old English poem does not imply necessarily
either oral composition or lettered, and furthermore a high
percentage of formulas has been found in poems which are
clearly the product of the pen (i.e. Exeter Book Riddle 35,
Phoenix, Meters of Boethius).9
It is entirely possible that the Rune Poem was
sung, that either the scop performed alone, reciting the
rune names as well as the stanzas, thus delighting an
audience already familiar with Latin alphabetical hymns
and acrostic poems, or that its sententiae were a kind of
"philological parlour game," the evidence for which in
Hellenic times Ernst Robert Curtius10 quotes Athenaeus
(220 A. D.) in the Deipnosophistai ("Scholars at a Banquet")
Clearchus of Soloi, a man of the school
of Aristotle, also tells us how the an-
cients went about this. One recited a
verse, and another had to go on with the
next. One quoted a sentence, and a sen-
tence from some other poet expressing the
same idea had to be produced. Verses of
such and such a number of syllables were
demanded, or the leaders of the Greeks and
of the Trojans had to be enumerated, or
cities in Asia and Europe beginning with
the same letter to be named in turn. They
had to remember lines of Homer which be-
gin and end with the same letter, or the
first and last syllable taken together
must yield a name or an implement or a
food. The winner gained a garland, but
anyone who blundered had brine poured
into his drink and had to drain the whole
cup at a draught.
Perhaps in the meadhall it was the custom to recite the poem,
each person taking a stanza and therefore being required to
know the rune names and their order as well as the sententiae.
Anyone who forgot a rune name or recited out of the traditional
order would pay the penalty. Or perhaps the stanzas were ut-
tered as a riddle: ic by frofur fira gehwylcum . saga
hwaet ic hatte; and of course the audience would guess the
rune. Any of the riddles in the Exeter Book and more es-
pecially the indecent ones, could be adaptable to such enter-
tainment, and perhaps it was at just such a philological
game that Caedmon saw the harp approach:
Ond he for pon oft in gebeorscipe, bonne
paer waes blisse intinga gedemed, paet heo
ealle sceolden burh endebyrdnesse be hearpan
singan, ponne he geseah pa hearpan him neal-
ecan, bonne aras he for scome from baem
symble, ond ham eode to his huse.11
On the other hand, because of its structural similarity
to the Latin alphabetical poems, because of the pleasure the
Anglo-Saxons took in reading runes (cf. the Cynewulfian runic
signatures, the runic riddles, and our r by frofur . .
and because of the poet's obvious interest in the letter as
well as the spoken word, the poem would seem to belong to a
But oral or lettered, like Beowulf (which was probably
transmitted orally or at least sung) or the Meters of Boethius
(which is clearly a literary production, a translation), the
Rune Poem derives its poetics from Germanic oral traditions,
and hence the poem can be discussed as if it were an oral com-
Whether or not the harp was used in the recitation of
Beowulf or any other extant Old English poem can never be
finally proved. But John C. Pope in The Rhythm of Beowulf12
and recently Robert P. Creed13 have devised a method of
scanning Old English poetry which provides, in addition, a
means of comparing the techniques of, say, Beowulf and the
According to Creed's adaptation and simplification
of Pope's thesis, the first hypothesis is that the measure
(quarter-line) rather than the verse (half-line) is the
primary prosodic unit, and he sets forth six patterns of
stress with but three significant degrees of stress (I pri-
mary, \ secondary, and x minimum):
o( / x frugnon Beowulf 2
/ x \
p / x frofre gebad Beowulf 6
S= / \ x Scield Sceafing- Beowulf 4
S= / or / (x) pah (x) Beowulf 8
= x or (/) x (/) hwaet we Beowulf 1
c / \ gear-dagum Beowulf 1
c- = \ x paet hine on Beowulf 22
A second hypothesis is that the measure (of which there are
two in every verse, four in every line) is a unit of time and
that OE rhythm is isochronous, in spite of the number of syl-
lables that may inhabit any given measure. Creed states fur-
ther a series of rules for determining measure boundaries and
I. Alliteration is the best guide to the first (and
sometimes the second) primary stress in each
That is, the alliterating sound must be identified in the
second half-line and if the first half-line begins with that
sound, the first syllable takes the primary stress (unless of
course the first syllable is a non-significant alliteration
such as preposition, demonstrative, conjunction). If the
first syllable does not alliterate as in Hwaett we Gar-Dena,
Beowulf 1, Rule IV below should be observed. And if such is
the case, the second primary stress will fall on the first
alliterating syllable wherever it comes in the half-line.
II. A primary stress always begins a measure.
(There can thus be only one primary stress
in each measure), except in those cases in
which four or more non-alliterating
light-stressed syllables make up the meas-
ure. In these measures, and in these meas-
ures only, the first primary stress is re-
placed by a secondary stress (eO- \ x ).
III. Two immediately adjacent primary stresses
can occur only at the beginning of a verse.
IV. A stroke of the harp (or, in practice, a
timed pause) must substitute for the missing
first primary stress in a verse-which other-
wise contains only a single primary stress.
V. Whenever a short syllable bearing primary
or secondary stress is followed by another
syllable with which it is closely associated
(in close juncture) the two syllables to-
gether receive resolved stress. No x should
be placed over the second of these syllables.
Instead, the two should be joined with a
curved horizontal bracket and together given
the same stress sign, / or\ On the other
hand, when an etymologically short syllable
bearing primary or secondary stress is closed,
that is, when it ends with a consonant no
resolution is possible.
In order to handle measures of five or more syllables when
resolution is not possible, Creed devises the theory of
rhythmemes, where two or three syllables are linked under
one stress. Thus Beowulf 310a would be scanned
/ x / x
receda under roderum
(or cf. above Beowulf 6, 1). Creed's further discussion of
the theoretical problems concerning the resolution of poly-
syllables into one stress need not be discussed here since
he has given the reader, in these rules, all the equipment
necessary to read the poetry rhythmically. His own scan-
sion of the first three lines of Beowulf is here reproduced:
x \ I I
Hwaet, we Gar-Dena on gear-dagum,
G (Xa) o / I / x I
peod- cyninga prymm ge- frugnon,
l() e /
hu a ae elingas ellen fremedon.
If this theory of scansion is correct, a number of stylistic
devices in the Rune Poem become apparent.15
The pause in the third measure, non-alliterative, of
a line (anE measure, in which the primary stress is taken
by the harp stroke, following Rule IV) serves to bunch up
the heavy syllables in the fourth measure (we always find a
final C( or measure in such cases). So that rather
than the regular d i. sequence ( / xj / x) we have (rest)
x / \ with a possible unstressed syllable occurring just
before or after the secondary stress. These lines are nearly
always run-on, and the syntax and the sense demand that the
reader be thrust into the next line. The effect of the en-
jambment is complemented by this crowding of stressed sylla-
bles into the end of the line, so that the syntax, the mean-
ing, and the thrusting rhythm all seem to complement each
V x I X
am Ne I sittep onufan 14
meare I maegenheardum
Si and wraecna gehwam 20
lar and aetwist
x x 2
5e can weana lyt22
I/ / x / x \
shares and sorge,' and him sylfa haefi
I x I x 1 / -- \
bl ed and blysse ( and eac byrga geniht.
(Compare also lines 25, 27, 32, 51, 56, 67, 72, 84, 87,
and 88.) In the lines quoted above, this reading marks off
the natural syntactic groupings that a sensitive reader would
expect: the combination of "stress-thrust" and enjambment
produces a linking of words into rhetorical units which tran-
scend the narrower units of the verse or the alliteration
(Se can weana lyt shares and sore; and him sylfa haefl blaed and
bl7sse). The contrasting sense of the phrases shares and
sorge and blaed and blysse is further emphasized by the
thrusts to shares and to blaed; the rapid pronunciation of
the second half-line acts as an up-beat to shares and similarly
Another result of Creed's method is that nearly every
internal primary rest (necessarily the primary stress of the
third measure) serves to introduce either a relative or sub-
ordinate clause, prepositional phrase, or a compound ele-
ment. Thus the rest, or the stroke of the harp, comes
to signify that these kinds of qualifying or compounding
grammatical structures will follow. Thus:
x / 1 x
X 'A \ 21
1 e him mid rested I 9
I e byp o ra leas 21
X I \x
(' SonGod 1aetep. I 32
We have in each of these verses an additional metrical em-
phasis of the alliterating word: harp stroke, upbeat, land-
ing on the stressed word. And such a stress is appropriate
to the particular emphasis or contrast the poet seems to be
after, as we shall later see. Another important traditional
use of the internal rest is the paet is formula, found also
in Beowulf, Dream of the Rood, and elsewhere:17
Saet is I modig wuht.l 6
In almost every case of the primary harp stroke or rest an
expectation is set up for something that will corroborate or
perhaps punctuate the preceding verse:
feohtep mid hornum, 5
maere morstapa; paet is modig wuht.
yr byp aepelinga and eorla gehwaes 84
wyn and wyrPmynd
hafab faegerne eard 88
waetre beworpen 6aer he wynnum leofap.
Or the reader is set up for that which will qualify or even
contrast the preceding:
rad by" on recyde rinca gehwylcum 13
sefte, and swiphwaet 6am 6e sitter onufan
weorpep hi 6eah oft nipa bearnum
to help and to haele gehwaepre, gif hi his hlystab aeror.
If the harp was struck on each primary rest, as Pope
and Creed believe, a curious musical phenomenonemerges from
a consideration of the relative frequency of such rests.
They seem to occur in lines 1-58 at the rate of about one
stroke per four half-lines (except in the wynne-stanza dis-
cussed above); or to put it another way, in the first 116
half-lines (to line 58) the stroke occurs in 23% of them.
But beginning with line 59 and continuing for some thirty
half-lines the rate of strokes doubles. Then there are no
rests for the next stanza and a half, and the average rate
for lines 74 to the end of the poem is back to 26%. Of
course, since the rest in Creedts system depends ultimately
on the syntax (i.e. relatives and conjunctions are never
stressed), what may appear by this scansion as a doubling
of musical energy may be a doubling of subordinate and cor-
relative syntactic structures only. But if the poem ever
was performed, this middle section would give the scop an
opportunity to modify the tone of his delivery, whether
purely rhythmic or musical as well, thus effecting the
change of mood which the digressions or the shift of
speaker brings about in the longer Old English poems.
The Rune Poem contains one of the few instances in
Old English verse of the hypermetric line, in the haegl-
and nyd- stanzas. Now these lines can be scanned with three
primary stresses to the half-time and 0( measures predominat-
ing. This would give the same total of primary stresses
(12) in each two-line stanza as are found in the three-
line stanzas which precede and follow them. Therefore, it
would take about the same length of time to utter the hy-
permetric stanzas as any of the normal three-line stanzas.
But if each half-line is given the normal two primary
stresses and the rhythmic beat of the primary stresses re-
mains consistent with the normal stanzas, the result is the
crowding of the measures and quickening of pace necessary
to get all the words into the measures. And such a quick-
ening of pace is perfectly commensurate with the sense of
the verses: Hail is thrown from the lofty height of heaven,
billows in a shower of wind, turns into water at the end.
The increase in the pace of the words thus is paralleled
by the hail-storm, and yet the steady four-stress rhythm
is maintained. The nyd-stanza is cast in the same rhythm,
and the hypermetrics here enforce what is a clear parallel-
ism of sense: As hail turns afterward into water, so need,
constraint, turns into a help or even a salvation, and the
parallelism of meter and sense is further enforced by the
repetition of weorbeb, 'hail turns,t 'constraint turns.'
The poet has therefore not shifted into the hypermetric
line idly, but has utilized the rapidity of the line to
enhance the movement of the hail and to show that like hail,
constraint will surely pass away.
Of course, the most consistent unifying element in Old
English poetry is alliteration, and in the Rune Poem alliter-
ation is quite correct. Only two passages call for special
attention. Klaeber has remarked concerning the transverse
alliteration in Beowulf that "it was occasionally recognized
as a special artistic form,"18 and it is found in the Rune
nyd byp nearu on breostan; weorpep hi 6eah oft nipa bearnum 27
heard hrusan faest, hyrde fyres 36
wyrtrumun underwrepyd wynan on eple. 37
Of the four hypermetric lines (25-28) the two of the haegl-
stanza exemplifywhat might be called double alliteration:
a aba a c
haegl byp hwitust corna; hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte; 25
wealcap hit windes scura; weorpep hit to waetere sycoan. 26
Rhetoric and diction
A rhetorical device frequent in this poem and in all
Old English poetry is variation, the repetition of the same
idea in the form of appositive or modifier. Professor Brodeur
has commented on the device in his Art of Beowulf:
Variation . the chief characteris-
tic of the poetic mode of expression . .
restrains the pace of Old English poetic
narrative, gives to dialogue or monologue
its leisurely or stately character, raises
into high relief those concepts which the
poet wishes to emphasize, and permits him
to exhibit the object of his thought in
all its aspects. But it could be a dan-
gerous instrument in the hands of an in-
ferior poet: it could impart on the one
hand an effect of sheer redundancy, on
the other an unpleasing jerkiness of pace;
it could stiffen the flow of style, and
clog the stream of thought.19
Perhaps the most traditional use of variation occurs in the
ur-stanza, where such a formula as felafrecne deor 5 or
maere morstapa 6 is paralleled by Exeter Maxims I, 147 fel-
afaecne deor (wolves) or Beowulf 103 maere mearcstapa
(Grendel). The function of such repetitions here is to slow
down the pace by repeating in other terms the subject of the
clause and hence to set the subject in "high relief," to use
Brodeur's analogy, by emphasizing its terror to animals and
man and its dominion over the moors. Two other instances
of appositive variation are halig heofones cyning 33 and
maere Metodes leoht 75 where the effect is to place God
clearly at the center of the seasonal cycle, as has been
noted, and to reemphasize God's power as the source of light.
Other instances of variation such as the repetition
in compound phrases of modifier or abstract nouns tend to
cloy the verse,20 although part of the blame for such seeming
redundancies must rest on the modern reader, who is simply
unaware of the connotative values of words long since
dead. Suffice it to say here that there are two main cate-
gories of compounds in the poem, which may be called con-
trastive and correlative. The contrastive compounds offer
less immediate problems of interpretation: sefte, and
swiphwaet 14, blac (pale?) and beorhtlic 17, beornum and
8earfum 34, eadgum and earmum 76. But it is more diffi-
cult to see the effect gained by the correlatives, such as
shares and sorge 23 or blaed and blysse 24, though in this
particular instance the two compound phrases do stand in
contrastive relationship to each other. In general it can
be said that the compounds, most of which occur in the first
half-line, tend, like rime, to give a kind of stylistic
unity to the various parts of the poem within single stanzas
and even between stanzas, as do any repeated elements in any
Nearly all the techniques discussed above--meter,
variation, parallelism, alliteration--converge in the last,
and longest, stanza of the poem, as if to summarize in a
display of technical fireworks what has gone before:
ear byp egle eorla gehwylcun 90
6onn faestlice flaesc onginnep
hraw colian, hrusan ceosan,
blac to gebeddan; bleda gedreosap;
wynna gewitap; wera geswicap.
Here we find transverse alliteration in hraw colian, hrusan
ceosan, as well as the repetition of the ge-prefix. Also,
hraw colian, hrusan ceosan is linked to bleda gedreosab,
wynna gewitab, wera geswicap, by blac to gebeddan--linked
backward by the suffix rime -an to colian and ceosan, and
forward by the b-alliteration to bleda. Here too we have
the parallel infinitives hraw colian, hrusan ceosan, and
the parallel syntax of bleda gedreosab, wynna gewitab,
wera geswicab. The poem is finally brought to a close by
a device rare in Old English, rime, and here its effect
is the kind of tying-up that the final rimes of terza rima
or the English sonnet later achieve: we find the suffix
rimes -an thrice, -a thrice, and-a thrice. Such close
interplay of parallelisms and alliteration and rime is found,
finally elsewhere, in Judith:
be gesceop wind ond lyfte, 347
roderas ond rume grundas, swylce eac reoe streams
ond swegles dreams, 6urh his sylfes miltse,
and in Beowulf:
cwaedon paet he waere wyruldcyninga 3180
manna mildust ond monowaerust,
leodum liiost ond lofgeornost.
Thus the poet of the Rune Poem was, if nothing else,
a versifier well acquainted with all of the various devices
of the traditional poetry, and one might be tempted to see
in the poem, particularly in view of its nature as a cata-
logue, a kind of Old English Skaldskaparmal or Hattatal, a
repository of figures and meter. Furthermore, if it is re-
lated to late Latin alphabetical traditions, then the poem
may be an Old English mannerist production, with its de-
light in rune, riddle, and refinement of versification.
Theme and Structure
The only device for unifying the Rune Poem as a
whole is the byp-formula, which begins nearly every stanza.
The formula (illustrated by r by frofur) occurs elsewhere
in both the Cotton and Exeter gnomic verses much abbreviated
(and sometimes with sceal):
Wyrd by" swi6ost. Winter by cealdost, (ASPR, vi,
lencten hrimigost (he by6 longest ceald). 75 1. 5)
But, although there is in the Rune Poem some development of
the rune described, the resultant stanzas are short (two to
five lines) and are superficially as discontinuous as the
runes themselves. Each stanza can even stand alone as a sort
of vignette, each depicting a separate scene from Anglo-
Saxon life, or some plant, or some animal, so that within
each stanza we find the same unity as in, say, a stanza
from Deor. One might compare Deor's
Deodric ahte pritig wintra 18
Maeringa burg; paet waes monegum cup.
and, at the first opportunity for a hero-stanza, the Rune
Ing waes aerest mid East-Denum
gesewen secgun op he sioian est
ofer waeg gewat, waen after ran;
6us heardingas 6one haele nemdun.
In Deor the relationship between the stanzas is enforced not
only by the similarity of theme21 but by the refrain as
well.22 In the Rune Poem stanzas are linked by the runes
and by certain parallel syntax, but any unity the poem may
possess is gained only by overcoming the great disparity
that the rune names necessarily exhibit. That is, the
poet, setting out to write twenty-nine stanzas on twenty-
nine things as diverse as Possessions, Aurochs, Thorn, or
Ing, must handle each of these disparates in such a way
within each stanza that an overall unity emerges.
As has been observed, the first stanza on feoh sets
up a paradigm which underlies the structure of the poem.
Possessions are a consolation, yet every man must bestow
them generously if he wants to obtain glory or judgment in
the presence of the Lord. A Christian paradox is implicit:
he who would gain all must first lose all. And from the
point of view of Anglo-Saxon heroic values, one must be a
bestower of rings--for the strengthening of comitatus. The
stanza works in both directions.
An implication of the aurochs and thorn stanzas is
that one ought not fool around with that fierce animal on
the moors--let him well enough alone--and that likewise a
thorn thicket is no place to rest. Rather, as the verbal
/ \ x / / A
and rhythmical parallels (mid reste6--inne restap) demon-
strate, one would do better to rest within the hall, where
the torch flickers blac and beorhtlic. The mouth and journey
stanzas, preceded by the fierceness of the wild ox and the
thorn and followed by the joys of the hall may be seen as
an axis for this section of the poem, which precedes the
hypermetric lines. For it is in the hall that we hear the
best talk, that we find wits and wisdom and earls. To such
warriors in the hall, journey is easy, and the difficulties
of riding over mile paths, of exile perhaps, are contrasted
in the next three stanzas to the hall torch, to the honor
and praise that is attendant upon gifts, to the necessity
of comitatus, of supporting the needy (with the rhythmical
emphasis on e by b ra leas), and to the "joy one has
who has enough prosperity in his burh."
The emphasis in this first section of the poem is,
therefore, on the necessity for strengthening the comitatus
by the giving of possessions to the rich and the poor alike,
and on the danger and possible pain one can bring upon him-
self if he ventures outside the burh, to the moors, among
the thorns, or on the meare maegenheardum. In other words,
a man has a place in this world and that is with kinfolk or
in a community of mutually supporting elements such as the
Court of Hropgar or Eormanric (cf. Widsith 109 ff.) or the
abbey of Hild.
The hail stanza shifts into hypermetrics and the
poet treats hail, as well as need and ice in the next stan-
zas, in a way that is quite unusual in Old English poetry.
Hail is the whitest of grains as it hurls and billows from
the loft of heaven, and (with a hint of the lif is laene
theme to come) afterward it turns into water. Need like-
wise, as we have observed, can be turned into a help and
even a salvation. And so ice, ordinarily a most dreadful
of elements, is exceptionally cold and slippery, but glis-
tens glasslike, is gem-like, makes a frosty floor fair to
behold. The spring (ger) which follows immediately is the
manifestation of the benevolence of God: it is God rather
than Wyrd or Freyja who permits (6on God laeteh 32) that
bright fruits be given to earth for the rich and the poor--
the same halig heofones cynig 33 who caused the hail: hwyrft
hit of heofones lyfte 25.23 Although heofones here is for-
mulaic, it is not fortuitous that the word occur in these
contexts. For, whatever association hail, need, ice, or ger
may have had with the Germanic world of malevolent natural
forces, or fertility cults, it is clear from these four
stanzas that the poet considered the natural forces of hail
and ice fair to behold, that he was optimistic about the out-
come of oppressions (as Iaes ofereode, hisses swa maeg, Deor
7) and he believed God rather than the Germanic deities to
be at the center of the seasonal changes.24 The runes as
well as their meanings have been Christianized, like the
heathen fanes under Augustine.25
One of the problems which the poet must have faced
was what to do with all those runic trees and plants--the
yew, elk-sedge, birch, oak, and ash. No doubt the poet
could have composed a stanza of mere biological description
for each plant, and let it stand at that; but he didn't.
Rather, he has taken pains to relate the plants to some as-
pect of their usefulness to man. Moreover, the trees seem
to take on almost human qualities; it is as though they are
related to man by the bond of comitatus. Thus the yew is
the guardian of the fire, a joy on the estate. The oak
from which the ship is built must keep its pledge: I garsecg
('ocean") finds whether the oak has a worthy treowe' ('troth,'
with a pun on treow, 'tree'?). And so the ash, or spear,
dear to men, holds its place in battle 'though many men
fight against.' Thus even trees enjoy a place within the
community; man depends on the tree to keep its oath, to be
true to its nature, stiP on stabule 82.
Another theme touched upon in the plant stanzas is
that of the proper "dwelling" place. Yew is on the estate,
wynan on eble 37. 'Elk-sedge has its dwelling (eard) most
often in the fens,' traditional abodes of monsters and exiles,
and that this is no place for any man to be is emphasized
by the harm that will come to any man who touches it, just
as we have noted in the thorn-stanza. For the thorn is
'evil of touch' (anfengys 8), and the elk-sedge'wounds grimly
any man who attempts seizure' (onfeng 44). Mention of dwell-
ing place is extended to the iar-fish stanza, and here the
fish 'has a fair dwelling (eard 88) surrounded by water where
he delights in joys.'
A third theme found in the tree stanzas is that
of bled 'fruit,' 'blossoms,' or 'progeny.' And as we have
been assured in connection with spring, God laetep hrusan
syllan beorhte bleda. So although the birch (poplar?) is
bleda leas, it nevertheless has suckers, has lovely boughs,
is laden with leaves. The word blaed, which occurs twice
in the poem, is a poetic word meaning 'fame, prosperity.'
And as H. C. Wyld pointed out long ago, there is reason to
believe that bled and blaed were associated semantically
in the poetry. Bled 'flower' or 'progeny' is derived from
blowan 'to blow, as a flower blooms' (cf. ModE fullblown),
and blaed 'fame' from blawan 'to blow, as a wind, inspire.'
The two verbs were derived ultimately from the same root.26
It is probable that something of the sense of 'prosperity'
in the lines blaed and blysse 24 (cf. Dream of the Rood,
mid bledum & mid blisse 49) and brucan on bolde bleadum
oftast 73 would be echoed along with bled 'fruit' in the
penultimate line: bleda gedreosaP 93.
The two runes which represent things not on the
earth are sigel 'sun' and tir 'some constellation,' yet
they are intimately related to the life of the Anglo-Saxon.
The sun helps the sailor get his ship back to land, and tir
keeps its pledge to man as it fares over the darkness of
night. And a further point of similarity is that because
they are heavenly bodies, they never fail:
Sigel semannum symble bib on hihte 45
Tir . a bib on faerylde 48
ofer nihta genipu; naefre swicep.
But only two stanzas later we learn that man, every man, must
fail the other, because the Lord will by his dom (cf. for
drihtne domes 3) commit that wretched flesh to the earth.'
The poet is bound by the order of the fuporc to follow stead-
fast sigel and tir by beorc and eh, but when he gets to man,
the verbal echoes are there: the love of kinsmen, the mirth
and laughter of the game of dice where warriors sit in the
beer hall, the dom, oncq as glory, now as judgment, and the
juxtaposition of the eternal and the mutable.
After this moment offoreboding, however, we are
plunged back into vigorous life--to journey by sea where the
ship is tilting, "the sea-horse heeds not its bridle." And
this is followed up by Ing, the hero who also "made a jour-
ney" (gewat) over the waves. Yet the word gewat 69 works in
two directions, Ideparted' and 'died,' as if gently reinforc-
ing the foreboding of the death of man.
The poet had said:
Man byp on myrgbe his magan leof 59
but in the stanza following Ing, and contrasting the journey,
the exile, the poet says:
Epel byp overleof aeghwyclum men 71
if he can there with justice and propriety enjoy, oftenest
in the hall, prosperity. And it is to display the bounty
of the homeland, man's proper abode, that the poet has con-
tinually fashioned his verses. The aurochs has his place
on the moors, the elk-sedge in the fens; the thorn is no
place for a thane to rest; the journey is hard, better to
stay in the hall with the torch, the wisemen, dicing; or if
one must travel, go with kinsmen and bandy words about the
horses, trust the oak ship that it will fare over the gan-
get's bath and, with the help of the sun, will return safely
The poem up to line 89 is, therefore, essentially
hopeful. The continual emphasis on comitatus, the goodness
of creation, of trees, of the sea, the homeland, lends a per-
vasive prosperity to each of the stanzas. Aebeling, eorl,
rinc, leod, haele, hearing, weleg, wiga--all terms for the
wealthy or princely--occur a total of sixteen times, and
the specifically poor (earm twice) only in the context of a
providential society. Words for prosperity and joy occur
in almost every line: wynn itself no less than six times
and blaed-bled five times. Such a net work of mutually
corresponding verbal echoes of comitatus, flourishing es-
tate, and prosperity is found in little extant Old English
poetry: In fact it is almost a cliche of Old English criti-
cism that pervading its poetry is an "elegiac" strain which,
as Professor Greenfield has recently shown, has as its chief
characteristics rather the loss of status (earm an-haga),
deprivation, sadness, and exile, with its concomitant moving
away from homeland, its endurance of hardship, its fruitless
searching elsewhere for what has been lost.27 In the Rune
Poem we see the world through the eyes of one who enjoys
prosperity of fortresses and hence the usual conventions of
the elegy are turned upside down. From the very first stanza,
where the dispensing of treasure is juxtaposed to dom we are
set up for an expectation of the loss of treasure, exile and
doom. Yet in stanza after stanza, this expectation remains
unfulfilled. When the poet is faced with a rune that could
naturally fit into the conventional elegiac mode, he does
almost the reverse. Journey, for all. the hardship and mis-
ery of the Seafarer, the Wanderer, The Fates of Man, is in
the Rune Poem a laughing matter (sefte and swibhwaet), and
the heroes on horseback brag about their horses. Even the
two sea journeys are hardly the woeful affairs met with in
the Seafarer and Wanderer. Rather one might compare the
treatment here with that of Elene or the return of Beowulf
(though expanded somewhat) where heroes make joyful journeys,
frightful perhaps, but in the company of a band of heroes,
in comitatus (leodum). Faced with a rune nyd 'constraint,'
the poet turns the expected conventional motif of the mis-
ery of the an-haga into a help and even a salvation. Hail
and ice throughout Old English poetry bring only distress
and affliction: hreo haeglfare, Wanderer 105, hrim hrusan
bond, haegl feol on eorpan, coma caldast, Seafarer 32,
wintery e beleac isgebinde, Beowulf 1132. To emphasize the
misery of Andreas' exile, the poet gives a winter to Merme-
donia, heardum haegelscurum 1257, and Paradise is depicted
in both Phoenix and Judgement Day II as devoid of hail and
ice, ne forstes fnaest ne fyres blaest ne haegles hryre ne
hrimes dryre (Phoenix 15, cf. Judgment Day II, 265). In-
the Rune Poem, as has been noted, hail and ice are harmless,
lovely to behold, in striking contrast to their conventional
But as the poem progresses in almost artless praise
of the beauty of the world and the joys of the hall, turn-
ing a number of expectations upside down, such as the journey,
constraint, ice and hail, the poet at the same time subtly
undercuts his argument with the duplicity of dom, the fail-
ure of every man to the other, the departure (funeral?)
of Ing, and finally, with the last lines, the grave.
Ear, in the last stanza, 'the earth' and hence 'the
grave, collects in one word all the terms for earth through-
out the poem (hrusan 33, 36, lande 46, eortan 62, 77, foldan
88) as well as eard 'dwelling place' and e el 'homeland.'
In five lines all the treasures that belong to life are
overthrown: that dom which is doom and was only insinuated
in the opening lines finally emerges to cover all.
The grave is terrible to every earl
when quickly begins the flesh,
the corpse to cool--the-livid one, to choose
the earth for bed-companion . .
And the poet, reaching back into every stanza of the poem,
draws together the three main strands that have bound them
bleda gedreosap; 93
wynna gewitap; wera geswicap.
joys pass away; treaties fail.
The poet has urged again and again the beauty of the world,
flowers, joy, kinship, but finally, having made the very best
he could of his runes of hail and constraintand all the rest,
when faced with the grave, he is powerless to make it any
less terrible than it is. The grave and the final verses of
the poem sweep away everything that has gone before.
The poet of the Rune Poem, therefore, was well versed
in the traditional devices of Old English poetry. He could
employ variation, the formulas, the hypermetric line, varia-
tions of the harp perhaps, rime, complex alliteration--all
quite cleverly. He knows the Old English poetic vocabulary
and is aware of the potentialities in words such as.dom,
treowe, ebel, bled, brimhengest, glistnap glaeshluttor,
gewat. And in the poem he has built up a network of corres-
pondences in the use of various terms for nobleman, joy,
honor, consolation. But clearly, the most startling fact
that emerges from the various themes in the poem is the
poet's continual frustration of our expectations. In its
self-conscious reversal of the elegiac traditions, when
viewed against the background of Beowulf, Ruin, the Wife's
Lament, the gnomic verse, Andreas and a dozen other poems,
the poem becomes almost an anti-elegy--that is, until the
final stanza, when, in one terrible moment the corpse chooses
the earth for a consort and everything is lost. Seen as a
catalogue, the Rune Poem is little more than mere doggerel;
viewed against the background of a body of poetry with a
storehouse of extremely conventional metrics, language, and
themes, the poem can emerge as a unified, coherent, and for
its length, a forceful poem. In urging the critical method
of considering Old English poetry in terms of its thematic
conventions Professor Creed has written:
There is no distance between the first
occurrence of, for example, the theme
of the singer and its second and subse-
quent occurrences. There is no distance
between the many appearances of a given
theme within a tradition. That is to say,
every time a singer performs the same
theme he and his audience hear and appre-
ciate that performance against the music
of all other performances of that theme.
Whenever the singer pictures someone walk-
ing in a hall, let us say, he and his au-
dience superimpose that picture on their
trained recollections of every similar
picture. Or to vary the metaphor, the
audience--singer included--hears each new
performance of a theme counterpointed
against all the old performances it has
Thus the final implication of the Rune Poem is like that of
"That passed away, and so may this" but with a darkening
irony in the Rune Poem that forces up an old theme: Wealth
and loved ones are a consolation, in this life, yet lif is
laene and these things will pass away. And the runes, rem-
nants of a past both pagan and heroic, like the animals,
heroes, and trees they conjure up, the runes, too, will pass
away. As the pagan priest said, in a passage in the Vener-
able Bede reminiscent of this same mood of the passing of
old ways and the transitoriness of life:
The present life of man upon earth, 0
king, seems to me, in comparison with that
time which is unknown to us, like to the
swift flight of a sparrow through the house
wherein you sit at supper in winter, with
your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire
blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed,
but the wintry storms of rain or snow are
raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at
one door and immediately out at another,
whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry
tempest; but after a short space of fair
weather, he immediately vanishes out of your
sight, passing from winter into winter again.
So this life of man appears for a little while,
but of what is to follow or what went before
we know nothing at all.29
Bruce Dickins, Runic and Heroic Poems of the Old
Teutonic Peoples (Cambridge, 191-), p. 6.
2Charles W. Kennedy, The Earliest English Poetry
(New York, 1943), p. 13.
3Stanley B. Greenfield, A Critical History of Old
English Literature (New York, 19-5),.p. 193.
4Kemp Malone, "The Old English Period (to 1100)" in
A Literary History of England (New York, 1948), p. 34.
5Randolph Quirk, "Poetic Language and Old English
Metre" in Early English and Norse Studies (London, 1963), p.
6bid., p. 155.
7bid., p. 156-7.
8Francis P. Magoun, "The Oral-Formulaic Character of
Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry," Speculum, XXVIII(1953), 446-
9Larry D. Benson, "The Literary Character of Anglo-
Saxon Formulaic Poetry," PMLA, LXXXI (1966), 334-341.
10Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the
Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard H. 'rask (New York and
Evanston, 1963-, p. 58.
11Samuel Moore and Thomas A. Knott, The Elements of
Old English (Ann Arbor, 1962), p. 258.
John Collins Pope, The Rhythm of Beowulf (New Haven,
13Robert P. Creed, "A New Approach to the Rhythm of
Beowulf," PMLA, LXXXI (1966), 23-33.
lCreed, p. 25.
5See Appendix for the scansion of the Rune Poem
according to Creed's method.
16Relative clauses such as oe him mid resteo 9b in-
clude 14b, 21b, 22b, 44a; subordinate clauses as :if he his
hylstaJ aeror include 2a, 18a, 28b, 32b, 39b, 46a, -7 a, 5b,
60a, 61a, 6a, 68b, 72a, 80a, 83a, 89b, 91a; prepositional
phrases as ofer milpabas 15b include 40a, 46b, 49a, 50a, 64b,
67b, 69a, 81a; and various compound elements connected by
and include 4b, 20b, 23b, 24b, 58a, 65a, 66a, 84b, 87b. Such
structures (40 in all) account for all the primary rests ex-
cept nine: aet is 6, non-alliterating verbs 27b, 48b, 52b, 85b,
88b, non-alliterating objects 59b, 62a, 70b.
17See line 6, note, for other instances.
8Fr. Klaeber, Beowulf and the Fight at Finnesburg
(Boston, 1950), p. Ixx.
19Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, The Art of Beowulf (Ber-
keley and Los Angeles, 1959), p. 39.
20E.g. the gyfu-stanza where six abstract nouns in
variation refer to the same subject: gleng, herenys, wrapu,
wyrbscype, ar, aetwist.
21Norman E. Eliason, "Two Old English Scop Poems,"
PMLA, LXXXI (1966), 185.
22Kemp Malone, Deor (London, 1933), p. 17.
23See R. W. V. Elliott, Runes (Manchester, 1959), pp.
47, 50, 56, 60.
20Cf. Bertha S. Phillpotts, "Wyrd and Providence in
Anglo-Saxon Thought," Essays and Studies, XIII (1927), 7-27;
and B. J. Timmer, "Heathen and Christian Elements in Old English
Poetry," NeoPhil, XXIX (1944), 180-185; "Wyrd in Anglo-Saxon
Prose and Poetry," NeoPhil, XXVI (1941), 24-33, 213-228.
25The Ruthwell and Bewcastle crosses with their runic
inscription from The Dream of the Rood are the most graphic
early (first half of the eighth century) illustrations of the
Christianizing of the runes.
26H. C. Wyld, "Diction and Imagery in Anglo-Saxon
Poetry," Essays -nd Studies, XI (1925), 87.
27Stanley B. Greenfield, "The Formulaic Expression of
the Theme of 'Exile' in Anglo-Saxon Poetry," Speculum, XXX
28Robert P. Creed, "On the Possibility of Criticiz-
ing Old English Poetry," Texas Studies in Language and Lit-
erature, III (1961), 101.
2Bede, Ecclesiastical History of England, trans.
A. M. Sellar (London, 1912), Book II, Chapter 13, p. 116.
Sbyp frofur fira gehwylcum;
sceal 86ah manna gehwylc miclun hyt daelan,
gif he wile for drihtne domes hleotan.
Sbyb anmod and oferhyrned,
5 felafrecne deor, feohte) mid hornum,
mere morstapa; paet is modig wuht.
Sbyb 8earle scearp degna gehwylcum,
anfengys yfyl, ungemetun rbpe
manna gehwylcun 9e him mid resteS.
10 F byb ordfruma aelcre spraece,
wTsdomes wrapu and witena frofur
and eorla gehwam eadnys and t5hiht.
K byl on recyde rinca gehwylcum
sefte, and swIphwaet 5am e sitter onufan
15 mare maegenheardum ofer milpapas.
h byP cwicera gehwam cui on fire;
blic and beorhtlic byrnep oftust
a-er hT aepelingas inne restab.
X gumena byp gleng and herenys,
20 wrabu and w-yrscype, and wraecna gehwim
Ge byb obra l1as.
P ne braceb 8e can weana lyt
shares .and sorge, and him sylfa haefD
bled and blysse and eac byrga getiht.
25 byp hwitust corna; hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte;
wealcaP hit windes scara; weorpeb hit tS waetere sy$$an.
% byb nearu on briostan; weor
tS helpe and t5 haele gehwaebre,
I byb oferceald, unge
30 glisnaD glaeshlittur g
flor forste geworuht f
beb hi $Sah oft nipa bearnum
gif hi his hlysta a-eror.
+ byb gumena hiht 'on God 1leteD--
hilig heofones cyning-- hrusan syllan
beorhte blda beornum and 6earfum.
Z byb utan unsmepe triow,
heard hrusan faest, hyrde fyres,
wyrtrumun underwrebyd wynan on eble.
h byP symble pl
on beorsele, bli
Y secg eard haefb
wexeS on wature,
ega and hlehter
oar wigan sittak
oftust on fenne,
ar and aetwist
bl3de brene8 beorna gehwylcne
Se him aenigne onfeng gedFe.
45 1 ssmannum symble bib on hihte
oonn hi hine feriap ofer fisces beb
Ub hi brimhengest bringeb t5 lande.
Sbib tEcna sum, healde6 tr-wa wel
wib aeeelingas; E bib on faerylde
50 ofer nihta genipu; naefre swiceb.
| byb bleda leas, berek efne swa oeah
tanas batan tEdder; bib on telgum wlitig,
h~ah on helme hrysted faegere,
geloden lafum, lyfte getenge.
55 by) for eorlum aegelinga wyn;
hors hofum wlanc 6aer him haelep ymb
welege on wicgum wrixlab spraece
and bib unstyllum aefre frofur.
M byj on myrgbe his magan 1lof;
60 sceal b;ah anra gehwylc 85rum swican
for8Fm Dryhten wyle d5me sine
baet earme flaesc eorpan betaecan.
I byb lodum langsum gep bht,
gif hi sculun nebun on nacan tealtum,
65 and hi saeyba sw pe bregan,
and se brimhenge!
A waes aerest
offer waeg gewat,
70 $us heardingas
st bridles ne gymeA.
3) hT si66an est
waen after ran;
gone haele nemdun.
Sby" oferl1of Eeghwylcum men,
gif he m3t 6aer rihtes and gerysena on
brucan on bolde bleadum oftast.
H by" Drihtnes sand, deore nannum,
mere Metodes loht, myrgP and tohiht
eadgum and earmum, eallum brice.
Sbyp on eorban
ofer ganotes baeb;
80 hwaeper Ec haebbe
P bib oferh7ah,
stip on stabule;
Nah him feohtan
j byl aeBelinga
85 wyn and wgyrmynd;
faestlic on faerel
Sbyb eafix a
stede rihte hylt
on firas monige.
and eorla gehwaes
byb on wicge faeger,
.de fyrdgeatewa sum.
Lnd 6ah a braceb
f5dres on foldan;
hafa) faegerne eard
5a~er he wynnum leofa).
Y by] egle eorla gehwylcun
onn faestlice flaesc onginnep
hraw c5lian, hrisan ceosan,
blac t5 gebeddan; blda gedrgosab,
wynna gewitab, wera geswicap.
Treasure is a comfort for every man
Yet must every one give it generously
If he wants to obtain honor from the lord.
Aurochs is fierce and great-horned,
A terrible beast that fights with its horns, 5
A notorious moor-haunter. That is a proud creatures
Thorn is severely sharp to any warrior,
Its seizure is painful and immeasurably fierce
To any man who rests among them.
Mouth is the source of every language, 10
Wisdom's support and consolation for the wise;
Happiness and hope for every earl.
Journey is easy for warriarsin the hall,
And racking for those who sit up high
On the powerful horse, over the mile-roads. 15
Torch is by the living seen ablaze;
Bright and splendid, it burns always
Where noble men rest themselves within.
Gift of men is an honor and praise,
Support and worthiness; and for the miserable 20
Kindness and sustenance when they have nought else.
Joy he has, who knows little of woes,
Of sorrow and grief, who has for himself 25
Success and bliss, and the sufficiency of castles.
Hail is the whitest of grains as it hurls from the
loft of the heavens;
It is rolled by the showers of wind; to water it
turns at the end.
Need is oppressive to the heart, but she turns,
for the children of men,
Into both a help and salvation, if they pay heed
to it betimes.
Ice is very cold and immeasurably slippery;
It glistens clear as glass, most like unto gems; 30
Fashions a frosty floor, fair to behold.
Spring is the hope of men when God,
The holy King of Heaven, suffers to give to earth
Bright blossoms for warriors and beggars.
Yew is on the outside a rough-barked tree; 35
Firm and fast in the earth, the keeper of fire
Is sustained by roots, is the pride of the realm.
Dicing is ever a sport and laughter,
High-spirited . where warriors sit
Around the beer-hall, blithely together. 40
Elk-sedge has its place most often in the fen;
It grows in the water, wounds sharply
And burns with blood every man
Who dares to touch it at all.
Sun is ever the hope of sailors 45
When they sail over the fish's bath
And the sea-horse brings them back to land.
Tir is some kind of token; well keeps its faith
With noblemen; remains on its course
Over the darkness of nights; it fails never. 50
Birch has no fruit, yet it bears nevertheless
Shoots without fruits, is beautiful with branches
High in its crown, splendidly adorned
And laden with leaves, pressing up loftily.
The horse is for earls as a princely pleasure, 55
A steed splendid of hoofs, where heroes,
The wealthy on horseback, bandy words
About him, that is ever a remedy for the restless.
Man who is mirthful is dear to his kinsman.
Yet must every man fail all others 60
Because the Lord will by his law
Commit that wretched flesh to the earth.
Sea is by princes thought long-enduring
If they must venture on the tilting ship
And they by sea waves are terribly frightened 65
And the sea-horse heeds not its bridle.
Ing was at first seen by men
Among the East Danes, until he later eastward
Over the wave departed; a wagon ran after.
Thus, those brave men named that hero. 70
Homeland is cherished by every man
If he can make use of his right and customs,
At his dwelling, in constant prosperity.
Day is the Lord's message, dear unto men,
Great light of God, a joy and a comfort 75
To the rich and the wretched, beneficial to all.
Oak is on earth for the children of men
Bodily food. Oak fares constantly
Over the bath of the gannet, and sea will find out
Whether oak keeps its oath with earls. 80
Ash is towering, beloved of men,
Stiff in its station, holds to it steadfastly
Though many men battle against it.
Bow is for princes and earls alike
Delight and an honor; it is fair on horse, 85
Reliable on the journey, a real piece of war-gearl
Iar is always a river fish and yet ever enjoys
Food from the land; he has a fair dwelling
Covered with water where he lives in joy.
The grave is grim to every nobleman 90
When quickly begins the flesh,
The corpse, to cool -- the livid one, to choose
The earth for bed-companion; blossoms fall,
Joys pass away, and treaties are broken.
1. rune, feoh (ON. fe, Go. fe, Gothic 8th-cent. 'spell-
ings are from Vienna Codex 795, Gmc. *fehu) 'goods,
cattle, property' with the inscriptional value of the
letter f. The rune is also used to represent the let-
ter b (late Latin /-_ 7), as in Franks Casket afita-
tores (= habitatores). On the interchange of f and
b spelling see Campbell, Par. 57. The rune occurs in
other poetic texts as signifying its name in Fates of
the Apostles 98, Christ 807, Elene 1269, and possibly
in Juliana 708 (see ASPR, III, 287 and Elliott, ES,
XXXIV, 49ff., 193ff. for interpretations), and as sig-
nifying a sound or letter in the Exeter Riddles, num-
bers 19 and 64 (ASPR, III, 189, 230).
frofur, T. Grienberger (Anglia, XLV, 204) suggests the
interpretation tauxilium' rather than 'solatium, Trost';
Dickins translates as 'comfort.'
2. miclun, a dative plural used adverbially, may be a stage
of the change um> on, an (Campbell, Par. 387). Cf. un-
gemetun 8; gehwyclun 9, 90; wyrtrumun 37; wynan 37; sec-
4. h rune, ur (ONorw. ur 'slag,' OIce. ur 'drizzle,' Go.
uraz, Gmc. *:-uruz aurochs') probably retains the older
meaning 'wild ox' with the inscriptional value u. Al-
though this gigantic wild ox (bos taurus primigenius)
had been extinct in Britain for centuries before the
OE period (fossil remains are abundant in England in
the later Plistocene deposits), the aurochs was to
be found in the forests of Poland as late as mid-
sixteenth century. That they were known in Prussia
as well at least as late as the twelfth or thirteenth
centuries suggests that the Germanic and Scandinavian
tribes about the time of the invasion (450) could
have had first-hand knowledge of this enormous animal.
Cf. Lydekker, Wild Oxen, Sheep, and Goats of all lands,
living and extinct, London (1898), p. llff. Caesar
gives evidence that the hunting and slaying of the
aurochs was a sport among young men,the horns being
valued as drinking vessels (Gallic War, VI, 28):
(The Aurochs) are a little below the
elephant in size and of the appearance,
color, and shape of a bull. Their
strength and speed are extraordinary, and
they spare neither man nor beast that has
the misfortune to come their way. These
the natives capture with much pains in pits
and kill them. The youths harden themselves
to this exercise and particular kind of hunt-
ing. He who has killed the greatest number
of them brings the horns to display as evi-
dence of his courage and is highly applauded
by his countrymen. So savage is the nature
of these beasts that no matter how young
they are captured, they can never be tamed.
The great size, shape, and type of their
horns make them quite different from the
horns of our oxen. These are much sought
after; and it is the custom to bind them
with tips of silver and to use them as cups
at their most sumptuous feasts. (Burdock's
Although no drinking horn could have attained the fab-
ulous proportions of that one by which orr was
hoodwinked (Snorri Edda, Gylfaginning, 46), yet the
remains of two large horns uncovered in the Sutton Hoo
excavation are 3 feet long and have a capacity of
six quarts (cf. Charles Green, Sutton Hoo (New York,
1963), p. 73).
and for Hickes' 7t so also in 20, 24, 58, 65, 84,
-where these have been expanded oferhyrned, for Hickes'
ofer horned, is defined 'having horns above,' B-T, p.
735; so Grienberger and Dobbie. Dickins translates
'with great horns,' seeing ofer as an intensifier as
in 29 and 71, oferceald and oferleof. The word is a
5. felafrecne for Hickes' fela frecne.
6. maere morstapa, cf. the formula in Beowulf 103, Grendel
as maere mearcstapa. morstapa for Hickes' mor stapa.
paet for Hickes' ,.and so in line 62.
For other instances of the "paet is" formula in OE poetry
see Beowulf 11, 863, 1075, 1812, 2390; Dream of the
Rood 74; Panther 74'; Deor 19, 23; Daniel 7, 24, 324.
The formula seems to have been used as a kind of punc-
tuation mark for a descriptive passage about a good
king, sad woman, or a fearsome wight.
7. p rune, porn 'thorn,'rlwith the inscriptional value
of P and S. The Scandinavian rune name gyrs (Gmc.
*:-purisaz) appears in the ONorw. Rune Poem as "Giant
causes anguish to women," and in the OIce. Rune Poem
as "Giant=torture of women and cliff-dweller and hus-
band of giantess" (Dickins, translations). Christian
scribes probably substituted the paler born for the
older pagan pyrs 'giant, enchanter, (cf. Beowulf 426),
and so in the case of os and tir. The rune was
adopted by the scribes of OE MSS to represent that
sound for which the Latin alphabet had no symbol and
was used through the ME period. A derivative of 'orn
(pe> p e> ) appears ultimately in such archaisms as
"Ye Olde Choppe Suey Shoppe" (Pyles, Origins and De-
velopment of the English Language, p. 31).
8. anfeng ys fy for Hickest anfen-gys yfyl. So Dickins
and Dobbie after the suggestion of Grein (Germania, X,
Grienberger (Anglia, XLV, 206) reads anfengys yfyl. y
for unstressed e, cf. eadnys 12, recyde 13, herenys 19,
underwrepyd 37, faerylde 49.
10. F rune, os (ONorw. oss 'estuary,' OIce. oss 'god,'
Go. aza, Gmc. *ansuz 'god') 'mouth' with the inscrip-
tional value o. Gmc. nasalized a became in OE o and
with loss of n, o became lengthened; thus the rune
name *:ansuz > os, and its meaning was presumably changed
in Christian times to the Latin homophone os, 'mouth.'
The new shape of the rune is generally explained as
a ligature of a plus j n ( 4 > H >) > > ),
so Hempl, Dickins, Keller, Schneider, and Guinn (p.
33). The old rune P for Gmc. a developed by regular
phonetic change into ae and was renamed aesc 'ash.,
The word os does not appear elsewhere in OE except in
the personal names of the Os- variety and in the charm
"For a sudden stitch," (ASPR, VI, 122, line 23) Gif
hit were esa gescot oooe hit waere ylfa gescot, etc.
(cf. also Beowulf, 112, eotenas ond ylfe and orcneas,
swylce gigantas) where in OE times the esa are con-
nected with the realm of pagan divinities. Other
glosses of os are 'speech, language,' and Isidore in
discussing orthographia makes the point that "Os, si
vultum aut ossum significant, per o solam scribendum
est, si personal, h praeponenda est." And only a few
lines later in the Etymologiae: "Etymologia est origo
vocabulorum," which resembles Os byp ordfruma aelcre
spraece. There may be a connection between the equa-
tion of God, the Word, and Christ (in St. John's Gos-
pel I, 1: "In principio erat verbum") and the older
*ansus 'god' becoming os 'mouth-speech-language,' but
this is, of course, highly speculative. If the mean-
ing in the Rune Poem is 'mouth' after the Latin os, it
is the only rune of the original Gmc. fupark to take
its name from a foreign language.
12. tohiht for Hickes' to hiht; otherwise we would expect
dat. sing. to hihte.
13. K rune, rad (ONorw. raei_ OIce. reiA, Go. reda, Gmc.
*rai6o) 'riding' with the inscriptional value r.
Elliott points out (p. 57) that k is perhaps asso-
ciated with the belief that the soul takes a journey
after death (cf. The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, London,
1963; and the opening passages of Beowulf). Concern-
ing this pagan association of the runes, Elliott fur-
ther asserts: "Thus interpreted the r-rune could con-
ceivably have come to function almost as a journey-
charm, whether for the living or for the dead. In
the three runic poems the word 'riding, is interpreted
quite literally." A number of translations have been
suggested for rad: 'music' (Grein-K'ohler, p. 540);
'furniture (of a horse),' 'harness (of a horse)'
(B-T, p. 781); 'equipment, tackle' (Chadwick, in
Dickins, p. 14); 'saddle' (Kemble, Archaeologia,
XXVIII, 340). Even as late as 1965 C. L. Wrenn
writes "Some Earliest Anglo-Saxon Cult Symbols,"
Franciplegius, ed. J. B. Bessinger and R. P. Creed,
p. 47): "It is now generally agreed that RAD of
the Runic Poem expresses the rhythmic music of harp
(or possibly flute): and in both such music and the
distant roll of a wagon may be heard a fractum murmur,"
Here, rad is taken as 'journey,' as in Elene 981.
on recyde, for Hickes' onrecyde.
15. maegenheardum, for Hickes' maegen heardum.