Imagery and Use of Old English Poetic Techniques

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In his poem “Ars poetica,” Archibald MacLeish said that “a poem should not mean but be.” Richard Wilbur believes that a poem is not a vehicle for communicating a message but that it is an object with “its own life” and “individual identity.” Wilbur’s poetry is often intellectually taxing, and he expects the reader to be involved in the poem, its imagery and substance. He does not intend to communicate a message, but rather to create an interesting piece of writing. He believes that art ought to “spring from the imagination” and create a “condition of spontaneous psychic unity.” That unity depends on the relationship of the inner parts of the poem, one to the other, and the involvement of the reader in the poem itself. He expects the reader to engage his or her intellect to understand and enjoy his poetry. As a result, a balance between the intellect and the imagination will be achieved, as in his poem “Beowulf.”

Wilbur’s way of maintaining the reader’s involvement in the poem is by creating intense images out of routine images. For example, in the second line of “Beowulf,” the routine images of flowers and grass are intensified by association with incongruous words. The flowers are “attentive”; the grass is “garrulous green.” By personifying (giving human traits to a non-human object) these plants, he has created more intense images of flowers standing tall, seemingly listening for some sound, and then the talkative green grass supply- ing that sound. Additionally, the combination of these two new images creates one of a meadow (the scenery) with all its parts interacting with each other, fulfilling the image of the first line “overmuch like scenery.” Here is a place of more than just vegetation in a landscape.

The lark image in the first stanza is only a reflection in the lake. The lake retains the reflection of the lark as though it were a tangible object that could be held and released at will. At the second lark image, the lake now gives up the reflection. But the lark’s call goes unheard, the flowers are “wrong,” the day was “swiftly old,” and “the night put out no smiles.” These now create an atmosphere of desolation and emptiness. The contrast between these two scenes is important: the first with its hopefulness and the second with its silence and foreboding.

This approach is like that of the imagist poets: Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and others. These poets reduced the number of words in their poems to a minimum and intensified the meanings by artful juxtaposition. An important aspect of the imagist approach to poetry is the creation of a concrete image that “presents an intellectual and emotional complex at one moment in time,” according to the editors of Modernism in Literature. An example of this is Ezra Pound’s poem “In the Station of the Metro.” The entire poem reads:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.

The immediate imagery is straightforward, but after a moment of reflection, these images combine in the mind of the reader to create a more intense one of people crowded into the subway station melding with the image of petals on a wet tree branch. The final purpose of the poem is the amalgamation of the two disparate images into one. Though Wilbur’s poem is not an imagist poem, there are many similar aspects present in it.

Admittedly, some of the poetry of the imagists is difficult to fathom, but this is not the case with Wilbur’s work. He does not give...

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up the basic notion that poetry should be intellectually taxing, but he also feels that it should not be obscure. In the specific case of this poem, apparent obscurity may be the result of unfamiliarity with the originalBeowulf, but such knowledge is not required to appreciate the story Wilbur is telling. It is his task to retell the tale in his own manner with enough detail to make it a complete story. It must conform to Wilbur’s belief that a poem should be an “individual entity,” even though it is far shorter than the original epic. Additionally, for the poem to succeed it must engage “the strict attention of the serious reader” say the editors of American Tradition in Literature.

Wilbur believed that the “strictness of form” in a poem is its strength and its advantage. He said that the “strength of the genie comes of his being confined in a bottle.” As a result, what seems like a constriction becomes a strength. For this poem, he has selected the formal structure of seven sixline stanzas divided into two parts of four and three stanzas each. It uses the unique rhyme scheme: abbcac. The original Beowulf is a long poem (at least 3,182 lines exist and many more were likely lost over time) and for Wilbur to retell it might have taken many more stanzas. But he chose to limit it to just seven, requiring him to condense every part of the tale to fit his poetic form. The process of reduction and condensing, in combination with (what the editors of the Anthology of American Literature call) “the freshness of his imagery,” created the intensely brief poem.

Beowulf is found in only one manuscript, which was probably written down in the tenth century. It is one of the best examples of Old English poetry extant. (Old English, the linguistic forebear of modern English, is derived from older forms of German and northern European languages from the middle of the first millennium.) These kinds of poems were recited or sung in public by a poet, called a scop. Many were tales of gallantry in battles (The Battle of Maldon), the lives of kings, religious poems (The Dream of the Rood), and tales of mythical beings. Beowulf is a combination of both historical kings and the mythical beasts that Beowulf fought to save the kings from annihilation.

Wilbur, a scholar of the ancient poets, adopted two important Old English poetic techniques for his poem of 1950. These are: the scansion or line structure of the poem and the alliterative nature of the poems. The scansion (metrical analysis) of the Old English poems consists of a two-part line, with each part having at least two stressed syllables. This can be seen in the following example from the epic Beowulf. The first lines (in Old English) are:

Hwæt, we gardena in geardagum, theodcyninga thrym gefrunon.

The metrical notation for these lines is:

/ _ _ / _ / _ / _ / _ / _ _ / _ / _

The important aspects to note are the break in the middle of each line, called ceasura, and the two stressed syllables in each half line.

The poems of the time did not use rhyming sounds at the ends of lines. Instead, the Old English poems used alliteration (the repetition of consonant sounds) within the lines as the unifying “rhyming” formula. In the first line, the important sound is “g”; in the second line, the important sound is “th” (which is the “th” sound in Modern English). In both cases, this sound occurs at least once in each half line. A more striking use of this alliterative scheme occurs in line four of Beowulf, in which case the repeated sound is “s.”

Oft Scyld Scefing sceathena threatum.

The use of alliteration by more modern poets is not a new occurrence. One of the most beautifully alliterative lines in American poetry comes at the end of the first stanza of the poem “To Helen” by Edgar Allan Poe:

The weary, way-worn wanderer bore To his own native shore.

The special beauty of this line is that it combines both alliteration (the letter “w”) and assonance (the repetition of a vowel sound, in this case the letter “o”).

Wilbur’s poetic vision for his poem did not stop at the modern schemes available to him. He has used these Old English techniques, adding their ancient strengths to his own poetic creativeness to write this poem. Each line is readily divisible into two parts, and each of those parts contains two stressed syllables. Additionally, most of the half lines have an alliterative relationship with the other half line. In some there are two sounds repeated, as in line one of stanza two: “Also the people were strange, were strangely warm.” The repeated letters are “s” and “w.”

The final measure of the success of a poem, according to Wilbur, is its sound. Just as the epic Beowulf was meant for public recitation, so too is the poem “Beowulf” intended to be read aloud. His “concern for structure coincides with his evident response to sensory impressions,” according to the editors of American Tradition in Literature. He intended for the meaning of the poem to be carried “by the sound,” as the reader is able to add dramatic emphasis to the poem. To feel the full beauty of the example by Poe, it must be spoken aloud. The process of saying these words will give the speaker an added enjoyment, too. For the listener to an Old English poem, the sound creates the atmosphere of the ancient scop. Wilbur’s combination of the old alliteration and the new rhyme scheme creates a special set of sounds capturing the atmosphere of the old poem and pattern of the modern poem. As a result, the aural experience adds to the understanding of the poem.

Richard Wilbur said, “I like it when the ideas of a poem seem to be necessary aspects of the things or actions which it presents.” For him, a poem is not just a series of techniques and words that create clever imagery. It is a total experience that combines all aspects of the poem into one moment. He once said that a poem is an effort to express knowledge and to discover patterns in the world. By reversing this process and joining two established patterns, not only has he created a new one, but he has found a new way to stretch the imagination and intellectual engagement of his readers.

Source: Carl Mowery, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Mowery has a Ph.D. in literature and composition from Southern Illinois University. He has written many essays for Gale.

Echoes of Preceeding Beowulf

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Richard Wilbur’s “Beowulf” provides an ironically truncated and lyrically simplified version of the Old English epic poem of the same name, which may date from eighth-century England. The original Old English poem, one of the most extended and powerful works of Anglo-Saxon to have survived, has several unresolved puzzles about it that lend it an air of mystery and strangeness. Its archaic and poetically stylized language, its origin in oral tradition predating its transcription, the loss of parts of its manuscript to fire in the eighteenth century, the reference of the poem to a still earlier time than that of the poet, its complex set of peoples and tribes, its supernatural figures of monsters and dragons, and its peculiar mixture of pagan rituals and Christian beliefs all contribute to the foreignness of this major early work of the English poetic tradition. Wilbur, indeed, finds in the original Beowulf a paradoxical quality. It is monumental and inescapably present for the poet as part of his literary legacy, and yet it is something he can only feebly understand. It stands like a heap of stones on a hillside or the stone blocks carved with serpentine patterns that can be found in the English, Irish, and Scandinavian countryside: testimony to an archaic past to which the present is connected, yet a testimony spoken in a language nearly incomprehensible to modern eyes and ears.

In Wilbur’s version of “Beowulf,” the character of Beowulf is viewed as possessing some of the same qualities of strangeness that the poem Beowulf has in the English literary tradition. Wilbur alludes to the fact that the character Beowulf, as a warrior coming from the Geats, is a stranger to the people with whom the poem is primarily concerned, the Danes. Furthermore, he is also a foreigner to the Beowulf poet, who may have been from Mercia, in what is now the Midlands of England. Beowulf travels from abroad, coming unexpectedly to the Danes to fight the monster Grendel, who has invaded their lands and terrorized them, brutally killing off many of King Hrothgar’s best warriors and weakening his kingdom. Beowulf succeeds in killing Grendel and the monster’s vengeful mother as well. In later years, he kills a dragon and seizes its treasure for his people but is mortally wounded in the attempt. He is buried in a lavish funeral ceremony along with the treasure for which he died.

Wilbur emphasizes the inscrutable nature of Beowulf’s motivations for taking on these deadly challenges. One day the stranger shows up from beyond the sea, boasting that he can kill the monster that no one has been able to touch for years. He performs the deed, gains the praise and glory of the Danes, and goes home. For Wilbur, this inscrutability of Beowulf as a character is matched by the enigma of the poem that bears his name. An Old English poem about ancient Germanic societies, it arrives in the English tradition like a stranger without a name. As modern readers, we know only external details: those partial and fragmentary clues to its meaning given to us by archeological study, other poems in the Anglo-Saxon language, and the few elements of the archaic traditions passed down to later times. We are forced to strain our minds to imagine what it might mean. Like the Danes who have heard of the warrior but to whom the man Beowulf was and remained a stranger, we can only say that we know “of” and “about” the poem “Beowulf,” but cannot say that we really know and understand it. In the end, our attempts to read and interpret “Beowulf” are akin to the funeral rituals of Beowulf’s people after he has killed the dragon and been killed by it. Reading it, marking its place in the literary tradition, and writing poems based on it as Wilbur has done, one does honor to something that is nevertheless understood only to a limited extent.

Rather than representing the setting and story of “Beowulf” in a realistic mode, Wilbur underscores the artifice with which the poet crafted his tale by projecting a stiff and stylized aspect onto the scene itself: “The land was overmuch like scenery, / The flowers attentive, the grass too garrulous green; / In the lake like a dropped kerchief could be seen / The lark’s reflection after the lark was gone.” This landscape has been rendered artificially still, like a painting; even the reflection is not subject to change, but endures after the reflected object is gone. Similarly, the “road” in the fifth and sixth lines is hardly a real place where vehicles, animals, and people are moving. It is more like a glossy strip of paint receding into a painted backdrop: “The Roman road lay paved too shiningly / For a road so many men had traveled on.” Similarly, in the next stanza, Wilbur self-consciously comments on a quality of the poetic language of the Old English epic: “And they said the same things again and again.” Like the Greek classical poets coming out of an oral tradition, Anglo- Saxon poets depended on stock formula and epithets, generic scenes and ritual enumeration of genealogies and of objects, around which the poet would improvise and embroider new variations. As one of the oldest poems of the Anglo-Saxon tradition, Beowulf is strongly marked by the ritualized, formulaic nature of its poetic diction. It says “the same things again and again.”

Moreover, it is characterized by another form of repetition typical of Anglo-Saxon poet, in its use of alliterations within the basic four-stress line. Usually, three out of four of the stressed words in a line would begin with the same consonant sound. Wilbur formally alludes to this metrical practice in such lines as the fourth, which alliterates the “g” sound (“The flowers attentive, the grass too garrulous green”); the thirteenth, with its repeated “c” (“It was a childish country; and a child”); the thirtyfirst, with its insistent “h” (“They gave him horse and harness, helmet and mail”); and the thirty-seventh, which introduces a variant with the hard “c” paired to two “k” sounds (“He died in his own country a kinless king”). In this way, he signals that his poem represents less a narration of a real scene than a revisiting of a fictional site made up of words: the foreign Anglo-Saxon words of the anonymous Beowulf poet.

Wilbur touches very cursorily on the most exciting plot event of the source poem, Beowulf’s unarmed battle with and slaying of the bloody monster Grendel. Speaking of Grendel, he writes, “It was a childish country; and a child, / Grown monstrous, so besieged them in the night / That all their daytimes were a dream of fright / That it would come and own them to the bone.” Wilbur treats the monster as if it were the anthropological equivalent of a childhood phobia, which in turn implies that the triumphant hero Beowulf is likewise less a real person than an imaginative expedient invented by the collective mind to keep such fears at bay. “The hero,” Wilbur continues, “to his battle reconciled, / Promised to meet that monster all alone.” Through the fictive invention of their poets, who have imaginatively brought the heroic stranger to their shores to save them, the people can leave the task of fighting monsters to the hero himself, who will face Grendel alone. Wilbur thus suggests the ways in which the poet’s inventions are necessary to the people, yet serve their purpose precisely insofar as they remain different from everyday life, insofar as they remain irreducibly strange to those for whom they render fictive aid.

The battle with Grendel is similarly distanced. The long and grim struggle of the hero with the monster, which ends with Beowulf’s tearing off Grendel’s arm at the shoulder and displaying it to the relieved Danes, is passed over in a single sentence, followed by a strange calm: “They heard the rafters rattle fit to fall, / The child departing with a broken groan, / And found their champion in a rest so deep / His head lay harder sealed than any stone.” It is as if the mighty Beowulf, having fulfilled his sole task of banishing the childish fear that had been materialized as a monster, has become a mere statue of himself, “the hero” carved in granite.

The fifth stanza reprises the setting of the first, even repeating the opening line: “The land was overmuch like scenery.” Yet if in the opening stanza, the landscape appeared artificially luminous and still, in this later stanza, the hero’s victory over Grendel seems to have drained any life from the scene. “The lake gave up the lark, but now its song / Fell to no ear, the flowers too were wrong,” Wilbur writes. “The day was fresh and pale and swiftly old / … / And the people were strange, the people strangely cold.” Having performed his single task, the hero departs, loaded with the gifts granted a warrior and the glory of his deeds. But Wilbur suggests that the hero is doomed to the tragic repetition of his entry and departure as a stranger. He takes the spoils and sets sail, but as the last line of the sixth stanza reveals, he laments even in his triumph: “These things he stowed beneath his parting sail, / And wept that he could share them with no son.”

The last stanza draws together the enigma of Beowulf as a hero and Beowulf as a paradoxical starting-point of the English poetic tradition. Having fought against the dragon and been mortally wounded in this last great deed, Wilbur writes, Beowulf “died in his own country a kinless king, / A name heavy with deeds.” Yet even in death he has remained a stranger to his people, his tragic selfsacrifice and confrontation of threatening monsters being only partially comprehensible to those under his protection. Wilbur alludes in his last lines to the enigmatic ending of the Old English poem, in which the fallen Beowulf is buried with the dragon’s treasure that he lost in life in capturing: “They buried him next the sea on a thrust of land: / Twelve men rode round his barrow all in a ring, / Singing of him what they could understand.” The final line, which connects Beowulf’s death to poetry and song, suggests that where the mystery of the hero Beowulf left off, the poem “Beowulf” began.

The Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, Wilbur is suggesting, pays homage to and immortalizes that limited fraction of the man that the community could understand, making more familiar what had been irreducibly strange and archaic about him. Wilbur’s own poem entitled “Beowulf,” however, stands in a similarly fragmentary, summary, and reductive relation to the mysteries of understanding posed by the long Anglo-Saxon poem. Condensing into forty-two lines the hundreds of lines of the original poem, Wilbur signals his own relation to this “stranger” of the tradition; within the restricted ambit of his ability to grasp Beowulf, he too is “singing of him.” In a final irony, however, his last lines suggest that, despite all the centuries that have passed, he is entirely in tune with the tradition, even at its earliest moment. For far from revealing an original intimacy with its heroic center, Wilbur suggests, the Anglo-Saxon poem also communicates strangeness, distance, and failure to comprehend its hero. It is from this strangeness and failure that poetry takes its point of departure. Once again experiencing the impossibility of grasping “Beowulf,” both the poetic hero and the enigmatic poem that bears his name, Wilbur affirms his repetition of the Anglo-Saxon’s predicament as he makes anew the earlier poet’s troubled “song.”

Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Tyrus Miller is an assistant professor of comparative literature and English at Yale University, where he teaches twentieth-century literature and visual culture. His book Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts Between the World Wars is forthcoming.


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