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Poetic language and the Paris Psalter: the decay of the Old English tradition

  • M. S. Griffith (a1)

The metrical version of psalms LI–CL, known as the Paris Psalter, is a pedestrian and unimaginative piece of poetic translation. It is rarely read by students of Old English, and most Anglo-Saxonists make only passing reference to it. There is scarcely any literary criticism written on the text, although some work has been done on its vocabulary and metre. I hope to show in this article, however, that its stylistic peculiarities mark an important stage in the disintegration of the Old English poetic mode, and that analysis of these may go some way towards answering the difficult questions which surround the manner and the cause of the style's disappearance at the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. In particular, I shall examine this poet's selective use of the poetic diction normally associated with the form, and the impact of this selectivity on the systems of rank and formula.

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1 Beowulf and The fight at Finnsburg, ed. Klaeber, F., 3rd ed. (Boston, 1936); The Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, ed. Sweet, H. (Oxford, 1896).

2 See Appendix I, below pp. 183–5. I hope to publish elsewhere a full analysis of this list, and of the definition of ‘poetic’ used to draw it up. For the concordance, see Venezky, R. L. and diPaolo Healey, A., A Microfiche Concordance to Old English (Toronto, 1980).

3 The Paris Psalter and the Meters of Boethius, ed. Krapp, G. P., ASPR 5 (New York, 1932), xvii.

4. Timmer, B.J., in The Later Genesis, edited from MS Junius 11 (Oxford, 1954), notes that the meaning of hearra in Genesis B has been strongly influenced by Old Saxon (p. 38).

5 The exceptions are 65.4 ylda, 93.10 guman, 108.16 pearfendra, 127.5 beorna, 146.9 haelepa and 75.4 hi.

6 Nor is it translated as mece, a word often regarded as poetic which appears frequently in the glosses and glossaries.

7 On poetic rank, see Brink, A., Stab und Wort im Gawain (Halle, 1920), Borroff, M., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: a Stylistic and Metrical Study (New Haven, CT, 1962), pp. 5290 and Shippey, T. A., Old English Verse (London, 1972), pp. 102–3.

8 See Studies in the Prosaic Vocabulary of Old English Verse’, NM 72 (1971), 385418. Professor Stanley tells me that he would now revise his definition of ‘prosaic’. I am grateful to Professor Stanley for a number of helpful criticisms of this article.

9. See Griffith, M. S., ‘The Method of Composition of Old English Verse Translation, with Particular Reference to the Metres of Boethius, The Paris Psalter and Judgment Day II’ (unpubl. DPhil dissertation, Univ. of Oxford, 1985), pp. 4657.

10. On the difficulty the poet had with the first stave of the b-verse, see Whitman, F. H., ‘A Major Compositional Technique in Old English Verse’, ELN 11 (1973), 81–6.

11. There are also occasional violations of general rank. Only four of the forty-four occurrences of hreper outside the psalms fail to alliterate, but it fails in four of the six occurrences here. Efnan alliterates without exception elsewhere, but occurs here four times finally in the line, and three times in lines that lack alliteration.

12 See The Diction of the Anglo-Saxon Metrical Psalms, Janua Linguarum, Series Practica 10 (The Hague, 1963). More than a third of the formulae quoted by Diamond are supported only by reference to verses elsewhere in the metrical psalms, and many of these represent repetitions in the source. More than a quarter are light verses which show repetition of the word in the position of main stress only.

13 Type 2A1 is the commonest sub-division of type A in the metrical framework given by Bliss, A. J. in The Metre of Beowulf (Oxford, 1967).

14 On this type of formula, see Nicholson, L. E., ‘Oral Techniques in the Composition of Expanded Anglo-Saxon Verses’, PMLA 78 (1963), 287–92.

15 The abbreviations of the titles of the poems are those given by Mitchell, B., Ball, C. and Cameron, A., ASE 4 (1975), 207–21, revised ASE 8 (1979), 331–3.

16. Plowman, Piers, an Introduction (Oxford, 1969), p. 23.

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Anglo-Saxon England
  • ISSN: 0263-6751
  • EISSN: 1474-0532
  • URL: /core/journals/anglo-saxon-england
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