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A reading of Andreas: the poem as poem

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2008


The Old English poem Andreas deserves a reading entirely on its own terms. For years we have been studying it in various distracting ways: as if it were a deliberate and feeble imitation of Beowulf (which it is not);1 or trying to attach it to the Cynewulfian canon;2 or taking it as a compendium of patristic lore (which hardly any Old English poems are);3 or we may see it as an example of an inherently inferior medieval genre, hagiographical romance; or (most often) as an embarrassing misapplication of the heroic style to the wrong subject. Clearly the poem invites us to make these classifications, but its own noteworthy achievements have been generally overlooked. We need a straightforward frontal attack by the critic: just what is this poem up to, line by line? The best guide in the process seems to me to be the Latin source, to which we have a fairly close approximation in the Recensio Casanatensis.4 Careful consultation of this source lets us see what forms the poet's imagination imposes on his given material and gives us the clearest idea of the kind of poet he is.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1983

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1 Brooks, K. R., the most recent editor (Andreas and The Fates of the Apostles (Oxford, 1961))Google Scholar, believes that ‘the theory of conscious imitation becomes hard to deny’ (p. xxiv). For similar recent views see Brodeur, A. G., ‘A Study of Diction and Style in Three Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poems’, Nordica et Anglica, ed. Orrick, A. H. (The Hague, 1968)Google Scholar; David, Hamilton, ‘Andreas and Beowulf: Placing the Hero’, Anglo-Saxon Poetry: Essays in Appreciation, ed. Nicholson, Lewis E. and Frese, Dolores Warwick (Notre Dame, Ind., 1975)Google Scholar; Derek, Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry (London, 1977), p. 41.Google Scholar For a strong statement that there is insufficient evidence to show any indebtedness, see Peters, Leonard J., ‘The Relationship of the Old English Andreas to Beowulf’, PMLA 66 (1951), 844–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Claes, Schaar (Critical Studies in the Cynewulf Group, Lund Studies in English 17 (Lund and Copenhagen, 1949))Google Scholar follows earlier scholars in this attempt.

3 Most articles on the poem in the last fifteen years have been of this type. Three instances are Szittya, Penn R., ‘The Living Stone and the Patriarchs: Typological Imagery in Andreas, lines 706–810’, JEGP 77 (1973), 167–74;Google Scholar Constance Hieatt, B., ‘The Harrowing of Mermedonia: Typological Patterns in the Old English Andreas’, NM 77 (1976), 4962;Google ScholarWalsh, Marie Michelle, ‘The Baptismal Flood in the Old English Andreas: Liturgical and Typological Depths’, Traditio 33 (1977), 137–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 Die lateinischen Bearbeitungen der Acta Andreae et Matthiae apud Anthropophagos, ed. Blatt, Franz (Giessen and Copenhagen, 1930)Google Scholar. There is a convenient English translation: Sources and Analogues of Old English Poetry, trans. Michael J. B. Allen and Daniel G. Calder (Cambridge and Totowa, N.J., 1976), pp. 1434.Google Scholar

5 Quotations from Andreas are taken from Brooks's edition.

6 In 43b–4a the manuscript reads deofles þegn / geascodon. The natural emendation is to the singular, geascode. The deofles þegn would then be the gate-keeper, a servant of the devil like his fellows, whose job is to challenge visitors (cf. the coastguard or Wulfgar in Beowulf). He properly reports Matthew's arrival and purpose (if the word sið can suggest that) to his people before they take action.

7 ‘But still in his breast, in his heart, he praised the guardian of heaven, even though he swallowed a horrible drink of poison.’

8 See the thorough discussion of the theme by Burlin, Robert B., The Old English Advent (New Haven, Conn., 1968), pp. 72–7.Google Scholar See also Constance B. Hieatt, ‘The Harrowing of Mermedonia’ (cited above, n. 3).

9 ‘I give you, Matthew, my peace under the sky. Don't you be too afraid in spirit or grieve in heart; I will stay with you and free you from these fetters …’

10 ‘Then the space of time decided on earlier had elapsed, except for three nights, as the slaughter-wolves had written it down, [so] that they intended to crack vertebrae, rapidly separate body and soul …’

11 ‘They had written in runes and in number-art, those slaughter-greedy ones, the death-letter of men, when [it was that] they had to become a meal for those needing food among that people.’

12 The latter pointed out by Lee, Alvin A., The Guest-Hall of Eden (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1972), p. 89.Google Scholar

13 ‘… rapidly separate body and soul and then share out to veterans and novices, for men to eat and eagerly partake, the doomed victim's flesh-cover.’

14 ‘You must make that voyage and carry your life right into the enemies’ grip, where violence will be offered you in the noise of war of the heathens and the battle-skill of warriors.’ (My italics in lines 216–17.)

15 Crowne, D. K., ‘The Hero on the Beach: an Example of Composition by Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry’, NM 61 (1960), 362–72.Google Scholar

16 Old English Verse (London, 1972), p. 119.Google Scholar

17 The grammatical problem mentioned in Brooks's note to 303 still remains a piece of evidence in favour of borrowing from Beowulf. In Beowulf the genitives plainly depend on the preceding number hund þusenda, but only by postulating a lame sort of partitive (‘have not [any portion] of land and locked rings’) can we make the Andreas passage work properly. Such a reading is barely possible, however, being (as Brooks points out) attested at least in prose.

18 ‘It is not fitting for you, now that God has granted you wealth and food and success in the world, to seek an answer arrogantly, by means of some sharp remark; it is better for everyone to recognize the voyager humbly and openly, as Christ the mighty lord has ordered.’

19 Old English Verse, p. 123.Google Scholar

20 Brooks, p. xxiv.

21 ‘Therefore I wish to tell you truly that the living God will never abandon any warrior on earth, if his courage is good.’

22 ‘This boat is very swift, it travels foamy-necked, most like a bird it glides over the sea – I know indeed that I have never seen skill like this on the ocean in any seaman.’

23 I accept Craig Williamson's telescoping of the traditional first three riddles into a single riddle: see his edition, The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1977).Google Scholar

24 ‘Hence it is evident, clear truth, acknowledged fact, that you are the excellent thane of the king who sits in power, because the sea immediately recognized you.’

25 ‘It did not dare then scorn the Saviour's order in front of the crowds, that wonder, but it leapt from the wall, that old ancient-work, so that it stood down on the earth, stone apart now from stone. Then a voice came loud through the hardness, a voice reverberated, made proclamation in words; what that stone did seemed marvellous to the stubborn-minded people.’

26 Brooks would take oððe sel nyton (745 b) as meaning ‘and you know not happiness’; but ‘and you know no better’ seems closer to the Latin insipientes and stulti. Cf. nyston beteran rœd (1088b).

27 ‘That eventuality [i.e. the possibility promised to Abraham of seeing Christ] is among you, open, obvious; you can now with your eyes see victory's God, the ruler of heaven.’

28 In ‘The Diet and Digestion of Allegory in Andreas’, ASE 1 (1972), 147–58,Google Scholar David Hamilton sees the dramatic irony in the scene as carried to the point where Andrew becomes virtually a comic figure in his unawareness. While such comedy is surely found in medieval literature (as in Pearl for example), I think the Andreas poet is more concerned with upholding his hero's dignity at this point.

29 See the discussion of these patterns by Lee, , The Guest-Hall of Eden, pp. 8795.Google Scholar

30 ‘I suffered many miseries on earth; by that I wished to give you [men] in happy spirit a pattern, as it will be revealed among a foreign people.’

31 As pointed out by Derek, Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry, p. 41.Google Scholar

32 ‘Each embraced the other with arms, they kissed and hugged; both were dear to Christ's heart. Light shone round them, holy and heaven-bright; from inside, the breast welled up with joy.’

33 To judge from the Latin, the lacuna unfortunately deprives us of some probably interesting material about Satan's creation of the gigantes and their battle against mankind that ended in Noah's Flood, material like that used in Beowulf in describing the Grendel race.

34 ‘Inside him he had undoubting courage; that noble heart was separated from sins, though he was forced to suffer so much pain from deep agonizing blows.’

35 ‘They were then terrified in that attack, frightened, fear-struck, put to flight.’

36 ‘Go there yourself; there you will quickly find battles and dangerous fighting, if you dare risk life against the anhaga!’

37 For the general typological background (not much exploited in the Old English poem, in my view) see Marie Michelle Walsh, ‘The Baptismal Flood’ (cited above, n. 3). For a summary of the ealuscerwen controversy, see Wrenn's edition of Beowulf (glossary), or my Ealuscerwen: Wild Party at Heorot’, Tennessee Stud. in Lit. 11 (1966), 161–8.Google Scholar

38 Brooks (note to 1533 ff.), always uneasy with irony and failing to realize that the pillars have this rôle, dismisses the references to cupbearers as ‘grotesque exaggeration’.

39 MS þurh scealtes sweg (1532a) needs emending since it lacks alliteration. Krapp's þurh sealtne weg ‘through the salt wave’ and Brooks's þurh sealtes swe‹l›g ‘through the abyss of salt water’ are acceptable, Þurh sealtwege ‘through the salt-cup’ would also be a good reinforcing of the basic metaphor. Though the compound would be unique, both its elements are found in other poetic compounds.

40 See Lee, , The Guest-Hall of Eden, p. 90.Google Scholar

41 See the comments by Lee, pp. 87–95, and the articles by Hieatt and Walsh cited above.

42 He said his mind was ready to go, that he wished to give up the gold-city, men's hall-joy and treasure, bright ring-halls, and wished to seek a ship at the sea's edge.’

43 E.g. Exodus 35–6; Beowulf 2247–66 and 2745b–6.

44 ‘Where Father and Son and Spirit of comfort in trinity rules in power heavenly buildings for ever and ever.’

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