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Heald þ? n?, hr?se, //n? hæleð ne m?ston,
eorla æhte. //Hwæt! hit ær on þ?
g?de bege?ton;//g?ð-d?að fornam,
feorh-bealo fr?cne//fyra gehwylcne,
l?oda m?nra, þ?ra þe þis l?f ofgeaf,
ges?won sele-dr?am.//N?h hw? sweord wege
oððe fetige//fæted wæge,
drync-fæt d?ore://duguð ellor sc?c.
Sceal se hearda helm//hyrsted golde
fætum befeallen://feormiend swefað,
þ? þe beado-gr?man//bywan sceoldon,
g? swylce s?o here-p?d,//s?o æt hilde geb?d
ofer borda gebræc//bite ?rena,
brosnað æfter beorne.//Ne mæg byrnan hring
æfter w?g-fruman//w?de f?ran
hæleðum be healfe;//næs hearpan wyn,
gomen gl?o-b?ames,//n? g?d hafoc
geond sæl swingeð,//n? se swifta mearh
burh-stede b?ateð.//Bealo-cwealm hafað
fela feorh-cynna//feorr onsended!
Now do thou, O Earth, hold fast what heroes might not,—the possessions of nobles. Lo! Brave men won it at first from thee; death in war, horrid carnage, took away every one of my tribe who yielded up this life; they saw [the last of] festive joy. I have no one to bear the sword, or to burnish the plated flagon, the precious drinking-cup; the noble warriors have departed to another place. Now will the hard helmet, bedight with gold, be deprived of its adornments; they sleep who should burnish the battle-masks. The armour too, which stood the stroke of swords in battle, mid the crash of shields, perishes as does the fighter; nor may the ringed mail fare far and wide with the warrior, side by side with mighty men. There is no joy of harp, no pastime with the gladdening lute; no good hawk sweeps through the hall, nor does the swift steed paw the courtyard. Baleful death has banished hence many of the human race.
–Beowulf, Lay of the Last Survivor, passage starting at l. 2248 (7th cen. CE)(J.R. Clark Hall & C.L. Wrenn transls. 1950)
This is the first literary text in what evolved into the English language. It is less alien when you make the substitution for the Old English letters no longer in use: thorn, þ, and eth, ð–the two different versions of what became the distinctively Anglo-Saxon consonant “th.” In the practice of the time, lines are broken by a caesura, which is reflected here by “//”.
Listen to the quoted passage being read in Old English here.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”