Deor

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For the character in J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, see Déor.

"Deor" (or "The Lament of Deor") is an Old English poem found in the late 10th century collection[1] the Exeter Book. The poem consists of the lament of the scop Deor, who lends his name to the poem, which was given no formal title; modern scholars do not actually believe Deor to be the author of this poem.

In the poem, Deor's lord has replaced him. Deor mentions various figures from Germanic mythology and reconciles his own troubles with the troubles these figures faced, ending each section with the refrain "that passed away, so may this." The poem Deor begins with the struggles and misfortunes of a character named Weland. The poem consists of 42 alliterative lines.

Genre[edit]

Attempts at placing this poem within a genre have proven to be quite difficult. Some commentators attempting to characterise the work have called it an ubi sunt ("where are they?") poem because of its meditations on transience. It can also be considered a traditional lament and poem of consolation. Christian consolation poems, however, usually attempt to subsume personal miseries in a historical or explicitly metaphysical context (e.g., Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy), and such perspectives are somewhat remote from the tradition of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Medievalist scholars who have viewed the poem within the Anglo-Saxon tradition have therefore seen it primarily as a begging poem—a poem written by a travelling and begging poet who is without a place at a noble court—although because few other begging poems survive, assigning it to such a genre is somewhat speculative. Others have related "Deor" to other melancholy poems in the Exeter Book, such as "The Seafarer" and "The Wanderer".

John Miles Foley has hypothesized that the apparent murkiness of "Deor" is also in no small part attributable to the obscurity of the poet's references. As he puts it, "Cut off from its traditional background, 'Deor' makes little sense".[2] Because the poem is not entirely translatable into modern English—the third and fourth stanzas remain indeterminate to this day, and even the refrain prompts argument and poses linguistic difficulties—without grasping the allusions of the poem, it is quite difficult to understand the poet's implied attitude, and therefore to place it in any genre satisfactorily. Further, given the mass loss of Anglo-Saxon literature, it is possible that constraining the poem to an existing genre is artificial, for the poem may represent yet another, otherwise unattested genre, or it might well stand alone outside of generic rules.

Language[edit]

The language in the poetry is highly nuanced, and it is difficult for any translation into Modern English to capture the tensions present in the highly dense and parsimonious wording. The poem runs through a list of legendary figures, asks what happened to them, and then responds with a refrain of "Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg!" ("that was overcome [with respect to it], this may also be [with respect to it]").

Grammatical difficulties are easily glossed over in most translations: for example, the Anglo-Saxon "þæs" and "þisses" of the refrain are both genitive, not nominative. A more correct and literal translation would read "of that went away, and so may of this"—which is difficult to make sense of in Modern English. Reinserting an elided "it" might render "It (sorrow) went away from that (situation), (and) so it (sorrow) may from this (situation)."

Deor becomes known as a unique poem because the poet decides to add himself into the narration. This poet decides to reflect on others from the past that have struggled with a situation similar to his. The poet uses historical events and stories to somewhat put at ease any misfortunes in the mind of the audience while at the same time trying to prepare them for the worst, and let them know that they need to be ready to suffer, ready to be mistreated.

Story[edit]

The poem Deor is a lament by its namesake about his exile from his life of luxury, respect, and popularity. He compares his current predicament to the predicaments of figures from Anglo-Saxon folklore. Among the miseries and dismal fates that Deor runs through are those of Theodoric the Great, Ermanaric of the Goths, the mythological smith Wayland, and Wayland's victim Beadohilde (the daughter of Wayland's captor; he raped her and she finds herself with child). Each suffered an undeserved fate, and in each case "that passed away with respect to it, and so may this." But this refrain can point at two very different statements: first, that remedy came about, one way or another, in each situation, or, alternatively, that the continuous flow of time (a favourite Anglo-Saxon topic) erases all pain (though not necessarily healing all wounds).

Only in the last stanza do we learn what "this" references: the poet's own sorrow at having lost his position of privilege. At the poem's conclusion, Deor reveals that he was once a great poet among the Heodenings, until he was displaced and sent wandering by Heorrenda, a more skillful poet. According to Norse mythology, the Heodenings (Hjaðningar) were involved in the never-ending "battle of the Heodenings", the Hjaðningavíg.[3] Heorrenda (Hjarrandi) was one of the names of the god Odin.

Translation[edit]

Weland, the strong man, had experience of persecution; he suffered a lot. Sorrow and longing were his companions, along with exile in the cold winter; he experience misfortunes after Nithad laid constraints upon him, supple bonds of sinew on a better man.

That went away, this also may.

In Beadchild's mind her brothers' death was not as grieving as her own situation, when she realized she was pregnant; she couldn't fathom the outcome.

That went away, this also may.

Many of us have heard that the Geat's love for Maethild passed all bounds, that his love robbed him of his sleep.

That went away, this also may.

For thirty years, Theodric ruled the stronghold of the Maerings; which has become common knowledge.

That went away, this also may.

We have learned of Eormanric's ferocious disposition; a cruel man, he held dominion in the kingdom of the Goths. Many men sat, full of sorrow, anticipating trouble and constantly praying for the fall of his country.

That went away, this also may.

If a man sits in despair, deprived of joy, with gloomy thoughts in his heart; it seems to him that there is no end to his suffering. Then he should remember that the wise Lord follows different courses throughout the earth; to many he grants glory, certainty, yet, misery to some. I will say this about myself, once I was a minstrel of the Heodeningas, my Lord's favorite. My name was Deor. For many years I had an excellent office and a gracious Lord, until now Heorrenda, a skillful man, has inherited the land once given to me by the protector of warriors.

That went away, this also may.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Fell, Christine (2007). "Perceptions of Transience". In Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. pp. 172–89. ISBN 978-0-521-37794-2. 
  2. ^ Foley, John Miles. Homer's Traditional Art. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1999.
  3. ^ Malone, Kemp. "An Anglo-Latin Version of the Hjadningavig". Speculum, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan. 1964), pp. 35–44.

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