Old English Wisdom: The Exeter Book Maxims

One of the more unusual genres of poetry you encounter when studying Old English (and Old Norse) is so-called wisdom poetry. Carolyne Larrington characterises a wisdom poem as one ‘which exists primarily to impart a body of information about the condition of the world’, usually paired with advice, and notes that it is among one of the oldest genres of literature among any number of the world’s languages (A Store of Common Sense, p.1). Studying Old English wisdom poetry can be a strange experience for modern readers because it is so unlike the sort of literature we are used to, stitching together series of aphorisms in the sort of alliterative metre that we might normally expect to see rendering the personal emotion of the Exeter Book lyrics or the excitement of heroic epic. The poetry does, however, communicate its wisdom via beautifully wrought imagery, the visual intensity of the descriptions underscoring the pithy (sometimes banal) counsel on offer.

The Exeter Book Maxims (also known as Maxims I) is the title of one such wisdom poem, and is found in the tenth-century Exeter Book, which is one of our main sources of Old English poetry. The poem is split into three different sections (A, B and C), with each part being distinctive in terms of both content and style. Part A begins byinviting the listener to question them and exchange their own wisdom, before going on to provide short vignettes – the blind man, the warrior – interspersed with terser, isolated sayings. Part B opens with a striking account of the changing of the seasons, and is most famous for its brief depictions of different early medieval women, but especially that of the patient Frisian wife awaiting her husband’s return from abroad. The final section begins and ends with a flurry of brief, universalising precepts, but largely centres around the image of the lonely outcast.

Below is my full translation. You can find the Old English original text here.

The Exeter Book Maxims

A

Why don’t you ask me about these old sayings

—just don’t keep a hidden heart, or conceal what you know most deeply,

because I won’t utter my secrets if you veil clever intentions,

your mind’s unseen workings.

                                            Wise folk exchange their stories.

First, though: toast god the father,

since he made us at the start, our lives and short-lived longings,

those rewards he’d want to remind us of.

The maker must be in glory while we’re on earth,

the youth growing old.

                                    God is always with us

— events don’t knock him, nor does care afflict

the almighty with illness and old age;

he doesn’t fade in spirit, he is as he’s always been:

our lord long-suffering, who lends us understanding,

diverse feeling, and myriad different tongues.

The measurer raised roomy lands for people,

broad islands embracing soulful beings,

with as many folk as there are fashions.

Wise with the wise must always assemble,

those alike in spirit setting matters aright,

teaching peace after others transgress.

Wise counsel should be with the clever,

and virtue too: good attends the good.

Two must make a match together,

one with the other bearing life into the world.

A tree should stand upright in the earth,

letting fall leaves as the branches lament.

The eager must roam about, doomed to die,

each day contending against their parting

from this middle-earth.

                                    The measurer alone knows

about death’s coming, who’ll depart their comrades.

Humankind prospers though plague snatches life,

in this way do folk thrive in the folds,

but there’d be little limit to people on earth

if the maker didn’t diminish them.

Sudden death takes the fool who doesn’t know his lord.

Wise men shield their souls, keep their truth with principle.

The favoured flourish in their homeland, while wretches betray friends.

At times need must bind one whose own nest dwindles.

A baleless heart is cheerful.

                                         The blind must do without eyesight,

robbed of bright image — they cannot gaze at the stars above,

nor the sky-lit sun and moon. It’s a sorrow to them,

an unease when they alone know it won’t return.

The ruler wrought this torment, but he also gives respite,

and if he sees a clean heart, makes the head-stars whole again.

An ailing man needs a doctor; a teacher must tutor the young,

tempering their spirit and urging them to know good,

until they’re led to understanding—with fine clothes, and a full belly.

Don’t dismiss those young in years before they bare their souls,

and so gain acceptance among their people,

thinking for themselves.

One must steer a steadfast mind; the sea brings storms

in harsh seasons; they begin to hasten far inland,

grey and fierce with the wind as company,

to see if the cragged cliffs will hold out.

But the sea stays quiet when the wind doesn’t wake it,

each nation is in concord when they come together,

gathering to sit in shelter; and when they stay true to their friends,

those brave of intention are strongest in nature.

The king is eager for authority, hates anyone itching for land,

but is fond of those who offer him more.

Glory is with pride, pluck, a warlike temper,

both make battle together when the time comes.

An earl sits astride his horse, his thanes attending,

the troop standing fast.

                                    It suits a woman to be at the mead-bench

—men reprove one who wanders with slurs,

they complain bitterly while her beauty fades.

The shamed man moves in shadow, the good shines brightly.

The head guides the hand, the hoard expects its gold,

the king’s throne waits ready when warriors deal it out.

A greedy one is caught by gold — they should be content on their high seat;

there must be reward, if we remain true, for those who show mercy.

B

The cold always freezes, flames consume kindling,

earth’s abundance is bridged by ice,

water bears its glassy crown, the buds in the ground

locked awfully away; one alone binds

and unfetters the frost — most fearsome God;

winter is cast out after the warm breeze,

summer sun’s heat, unstills the seas.

Holly must burn brightly, the fallen man’s things divided,

the deep paths of the dead are secret longest.

Fame and good favour are best.

A king must treat his queen with gifts,

adorned goblets and gold rings,

but both must be unstinting in charity.

While war and violence thrive in an earl,

a woman flourishes well-liked among her people,

she is high-spirited, holds tightly to secrets,

keeps a generous heart, with horses and treasures,

offering mead-counsel to every companion;

she greets the guardian of heroes first

gives a flowing cup into the lord’s hand.

Advice should come with a good drink.

Shipboards should be nailed, shields bound fast

with light linden, a warm welcome cherished

by the Frisian wife, when the ocean-goer drops anchor.

The sea-keel is come home with her husband,

her own mainstay who she ushers inside,

scrubs his grubby garments and gives him new ones,

is tender to him on land as love urges.

They uphold their pledges to one another,

though people whisper slander;

many are constant, as many more curious,

keeping lovers when the other is gone afar.

The sailor is long on the whale’s way awaiting their partner,

hoping for one they can’t compel, but when the time comes

he gets home healthy unless the sea snatches him,

stealing marriage’s mirth with cold hands.

A rich man gets himself a royal estate

—and for his folk too—when he sails back home;

he uses wood and water when he’s offered a spot,

buys food if he needs more, before he gets too tired.

He’s sick if he eats too seldom; even if you lead him to sunshine,

good weather alone can’t sustain him, the warmth of summer.

He’s overcome before dying if he doesn’t know what nourishes life.

A man must feed himself well. Murder consigns him to the earth,

deep down under ground by one wishing to hide it;

it’s a luckless death that’s kept secret.

The humble bow low, the subservient fall,

The righteous grow strong. Good counsel is best,

evil most hurtful, hasping the wretched tightly.

Good prevails, is with God always.

The mind should be mastered, the hand wielded,

light should be in the eye and wisdom in the breast,

where keen thoughts reside.

Every mouth needs food, meals must be on time.

Gold is suited to a warrior’s sword,

most fitting for a war-winner’s gear,

but silver looks best on a heroine;

tale-spinners are for the retainers,

spear-hatred compels the people,

they hold peace at home against war.

A shield’s for the hero, a shaft for the reaver,

a ring for the bride and books for the teachers,

the housel for the holy, sins for the heathen.

Woden wrought idols, the almighty, wonder

and wide-open skies. That’s our wilful god,

the one king of truth, saviour of souls,

who forgave us so we might forge on;

again at the end he steers all humankind.

C

Speak wise counsel,

carve runes,

sing songs,

gain glory,

be sound of sense,

and busy by day.

The good need a tamed mare,

tested and true and shod with steel.

None should gain too much.

A man must keep friends on each path he takes

—he often trudges far about town knowing no familiar face.

Lonely men keep a warband of wolves,

damned among deceitful beasts,

who’ll rend and tear given half a chance.

There’s fear for the grey one, graves for the dead;

the silver wolf only bewails its hunger,

it doesn’t wander around yowling,

it doesn’t weep over slaughter-work,

the butchering and murder of men.

And it’ll thirst for more.

A wound should be dressed, wrath reserved for the cruel.

A bow needs its arrow, both need an archer.

Folk should grant gold, one gift for another.

God gives wealth to the blessed, takes it away again.

A hall must stand high as it gains renown.

The felled tree grows the least.

Branches must spread broadly, and belief too,

faith should bud in an upright heart.

God doesn’t care for

the false and the thoughtless,

the poison-hearted doubter.

The almighty shaped all that once happened,

steered those things to come.

Well-wrought words are the making of them,

verse to the scop and wisdom to all;

for every man and woman waiting on this earth,

there are as many thoughts and moods to move us:

each has their own understanding.

Knowing a stash of songs, or how to strum the harp,

means we long that bit less;

we have meter’s gift, which God entrusted us.

He’s wretched who lives alone,

events left him like this,

without keep or comrade.

It’d be best to have a brother,

that they were heirs to an earl,

in case a boar or bear attacked them,

those cruelly clawed creatures.

Warriors must always lead and teach,

sleep together side-by-side,

never be sundered by whispers,

before death divides them.

Our troubles slip away when we sit at the game-table,

forgetting the woe of creation for a moment’s pleasure;

an empty hand placates the gamer when the dice are cast.

Seldom in the broad boat, unless it glides under the sail,

the weary man rows against the wind.

The spineless receive reproach for lack of courage,

their oars stay dry on the deck.

Deceit is with the depraved,

skill for what is proper;

in that way the stone is stolen away.

They often hurl harsh words

before turning their backs.

The prepared are ready for anything, anywhere.

Feuding afflicted humankind after

the earth swallowed Abel’s lifeblood

—such evil didn’t last just a day.

From that strife-wound sprung

a mix of malice and hateful murder

among the far-flung peoples of earth.

Cain, spared death, slew his sweet brother,

it’s known now that eternal evil

plagues mankind like a pestilence.

They endure the tumult of weapons,

their minds set on slashing swords,

and battle-hardened steel.

The battle-shield must be ready,

the arrow’s shaft,

the sword’s edge,

the spear’s point,

the spirit’s mettle,

the helm for the brave,

and always for the craven,

the most meagre hoard.

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