Monday, April 18, 2011

Waldere, Fragment 1 (Some Thoughts For The Coming Year From Home On The Frankish Range)

Right hand of Attila, let not your royal strength
droop now, nor your daring -- now that the day has come
when, son of Aelfhere, you shall surely either
give over living or a long doom
have among after-men, one or other.

Never shall my tongue tell to your shame
that I saw my friend at the sword play
with a fainting valour falter before the attack
of any man whatever, or make for the baulk
to save his neck -- though new foes came
and reaching blades rang on his breast.

No, you carried the fight so far into the open
that I dreaded your death.  You drove on too boldly,
crowding the strike, with each step further
out of your ground.  God is with you:
you may enrich your name with less reckless strokes.

A Waldere fragment page

        The two fragments (known as Fragments 1 and 2 or A and B) of the Old English epic poem Waldere were discovered in 1860 by E.C. Werlauff, Librarian in the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen, as  parchment pages that had been reused as stiffening in the binding of an Elizabethan prayer book.  Scholars believe that the Waldere pages, which contain 31 lines of verse, were part of a much larger manuscript (one of at least 1,000 lines) that was dispersed following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541.

        The Waldere fragments probably date to ca. 1000, although the poem itself may have been composed in the 8th century.  Waldere relates a version of the Walter of Aquitaine legend.  Walter, the legendary Visigothic king and son of Aelfhere, was betrothed from childhood to  Hildegyth (sometimes Hiltgunt or Hildeguth), daughter of Heriricus, king of the Burgundians.  Walter and Hildegyth were captured and held hostage by Attila, but then escaped with some of Attila's treasure and pursued. The lines from Fragment 1 included above are thought to be Hildegyth's exhortation to Walter in anticipation of the coming battle.

        Waldere is considered the only evidence that the Anglo-Saxon people had knowledge of the Walter of Aquitaine legend, which remained popular throughout the Middle Ages.  

        I fortuitously read the Waldere fragments yesterday on my Palm Sunday birthday in the Penguin collection, The Earliest English Poems, translated and introduced by Michael Alexander, which had been sitting on my bookshelf, unconsulted, for far too long.

Walter of Aquitaine


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