"Heard Gripe Hruson" (the Hard Grip of the Earth): Ecopoetry and the Anglo-Saxon Elegy

Article excerpt

Medieval studies could do more to embrace the growing theoretical field of ecocriticism. Simultaneously, current studies of nature poetry--or "ecopoetry"--have done little to look back to the roots of the language for early expressions of environmental sentiment. This essay seeks to reconcile these deficiencies by examining three Anglo-Saxon elegies from an ecocritical perspective.

In studies of medieval texts, particularly those written in Old English during the Anglo-Saxon period, little effort has been made to explore the natural world beyond its function as setting or symbol. The abundance of historical, religious, and linguistic material in Anglo-Saxon texts has dominated most medieval discourses thus far, and perhaps rightfully so. Nonetheless, the authors of these earliest of English texts lived, wrote, and interacted daily, just as we do today, with a concrete, physical environment, and that fact alone should be argument enough for more rigorous attention to the place of the natural world within these writings. Indeed, the current state of our tenuous relationship with the natural world gives cause for an exploration of our earliest attempts to write about our environment. Moreover, given that the nature-centred characteristics of certain Anglo-Saxon texts have largely been bypassed for other topics, their study is even more timely and crucial, particularly considering the growing importance of environmental criticism, or ecocriticism, as a theoretical field. As Robert Kern, a prominent figure in the ecocritical movement, has recently noted, "Ecocriticism becomes most interesting and useful [...] when it aims to recover the environmental character or orientation of works whose conscious or foregrounded interests lie elsewhere" (11). Though Kern is not writing specifically about medieval literature, his quote here seems to characterize certain Anglo-Saxon texts perfectly: Beowulf is typically read for its place in the heroic tradition and the elusiveness of its manuscript; elegies like "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" are typically read for their use of nostalgic language and demonstration of early poetic forms; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles are typically read for the historic insights they can give to a generally dark period in English history. However, as this essay hopes to show, a close inspection may prove that some such texts' "conscious or foregrounded interests" may lie in closer proximity to elements of the natural world than earlier readings have tended to suggest. To be precise, this essay will illustrate that the field of ecocriticism and its subfield, ecopoetry, are directly applicable to Anglo-Saxon literature. Although our environmental concerns are wholly different from those of the inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England, we nonetheless have an obligation to better understand our environmental heritage. Looking back to the literature of a particular time and place is one excellent way to achieve this.

Any study that aims to argue that the natural environments in Anglo-Saxon literature are more than symbols or rhetorical devices must first contend with the extensive criticism from medieval scholars that insinuates just the opposite. One of the most authoritative figures in this field is E.G. Stanley, whose influential essay "Old English Poetic Diction and the Interpretation of The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Penitent's Prayer" helped to establish the trend in medieval studies of examining the environment as rhetorical device. Particularly noteworthy is his statement that "it is not the flower that gives the thought; with the Old English poets it is the thought that gives the flower" (246). Stanley goes on to insist that repeated natural elements in poems like "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer," such as the ubiquitous cold, snow, ice, and wolves that populate these texts, are not reflective of anything in the environment itself, but are instead poetic devices used by authors writing didactic poetry with overtly religious themes. …