Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Exeter Maxims, the Order of the World, and the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Exeter Maxims, the Order of the World, and the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry

Article excerpt

THE LAST SECTION OF THE TRIPARTITE GNOMIC CATALOG known as Exeter Maxims or Maxims I, begins with a precis of one of its most frequently-studied themes, namely the poem's relationship to oral and textual traditions: (1)

   Raed sceal mon seegan, rune writan,
   leop gesingan, leofes gearnian,
   dom areccan, daeges onettan. (138-40)

[One should speak counsel, write secrets, and sing poems; a dear friend must be earned, good repute should be proclaimed, and one should make use of the day.] (2)

While the distinction between orality and textuality does little to clarify the rune, 'secrets' of Exeter Maxims's inscribed form on fols. 88v-92v of the Exeter Book, the poet's balanced phrasing and head-rhyme formally indicate that the singing of poetry (leop gesingan) brought together people in friendship (leofes gearnian), a unifying theme repeated in Exeter Maxims's three scribal sections. (3) Section B asserts "god scop [gerisep] gumum" [A good poet is fitting for men] and the same verbal construction in scribal section C comments on the social power of poetry to convey wisdom: "Waera gehwylcum wislicu word gerisad, / gleomen gied ond guman snyttro" [Wise words are fitting for all types of men: a song for a minstrel and wisdom for a man]. Section C also characterizes poetry as a gift from God useful for entertaining others: "Longad ponne py laes pe him con leopa worn, / oppe mid hondum con hearpan gretan; / hafap him his gliwes giefe, pe him god sealde" [When one knows a great number of poems or is able to strike a harp with his hands, he will have less longing; he has the gift of musical entertainment, which God granted to him]. (4) All these sentiments reinforce the authoritative voice of personified Wisdom at the beginning of scribal section A of Exeter Maxims: (5)

   Frige mee frodum wordum. Ne laet pinne ferd onhaelne,
   degol paet pu deopost cunne. Nelle ic pe min dyrne gesecgan,
   gif pu me pinne hygecraeft hylest ond pine heortan gepohtas.
   Gleawe men sceolon gieddum (6) wrixlan. (l-4a)

[Question me with wise words. Do not let the secrets of your mind, that which you know most intimately, be hidden. I will not declare my secret knowledge to you if you conceal from me your mind-craft and the thoughts of your heart. Wise men ought to exchange poems / proverbs. (7)]

Significantly, all these passages stress the value of poets and verse composition, reminding us of the material circumstances responsible for Exeter Maxims's preservation in the middle of a substantial anthology of poetic texts of varying lengths and genres. As its manuscript placement reminds us, the tripartite Exeter Maxims is a significantly different poem than its generic cousin, Cotton Maxims, a shorter gnomic catalog preserved between the metrical calendar known as the Menologium and a copy of the prose Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.i. Whereas Exeter Maxims insists on the importance and value of verse for what Emily Thornbury calls a poetic community of "discerning readers and critics" capable of judging poetic quality, (8) Cotton Maxims never refers to poems, poets, or poetic composition. Rather, as Fred C. Robinson demonstrates, its manuscript placement between the Menologium and the Chronicle combines three texts that share a "similar perspective on historical time, each calling attention to the relation between antiquity and the (Anglo-Saxon) present." To some extent, Robinsons claim also holds for Exeter Maxims which is "grouped with Widsith and The Fortunes of Men--two list-poems par excellence" (9) that appear to deal with Germanic antiquity and preconversion rituals and traditions. (10) For all its insights, however, Robinson's study conflates the Cotton and Exeter gnomic poems on generic grounds without acknowledging what follows Exeter Maxims in its most immediate context. (11) As a handful of critics, including Seth Lerer and Rafal Boryslawski, have observed, Exeter Maxims emphasizes the value of verse and precedes a didactic exercise in poetic formalism, namely, The Order of the World, (12) a little-studied poem about poetic creation that is followed by an experimental Rhyming Poem. …

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