Home  »  The Cambridge History of English and American Literature  »  § 12. The Riming Poem, Proverbs, The Runic Poem, Salomon and Saturn

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

IV. Old English Christian Poetry

§ 12. The Riming Poem, Proverbs, The Runic Poem, Salomon and Saturn

The Riming Poem is a solitary instance of the occurrence in English poetry of the consistent use of end-rime and alliteration in one and the same poem. The theme “sorrow’s crown of sorrows is remembering happier things” recalls the epilogue to Elene, but the resemblance is not sufficiently striking to justify the attribution of the poem to Cynewulf. The metrical form is an accurate imitation of the Hoefudlausn of Egill Skallagrìmsson, which was composed in Northumberland at the court of Aethelstan.

It is generally thought that gnomic or didactic poetry, which seems to have been very popular during the Old English period, had its origin in the religious exercises of heathen times. Certainly it is well represented in the mythological poems of the Edda, whether we take the proverb form, as in the first part of Hàvamàl, or the form of question and answer, as in Vafprù[char]nismàl and other poems. Old English proverbs are, however, almost entirely deprived of heathen colouring. One collection, amounting altogether to 206 lines in three sections, is preserved in the Exeter Book, and another, containing 66 lines, serves as a preface to one of the texts of the Chronicle. The proverbs in the two collections are of much the same kind, giving, in each case, the chief characteristic of the thing mentioned, e.g. “frost shall freeze,” or “a king shall have government.” Generally, however, they run into two or more lines, beginning and ending in the middle, so that the whole collection has the form of a connected poem. In this class of literature we may, perhaps, also include A Father’s Instruction, a poem consisting of ten moral admonitions (94 lines in all) addressed by a father to his son somewhat after the nature of the Proverbs of Solomon. In form, it may be compared with Sigrdrìfumàl and the last part of Hàvamàl, but the matter is very largely Christian. Mention must also be made of The Runic Poem, which, likewise, has Scandinavian parallels. Each of the letters of the runic alphabet had its own name, which was also the word for some animal, plant or other article, e.g. riches, buffalo, thorn; and it is the properties of these which the poem describes, allotting three or four lines to each. The other form of didactic poetry, the dialogue, is represented in Old English in the poem known as Salomon and Saturn. This alliterative poem is preserved in two MSS. in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. King Solomon, as the representative of Jewish wisdom, is represented as measuring forces with Saturn, a docile learner and mild disputant. The Old English dialogue has its counterpart in more than one literature, but, in other countries, Marcolf, who takes the place of Saturn, gets the best of the game, and saucy wit confounds the teacher.