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III. Early National Poetry

§ 7. Deor

The elegy of Deor is a much shorter poem than Widsith (42 lines in all) and in its general tone presents a striking contrast to it. While Widsith tells of the glory of famous heroes and, incidentally, of the minstrel’s own success, Deor is taken up with stories of misfortune, which are brought forward in illustration of the poet’s troubles. The strophic form is preserved throughout and, except in the last fifteen lines, which seem to have been somewhat remodelled, each strophe ends with a refrain (a phenomenon for which it would be difficult to find a parallel in Old English poetry): “That (trouble) was got over (or brought to an end); so can this be.”

Originally, perhaps, every strophe referred to a different story of trouble. Thus, strophe 1 deals with the misfortunes suffered by Weland at the hands of Nithhad and strophe 2 with the wrongs done by Weland to Beaduhild. For both these we may refer to the Old Norse poem Völundarkvi[char];a. In strophe 3 we hear of the passionate love of Great, presumably the mythical person from whom the English kings traced their descent. Strophe 4 speaks of the thirty years’ exile of a certain Theodric, probably the same Theodric who, in Waldhere, is associatedwith Widia (Wudga). In German tradition, from the Hildebrandslied onwards, as well as by most modern writers, he is identified with Theodric, king of the Ostrogoths (Dietrich von Bern). Strophe 5 deals with the cruelty of Eormenric and the suffering of his people. What follows is not so clear, and 11. 31–34 are the work of a Christian. The closing lines, however, are very remarkable. The poet states that he had been the bard of the Heodeningas, and that he had been displaced from his office by a skilful minstrel called Heorrenda. Now, the name Heodeningas must mean either the descendants of Heoden on, like the Old Norse Hiaõningar, Heoden (He[char]inn) himself and his people. The story of He[char]inn’s flight with Hildr, the daughter of Högni, was well known in the North and, apparently, also in England, if we may judge from Widsith, 1. 21. Again, Heorrenda is identical with Hiarrandi, the name of He[char]inn’s father in the Norse accounts; in the Austrian poem Kudrun, however, which seems to contain the same story in a corrupt form, Horand is a near relative of Hetel (He[char]inn) and also a famous minstrel. Hagena (Högni), according to Widsith, was king of the Holmryge, a people probably in eastern Pomerania, and Heoden also may have belonged to the same region. When these persons lived we do not know; but such evidence as we have points to a period anterior to the sixth century. There is nothing in the story to justify the supposition that they are of mythical origin.

Here again, as in the case of Widsith, it is possible that a poem has been built round the memory of a famous minstrel, —one who met with misfortune in later life. Yet we have no knowledge of such a person from other sources, while the statement given in the poem itself as to its origin is quite definite. If this statement is true, the poem must, of course, be very ancient. But there seems to be no valid reason for disputing its antiquity; for the four lines which show Christian influence may very well be a later addition, while the supposed identity of the exiled Theodric with Theodric the Ostrogoth must be regarded as a somewhat doubtful hypothesis at the best.

The rest of the shorter poems contain no proper names. Their subjects seem to be drawn rather from typical characters and situations than from the experiences of historical or legendary persons. They are of quite uncertain date, though, doubtless, much later than the two poems we have just discussed. They betray little or no trace of strophic form.