This semester I tried something new. For the past several years, I have taught “Reading the Middle Ages: the Heroic and the Chivalric” at Brock University’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. In past classes, the assignments have consisted of a midterm test, a term paper, and a final exam. (While this is a literature-focused class, it’s not an English class per se; similarly, it’s a course that attracts students from many disciplines, so there’s a wide range of skills, interests, and time commitments.) I wanted to offer them more chances to write, especially early in the semester, and to get more feedback going into the term paper, so I opted for a short assignment on the Old English elegies due just before our reading week break at the end of Week 6 (mid-February).
In class, we had studied the usual Big Three of the Old English elegies—The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Ruin—so I uploaded the six other elegies (Deor, The Husband’s Message, The Wife’s Lament, The Riming Poem, Resignation, and Wulf and Eadwacer) to our course website and asked the students to offer a response to one or two of these elegies. Responses could take the form of a more-traditional, literature-course approach, offering a critical, close reading. Others might investigate a historical aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture raised in the elegies, such as the scops’ use of harps: I imagined the possibility of a student, probably a History major (I have lots of these), investigating the design of Germanic harps. A third approach could be a transhistorical or cross-cultural analysis. (Indeed, one student produced a very interesting comparison of The Wife’s Lament and “Where I Live” by Woodkid.) All these options would take the form of a three- or four-page short essay.
But then I tried something even more radical (for me), too.
Inspired by several colleagues’ successes in various courses at their schools, I gave students the option to pursue a creative response to the Anglo-Saxon elegies. In this case, respondents were welcome to select their medium of choice (language, paint, pencil, video, RPG, song, stone, etc.). Creative responses had to be accompanied by a written component (minimum 1.5 pages) detailing the relationship of the artistic work to the elegy.
I thought perhaps a couple of students would be intrigued by this possibility, and some might even (erringly) see it as easy marks. I wasn’t really expecting to get 10 submissions—one quarter of the class enrollment—and the many different and fascinating ways that these students engaged with the poems.
I got a short story about the Husband (of ~ Message fame) and the contest he holds among his thegns to find the largest piece of driftwood on which to carve the runes he sends over the waves. Another student wrote an alliterating elegy of their own, The Lord’s Woe, which responds to and occasionally inverts, many of the poetic devices found in The Wife’s Lament. This clever piece includes some great, and very Anglo-Saxon, turns of phrase, including “Tis true that twilight turns triumph to tragedy” and the coined kenning “the violent swan mountains”.
The majority of the artistic responses were visual but these took many forms indeed. Illustrating the stages of the lamenting lord’s life in The Rhyming Poem, Murray Wilcox presented a miniature illumination bringing together many examples of Germanic symbolism.
© Murray Wilcox
Several students created responses to the scop’s song Deor, each capturing the message of the refrain, Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg (That passed over, so may this), in a different medium.
Owen Barton fashioned a clay ring with the translated inscription This Shall Pass and placed it in a small wooden gift box; this creation represented a final gift to the one-time scop from the lord of the Heodenings.
© Owen Barton
Briana Bullett made a Deor sun-catcher out of stained glass. As she writes, the hourglass, like the skull and the rose, represents the transience of this world, but an hourglass can be flipped over and so a new cycle can begin anew. The choice of a sun-catcher was likewise part of her reading of the poem and response, for the passage of the sun also marks the passage of time that Deor comments on in the elegy.
© Briana Bullett
Kalina Oullette also explored cycles and transience in her Deor-inspired drawing. She incorporates the symbol of the ouroboros to form the border of a clock-like circle; placing the Wyrd rune at the centre of her circle, she extended six rays from it to divide her ‘clock’ into portions representing each of the six stanzas of Deor.
© Kalina Oullette
Claire Dafoe crafted a painting in pieces to reflect the “friendless exile” of The Wife’s Lament. For example, the juxtaposition of regular and jagged edges contrast the separation between the man-made world from which the Wife has been outcast and the wild forest she now inhabits. Similarly, the Wife, now a shadow of her former self, is set among the landscape of her exile but is not of it.
© Claire Dafoe
Sydney Engel tackled the long-standing question of whether Resignation A and Resignation B form one poem in two parts or are two separate poems in a novel fashion: through cookies. She read both pieces and subsequently created a set of cookies responding to each (part of the?) poem; she then interpreted her cookie-based response as a means of inquiring how the two poetic pieces relate. The conclusion of her analysis of these cookie-based datasets was that, whether or not we are dealing with a poem in two parts or two separate poems (and we cannot know, due to the missing folios), “it is at least clear that there are two distinct speakers in Resignation.” (I would be a bad medievalist if I didn’t doff my cap to her title: “A Batch Made in Heaven.”)
© Syndey Engel
Raneem Blaibel focused on the theme of darkness in Wulf and Eadwacer. She used charcoal, which, she writes, allowed her to best capture the gloomy and sombre tone of the elegy. The line that Raneem inscribes at the bottom of her piece drew her attention to the pathetic fallacy that becomes a centrepoint of her artwork, whereby she aims to capture the “mourning mind” of the speaker.
© Raneem Blaibel
These creative pieces were not the only wonders that crossed my desk this February by any means. There were many excellent essays on the elegies too, including Wulf and Eadwacer as a reflection on poisoned love between just two individuals; The Husband’s Message as a “counter-elegy”; and the transformative effect of hope in Deor. What stands out most for me about the creative responses—besides the obvious beauty of the works and the inspiration they exemplify and offer—is the lesson they provide about how there are many ways to think about, and through, these complex and rewarding poems. As an instructor, this was a very productive and rewarding assignment, and I hope to have to the opportunity to do it (and similar projects) again.