Homework Prompt: Old English Elegies

Old English linguistics and Old English literature each pose certain pedagogical problems, particularly in the HEL course, in which students must read the literature in translation. These two homework prompts, however, prepare students for rigorous class discussions that meaningfully connect literary and linguistic issues.
The first prompt requires that students attend to the language of two OE elegies. At this point, students have learned about OE pronunciation, and now they read and listen to “The Wife’s Lament” while observing the poem’s diction. Students then compare the poem’s diction to that of “The Seafarer.” By asking students to track the occurrence of one specific word as it appears multiple times in both poems, the prompt provides students with a manageable but meaningful close-reading assignment that illustrates the aspects of OE poetry that will fuel class discussion. Only after undertaking this comparison do students read translations of the poem (a hierarchy that stresses to students the priority of close-reading). A secondary work provides students with background on OE poetic diction, and they apply this background in their response papers.

Prompt # 1 — OE Poetic Diction:

-Review the guide for OE pronunciation (Brinton & Arnovick 
-Read the OE text of “The Wife’s Lament” as you listen to the 
recording of the poem.
-Read the poem aloud and circle all instances of the word “ceare” 
(as this word appears by itself or within compounds). Also, 
note any other repetitions.
-Read the OE text of "The Seafarer.” Circle all instances of the 
word “ceare,” and note any other repetitions.
-Look up “ceare” in the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, and 
look up all of the words with which “ceare” is compounded. See also 
the Wiktionary.
-Look for the use of similar diction in the two poems (particularly 
in the opening lines, but elsewhere as well, e.g. uses of the word 
-Now, read both poems in the ModE translation.
-Read Lester, “Old English Poetic Diction.”Write a short response 
paper to one of the poems (1-2 pg). Describe the effects created in 
the poem by stock features of OE poetic diction. Select and analyze 
specific details from the OE text, and, as necessary, use the data 
you have gathered from the dictionary as well as points borrowed 
from Lester.
This assignment prepares students for a class session in which students discuss how the poems each employ a stock set of poetic words to very different ends. Students share their findings, and the lesson leads students through a thematic comparison of the two poems grounded in close-reading. Discussion questions consider how the elegies manage to create distinct voices while employing stock terms. The lesson concludes with a tutorial on the poems’ metrical and alliterative qualities, in preparation for the next session.
The prompt for the next assignment builds on previous lessons while further developing student’s facility with close-reading. Students read another elegy as well as a secondary work on OE verse structure, and students also analyze and memorize one of several curated passages. Students transcribe their passage into the International Phonetic Alphabet (learned earlier in the course), they research several words for their passage, and they use their knowledge of OE meter to scan the lines. This work enables students to memorize and recite their passage in class. The act of memorization serves multiple functions: it allows students to relate to the material somatically; it reinforces the principles of OE pronunciation and meter; and it prepares students to contribute to class discussion by making them an expert on a particular passage.

Prompt # 2 — Old English Prosody:

-Read “The Wanderer” (aloud) and Lester, “OE Verse: Structure and
-Re-read “Wife’s Lament” and “Seafarer” (aloud)
-Memorize one of these selected passages: “Wife’s Lament” ll. 
42-49; “Wife’s Lament” 27-34; “Wanderer” ll. 11-18; “Seafarer” 8-15.
-Prepare a phonetic transcription of your passage using the IPA.
-Try to locate the “lifts” in each half-line (NB: each half-line
should contain two lifts; ordinarily, three of these four lifts 
will alliterate; see Lester, 30-33). Note the lifts on your 
-Look up five of the words in your passage in the BTD.
-Note any uses of apposition in your passage
-Write an analysis of your passage’s structure (1-2 pgs). Think
about the structure of each line as well as the structure of the
passage as a whole. (Perhaps consider how themes of binding or
burying or concealment relate to the alliterative structure.) Cite
Lester as necessary.
-Come to class ready to recite your passage from memory.
This assignment prepares students for a class session in which students consider the poetic structure of the OE elegies. Students recite their passages and share their insights, and, guided by the instructor’s questions, they note similarities between poems in terms of diction and theme. Discussion questions recapitulate the previous session by attending to the use of stock poetic words, and students also investigate narratological similarities between poems.