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“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: A student summary of Beowulf from 1880

At the end of the nineteenth century, Dutch schoolmaster G. J. P. J. Bolland studied older Germanic languages with a particular interest in Old English. He studied under Eduard Sievers in Jena, Germany, and spend close to a year in England, where he interacted with prominent scholars of Old English, such as Richard Morris and Henry Sweet. On the basis of his studies, Bolland tried to write a chronological survey of English literature for the use in Dutch class rooms. While the work would never be published, his hand-written drafts are of interest, since they may contain one of the earliest student summaries of Beowulf…

Bolland and Beowulf: Inglorious youths

When Beowulf returns home to Geatland and is rewarded for his deeds in Denmark, the Anglo-Saxon poet remarks the following about his hero’s inglorious youth:

                                         Hean wæs lange,
swa hyne Geata bearn      godne ne tealdon,
ne hyne on medo-bence        micles wyrðne
dryhten Wedera         gedon wolde;
swyðe wendon       þæt he sleac wære,
æðeling unfrom.

[For a long time he (Beowulf) had been lowly, as the sons of the Geats had not thought him good, nor had the lord of the Weders cared to put him in possession of much on the mead-bench; they had rather thought that he was shiftless, a slack lordling.] (Beowulf, ll. 2183b-2188a, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)

The younger years of G. J. P. J. Bolland (9 June, 1854 – 11 February, 1922) were equally devoid of promise. Born to a family of peddlers in Groningen, Bolland lost his father at a young age, which forced his mother to make a living as a prostitute. As a boy of 14 or 15 years old and having enjoyed little education, he joined the army in 1868. Bolland proved to be a problematic recruit: he was convicted for cursing and foul language on several occasions, as well as for singing illicit songs. In May 1872, he spent half a month in jail, because he had sold his underpants and lied about this to his commanding officer. In January the next year, he physically assaulted a high-ranking sergeant and was convicted for insubordination: the Groningen-born Bolland would spend the next three years in a Leiden jail-house.

His jail-time in Leiden proved to be a turn-around in Bolland’s life: he began reading books and, following his release from prison, studied hard to become a teacher. As a schoolmaster, first in Groningen, then in Katwijk, Bolland became interested in the study of older languages (Gothic, Old English, Old High German) – his Katwijk students called him ‘Meester Sanskretans’, because he would occassionally teach them about Sanskrit!

Bolland got acquainted with P. J. Cosijn (1840-1899), Professor of Germanic philology at Leiden University and a specialist in the field of Old English. Under Cosijn’s guidance (as well as his financial support), Bolland continued his studies of Old English. He spent close to a year in London and a brief period in Jena, Germany, developing his expertise. Bolland showed great promise as a Germanic philologist, but a series of events led to his departure for Batavia, where he became a teacher once more. Upon his return to The Netherlands in 1896, Bolland was made a professor of Philosophy at Leiden University and he would never return to the study of Old Germanic languages. For the next twenty-five years, Bolland would be one of Holland’s most prominent and influential philosophers (the standard biography of Bolland is Otterspeer 1995). Quite a reversal of fortunes! Or, in the words of the Beowulf poet:

                                        Edwenden cwom
tir-eadigum menn         torna gehwylces

[A reversal of fortune for all his troubles came to the man blessed with glory.] (Beowulf, ll. 2188b-2189, ed. and trans. Fulk 2010)

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Bolland as young schoolmaster in Katwijk, the Netherlands; Bolland as student in Jena, Germany; Bolland as professor of Philosophy at Leiden University (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

Bolland and Moritz Heyne’s Beovulf 

Despite being an autodidact student and the absence of Dutch translations of Beowulf (the first one appeared in 1896), Bolland was a serious and highly critical reader of the Old English poem. He owned several editions of Beowulf, which included those by Alfred Holder (1882-1884) and Benjamin Thorpe (2nd edn., 1875); of the latter he wrote to Cosijn “I will show you that I have every reason to despise Thorpe’s horrible edition of Beowulf“, pointing out several of misprints in the Old English text. Bolland’s Beowulf edition of choice appears to have been the one by Moritz Heyne, Beovulf: Angelsächsisches Heldengedicht (3d imprint, 1873), which according to Niles (2015) “was long admired as the most authoritative edition of Beowulf” (p. 245).

Bolland’s own copy was donated to the University Library of Leiden and features ample hand-written notes in Bolland’s hand (see image below). These notes reveal that Bolland added Dutch glosses to many of the words, grammatical analyses (providing case and number for nouns, etc.) as well as interpretations (noting, for instance, that “se fróda fäder Óhteres” [Beowulf, l. 2929] referred to Ongentheow). He was also able to add five corrigenda to Moritz’s list of “bemerkte Druckfehler im Texte” [noticed printing-errors in the text], probably on the basis of other editions. A thoughtful and diligent reader, indeed!

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Annotations by G. J. P. J. Bolland in Heyne’s edition of Beowulf (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

“A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry”: Beowulf in Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’

Upon returning from his studies in London in 1880, Bolland wrote to a friend about the possibilities of publishing “A short Chronological List of English Literature, with analyses and explanatory notes, being intended as a help for the memory of all who teach or study English literature”. Regrettably for Bolland, this late nineteenth-century version of SparkNotes was never published. Two hand-written drafts related to this work have survived, however, and are currently held at Leiden University Library.

The first draft is found in a little student notebook with the title ‘Early English Literature’. In this notebook, two essays, on Old English Literature and Transitional English [Middle English], precede a brief survey entitled “Landmarks for a chronological survey of Literature in North-America”; lists of English expressions and proverbs; and a chronological overview of Arthurian literature. The essay on Old English features a brief analysis of Beowulf:

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Pages 2-3 from G. J. P. J. Bolland’s ‘Early English Literature’ (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

A conspicuous specimen of Anglosaxon poetry is the epic poem of Beowulf, which consists of far more than three thousand lines. It is the oldest extant epic in any Germanic language and strongly tastes of ancient heathenism, in spite of a few traces of Christianity, which may be later interpolations. Its hero sails from a land of the Goths to a land of the Danes, where he frees a chief of the names of Hrôthgar from the attacks of the marshfiends Grendel and his mother, two monsters lurking in neighbouring fens and moors. In course of time Beowulf comes to be a ruler himself, and in this capacity is deadly wounded at last in a struggle with a fire-spitting dragon that had infested the environs of his residence. He is buried in great statue under a great barrow on a promontory which rises high above the sea.

This fine, brief summary of Beowulf, is followed by an evaluation of the historical value of the poem, which lies in its depiction of “actual life of ancient Germanic leaders”:

Real events have been transformed into legendary marvels in this story of old Teutonic exploits, but the actual life of ancient Germanic leaders is vividly painted. We read of feasts in the mead-hall, of the leader and his hearth-sharers, of their customs and manners, and of rude beginnings of a courtly ceremony. There is much boastful talk and reliance upon strength of hand in the poem, and a practical spirit of adventure that seeks peril as a commercial speculation. For the hero is undisguisedly a tradesman in his sword.

Following Daniel Haigh (1819-1879) (for which, see Shippey & Haarder 1998, pp. 315-317), Bolland then situates the scenery of Beowulf in Yorkshire:

The original scene of the story was probable a corner of the isle of Saeland opposite to Gothland, but though England is never mentioned it seems that the scenery for its existing English shape as taken from the coast of Yorkshire, between Whitby and Bowlby Cliff.

Next, Bolland rounds up his analysis with a few words about the Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv):

The manuscript in which the poem has been preserved belongs to the Cottonian library in the British Museum and is held to have been written in the tenth century. It has been much damaged in course of time and shows many gaps; especially the 32d, the 33d, and the 44th or last canto have come down to us in a fragmentary state.

Bolland, obviously, had nothing new to add to the scholarship of Beowulf, but it is interesting to see that he gave the poem such a prominent place in his survey – the analysis of Beowulf precedes his discussion of Caedmon, for instance.

Bolland’s summary of Beowulf in A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880)

Bolland’s hand-written version of A short Chronological List of English Literature (1880) expands over 400 pages and features a chronological list of landmark publications, interspersed with summaries of well-known works, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spencer’s Faerie Queene and Thomas More’s Utopia. For the Anglo-Saxon period, Bolland dwells at length on Beowulf, providing a 5-page summary. I provide his full text below (with added white lines for legibility):

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Pages 10-11 of G. J. P. J. Bolland’s A short chronological list of English literature (Bolland Archive, UB Leiden)

Hrôdhgâr, a Danish King and descendant of Scild Scefing, the mighty warrior, causes a grand hall to be built, to which he gives the name of Heorot. This hall is soon made a scene of slaugter by the mighty attacks of Grendel, a fiendish being, that lives in gloomy marshes and carries off at one time no less than thirty thanes, whom he devours in his retreat. These dreadful visitations continue for a period of twelve years. Intelligence of this calamity having reached Bêowulf, the valiant son of Ecgthêow and a nephew to Hygelâc the King of the Geats, he sets out to rid the Danes of the monster. In company with fifteen other warriors he sails from home. When reaching Hrôdhgâr’s realm he is desired by an outpost standing on the extreme point of the land to give his name and tell the reason of his coming. After a parley Bêowulf and his companions are brought before Hrôdhgâr, who recapitulates all that he has suffered from Grendel; all then sit down to drink. During their potations Hunferth, a quarrelsome and envious courtier, taunts Bêowulf on the subject of a swimming match between the latter and Breca, prince of the Brontings. Bêowulf however retorts effectually and related the perils he underwent at the bottom of the sea in his struggles with the nickers. Wealhthêow, Hrôdhgâr’s queen, then stepping in, presents the mead-cup to the guests; after a while she and her consort retire to rest, leaving Bêowulf & his companions in the hall.

Whilst the other warriors are snoring Bêowulf awaits the coming of Grendel. At last the latter suddenly appears and gets hold of a sleeping warrior whom he devours. He then is caught by Bêowulf, whose companions run to his assistance; but they find that the monster’s carcass is proof against their weapons. Bêowulf, however, grasps him & tears his arm from his shoulder; so mutilated Grendel succedes in escaping to his fen-dwelling. All the people are eager to behold Grendel’s hand & arm; the praises of Bêowulf are sung and one of the King’s thanes recites the heroic deeds of Sigemund Waelsing & Fitela his son & nephew. After this a horse race is held. Heorot is restored to its former splendour and at a great feast Bêowulf & his companions are munificently rewarded for their services. A glee-man having sung some heroic deeds Bêowulf is presented with a rich dress & golden collar.

When the warriors have betaken themselves to sleep Grendel’s mother, bent on vengeance for her dead son, enters the hall; the warriors rousing themselves she hastens back, not however without taking with her Aeschere, an old friend of Hrôdghâr’s. When hearing of this new disaster Beowulf courageously resolves to attack the monsters in their own retreat, and accompanied by Hrôdhgâr he sets out on an exploring expedition towards the marshes. On their way they find Aesc-here’s head lying on the bank of a lake. Notwithstanding its horrid aspect and the monstrous beings it contains, Bêowulf makes up his mind for a descent, armed as he is with a famous sword named Hrunting, lent him by Hunferth. Having plunged into the water he encounters Grendel’s mother, and an awful struggle ensues. After an anxious suspense Hrodhgâr sees the brave Gêat reappear a victor, with Grendel’s head for a trophy, which is borne before Bêowulf in triumph. Bêowulf presents Hrôdhgâr with the hilt of a magic sword found by him in the sub-marine cave; the blade of this goodly weapon melted away when he slew the witch, through the heat and venom of her blood. The monsters now being destroyed once for all, the Danish King & Beowulf take leave of each other. Richly endowed with presents Bêowulf and his warriors return home. They find a welcome reception, and Bêowulf relates his story to Hygelâc, his kinsman.

By a series of subsequent events Bêowulf becomes the successor on the throne of the Gêats; in the latter part of his reign a dragon begins to sorely invest the neighbourhood of the residence. This monster is the keeper of a treasure hid in a mound and laid down there by some prince in by-gone days. He has been enraged by the theft committed by a subject of Bêo-wulf’s, who, having to meet the demands of his master, has ventured in his despair to invade the spell-bound cave. The dragon begins to vomit forth glowing embers and devastates the whole neighborhood. If the dreadful foe is not to lay waste every particle of land the old king must make an effort to overcome him. Bêowulf accordingly prepares for the conflict. In the ensuing struggle the old hero is reduced to great straits; valiantly the noble Wiglaf, his kinsman comes to his help, notwithstanding the cowardice of the followers of the King, who seized by a panic, have fled to a wood.

The fight continues; Bêowulf’s sword, Naegling, snaps asunder and the dragon clutches the aged hero in his talons. Wiglâf having wounded the dragon, Bêowulf draws his knife with which he puts an end to the struggle by cutting the monster through the middle. But though a victor now he feels his own death too to be at hand, the dragon having infused his venom into his veins. Sitting on a stone he bids Wiglâf go and bring the treasure from the cave, that, having looked at it, he may die in peace. Coming back from this mission Wiglâf finds his lord dying; and Bêowulf breathes his last after having given his faithful kinsman his directions for the funeral. Bitterly are the king’s men reproached by Wiglaf having left their prince in the lurch at the time of his need, after having received so many favors at his hands. The funeral pile is constructed according to the wishes of the dying king, and a mound is erected in Hrones-naes as a token of remembrance, that the sailors who will afterwards pass by it, call it Bêowulf’s mount.

His incorrect notion that the dragon clutches Beowulf in its talons and infuses him with its venom notwithstanding (the dragon fatally bites Beowulf in the neck), Bolland provides an accurate and fairly detailed summary of Beowulf. The text holds few surprises for readers who are familiar with the poem, but it is as useful today as it would have been in the 1880s. Bolland’s interesting use of slightly archaic and highly idiomatic English is noteworthy – not bad for a Dutch autodidact student, who spent the first twenty-five years of his life in the gutter of Groningen and a Leiden jailhouse!

This is the third in a series of blogs related to my research project “My former Germanicist me”: G. J. P. J. Bolland (1854-1922) as an Amateur Old Germanicist , which explores how a Dutch student at the end of the nineteenth century tried to master Old English. Other blog posts include:

Works referred to:

  • R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The Beowulf Manuscript. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • John D. Niles, The Idea of Anglo-Saxon England 1066-1901: Remembering, Forgetting, Deciphering, and Renewing the Past, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.
  • Willem Otterspeer, Bolland: Een biografie, Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 1995.
  • T. A. Shippey and Andreas Haarder, Beowulf: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1998.
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