Beowulf (Wyatt)/Preface

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A lengthy apology for preparing an English edition of the “Beowulf” is perhaps hardly necessary. The earlier English editions are long since out of print, and the poem has therefore been almost unobtainable, except in the German editions of Heyne and Holder.[1] Excellent as these may be in several ways, they are ill adapted for the average English student, besides having one or more very marked defects. Holder’s foot-notes are as unreliable as his text is reliable. Heyne’s glossary, like that of most German editions, stands self-condemned, in that he frequently forgets the absurd, artificial order of letters on which it is based. Furthermore, his glossary amounts to a translation; and this of itself tends to rob the work of much of its educative value for the serious student.

It has been felt therefore that an English edition was needed—for after all the “Beowulf” is essentially an English poem—which should give the readings of the MS. in foot-notes wherever they were departed from in the text, should provide an alphabetical glossary, and should furnish a due amount of help in difficult passages and no more. This need I have attempted to supply. I have of course made abundant use of the labours of my predecessors. The debt of an editor of “Beowulf” to the glossaries of Grein and Heyne is necessarily great. At the same time nothing has been accepted on mere authority. A glance at the glossary will suffice to show that it is no translation from the German. Of the text, in the same way, every line, every stop, almost every word, has been carefully considered. The genealogical tables and the index of proper names give, in a concise form, information that in many cases has hitherto had to be sought from various sources.[2]

The Manuscript. The excellent edition, with autotypes and transliteration of every folio of the MS., prepared for the Early English Text Society by Prof. Zupitza, is almost of equal authority with the MS. itself, and is therefore quite invaluable to the editor, the autotypes being above criticism. Upon these the present work is based. The transliteration of a few lines here will serve to show some of the more marked characteristics of the unique extant MS. (Cott. Vitellius A. xv. in the British Museum), and to make apparent how far and in what particulars, besides those indicated in the foot-notes, the edited text differs from the MS.:—

489[3] duguðe þe þa deað fornam *site nu to
490 symle ⁊ on sæl meoto *sige hreð secgū
491 swa þin sefa hwette. *þawæs geat
492 mæcgum geador ætsom ne *on beor
493 sele benc geryrmed *þær swið ferhþe
494 sittan eodon *þryðum dealle þegn
495 nytte be heold *seþe on handa bær
496 hroden ealo wæge *scencte scir wered
497 scop hwilum sang *hador on heorote
498 þær wæs hæleða dream *duguð un lytel
dena ⁊ wedera.

946 947 *bearn gebyrdo nu ic beowulf þec *secg betsta
948 me for sunu wylle *freogan on ferhþe heald
949 forð tela. *niwe sibbe nebið þe ænigre gad
950 951 *worolde wilna þe icge weald hæbbe *ful
952 oft ic for læs san lean teoh hode *hord
953 weorþunge hnahran rince *sæmran æt
954 sæcce þu þe self hafast. *dæ dum gefremed
955 956 ꝥ þin lyfað *awa to aldre alwal da þec *gode
957 for gylde swa he nu gyt dyde. * beowulf
958 maþelode bearn ec þeo wes *we ꝥ ellen weorc
959 estum miclum *feohtan fremedon frecne
960 961 ge neð don. *eafoð uncuþes uþe ic swiþor *ꝥ
962 ðu hine selfne geseon moste *feond on
963 frætewum fyl werigne. *ic him hrædlice
964 heardan clam mū *on wæl bedde wriþan
965 þohte *ꝥ he for hand gripe minum scolde

Here I have followed Zupitza in the division of the words, but a mere glance at the autotypes suffices to show the truth of what he himself says: “It is often very difficult, if not impossible, to decide whether the scribe intended one or more words.”

Several things are obvious from a perusal of the above passages:—

(1) That the lines of the MS. do not correspond with the verse-lines of the poem.

(2) That the punctuation of the MS. is meagre and unreliable.

(3) That proper names are not written with capital letters. On the other hand, the first word after a full-stop is not infrequently written with a capital.

(4) That vowel-length is not marked as a rule.

(5) That one word is sometimes written as two or even three words, and that two words are sometimes written as one word.

(6) That hyphens are unknown to the scribes.

(7) It would seem that the scribes were mere copyists, not writing from memory nor from dictation, and that sometimes at least they did not understand what they were copying.

It is impossible to illustrate, by the quotation of passages like the above, the divergences of the MS. in the method of writing and spelling the same word. One or two illustrations must suffice. The word ond, “and,” is written in full only three times, in ll. 600, 1148, 2040. Elsewhere it is represented by the symbol ⁊. The word ondlong occurs in the form “⁊langne” (acc. m.) in l. 2115, “andlongne” (acc. m.) in l. 2695, “ondlonge” (acc. f.) in l. 2938. The word mon-cynn occurs as “mancynne” (dat.) in l. 110, “moncynnes” (gen.) in l. 196, “mon cynnes” (gen.) in l. 1955. These are only a few examples of the inconsistencies with which the MS. teems.

Marks of length. The following vowels are the only ones marked long in the MS.:—

ût, 33; ân, 100; wât, 123; wôp, 128; wât, 210; bât, 211; bâd, 264 hâl, 300; bâd, 301; âr, 336; hâr, 357; hât, gân, 386; ân, 449; sǣ, 507; gâr, 537; sǣ, 564, 579; môt, 603; gâd, 660; nât, 681; sǣ, 690; bât, 742; stôd, 759; âbeag, 775; bân, 780; wîc, 821; sǣ, 895; hât, 897; sâr, 975; fâh, 1038; bân, dôn, 1116; blôd, 1121; sǣ, 1149; wîn, 1162; môd, 1167; âr, 1168; brûc, 1177; ǣr, 1187; rǣd, 1201; sǣ, 1223; wîn, 1233; wât, 1274; wîc, 1275; hâd, 1297; hâr, 1307; bâd, 1313; rûn, 1325; wât, 1331; ǣr, 1388; âris, 1390; gâ, 1394; hâm, 1407; bân, 1445; dôm, 1491, 1528; brûn, 1546; gôd, 1562; ǣr, 1587; sǣ, 1652; bâd, 1720; sǣ, 1850; lâc, wât, 1863; gôd, 1870; sǣ, 1882; râd, 1883; scîr, 1895; sǣ, 1896, 1924; scân, 1965; fûs, 1966; hwîl, 2002; lîe, 2080; rôf, 2084; dôn, 2090; côm, 2103; lîc, 2109; dôm, 2147; Hroðgâr, 2155; stôl, 2196; ân, 2210 (see note); fǣr, 2230 (see note); bâd, 2258;ân, 2280; wôc, 2287; bâd, 2302; fôr, 2308; gôd, 2342; wîd, 2346; dôm, 2376; sâr, 2468; mân, 2514; hârne stân, 2553; swât, 2558; swâf, 2559; bâd, 2568; wâc, 2577; swâc, 2584; gôd, 2586; wîc, 2607; Wiglâf, 2631; gâr, 2641; fâne, 2655; dôm, 2666; stôd, 2679; swâc, 2681; fŷr, 2689, 2701; wîs, 2716; bâd, 2736; lîf, 2743, 2751; stôd, 2769; dôm, 2820, 2858; râd, 2898; côm, 2944, 2992; âd, 3010; fûs, 3025; rôf, 3063; Wiglâf, 3076; bâd, 3116; fûs, 3119; hrôf, 3123; âd, 3138; rêc, 3144; bân-hûs, 3147.

Hyphens. It will have been seen that the MS. gives no help in one of the most difficult problems that beset the editor of O. E. poems, the question of the use of hyphens. Grein and Sweet discard them altogether. I cannot but question whether this is not to shirk one’s duty. At least it is a method that I have not been able at present to bring myself to adopt, tempting as it is. The difficulty of course is as to “where to draw the line”—where to use a hyphen or to write as one word, where to use a hyphen or write as two words. The former is the chief difficulty, and here as elsewhere I have endeavoured to find the path “of least resistance.” Prepositional prefixes in my text are not marked off by a hyphen from the following word; on the other hand, adverbial prefixes, such as ūp in ūp-lang, ūt in ūt-weard, are so marked off. This then is where I have, not without misgivings, “drawn the line.” Where the two parts of a compound seem to preserve their full notional force I have used a hyphen; where the force of one part seems to be quite subordinate to that of the other, I have written them as one word. It is the familiar distinction of compounds and derivatives over again, but at a stage of the language when some compounds were in course of becoming derivatives. Doubtless there are mistakes and inconsistencies I need hardly say I shall be glad to have them printed out.

Punctuation. The punctuation of “Beowulf” has hitherto been largely traditional, as it were, and largely German, and German punctuation of course differs in some respects from English. Some editors have shown daring originality in the substitution of colons for the semi-colons, and marks of exclamation for the full-stops, of previous editors. Periods have usually been held too sacred to question. I may say at once, that although I have been extremely conservative in my handling of the text, I have felt and have shown scant courtesy for much of the traditional punctuation. Let me state here the principles, right or wrong, upon which I have acted. First, I have made the punctuation as simple as possible. I have therefore done sway with the somewhat fine distinction between the colon and the semicolon, and have restricted the use of the former to marking the opening of an oratio recta, and to a very few similar loci, such as ll. 801, 1392, 1476. In the some way, I have, wherever possible, done away with parentheses, and with our modern meretricious marks of exclamation. If the reader’s sense or emotions do not tell him where he ought to feel exclamatory, he must suffer the consequences. Secondly, I have attempted to make the punctuation logical, especially by the use of pairs of commas wherever the sequence of a sentence is interrupted by parallelisms. This may be made clearer by a reference to ll. 1235–7, 1283–4, 3051–2. But, on the other hand, I have as far as possible avoided breaking up the metrical unit of the half line with a comma.

Foot-notes. The chief peculiarity of the footnotes is that, unlike Wülcker’s (to which I am greatly indebted), they are not intended to he read by the next “Beowulf” editor only. Therefore they are not lumbered with a mass of antiquated and impossible emendations, which no one but a “painful and studious” literary chiffonnier would think of collecting and perpetuating. Their main intention has been already referred to—to call attention to every departure in the text from the readings of the MS. If they have any influence towards making readers intolerant of the shameless, silent alterations of MS. readings which disfigure some O. E. texts—alterations such as have been banished from the best editions of the Latin and Greek classics—great indeed will he my reward.

A word or two of explanation must be added. “A” and “B” refer to the transcripts or copies of the poem, which the Danish scholar Thorkelin mode (one himself the other by a scribe ignorant of O. E.) in 1786, and which ere of great value for parts now defective. “Grein 1” is Grein’s Bibliothek der A. S. Poesie; “Grein 2” is his seperate edition of Beowulf. “Grein-Wülcker” and “Wülcker” refer to the latter’s new edition of the Bibliothek, which very rarely departs from Grein’s own readings. “Heyne 5” and “Heyne and Socin” refer to the 5th edition of Heyne’s Beowulf. “Zupitza” is the E. E. T. S. edition already mentioned. A, B, Wülcker, and Zupitza, do not mark vowel-length. The names of the proposers of the chief emendations adopted in the text are given for credit’s sake. Rejected emendations are quoted but sparsely; only when they are backed by considerable authority, or when I was in doubt as to the true reading. Points of grammar are discussed in the notes only in so far as they affect the question of readings. I have indulged but sparingly in the luxury of personal emendations, because they are obviously the greatest disqualification for discharging duly the functions of an editor.

Glossary. The plan on which the glossary is arranged must be tested by experience. Some decisions which had to be taken when I began to work on it may prove to have been mistaken; certainly I am not concerned to defend them here. I have endeavoured to furnish the requisite amount of help and no more. Every passage that struck me as really difficult I have translated under what appeared to me to be the crucial word, but I wish it to be distinctly understood that my renderings are meant to be suggestive and not authoritative.

Acknowledgments. It can but be a pleasure for me to make this public acknowledgment of the ready, willing, and efficient help which I have received, and without which the date of publication would have been seriously delayed. Mr C. Sapsworth, M.A., gave me his notes on the grammar of the poem, which have been of use in several ways. The labour of collating every line of the autotypes of the MS. with the texts of all the principal editions was done almost entirely by my wife, Mr D. Johnson, B.A., and other friends; and in the preparation of the glossary I have had the invaluable cooperation of my friends, Mr H. C. Notcutt, B.A., and Mr D. Johnson. I can only say that their help is as warmly appreciated as it was cordially given. One debt demands separate mention. The Rev. Prof. Skeat, Litt. D., has kindly spared time, from very great pressure of other work, to read the proofsheets, and has made many valuable suggestions which are embodied in the book with no other acknowledgment than this. I should ask him to allow me to dedicate this edition to him, as a small token of my gratitude, were I not of opinion that I should thereby be conferring far greater honour on my book than any that such a dedication could bring to his name.

I have but to add that I alone am responsible for the work as it stands; that I shall be grateful for criticisms and suggestions, especially from teachers and students; and that Mr William Morris has taken the text of this edition as the basis of his modern metrical rendering of the lay.


March, 1894.

  1. There is a translation of Heyne’s edition by two American professors; but they have taken the trouble to render their text perfectly worthless by appropriating all Heyne’s emendations and omitting his notes which give the readings of the MS.
  2. For details connected with the literary history of the poem, the student is referred to Ten Brink’s Early English Literature (Bell); Morley’s English Writers, Vol. I. (Cassell); Brooke’s Early English Literature, Vol. I. (Macmillan); and Ten Brink’s monograph in Quellen und Forschungen, LXII. Complete bibliographies are given in Wülcker’s Grundriss (1885), and Garnett’s Translation of Beowulf (1892).
  3. The asterisks mark the beginnings of the verse-lines, the numbers of which are given in the margin.