Tha middungeard, moncynnæs uard.

If you say “moncynnæs uard” out loud (hard “c”), you can hear that it means “keeper of mankind”—or the “middungeard” (soft “g” like “y”), middle-ground, or Earth, the place that God made to keep man. This all from “Cædmon’s Hymn,” the 7th-century poem considered the first recorded poem in English (in this case, a Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-Saxon):

Nu scylun hergan hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur sue he uundra gihuaes
eci dryctin or astelidæ
he aerist scop aelda barnum
heben til hrofe haleg scepen.
tha middungeard moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin æfter tiadæ
firum foldu frea allmectig

My 11th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Hodgman—the same woman who taught us always to staple papers diagonally so that the paper doesn’t tear when you flip the page, advice I follow religiously to this day—came to class for weeks carrying a portable record player on which she would play a recording of “Cædmon’s Hymn” several times at the beginning of each class until each and every student had it permanently emblazoned in his or her memory. I know it to this day. I recited it at Nightbird Books to get a 5% discount on my purchase during National Poetry Month. And I woke up with it playing on a loop my head at 5:30 this morning.

There’s an audio recording at the Norton Anthology website (follow link, scroll down to #2) that sounds remarkably like the recording Mrs. Hodgman used to play us. Maybe it’s the same one. In any case, I highly recommend subjecting yourself to this exercise of memorizing—really, fast hard memorizing—a poem in a foreign form of English. First of all, as Mrs. Hodgman told us from the beginning, if you force yourself to hear the words, you will hear the English in Anglo-Saxon, and it is really cool when the lines begin to release their meaning to modern ears. Secondly, there is no greater comfort to someone (like me) constantly worried about her ability to retain information in this, the Google Age, within the hard drive of her own brain, than to be able to call up nine lines of Early English poetry at any time. In fact, I have decided to spend more time memorizing poetry just because I can, so you can expect more posts along these lines.

The text of the poem above is from the University of Toronto’s Representative Poetry Online—follow the link for more information on Cædmon and his Hymn, as well as a modern English translation, though I seriously recommend listening to the recording linked above several times before you translate.

6 thoughts on “Tha middungeard, moncynnæs uard.

  1. as an undergrad, my chaucer prof made us spend the semester memorizing the first 42 lines of the prologue of the canterbury tales. it was really quite fun. i wish i could still recite from memory more than the first six.

  2. I loved studying Old English for just the reasons you cite. It was wonderful when this impossibly foreign mass of letters (some of which we don’t even have anymore) would suddenly shed it’s cloak of mystery and become English. Magic. It kept me coming back until I was proficient enough to do my own translation of Beowulf. (Alas, that was more than 20 years ago; I’ve lost most of it by now…)

  3. Thanks for that! The whole site is great.

    Back in the olden days, it was a given that kids would memorize and recite poetry in school. I well remember my mother declaiming Macauley’s Horatius. This seems to have fallen by the wayside now, which is a shame, because speaking and hearing poetry does, I think, give a better appreciation of it than simply reading it.

    • One of the plenary lectures at this year’s American Society of 18th-Century Studies meetings was on just this topic—the need for students and professors both, in a field so dominated by poetry, to practice the art of memorizing verse and reciting it aloud. I used to have my pre-college Shakespeare students memorize the opening of Richard III; I think I’m going to start requiring recitations from my college students as well.

  4. In the 7th grade, my English/Geography/Civics teacher made us memorize and recite Joyce Kilmer’s “Tree” and the Preamble to the Constitution. Either that same teacher or one of my other teachers required that we learn Lincon’s “Gettysburg Address.” We also learned/memorized several other pieces from historical speeches. I also know 20 lines of Byron’s _The Giaour_.

  5. In grade school – maybe 5th grade – my teacher made us memorize The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, stanza by stanza, reciting it in unison, standing, every afternoon. We got pretty far, although I can’t do it now – well, it has been a long time.

    There was a back-page essay in the NYTimes just a few weeks ago on the joys of memorizing poetry. Among other things, the author wrote, you can entertain yourself in a traffic jam. I’ve always found that you learn much more about a poem if you memorize it than if you just read it, even if you read it aloud. It appeals to me. I’ve been thinking that it’s time to jump-start my brain and retrieve my artistic and intellectual beginnings by reading and memorizing poetry. This in addition to my little group at the AAUW, which is reading Chaucer out loud (in translation only, alas, although we did read the intro in the original). When we read the Odyssey last year, it was a revelation. Nothing better than slowing down and actually hearing it.

    Thanks for the link. I hope I have time to sneak in a first listen at work today.

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