Tonal Complexity and Formal Conflicts in the Old English Soul and Body poems

Issues of transience and the human condition in the face of eternity pervade Old English literature. While it must be conceded that the nature of production has rendered liturgical and church-related texts more likely to be preserved, it seems clear that eschatological concerns were a central tenet of a large section of Anglo-Saxon literary output. However, the ideological and theological arguments which this literature encompasses are far from uniform. As Milton McGatch has stated, there is ‘universal agreement about the fate of the body between death and the last day: it is destroyed in the natural order of things. Concerning the soul, however, there is considerable ambiguity.’1 In the extant religious literature of the period, the fate of the soul, and its relative guilt, appears contentious. It is within this climate of understanding that the Soul and Body poems must be situated. The poems, which are clearly rooted in the same original, have attracted much attention on the grounds of their similarities and differences. Alison Gyger argues that the variation we witness is the result of oral transmission; P.R. Orton, however, argues for scribal errors.2 While these questions are important, the literary achievements of the poems fall by the wayside, with many critics choosing to focus on one particular poem – either I or II – and discounting its variant.3 Douglas Moffat even translates the two into a single homogenous text.4 Moffat views the poems as having a ‘relative lack of depth’, while C. L. Wrenn, viewing the texts as one, refers to Soul and Body as a ‘purely didactic verse-homiletic dialogue’ – an opinion which endures, though it is significantly out-dated.5 This disinclination to study the true intricacies of the Soul and Body poems due to their similarity, and perceived inferiority, to a variety of prose tracts on the same theme, has stunted the appreciation of their particular merits. Critically, the focus on structural difference or the meaning conveyed by tone has prevented the interpretation of the interaction between these features. T. A. Shippey has argued that, as ‘with other Old English poems, a certain complexity of tone underlies a simple surface’6 in the Soul and Body poems. Yet still the poems are approached as a single unit. Soul and Body I, found in the manuscript known as the Vercelli Book, witnesses the address of both a Damned Soul and a Blessed Soul to their respective bodies, while Soul and Body II, in the Exeter Book manuscript, holds only the address of the Damned Soul. The differences between the two should not only be approached bibliographically, but with a mind to the purpose of a Soul and Body poem. In this discussion, I will isolate the texts and explore their differences, to ascertain the interpretive changes inherent in their structural and tonal divergences. I will argue that the shorter Exeter Book poem is the more effectively didactic of the poems, primarily due to its partisan structure.

The simplistic surface to which Shippey refers is, undoubtedly, the common trope of the soul-and-body tension. Indeed, Fulk and Cain, in their influential text for students of Old English, dismissively surmise that ‘Soul and Body I is simply a versification of a common homiletic theme’.7 The Vercelli Book’s Soul and Body is situated amid a variety of homilies concerning this tension – notably IV, X, and XXII – and it is easy, as is demonstrably the case, to dismiss it as simply another one of many. ‘Homily IV’, for example, follows a similar structure, with addresses from both a damned and virtuous soul contained within a narrative framework. In Soul and Body I, the much shorter Blessed Soul’s address closes the poem; it is cut off mid-line, either unfinished or lost. The two parts of the poem follow the same progression; the Damned Soul returns to its body in the grave, as it is doomed to do ‘symble ymbe seofon niht’ (‘always at the seventh night’) (Vercelli, 10), where it laments its time imprisoned (‘gehæftnedest’ [Vercelli, 32]) within the body and bitterly admonishes the body’s licentious time on earth.8 The Damned Soul’s address is far from original. Indeed, in its grotesque focus upon the body’s decomposition, the parallels with ‘Homily IV’ are clear:

and þe sculon her moldwyrmas manige ceowan
slitan sarlice swearte wihta
gifre and grædige ne synt þine æhta awih
þe ðu her on moldan mannu(m) eowdest (
Vercelli, 71-4)

(and here many earthworms shall gnaw you, the swarthy creatures, gluttonous and greedy, tear you painfully; nor are your possessions aught, which you showed off to men here on earth)

Eala, ðu wyrma gecow & wulfes geslit & fugles geter, & þu þe wære Godes andsaca swa lange swa ic on ðe wunode, hwær is þín miht & þine strengo & þin anmedla & þin mycle mod & þine renceo & þin onwald & þine oferhigdo & þin blis, butan eall þis þe wearð to nahte siððan ic of ðe ute wearð? (‘Homily IV’, 266-270)

(Alas! You food for worms and rending of wolves and tearing of birds, and you who were the adversary of God, as long as I remained in you, where is your might and your strength and your pride and your great courage and your ostentation and your authority and your haughtiness and your joy, except all this came to nothing for you, since I came out of you?)

The bitter enjoyment of the body’s destruction runs through both extracts, and the focus on animalistic dismemberment serves to debase the body in comparison with the higher soul. In the Blessed Soul’s address, however, the body is celebrated for its well-led life, and the soul bewails: ‘Forþan me a langaþ, leofost manna, | on minum hige hearde þæs þe ic þe on þyssum hynðu(m) wat | wyrmu(m) to wiste’ (‘Therefore it grieves me eternally, dearest of men, bitterly in my mind, that I know you to be in this humiliation, food for worms.’) (Vercelli, 153-155). Again, the soul is forced to accept the inevitable – that the body is decaying – and yet this destruction is merely a background to the soul’s remembrance. In ‘Homily IV’, the Blessed Soul even goes so far as to plead for its body to be preserved: ‘Lætaþ hine to me. Ne sie he næfre wyrma mete, ne to grimmum geolstre mote wyrðan’. (‘Allot him to me. Neither will he ever become the food of worms, nor be allowed to become bitter pus.’)9 Soul and Body I, then, moves from the admonishment of the guilty body to the reverence of the holy, with the two distinct sections mirrored in structure.

  1. Milton McGatch, ‘Perceptions of Eternity,’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. by Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 190-205, p. 197. []
  2. See Alison Gyger, ‘The OE Soul and Body as an Example of Oral Transmission’ in Medium Ævum 38 (1969), 239-44., and Peter R. Orton, ‘The OE Soul and Body: A Further Examination’ in Medium Ævum 48 (1979), 173-97. []
  3. See, for example, Cyril Smetana, ‘Second Thoughts on Soul and Body I’ in Mediaeval Studies 29 (1967), 193-205; Mary Heyward Ferguson, ‘The Structure of the Soul’s Address to the Body in OE’ in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 69 (1970), 72-80; Allen J. Frantzen, ‘The Body in Soul and Body I’ in Chaucer Review 17 (1982), 76-88. []
  4. See Douglas Moffat (ed. and trans.), The Old English ‘Soul and Body’ (Wolfeboro, NH and Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1990). []
  5. Moffat, intro., p. 36.; C. L. Wrenn, A Study of Old English Literature (London; Toronto; Wellington; Sydney: George G. Harrap & Co., 1967), p. 155. []
  6. T. A. Shippey, Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English (Cambridge/Totowa, NJ: Brewer/Roman and Littlefield, 1976), p. 34. []
  7. R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain, A History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 75. []
  8. All translations given are my own unless otherwise indicated.; Soul and Body I, the Vercelli Book text, in Moffat, pp. 49-64. Subsequent references to this text will be denoted as Vercelli. []
  9. ‘Scragg, ‘Homily IV’, 125-6. []

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