Where Now the Harp? Listening for the Sounds of Old English Verse, from Beowulf to the Twentieth Century


This essay examines the representation or staging of oral performance and poetic composition within Beowulf, in order to argue that poem thematizes and mythologizes its own origins, and is as much interested in recovering the sounds of oral performances that pre-date its own manuscript inscription as modern Anglo-Saxon scholarship has been. The second half of the essay considers the recovery and reimagining of an Anglo-Saxon “soundscape” in the work of two twentieth-century poets, W. S. Graham and Edwin Morgan. The invocation of this “Saxonesque” patterning of sound invokes or triggers a historically constituted set of associations with the whole body of Old English poetry; that is, an allusion to a corpus, rather than to a specific text, is made through sound patterning.


“The Voyages of Alfred Wallis” according to the soundscape of Old English verse (87):

Worldhauled, he’s grounded on God’s great bank,
Keelheaved to Heaven, waved into boatfilled arms,
Falls his homecoming leaving that old sea testament,
Watching the restless land sail rigged alongside
Townfulls of shallows, gulls on sailing roofs.

“Spacepoem 3: Off Course” (Morgan 1990:268):

the golden flood     the weightless seat
the cabin song     the pitch black
the growing beard     the floating crumb
the shining rendezvous     the orbit wisecrack
the hot spacesuit     the smuggled mouth-organ

“Spacepoem 3: Off Course” (Morgan 1990:269):

the floating lifeline     the pitch sleep
the crawling camera     the turning silence
the space crumb     the crackling beard
the orbit mouth-organ     the floating song.

“Spacepoem 3: Off Course” (Morgan 1990:269):

the cabin sunrise     the hot flood
the shining spacesuit     the growing moon
the crackling somersault     the smuggled orbit
the rough moon     the visionary rendezvous.

mobile close