Advent Lyrics from the Exeter Book

04 December 2020

By Ellie Jones

The Exeter Book – the great and unique collection of Anglo Saxon poetry which has been at Exeter Cathedral for nearly 950 years – begins with a section of poems known as The Advent Lyrics.

The Advent Lyrics explore the themes of Christ’s coming to redeem humankind and the Virgin Birth and are inspired by the O Antiphons from vespers in the season of Advent. They have a reputation as being among the very finest of the surviving Anglo Saxon poems, beautiful and rich with imagery.

Lyric 1 is inspired by the O Antiphon for December 22:

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum, lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum: veni, et salva hominem, quem de limo formasti.

“O King of the people and their hearts’ desire; O Cornerstone, who make both things one: come and save humanity whom you have fashioned from clay”

Lyric 1 is the first surviving poem in the Exeter Book, taking up the first 11 lines of the page. The beginning of the poem is missing, and parts of the rest are hidden by a stain left behind centuries ago by a glue pot, but this is what it says:

…cyninge.

Đu eart se weallstan   þe ða wyrhtan iu

wiðwurpon to weorce.    Wel þe gerisdeð

þæt þu heafod sie   healle mærre

ond gesomnige   side weallas

fæste gefoge,   flint unbræcne,

þæt geond eorðb[old] eall   eagna gesihþe

wundrien to worlde   wuldres ealdor.

Gesweotula nu þurh searocræft   þin sylfes weorc,

soðfæst, sigorbeorht, ond sona forlet

weall wið wealle.   Nu is þam weorce þearf

þæt se cræftga cume,   ond se cyning sylfa,

ond þonne gebete,   nu gebrosnad is,

hus under hrofe.   He þæt hra gescop,

leomo læmena.   Nu sceal liffrea

þone wergan heap   wraþum ahreddan,

Earme from egsan,   swa he oft dyde.

(From Bernard Muir ‘The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, Volume 1: Texts’. 2000)

The poem is written in Old English, so unfamiliar to most of us. But, look carefully and you may be able to see some words which aren’t so different after all: Cyninge = King; weallas = wall; Þæt = that; healle = hall; flint = flint/rock; sylfa = self; hus = house; hrofe = roof.

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