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The Old English Physiologus   By: (1853-1927)

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[Transcriber's note: This text contains some special characters, including a, e, i, o, u, y, and æ with macrons, which are represented by [=a],[=e], [=i], [=o], [=u], [=y], and [=æ], respectively, and the oe ligature, which has been split into two letters.]



TEXT AND PROSE TRANSLATION BY ALBERT STANBURROUGH COOK Professor of the English Language and Literature in Yale University

VERSE TRANSLATION BY JAMES HALL PITMAN Fellow in English of Yale University




The Old English Physiologus , or Bestiary , is a series of three brief poems, dealing with the mythical traits of a land animal, a sea beast, and a bird respectively, and deducing from them certain moral or religious lessons. These three creatures are selected from a much larger number treated in a work of the same name which was compiled at Alexandria before 140 B.C., originally in Greek, and afterwards translated into a variety of languages into Latin before 431. The standard form of the Physiologus has 49 chapters, each dealing with a separate animal (sometimes imaginary) or other natural object, beginning with the lion, and ending with the ostrich; examples of these are the pelican, the eagle, the phoenix, the ant (cf. Prov. 6.6), the fox, the unicorn, and the salamander. In this standard text, the Old English poems are represented by chapters 16, 17, and 18, dealing in succession with the panther, a mythical sea monster called the asp turtle (usually denominated the whale), and the partridge. Of these three poems, the third is so fragmentary that little is left except eight lines of religious application, and four of exhortation by the poet, so that the outline of the poem, and especially the part descriptive of the partridge, must be conjecturally restored by reference to the treatment in the fuller versions, which are based upon Jer. 17.11 (the texts drawn upon for the application in lines 5 11 are 2 Cor. 6.17,18; Isa. 55.7; Heb. 2.10,11).

It has been said: 'With the exception of the Bible, there is perhaps no other book in all literature that has been more widely current in every cultivated tongue and among every class of people.' Such currency might be illustrated from many English authors. Two passages from Elizabethan literature may serve as specimens the one from Spenser, the other from Shakespeare. The former is from the Faerie Queene (1. 11.34):

At last she saw, where he upstarted brave Out of the well, wherein he drenched lay; As Eagle fresh out of the Ocean wave, Where he hath left his plumes all hoary gray, And deckt himselfe with feathers youthly gay, Like Eyas hauke up mounts unto the skies, His newly budded pineons to assay, And marveiles at himselfe, still as he flies: So new this new borne knight to battell new did rise.

The other is from Hamlet (Laertes to the King):

To his good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms; And like the kind life rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.[1]

However widely diffused, the symbolism exemplified by the Physiologus is peculiarly at home in the East. Thus Egypt symbolized the sun, with his death at night passing into a rebirth, by the phoenix, which, by a natural extension, came to signify the resurrection. And the Bible not only sends the sluggard to the ant, and bids men consider the lilies of the field, but with a large sweep commands (Job 12.7,8): 'Ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee; or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee; and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.'

[Footnote 1: Alfred de Musset, in La Nuit de Mai , develops the image of the pelican through nearly thirty lines.]

The text as here printed is extracted from my edition, The Old English Elenc, Phoenix, and Physiologus (Yale University Press, 1919), where a critical apparatus may be found; here it may be sufficient to say that Italic letters in square brackets denote my emendations, and Roman letters those of previous editors... Continue reading book >>

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