5. Bright Voice of Praise: An Old English Poet-Patron Theme
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5 Bright Voice of Praise An Old English Poet-Patron Theme Readers usually remember Widsith for its representation of the eponymous poet, who boastingly describes himself as a professional eulogizer of chieftains, kings, and queens. In his travels to famous courts (as well as to uncertain kingdoms and tribes), Widsith has apparently meandered inordinately through time and space. Some scholarship has explained the Old English poem Widsith, and to a lesser extent Deor, by invoking the conventions of the “begging poem,” the purpose of which is said to be opening the patron’s coffers to the poet. W. H. French, seconded by Norman Eliason , describes the “appeal for patronage” as Widsith’s central trope.1 Other scholars believe that the category of begging poem does not suitably explain the inclusion of three catalogues in Widsith (for example, Kemp Malone). Ray Brown asks how the catalogues would have appealed to an aristocratic audience: “the Widsith poet seems a very incompetent beggar . . . for putting mnemonic lists into a poem scarcely seems a good begging strategy however smoothly they are worked in” (284).2 John D. Niles has since made a strong case for the value of these lists to AngloSaxon aristocracy, which I will return to later (“Widsith, the Goths, and the Anthropology of the Past”). Interpreting Widsith as a begging poem depends upon how much it appears to fit conventions imported from either later medieval Icelandic works (French cites Egil’s Saga) or Middle English verse (Eliason alludes to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Complaint to His o 94 · Signs that Sing Purse”). Combining an understanding of both oral-traditional and medieval hermeneutical modes of composition and reception, hybrid poetics re-envisions the discussion by considering the poet-patron relationship as both unbound by the expectations of the begging poem and partaking in an Old English vernacular trope with oral-traditional roots.3 From the perspective of oral-traditional poetics, we can reframe the begging poem by treating the theme’s basic features as a concatenation of motifs that may be inflected, like a word, for various aesthetic and expressive purposes. I thus explore the poet-patron relationship as a verbal convention that arises on several occasions in the Old English corpus, as both a “typical” written oral-connected idiom and as hybrid idiom rendered metaphorical. Like the lord-retainer theme discussed in chapter 4, the poet-patron theme enables swift characterization and elicits a range of metonymic associations. Reading with a poet-patron theme in mind, I show that, in addition to performing an appeal for patronage, the theme allows the composer of a poem to treat such subjects as generosity, fame, hierarchical relationships, and the power of speech (whether grounded in an oral tradition, literary tradition, Christian ritual, or some combination thereof). Used metaphorically, the poet-patron theme resounds in verse with overtly Christian topics in which the poet per se fades into the background , but the same structural relationship and associated issues recur. Thus, I suggest that the theme structures and provides meaning to Widsith and Deor. Additionally, it appears in new forms, some strongly modulated, others not, in The Advent Lyrics, The Gifts of Men, “Alms-Giving,” and “Thureth ,” all of which exemplify how their poet-authors synthesized literate and oral-traditional poetics according to their own lights. BeowulfremainsthepoeticsourceforthenearlyiconicimagesoftheAnglo -Saxonoralpoetthathavecirculatedinbothpopularcultureandcritical discussions, but Widsith and Deor present descriptions of the Old English scop (poet) that differ structurally from those in Beowulf.4 Instead of using third-person narration that keeps the scop nested in a tableau of retainers, heroes, and kings, Widsith and Deor depict the scop “close up” by providing the bard’s perspective in the first-person singular. Unlike the scop(s) of Beowulf, whose relationship to Hrothgar appears to be designated solely with the epithet cyninges þegn (867b; the king’s retainer), the speakers in Widsith and Deor explain that they personally have benefited from their lords’ generosity. Widsith says, for instance, “Forþon ic mæg singan Bright Voice of Praise: An Old English Poet-Patron Theme · 95 ond secgan spell, / mænan fore mengo in meoduhealle / hu me cynegode cystumdohten”(54–56;ThereforeIamabletosingandtellastory,recount before many in the mead-hall, how noble ones were good to me in acts of generosity).5 ThepoetDeor,speakingofhisdisplacementbyanotherscop, indicates that he, too, once performed in exchange for a valuable gift—the rights to a piece of land: “Ahte ic fela wintra folgað tilne, / holdne hlaford, oþþæt Heorrenda nu, / leoðcræftig monn londryht geþah, / þæt me eorla...