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  • Language, Letters, and Augustinian Origins in the Old English Poetic Solomon and Saturn I
  • Erik Wade

Solomon and Saturn I stands out from other surviving Anglo-Saxon literature because of its complex, Augustinian portrayal of language. The poem begins as a dialogue between the well-known Biblical figure Solomon and a pagan Middle Easterner named Saturn. Yet approximately midway through the poem, the dialogue form breaks down and becomes a lecture by Solomon on the virtues of the Pater Noster (the Lord’s Prayer), ultimately segueing into an extended story of the Pater Noster’s letters coming to life and fighting devils in a violent brawl. Solomon’s fantastical story of a battle between the Pater Noster’s animated letters and devils has caused many scholars to dismiss the poem as silly or outlandish. The battle has even led scholars to attribute the poem’s origins to non-English sources, including Irish and Middle Eastern writing.1 I argue that the animated letter interlude makes [End Page 160] much more sense when read in the poem’s proper context—that of Alfredian educational reforms—and that any attempt to account accurately for the origins of Solomon and Saturn I must include Augustinian ideas about prayer and language. The letter battle shows the power of language in the world by presenting letters in their most literal forms in order to focus attention on the materiality of language and to discourage views of language as metaphor. In a dialogue that emphasizes the importance of understanding how language functions in order to understand the intricacies of prayer, Solomon presents a story about language literally coming to life, a depiction that opposes Saturn’s view of language and knowledge as passive and inert phenomena. The story of living letters in Solomon and Saturn I suggests that, in spite of their deceptive simplicity, the workings of prayer are mysterious and that poetry might provide a means for understanding how the Pater Noster functions and, more broadly, for understanding how special forms of language, like prayer, work in the world; in short, the dialogue suggests that the power of prayer comes not from any particular instance of speaking a prayer’s words but from the divine power that infuses the prayer. The Solomon and Saturn poet’s efforts to differentiate between arbitrary, human language (the spoken Pater Noster) and divine, ideal language (the living letters) strongly resonates with Augustinian ideas of language and prayer, ultimately drawn from Plato. Such ideas were popular during the Alfredian reforms, suggesting that the poem’s date and provenance may well be located in the ninth-century court of King Alfred. In this dialogue, then, we find evidence of how Alfred’s court brought Platonic and Augustinian thought into England and attempted to transmit theological concepts in popular forms.

Solomon and Saturn I is one of only three Old English poems to survive in more than one manuscript, appearing (at least in part) in two different manuscripts.2 Solomon and Saturn I is one of four extant Anglo-Saxon dialogues—two in prose and two in verse—that feature the characters Solomon and Saturn; three of these dialogues appear in the same tenth-century manuscript, namely Corpus Christi College 422.3 It is unclear whether the four Solomon and Saturn dialogues share the same author or [End Page 161] date of composition.4 Charles D. Wright contends that Solomon and Saturn I is part of a larger group of Irish-influenced works that he places potentially in the court of King Athelstan, in Mercia, though Wright also mentions Alfred’s court as a possibility.5 The latest editor of the dialogues, Daniel Anlezark, makes a similar point when he suggests that the dialogue’s dialect, its interest in language, and its clear Irish influence argue for an author from the Glastonbury school (possibly Saint Dunstan), writing either at Glastonbury itself or at the court of King Athelstan.6 Anlezark argues that the language of the text suggests a West Saxon author—one whose “dialect (or literate practice) had incorporated Mercian elements”—and that the text was written sometime between the end of the ninth century and the start of the tenth...