The Old English Rune Poem – Semantics, Structure, and Symmetry
(Chancellor Robert R. Livingstone Library and Museum)
Journal of Indo-European studies, Vol.34:3-4 (2006)
With the manuscript version destroyed in a fire at the Cotton Library in 1731, the Old English Rune Poem is known only from the printed version of George Hickes’ Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus, published in 1705. Printed on page 135 of the Thesaurus the poem’s stanzas run one beneath the other, with the appropriate rune (plus one or more variants in some few cases) to the left of each, glossed by its old English name, which effectively commences each stanza. According to Hickes, the rune names were added later in the life of the manuscript version of the poem, glossing the runes themselves, though, as he gives no further information on the subject, we do not know exactly when this occurred. In this regard, Maureen Halsall remarks, “Any sensitive reader, observing the riddling nature of the poem, must feel considerable doubt that either the rune names or the sound values formed a part of the text when the Old English Rune Poem was first composed and recorded.”
Dating from probably the late ninth or early tenth century, the dialect of the poem is overwhelmingly late West Saxon, though it contains some few non-West Saxon forms, such as the rune name, wen, a probably Kentish form of the West Saxon, wynna, the latter of which is the form found in its final stanza. Other slight irregularities occur in the poem. Thus, while man is given as the name for the ‘m’ rune, manna is used in the first (‘F’) and the third (‘P’) stanzas. However, we are able to turn a sideways glance to the Old Norgwegian and Old Icelandic rune poems, in order to clarify some of the Old English runes, the alphabets represented by the three poems being, ultimately, traceable to the common or old Germanic Fupark of twenty four runes.