Beowulf, ancient poem, new research


This 2015 video is called Classics Summarized: Beowulf.

From Harvard University in the USA:

Breaking down Beowulf

Researchers use statistical technique to find evidence that Old English poem had a single author

April 8, 2019

Summary: Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem’s meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text, a team of researchers found new evidence that Beowulf is the work of a single author.

It’s been a towering landmark in the world of English literature for more than two centuries, but Beowulf is still the subject of fierce academic debate, in part between those who claim the epic poem is the work of a single author and those who claim it was stitched together from multiple sources.

In an effort to resolve the dispute, a team of researchers led by Madison Krieger, a post-doctoral fellow at the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics and Joseph Dexter, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard, turned to a very modern tool — a computer.

Using a statistical approach known as stylometry, which analyzes everything from the poem’s meter to the number of times different combinations of letters show up in the text, Krieger and colleagues found new evidence that Beowulf is the work of a single author. The study is described in a April 8 paper published in Nature Human Behaviour.

In addition to Krieger, the study was co-authored by Leonard Neidorf from Nanjing University, an expert on Beowulf whose numerous studies include a book on the poem’s transmission, as well as Michelle Yakubek, who worked on the project as a student at the Research Science Institute, and Pramit Chaudhuri from the University of Texas at Austin. Chaudhuri and Dexter are the co-directors of the Quantitative Criticism Lab, a multi-institutional group devoted to developing computational approaches for the study of literature and culture.

“We looked at four broad categories of items in the text,” Krieger said. “Each line has a meter, and many lines have what we call a sense pause, which is a small pause between clauses and sentences similar to the pauses we typically mark with punctuation in Modern English. We also looked at aspects of word choice.”

“But it turns out one of the best markers you can measure is not at the level of words, but at the level of letter-combinations,” he continued. “So we counted all the times the author used the combination ‘ab’, ‘ac’, ‘ad’, and so on.”

Using those metrics, Krieger said, the team combed through the Beowulf text, and found it to be consistent throughout — a result that lends further support to the theory of single authorship.

“Across many of the proposed breaks in the poem, we see that these measures are homogeneous,” Krieger said. “So as far as the actual text of Beowulf is concerned, it doesn’t act as though there is supposed to be a major stylistic change at these breaks. The absence of major stylistic shifts is an argument for unity.”

The study is just the latest effort to pin down Beowulf’s often-mysterious background.

“There are two big debates about Beowulf,” Krieger explained. “The first is when it was composed, because the date of composition affects our understanding of how Beowulf is to be interpreted. For instance, whether it is a poem near or far in time from the conversion to Christianity is an important question.”

The second debate among Beowulf academics, Krieger said, is related to whether the poem was the work of one author, or many.

“The first edition that was widely available to the public was published in 1815, and the unity of the work was almost immediately attacked,” Krieger said. “From high school, everyone remembers the battle with Grendel and Grendel’s mother, and maybe the dragon, but if you go back and read the whole poem, there are weird sections about, for instance, how good Beowulf is at swimming, and other sections that go back hundreds of years and talk about hero kings that have ostensibly nothing to do with the story. So the way we read it now… seems very disjointed.”

One piece of evidence that has factored into debates about unitary composition can be seen just by looking at the text.

“The handwriting is different,” Krieger said. “At what I would call a random point in the poem, just mid-sentence, and not really an important sentence, the first scribe’s handwriting stops, and somebody else takes over. It’s clear that the second scribe also proofread the first scribe, so even though currently nobody really thinks that these two guys were different poets, or were joining together parts of a poem at this random mid-sentence location, it has helped contribute to a narrative according to which the writing of Beowulf, and maybe its original composition, was a long and collaborative effort.

For the nineteenth century, the prevailing view among academics was that the poem must be the work of multiple authors. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that another author — one whose name is all but synonymous with epic storytelling — began to challenge that idea.

His name? J.R.R. Tolkien.

“Tolkien was one of the greatest champions of single authorship,” Krieger said. “He was a very prominent Beowulf scholar, and in 1936 he wrote a landmark piece, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”, that really revived the idea that it was the work of a single person.”

At the heart of Tolkien‘s argument, Krieger said, was the way in which Christianity is reflected in the text.

“The Christianization of Beowulf is very interesting, because every single character in it is a pagan, even in these odd digressions” Krieger said. “Beowulf is from southern Sweden and goes to Denmark to help other pagan Germanic peoples fight monsters…but it’s overlaid throughout with a Christian perspective and infused with Christian language.” Computational evidence from the study supports Tolkien’s view, from a new perspective. “Arguments based on the poem’s content or its author’s supposed belief system are vital, of course, but equally important are arguments based on the nitty-gritty of stylistic details. The latter also have the merit of being testable, measurable.”

Though he acknowledged it’s unlikely the new study will be the end of the debates about Beowulf’s authorship, Krieger believes it can shed important new light on English literary traditions.

“If we really believe this is one coherent work by one person, what does it mean that it has these strange asides?” he asked. “Maybe one of the biggest takeaways from this is about how you structured a story back then. Maybe we have just lost the ability to read literature in the way people at the time would have understood it, and we should try to understand how these asides actually fit into the story.”

Going forward, Krieger and colleagues are hoping to apply the stylometry tools developed for the study to other literary traditions and other landmark works.

“Even works as well-studied as the Iliad and the Odyssey have yet to be analyzed using a full array of computational tools,” Krieger said. “The fine-grained features that seem to matter most have never been examined in a lot of traditions, and we’re hoping to spread these techniques that we think could change the way similar problems are approached.”

Krieger also hopes to use the techniques to understand the stylistic evolution of English across history.

“Putting Old English in context is the springboard,” he said. “This is the birth of English literature. From here, we can look at what aspects of style evolved — not just grammar, but at the cultural level, what features people enjoyed, and how they changed over time.”

Ultimately, though, Krieger believes the study is a prime example of how ancient texts still hold secrets that can be uncovered through the use of modern tools.

“This is the first step in taking an old debate and refreshing it with some new methodology,” he said. “It’s a new extension of the whole critical apparatus, and it’s exciting that an area probably assumed to be very traditional can in fact be at the cutting edge of work that spans the humanities and sciences.”

This research was supported with funding from a Neukom Institute for Computational Science CompX Grant, a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and a Neukom Fellowship.

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Great gray shrike, wren and poetry


This is a 2007 Dutch video on the Oude Buisse Heide.

This video is the sequel.

After 23 January 2018 came 24 January. Our final full day at Oude Buisse Heide.

Early in the morning, again a nuthatch at the feeder.

Atelier, 24 January 2019

This photo shows the Oude Buisse Heide atelier building, where poetess Henriette Roland Holst wrote poems and her visual artist husband made his art.

Atelier, on 24 January 2019

This photo shows the atelier at a closer distance.

Richard Roland Holst, 24 January 2019

Inside the atelier there are these words by Henriette, commemorating her deceased husband Richard (Rik).

Henriette Roland Holst, 24 January 2019

And also these lines by Henriette Roland Holst about friendships.

Two stock doves sit on the roof of the Angora farm.

De Reten, 24 January 2019

We walk from the Oude Buisse Heide north to nature reserve De Reten; which became a nature reserve only recently.

Arriving at De Moeren woodland, we turn back.

Many roe deer footprints.

Just after passing the border between De Reten and Oude Buisse Heide, a great grey shrike sits on a treetop.

De Reten-Oude Buisse Heide border, 24 January 2019

A bit further, a wren.

This was our last Oude Buisse Heide day. We will not forget it!

Poetry, snow, blackbird of Oude Buisse Heide


Heideliedje, 22 January 2019

In my earlier blog post on walking in Oude Buisse Heide nature reserve, the last photo about the poetry path there showed a sign covered with snow. Which poem by Henriette Roland Holst was underneath the snow? After wiping, it turned out it was this poem.

Its title is Een heideliedje, a heathland song.

Ms Roland Holst wrote it in 1884, when she was only fifteen years old. It is about her joy at the Oude Buisse Heide, hearing skylark and bees sound.

On the right of the sign, photos of a blue butterfly and a brimstone butterfly, which one can see at this heathland (not now in winter).

We continued along the path.

Blackbird poem, 22 January 2019

The next poem was from 1949, when Henriette was much older, eighty years. It is about a blackbird: as soon as it begins to sing, the poetess’ sad mood is gone.

Blackbird poem, on 22 January 2019

Our next stop was at a lookout point.

Lookout point, 22 January 2013

It had a fine view of the heathland. And a sign, with part of a 2003 poem on the heathland by Ms Roland Holst.

1903 poem, 22 January 2019

It says, in my, not so poetic, translation:

Small paths zigzag across the heathland
and arrive at the poor people’s huts:
they are the only ones which have compassion
with the loneliness of humans suffering here.
On the heath, the emaciated sheep graze,
while bleating, they are in search of a new area
of tastier plants and watery brook
dogs and shepherds are tired and sleep …

The complete poem is here.

Lake, 22 January 2019

We continued. Again, a frozen lake. The wind had blown some snow off the ice.

Willow tree, 22 January 2019

Finally, we arrived back where we had started. Not far from there, this old willow tree.

Stay tuned; as after 22 January came 23 January at the Oude Buisse Heide!

Poetry, winter and nature of Oude Buisse Heide


Snowy path, 22 January 2019

Still 22 January 2019 at Oude Buisse Heide nature reserve. We were still walking on poetess Henriette Roland Holst’s path, amidst much snow.

Frozen lake, with snow, 22 January 2019

We passed another frozen lake.

Poem sign, 22 January 2019

And, on the border between forest and heathland, we arrived at another sign with a poem by Ms Roland Holst on it.

Poem, 22 January 2019

This poem is a sonnet. It is about the beauty of the Oude Buisse Heide, with its sounds of jackdaws and other birds.

Path, 22 January 2019

The path continued. Woodland on one side; heathland with some trees on the other side.

Snow on branches, 22 January 2019

Snow on the tree branches.

Snow on poem, 22 January 2019

And snow on another sign.

Which poem by Henriette would be underneath the snow?

Stay tuned to know!

Poetry, snow and nature at Oude Buisse Heide


This 2013 Dutch video is about Oude Buisse Heide nature reserve and its biotopes (not during winter)

Still 22 January 2019 at Oude Buisse Heide; definitely in winter.

Today, we walked, as snow was falling and eventually covering everything, along the poetry footpath. It has signs with poems by Henriette Roland Holst besides it.

Old trees, 22 January 2018

Close to the beginning, these old trees.

At first, we missed Henriette’s poetry footpath (which she walked herself day after day when she was alive).

Frozen lake, snow, 22 January 2019

We arrived at this frozen lake.

Frozen lake and snow, 22 January 2019

It kept snowing, as this photo shows.

We continued, and arrived at the border between woodland and heathland. However, the path stopped. We had to go back.

At the crossroads, we found Henriette’s poetry path which we should have taken before.

Frozen lake and tree trunk, 22 January 2019

We arrived at another frozen lake. No little grebes here now, like sometimes in summer.

De Vrouw in het Woud, 22 January 2019

We arrived at this sign. After wiping off most of the snow, this poem by Henriette Roland Holst became visible.

It is the poem De Vrouw in het Woud, the woman in the woodland. It describes how in woodland, there are dark, somber parts, but also beautiful lighter parts. This poem is from the 1917, third, edition of her poetry book of the same name. That book was originally from 1911, when she was sad after a conflict with the social democrat party leadership, which had failed to support a transport workers’ strike. The beauty of nature may help the poetess overcome the sadness.

Leaves, 22 January 2019

There were still a few leaves left in the woodland, even though autumn was over.

Branches, 22 January 2019

There probably had been autumn storms, as there were branches on the forest floor.

Voorbijgaande schoonheid, 22 January 2019

We arrived at another poem by Ms Roland Holst. She wrote it in 1945, when she thought she might die soon. The poem describes the beauty of summer. Which, however, will not last long, ‘and, like with summer, it will happen with me’.

Stay tuned, as there will be more about poetry, snow and wildlife at Oude Buisse Heide on this blog!

Oude Buisse Heide nature reserve, first day


This November 2015 Dutch video is about the nature reserve Oude Buisse Heide and the nature reserve Wallsteijn next to it.

Today, 21 January 2018, we traveled to the Oude Buisse Heide nature reserve in the Netherlands.

This area is property of conservation organisation Natuurmonumenten. It was transferred to them by famous Dutch socialist poetess Henriette Roland Holst.

Henriette Roland Holst

She wrote many of her poems at Oude Buisse Heide.

Atelier Oude Buisse Heide

In the atelier, built for her and her visual artist husband in 1918, by Margaret Staal-Kropholler, the first ever female architect in the Netherlands.

Margaret Staal-Kropholler

Here, she also wrote four poems in 1944, as the World War II front line was close to the Oude Buisse Heide. These four poems are in the poetry book De loop is bijna volbracht (The journey is almost finished).

Ms Roland Holst had helped the Dutch anti-nazi resistance, eg, writing anti-occupation poems and hiding fugitives from the German secret police at Oude Buisse Heide. She thought the nazis might soon come and kill her for that. She was already 74 years old, so she thought she might die soon anyway.

The last lines of the first poem in De loop is bijna volbracht are (my translation):

I want to stay a little while
in order to, in the dying light,
weave the spicy and sweet smells
and the fading colours
into a last poem.

These lines are about the beautiful nature of the Oude Buisse Heide.

As we arrived late in the afternoon, we saw and heard only a few sides of that beauty.

We did hear a nuthatch calling and other bird sounds. A carrion crow sat on a tree, then flew away.

German far-right politician’s daughter’s nazi poems


Girl reads nazi poetry in Speyer, Germany

The background of this photo from Speyer city in Germany shows a sign, saying ‘Speyer without racism’. Unfortunately, Speyer is not yet completely without racism. As the person on the foreground of the photo, the daughter of a neofascist politician, showed.

Translated from Dutch (right-wing) daily De Telegraaf today:

German teenage girl shocks with Nazi poems

By Sander Tromp

A fourteen-year-old girl from Speyer in Germany caused a huge uproar by declaiming racist poems during a poetry competition for students.

Each participant in the contest was given a maximum of five minutes of time and the person who would receive the most applause was allowed to continue to the next round.

After Ida-Marie Müller (not entirely coincidentally the daughter of Nicole Höchst, politician of the extreme right-wing party AfD) stepped on stage for about a hundred listeners, she fiercely attacked foreigners. She recited a poem in prayer form with striking sentences like “multiculti[ral] tralala, hurray, the whole world comes here” and “see the hypocrites in the mirror and love your neighbor, the murderer.”

Bizarrely enough she got the most applause, so she was allowed another round. The adolescent girl then doubled down a little bit more.

“The negro is no longer a nigger, you can not say gypsy [about Roma] anymore. They are both racist, that’s what people hear every day. Whoever dares to do so is booed.”

Microphone off

The organization then switched off her microphone. Then, they gave the girl another chance, but as she kept going with her Nazi talking, the jury finally decided to get her out of the competition.

According to Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws, Ms Müller said the, anti-racist, poems by the other competitors, were ‘for arseholes’. One of her poems said that refugees cannot get women, so they rape German women at knifepoint. And, she said, trade unionists and left-wing parties, shouting: nazis out! are supposedly complicit in these knifepoint rapes, ‘usual in the east’. She also attacked ‘towelhead’ Muslims and anti-fascists.

See also here.

Ms Müller’s mother is an AfD member of parliament. She is notorious for her attacks on LGBTQ people, whom she blames for child abuse, and on disabled persons. According to her, Muslims should leave Germany. Women, according to Ms Höchst MP, face no discrimination problem in Germany. ‘Islam is their only problem‘.

The AfD, according to the German government commissioner on anti-Semitism Felix Klein, promotes anti-Semitism. Over 90% of anti-Semitic crime in Germany is by the German nationalist far right.