Soul and Body II: Superior, Equal or Lesser?

Soul and Body II is a poem that receives little attention in comparison with many other Old English poems. While research available for this poem is scarce, I found this work quite intriguing after my first reading and decided to look for criticism. A Soul and Body I poem, which seems to have more research available than its second, is often discussed by scholars, but I decided to tackle the lesser known.

The scholars who do focus their attention upon these poems tend to transmit their energy into the birth of this work while bickering about which poem is better. I personally am not interested in the “better” poem or its origin. I solely want to focus upon Soul and Body II as an individual poem that can become accessible to undergraduate readers.

Before contact with any criticism, I chose Soul and Body II  simply because I  enjoyed reading it and felt a connection with the ideas within it. However, now that I have read the work of scholars, I feel that this poem is an excellent example to show the disagreement of criticism, which is something to which undergraduate students need exposure. 

            Soul and Body II is found in The Exeter Book, specifically on folios 98a-100a according to the author of The Old English Soul and Body, Douglas Moffat (3). Peter Jackson of the Literary Encyclopedia mentions that other pieces found in The Exeter Book include The Wanderer and The Seafarer; this book remains at the Exeter Cathedral since its donation from Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, around 1072. Jackson also notes that this manuscript has “been used during the medieval period as both a mug-rest and a chopping-board, resulting in obvious cuts and fluid-stains on several leaves.” Moffat agrees with other scholars that The Exeter Book was written by one scribe that was West Saxon in descent and wrote another manuscript, Lambeth 149 (3). He also notes that, Soul and Body I is found in The Vercelli Book that is currently in Italy (1). These two poems, although currently residing in different parts of the world, create the heated debate about the relationship between these two body and soul poems.

            The origins of Soul and Body I and II are disputed by many scholars. Moffat believes that “Soul and Body is one of the very few OE poems to appear in two versions” (6). This Soul and Body he refers to is what Michael Matto, a professor at Yeshiva University, calls the “ur-poem” (39). An Ur text is something that is the original, so, in the case of Soul and Body II, it would be the initial poem from which the later soul and body poems derived.

He later tells how Elliot Van Kirk Dobbie, one of the editors of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR), noted that Soul and Body II was kept separate from Soul and Body I because they are in different manuscripts and that it “’is here called Soul and Body II to distinguish it from the other text of the same poem preserved in the Vercelli Book” (42). Dobbie seems to favor the idea that these poems are literally the same. However, Matto believes that they should be read as “individual poetic expressions—‘individual’ not defined as the product of one person’s work, but as coherent and unique cultural artifacts” (49).  Matto has just described how I plan to work with the text, as an individual poem, unassociated with Soul and Body I. However, it is important to understand the argument for the relationship between the Soul and Body poems because so many critics insist upon seeing them as related to each other.

            The first problem to discuss is that of Soul and Body II’s history. Moffat comments that this poem is found in The Exeter Book and seems to be West Saxon in descent (3). He later discusses the possibility of five versions of these soul and body poems by presenting a diagram that appears similar to this in his book on page 9:



                                                                     /    \

                                                       /       X

                                                                 /            \

                                                              E               V

Each letter represents a version or hypothetical version of a soul and body poem. E is the Exeter version that Soul and Body II is found in while V represents the Vercelli version in which Soul and Body I is written. X would be a poem somewhere between the Vercelli version and Y, a “common exemplar of E and The Damned Soul in V” according to Moffat (9). Z is also the predecessor of Y, and the Ur-text, as Matto mentions. Moffat also mentions that this history is unique in that few Old English poems are found in two versions and this one has not only two known, but the possibility for five (6).

            Critics also compare the linguistics and aesthetics of Soul and Body II to those of Soul and Body I. According to Matto, there is a forty-line difference between these two poems, where Soul and Body I is longer in that there is an address of the “Blessed Soul” (41). The medieval scholar, Cyril Smetana, believes that “Soul and Body I is generally believed to be a rather broad transcription of the first 126 lines of the Vercelli version” (qtd. in Matto 44). However, another scholar, Mary Heyward Ferguson, does not agree with Smenta’s thoughts. She believes that Soul and Body II has a “five-part structure consisting of an opening sentential, a narrative introduction, the damned soul’s address, a narrative conclusion, and a closing sentential” (qtd. in Matto 44-5). This circular structure is lost in Soul and Body I where the address of the “Blessed Soul” would cause a loss in balance, rather than the five-part structure Ferguson discusses (qtd. in Matto 45).

Meanwhile, there are also linguistic features that present Soul and Body II as early West Saxon. According to Moffat, the use of –gie in the poem is important because it preserves the diphthong, which may show a form of earlier spelling (14). He also mentions that if the Exeter version is earlier than the Vercelli, then it is sometimes referred to as more of the “conservative” with “fewer intermediate…copies for it than V(ercelli)” (16). I believe that this information is important to the translator because I may be working with the version that is the most indicative of the earliest, most pagan (by which I mean least influenced by “foreign” ways of thinking) Anglo-Saxon ideas, since it was written down during an earlier period of time. If the poem is indeed more “conservative” in nature, then that tells me that it probably has few differences from the Ur-text.

While I translate Soul and Body II as an individual work as opposed to its roots of being related to other poems,  it is nice to recognize the poem’s background because I now know that I may be working with the poem most similar to the original Anglo-Saxon story. 

There are some specific words that are important to the poem. Sāwl and gæst are both used to describe the soul. Moffat believes the challenge of these words is that sāwl seems more singular whereas gæst is “less specific, less limited in nature” (18). The difference between these two words is important because the translator must keep in mind whether this poem is singular or not in nature. In other words, these lines could be telling the story of one soul, or the paths of various souls, almost as if this journey is something endured by all spirits. I personally believe that both of these ideas are working within the poem, for the very last line states “May all of the wise be reminded of that,” telling the readers that this poem is a lesson to be remembered. I feel that a story is told of one soul and body, but could apply to anybody who sins during their life on earth.

 Moffat also mentions that the various words used for the body, such as līchoma and flæsc have varieties of translations (18). I believe that these variations further emphasize my point that the poem may tell the tale of one damned soul, but really applies to all. Almost as if this variation in these “body” words highlight the fact that this poem pertains to all of God’s people, and that the poem remains just as applicable as when it was first composed, no matter who the audience.

            There is so much focus upon the birth of Soul and Body II that scholars rarely look at this poem as a piece of individual work with its own themes and ideas. However, some ideas have been presented. The first, mentioned previously, is Ferguson’s view that the works are circular. She states that this circle is “’not only the view inherent in the poem that life, the interim of hell, and the eternal damnation are a continuum, but also the view that the Body and Soul are eternally united’” (qtd. in Matto 45). If one chooses to look solely at Soul and Body II, then this theory is quite intriguing. This idea that the poem is balanced through five parts emphasizes the point that this is a poem of life and death, or truly, about the circle of life. If this balance was intended by the Anglo-Saxons, then it would indicate that they had an understanding of life and death balancing each other, even within a sinful body and damned soul.

Also, because a Soul and Body I exists, Moffat’s point-- the view that Soul and Body II could possibly be a more “conservative” version of the Ur- Soul and Body--could be further supported (16). If someone wrote Soul and Body II before Soul and Body I, then the Anglo-Saxon idea of the balance of life could have been lost in Soul and Body I simply because it was written at a later time, when the older pagan ideas were diminishing.

Nevertheless, Matto argues that one should look only at the specific poem and stop viewing them as “echoes of a ghost poem” (47). Nevertheless, Moffat chooses to look at the two poems together and says that there is a common soul and body theme that occurs as far back as the beginning of Christianity in Egypt (28). He also says that there is knowledge of Egyptian literature’s containing a “Soul Journey” as well as visions of an Egyptian monk by the name of St. Macarius the Younger in the fourth-century that relate to this theme (28). Moffat tells the story of one of Macarius’ visions, which Macarius has  while he is in the company of two angels and they stumble upon a corpse. Macarius is sickened by the smell and the angels are disgusted by the sinful soul. The angels explain that the soul after death is only supported by its good deeds while in the body and that by the fortieth day, after death, the soul is sent to heaven or hell (28).

Another scholar, S.A.J. Bradley, finds this poem unfit to be in Exeter and says that it “can only inculcate a despairing sense of man’s squalid war of dignity” (358). I believe his dismissal of the poem as a whole is important when reading his translation, because Bradley would most likely have trouble translating a poem he does not even enjoy well. Unlike the other scholars, he simply chooses just not to care about the poem.

All in all, the views about the themes presented in Soul and Body II differ, as does all the other scholarship done on this work. While Ferguson believes this poem presents something holy in its circular motion, Bradley despises it. Meanwhile Moffat chooses to look at the work in conjunction with Soul and Body I while Matto feels that it should be read individually.

            Despite all this criticism, I personally became attached to this poem after my first reading. I am intrigued not only by the gruesome images throughout the poem, but also by the idea that the body and soul are completely different entities. In this work, I truly sense that the soul is a victim of the body’s desires, revealing that the body is associated with the physical and tangible while the soul is related to the intangible of rational and moral thought.

I am also intrigued by the poem because it says that the body is a tangible object while the soul is not. I believe this relationship is interesting because the corporeal is associated with physical things, such as food and wine, while the ethereal is more focused on spiritual, intangible things, like God and the church.

             I believe the purpose of Anglo-Saxon literature translated into modern English is to remain true to the literal meaning of the poem and its Anglo-Saxon roots while allowing room for the translator to use poetic skills that will aesthetically please and engage a modern audience.  To further explain this concept, I believe that understanding and working with cases is important in a clear translation; however, if the translator chooses to ignore a case in order to create a more poetic line understandable to someone in the 21st century, then that is acceptable. My purpose allows flexibility in the grammatical structure of the work in order to create fluidity in the sounds of the lines. Furthermore, I think the content must remain literally true to the original text and culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Although I hope to modernize some of the language, I still want to keep the ideas primarily Anglo-Saxon, while remaining flexible enough within the language of the poem to keep the reader engaged.

Additionally, the techniques must engage the reader through the art of the words. I still want a lyrical poem with colorful language and audibility.

These criteria have not been completely adhered to by the other two translations I have looked at. Bradley’s translation has moments of poetic language, such as “dreary, desiccated thing,” but I do not believe he could have put much effort into the translation with such a negative view of the poem (359). Although his line has a flow that I admire, I translated this same line as “Earthen filth, all putrid, / likeness of clay!” My primary difference is that I tried to remain close to the original Old English, since it is reasonably easy to understand for a modern audience.

Although I do believe that the images Bradley portrays would engage a modern audience, I feel as if he could have been more poetic with the language. For instance, he says “The tongue is torn into ten pieces for the hungry worms’ pleasure and therefore it cannot readily exchange words with the damned spirit” (361). I believe this translation is much too prosaic sounding, especially with the use of the words “and therefore.” I translated these same lines as “the tongue is gashed into ten slices as a relief / for the ravenous worms. Therefore it cannot efficiently / exchange words with the wretched soul.” Although I also use the word “therefore,” I attempted to break up the lines in a poetic way so that the lines would not become prose.  

As for Moffat’s translation, he spends most of his time comparing this poem with the first Soul and Body. In his attempts to show how the lines from one poem match the other, he has become quite dry. For example, Moffat translates lines 17-19 as “’What have you done, blood-stained one? Why did you afflict me, / foulness of earth? (You are) entirely wasted away, / you figure of clay’” (50). I interpreted these same lines as “’Behold! You do suffer, and you afflict trifles upon me! / Earthen filth, all putrid, / likeness of clay!’” Moffat attempts to give the body a guilt-trip through his questioning, which is not as exciting as the soul’s literally yelling at the body, which I attempted to achieve in my translation. I also feel that the conciseness of my lines creates a quicker pace that exemplifies anger.

All in all, the main aspect that I want to change in my translation in comparison with Bradley and Moffat is to create a sense of poetry through artistic wording that is graspable for an undergraduate reader.  In my translation of this poem, I truly hope to highlight the various images among the poem through poetic language that is understood by the modern audience. I also want to keep the primary Anglo-Saxon idea portrayed in the poem that the body and soul are two completely different entities. Overall, I really hope to create a good poem that is clear to someone who can read poetry, but may have never been exposed to Anglo-Saxon concepts.

Works Cited

Bradley, S.A.J. “Soul and Body II.Anglo-Saxon Poetry. Rutland, Vermont: CharlesTuttle, 1982. 358-362.

Clark Hall, J.R. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th Ed. Toronto: Cambridge UP, 1960.

Jackson, Peter. Exeter Book, (940). 25 October 2004. <>

Matto, Michael. “The Old English Soul and Body I and Soul and Body II: Ending the Rivalry.” In Geardagum: Essays on Old and Middle English Language and Literature. 18 (1997). 39-58.

Moffat, Douglas. The Old English Soul and Body. Wolfeboro, New Hampshire: D.S. Brewer, 1990.

“Soul and Body II.”  The Exeter Book:  The Anglo Saxon Poetic Records. Vol. III. New York, Columbia UP, 1936.  174-178.