If hosen and shoon thou ne'er gav'st nane

minnow at belfry.org.uk minnow at belfry.org.uk
Sat May 3 09:52:26 EDT 2003

Ania commented:

>> This time I saw far more versions giving the line as 'fire and sleet
>> and candle-leet', which is confusing now that we've sorted it out as
>> meaning three basic human necessities.
>> Hallie.
>In some hands s and f can look very similar. The Irish hand, notably; but
>cf. the long s's that look like fs even in early printed books. How many old
>MSS are there with the Lyke-wake dirge? Examining them may well establish
>that soemone miscopied the word and it turned to sleet in subsequent
>As I recall (please tell me if I'm wrong) the f-like s is used at the
>beginning of words and in the middle, and the ordinary s at the end
>(businesf; fhould; the real long s has no dash across it, I just used f
>because it was easier than looking for the symbol to insert). Likewise, in
>Greek, the letter sigma has two forms, one occurring at ends of words, the
>other elsewhere.
>I vote for miscopying. I'd say it's extremely likely. (credentials: my PhD
>involved comparing MS versions of a tale, noting just such inconsistencies
>and extrapolating from the data)

I'd vote for a combination of miscopying and ignorance.  ("I don't know
what this word is, I'll use one that looks as if it fits" on the part of
some scribe.)

An enquiry made at the Bristol University English Department, of which I am
a member, of the Professor Emiritus in Mediaeval Studies (ie DWJ's
husband), reveals that Robert Graves held by 'salt' and may have been the
originator of this idea.  Graves claimed in a lecture attended by Burrow
many years (decades, in fact) ago that 'fleet' was absurd and meaningless
since flood-water obviously had nothing to do with the matter.  In spite of
subsequently having the word 'flet' pointed out to him by Burrow in a
polite letter, and in spite of replying in "a scrawled note" (which Burrow
has kept in his copy of Graves' poems) that yes, indeed, he had missed that
and would now take it into account, Graves subsequently published his
'salt' theory without any suggestion that an alternative interpretation was
even possible, much to Burrow's indignation.

My guess would be that DWJ would go along with her husband's scholarship
rather than accepting that of Graves; on the whole, so would I!  Graves'
scholarship was generally unorthodox, even idiosyncratic, and sometimes not
as rigorous as it might perhaps have been.  :-)

'Salt', from the OE 'saelt' and the Latin 'sal', is pretty straightforward
even if one takes it via the Old Teutonic 'salto', and the 'e' would be
strange as a substitution for 'a'.  'Flet' is equally straightforward.
'Slet' on the other hand assumes first a misspelling of 'salt' as 'selt',
then a transposition of 'selt' as 'slet', from which one must make a
further leap to a miscopying of 's' as 'f' in order to arrive at 'flet',
which makes sense but is an archaic word and not immediately obvious as a
correction of the (putative) error.

Occam cuts in, in fact.

"Fire and hall (shelter) and light" makes sense: three Good Things To Have.

"Fire and salt and light" also makes sense, but 'salt' is a food-thing, and
is covered later in the poem under 'food and drink'; shelter isn't so
covered; and the 'salt' interpretation of the word  seems dubious.  Also
'salt' to 'flet' is a long series of errors.

'Fire and sleet and candle-light' begins to look like someone desperately
trying to avoid a known error (salt) but unable to make 'fleet' make sense
through ignorance of the existance of 'flet', and trying for a recognised
word even though in context it is nonsensical: two domestic Good Things and
some wild weather in between.


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