The Swan

From Unlikeness Is Us. With thoughts on the Anglo-Saxon riddle as a threshold genre, and how can the more-than-human speak in our rather human poems.


The Swan

My dress silent when I walk on land,
or house myself, or stir up the water.
Sometimes my clothing and the air
lift me above the human dwellings,
and for that all the powers of cloud
bear me on – my white vestments
sound loudly and resound sweetly,
sing clearly, when I rest on neither
earth nor water, wandering spirit.

The Swan

Hrægl mīn swīgað°          þonne ic hrūsan trede,
oþþe þā wīc būge,          oþþe wado drēfe.
Hwīlum mec āhebbað          ofer hæleþa byht
hyrste mīne          ond þēos hēa lyft,
ond mec þonne wīde          wolcna strengu°                         (5)
ofer folc byreð.          Frætwe° mīne
swōgað hlūde          ond swinsiað,
torhte singað,          þonne ic getenge ne bēom ⬩°
flōde ond foldan,          fērende gǣst°. ⬩   :⁊

Commentary

There are ninety-five riddle poems in the Exeter Book. Give or take – a few short poems, whether or not they’re riddles is an open question. A few haven’t been solved for sure; some effectively announce the answer in the first line. In some the thing speaks for itself; in others it’s described by a curious or bemused third party. Most are marked by compact wordplay, many by playful, occasionally salacious banter. Some end with a challenge – name what this is.

“The Swan,” like many of them, offers speech to a thing we would have thought speechless (a kind of prosopopoeia). What to make of that depends on how hard you look. Pressed lightly, the poem is a happy game of make-believe. “Imagine a swan could speak!” And it’s nice to find a ludic impulse in a body of work often thought wholly gloomy in its celebration of heroes done in by wyrd. Read at this pressure, the riddle poems show a debt to a post-Classical genre that dates back at least to Symphosius (ca. 4th–5th C.), whose three-line, apparently extempore Ænigmata inspired translations and imitations by Aldhelm (639–709), bishop of Sherborne, and Tatwine (ca. 670–734), archbishop of Canterbury, among others. The influence of these precursors, all in Latin, can be felt in the Exeter riddles, but the latter aren’t for the most part translations or imitations; they tend to be longer, more detailed, and more playful stylistically than their forebears (Marsden 310).

Look harder, the ludic becomes lucid, as the brute world is found to be sentient. A swan speaks; later in these poems, a cuckoo does; elsewhere among the riddles, mead, a tree, a mail coat, a reed pen. The poems recall for us an old human premise we’ve forgotten or grown unconscious to – the sensuous surround of stones and trees and birds and bugs is awake, articulate. Maybe in these poems the notion was just taken down from a shelf in the mind for use in a verbal parlour game; maybe it also touched on grave true belief. Compare an earlier instance, both playful and earnest, an Archaic Greek cup on which the words are inscribed, “I am Raven’s wine cup.” Robert Bringhurst writes of it:

[What] the Lindos cup asserts, apart from its owner’s name, is its own articulate vitality: “I am.” This is an animate, vocal drinking vessel, likely to cry for help if you should put it in your pocket and walk off. (175)

That cup, this poem, belong to an animist inheritance, the final human universal.[1] The first-person riddle poems take it as a given that our minds engage in a larger network of minds endowed with sense and speech and reciprocal responsibility. In this they rebut the Seafarer and the Earthwalker, who in their ascetic commitments aim to leave earthly being behind; for them the meaning that matters is not in matter – is, as for Augustine, immaterial and indefinitely deferred. But even they, lonely and cold, can’t help but take birdcalls for human chatter, the birds themselves as human comrades. They can’t escape their own imaginations, any more than they can be not an animal, or evade having been born.

All objects potentially subjects. The notion sits near the heart of the objectivist mode. You see it especially in the Objectivist poets after whom the mode is named. When George Oppen avows the life of objects in “Of Being Numerous”

So spoke of the existence of things,
An unmanageable pantheon

Absolute, but they say
Arid.
           (“Of Being Numerous”)

or Lorine Niedecker lays for that pantheon a sensate material ground

“We have a lovely
          finite parentage
                    mineral

vegetable
          animal”
                    Nearby dark wood –
                               (“Wintergreen Ridge”)

they’re stepping into a way of thinking the riddle poets walked before them. The habit of mind went underground, not away.

That’s one side of it – the object is hallowed.

The other is, it’s hollowed out – appropriated, made to speak with a human tongue, of human things. The swan has not feathers but hrægl “garments,” which are later seen as frætwe “ornaments” – as if a bird had clothes and vanity and the social energy for all that. As it rises from the world we know, flood and field, it calls itself fērende gǣst “wandering spirit,” or else fērende gæst “wayfaring guest” – terms that connote the soul, a guest on earth, fleeting in flesh before it ascends to Heaven. The living creature is made to do a job in a Christian sign system, and in this respect, it’s made a tool. The swan is here to shed light on the human world, its social and ecclesiastic arrangements. This is the mind of resource extraction, alert to use-value. That that value is cultural, then production of meanings, rather than grossly material, the production of food or drink, tractors, iPhones, matters not so much. The swan belongs to us, it has been baptized, domesticated. [2]

And, yet, some of its swanness hangs about it still. Made a tool, it’s not reduced to tool. Put in human terms, it’s marked by its distance from human realms: not on land, not on water, far above our dwellings. The sky it flies across calls to mind Heaven but stays a material sky. And the swan is only crossing, notheaded upward, as the soul we might  want it to stand for would be. As it leaves our sight and the poem, if we feel the affirmation of a Christian construct, we feel as much a visit from outside our constructions. And even as it is made to speak human (how else could the poem make it understood?) its words make the sounds its wings would in flight: swīgað, swōgað, swinsiað – sounds that also point, as Lockhart notes, to its name, the riddle’s answer, OE swan. In the sign-realm the swan is put to work, as said, doing our heavy lifting; in the sound-realm it sends, by onomatopoeia, a coded message, one true to its name in human speech, but also to the swish of its wings. Is it ours, then, or not ours, an it or a thou?

The poem’s a cross-section through a dialectic unfolding on a threshold. The human realm commodifies a non-human mode of being for tool-use, even as that more-than-human being brushes us with meanings not our own. Abiding on that threshold is how the poem appears to tremble. The riddle poems draw their other into the borderlands of human use, where the mystery of what it was before contact with human hand or mind (a tree, a seed, honey, the inside of an egg) still hangs about it as aura, and the mind of utility, seeing a tool (rune stick) or food (onion) or drink (mead) or sign (cuckoo) possible, works to harvest the mystery.

The poem is a look at that work, right at the moment of naming, when the name is a shining new thing, as for Adam.


I wanted to go somewhere with unclosedness: that language, though inescapably human, in its indeterminacy leaves gaps the non-human comes streaming in thru – thinking especially of that gǣst/gæst play at the end, how it multiplies meanings and leaves something unresolved, uncompletable. Because rhizome. But it’ll have to wait for another day. Got a heap of other poems to comment on & a tight deadline.


Notes

1     swīgað. Marsden notes a play between this word, “be silent,” and swōgað (l. 7) “make sound.”

5     wolcna strengu. “Power of clouds (or skies).” A kenning for wind.

6     Frætwe. Literally, “ornaments.” In other contexts, fields that cover the earth and armour that covers a warrior’s body are described as frætwe. Here the word refers to the bird’s plumage.

8     The punctum, appearing mid-sentence, emphasizes the speaker’s absence, ne bēom. In an MS without line breaks, it also, with the punctum that follows, sets off the last line as a compositional unit:

flode ond foldan ferende gæst

9     gǣst. Vowel length is unmarked in the manuscript, so this word may be read as gǣst “soul, spirit,” as gæst “guest,” or as both.


[1] An exercise I used to give: “Take a pencil and paper and make a quick sketch of a friend. Include whatever makes them them to you – how their hair curls, their unfashionable glasses. Now take your pencil and stab the eyes out. Stop. No need to do it. Instead just notice what happened in you the moment I asked you to.” We’re all still animists. I don’t think there’s any art without it. I stopped giving students the exercise because it made the point too well, disturbed all of us.

[2] What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men. That is the only aim. There is to be no mystery. And this disenchantment of the world is the extirpation of animism. In time the multiplicity of forms is reduced to position and arrangement, history to fact, things to matter. —Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (5–7 passim)

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headComposter

I write draw teach blog in and from the Pacific Northwest of America.

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