The Swan

Another one from Unlikeness Is Us. With a few thoughts on riddles, lucidity, and how can the more-than-human speak in our all-too-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. In many the subject, a creature or a made thing, speaks for itself; in others a bemused observer tells us about it. Often the poem ends with an invitation to name the subject. Some of them have never been solved to satisfaction; to others the answers are clear early on – they’re less riddles than playful praise songs to that they describe.

In many speech is given to – assumed of – a creature, a tool or artefact, a weatherform. Here a swan; later a cuckoo; elsewhere in the codex, mead, a tree, a mail coat, a reed pen, many and much else. Prosopopoeia is the ground trope, mind’s first move; what we make of that depends on how deep we look. At one level, it turns the poem to happy activity, a game of make-believe. “Pretend a swan or reed or mail coat could speak . . .” And it’s good to note a ludic aspect, a spirit of play, in a body of poetry often thought wholly gloomy in its celebration of heroes done in by wyrd. On this level we find a lineage, a post-Classical Latin debt, dating back at least to Symphosius (ca. 4th–5th C.), whose three-line, apparently extempore Ænigmata inspired translations and imitations by Aldhelm, Bishop of Sherborne (639–709), Tatwine, Archbishop of Canterbury (ca. 670–734), and others – all writing in Latin. But while the influence of these precursors can be felt in the Exeter riddles, the latter aren’t translations or imitations; they’re generally longer, more detailed, and more playful stylistically than their forebears.

Look deeper and the ludic becomes lucid, deep recall. The notion that speech is a human prerogative is a recent twist in our thought. For most of our time here we’ve been animists, granting sentience and speech to air and water, sun and moon, trees and stones and our own food and tools. We don’t know much about pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon religious practice, or Celtic for that matter, but British culture is littered with the husks of their spent animist forms: fairies, elves, standing stones. The nonhuman world was known as sentient and heard to speak. And it’s been the same the world over. Symphosius – a pseudonym that means something like “Party Boy” – composed his impromptu ænigmata for Saturnalia, parties for a grain god who in his young days would have been the grain. Robert Bringhurst writes of an Archaic Greek cup on which the words are inscribed, “I am Raven’s wine cup”:

 The only thing 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.
                                 (“Raven’s Wine Cup”)

Though Bringhurst says our animist heritage, tens of millennia old, has had a hard time surviving the advent of writing, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, fully literate, a couple centuries after the Exeter Book was compiled, Eihei Dōgen was turning his monks’ ears to rocks and trees:

Wondrous! Marvelous!
The teachings of the insentient are inconceivable.
If you listen with the ears, you won’t understand.
When you hear with the eyes, then you will know.
                                 (300 Koan Shobogenzo, Loori and Tanahashi, trans.)

It’s our nearly universal consensus that the world is, in each part and taken whole, intelligent, articulate. We moderns are the outliers. Oppen wrote of this

So spoke of the existence of things,
An unimaginable pantheon

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

So did Niedecker

“We have a lovely
          finite parentage
                    mineral

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

And we’re still animists if you scratch our surface. Most of our tropes rely on animism or something akin to it: metaphor is a category error we began refining in the Chauvet caves and on the Wulanchabu grasslands; a smiley-face emoticon gives you a dopamine hit because it seems someone’s there and they like you. Right now out the window, wind and a red osier dogwood are in converse, I can see and hear and nearly taste it, I don’t know what the matter is, something to do with trade relations, movement of air and light, tree-food.

These riddle poems, the games they play, aerate us with that mind.

And yet – when the swan speaks, it speaks with a human tongue.

It has not feathers but hrægl, garments, which are later re-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, earth and water, flood and field, it calls itself fērende gǣst, a wandering spirit, or else fērende gæst, a wayfaring guest – terms that connote the soul, a guest on earth, fleeting in flesh before it ascends (the hope is) to heaven. This is an appropriation: the swan, living creature, is made to do a job in a Christian sign-system. It’s made a tool. (I’ve emphasized this feature of the poem by translating frætwe as “vestments” – not accurate to the word itself, but to a sacral aspect of the poem as a whole.)

At the same time, the swan’s swanness clings to it. Even as it is put in human terms, it is marked by how far it is from human realms: not on land, not on water, far above human dwellings. The sky it flies across may call to mind heaven but it stays a material sky. And the swan is only crossing it, not headed 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 at least as much a visit from outside our realm, our human dwellings.

The poem sits on a threshold, where the human realm appropriates nonhuman modes of being to tool-use, and the nonhuman brushes us with meanings other than ours. The threshold is why the poem seems to tremble. Rilke’s panther comes to mind – the poem that describing the cage is its anti-cage.

Only at times, the curtain of the pupils
lifts, quietly – . An image enters in,
rushes down through the tensed, arrested muscles,
plunges into the heart and is gone.
                               (Stephen Mitchell. trans.)


(I wanted to go somewhere with unclosedness: that language, even if inescapably human, in its indeterminacy leaves gaps the non-human comes streaming in – 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 and a tight deadline.)


NOTES

  1. swīgað. Marsden notes a play between this word, “be silent,” and swōgað (l. 7) “make sound.”
  1. wolcna strengu. “Power of clouds (or skies).” A kenning for wind.
  1. 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.
  1. The interpunct appears mid-sentence, maybe to emphasize the speaker’s absence ne bēom, or maybe, with the interpunct that follows, to set off and emphasize the final line.
  1. gǣst. Vowel length is unmarked in the manuscript, so this word may be read as gǣst, “soul” or “spirit”; as gæst, “guest”; or as both. See commentary.

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headComposter

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

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