Yes I squeezed all those books into 47 pages double-spaced.
First paragraph of the intro to Unlikeness Is Us, a draft of it, what I been driving at these past days. Also doubles as a diversity statement. To my heterodox way of thinking anyway.
Ungelīc is ūs. Enigmatic, in the Old English, but it means something like “it’s different for us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To say rather “unlikeness is us” is to go after something uncanny in it—and in the poem it comes from and in all these poems—rather than the surface sense. By “uncanny” I mean something both familiar and strange, near and far, about these poems, that makes them, not scary, unsettling. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike,” and he meant something intimately known, then by choice forgotten, and now it’s come back to be known again, and there’s an inner shiver. Something true of you you’ve become absent or alien to and here it is at the door. It’s how these poems meet me anyway. They’ve always been with us but have we known how to read them? Unlikeness has always been us but do we how to be it? I sit writing in a whitish corner of America, 2017, summer, no clouds and no sun either. Corner of Canada adjacent, where I grew up, is burning. America is burning too, literally, allegorically, morally, anagogically.
. Reading according to the letter. Record-breaking heat this summer, again, and a terrible wildfire season, again.
. Reading for the “truth hidden under a beautiful fiction” (Dante, Il Convivio).
. Reading for the teaching or instruction implied.
. Reading oriented toward the future, eschatology, end times. Note the vanishing of the sun without clouds or night or an eclipse to explain it. Apocalyptic.
I have ADHD. Confirmed last week. Don’t know whether to cry or be glad. Lot of things fall into place. Including why this leap and not knowing whether it’s an overshare, how to tell. I guess, if you can’t spill too much on a blog, where can you.
To everyone I’ve ever talked over, interrupted, I’m sorry. God but I am.
. Good example of unlikeness though whatever else it is.
Image atop is from this article here, about adoption as dissimilitude, and the love of humans and God. Have only scanned it but looks intelligent, and moving, and pertinent to the next paragraph of my intro, which isn’t ready to post yet.
But here’s the bit from Augustine:
When I first knew you, you took me up, so that I might see that there was something to see, but that I was not yet one able to see it. You beat back my feeble sight, sending down your beams most powerfully upon me, and I trembled with love and awe. I found myself to be far from you in a region of unlikeness, as though I heard your voice from on high: “I am the food of grown men. Grow, and you shall feed upon me….” I said, “Is truth nothing, because it is diffused neither through finite nor through infinite space?” From afar you cried to me, “I am who am.” I heard, as one hears in his heart; there was no further place for doubt.”
I hate his theology, as it seems to have come out to be as a whole, but love his writing, as I find it in its concrete instants. And yes I’m playing around w/ ADHD as a form, have been a good long while, apparently, it’s one of the upsides. Thanks for reading.
My commentary on “The Seafarer” for Unlikeness. Kinda long cause I went to Pound. Here’s his “Seafarer” for you. At the bottom of the post, there’s a special mp3 treat.
For literary translators of OE – not so much for scholars – Ezra Pound’s version of this poem is a watershed moment. Indeed, his “Seafarer” is a bearing point for any poet who translates into English; along with Zukofsky’s Catullus and a couple of other seminal modern works of translation, Pound’s version, published in Ripostes in 1912, makes later adventurous aberrant projects like Jerome Rothenberg’s “total translations” of Frank Mitchell and David Melnick’s Men in Aida conceivable. This book is nothing like those, but a brief look at Pound’s venture seems fitting, for any translation that comes after his must contend with that garrulous maddening astonishingly rightly-wrong one.
Pound wrote of three ways to charge words with poetic meaning: melopoeia (handling sounds), phanopoeia (throwing an image toward the mind’s eye), and logopoeia (setting a word in a new relation to its usage) (ABC 37). Hearing, vision, thought: three sites where one could add by shaping (shared ground of the Greek word for poet, poietes, and the AS word, scop) to the world’s store of meaning by words. The trick with Pound’s “Seafarer” is that he translates faithfully for sound, opportunistically for image, and liberally around thought. Since the three are co-equal in meaning-making – are the three legs of the unwobbling stool the poem is – it is for a poet a perfectly defensible choice.
As a patterned arrangement of sounds, Pound’s “Seafarer” is fidelity itself:
x – x – – – x – x –
bitre brēostceare gebiden hæbbe,
– x – – x – x – – x –
gecunnad in cēole cearselda fela,
– – x – – x – – x – –
atol ȳþa gewealc, þǣr mec oft bigeat
x – x – – – x – x –
nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan,
– – – x – x –
þonne hē be clifum cnossað. (4–8)
(x = primary stress)
x – x – x – – x –
Bitter breast-cares | have I abided,
x – – x x – – x x
Known on my keel | many a care’s hold,
– – x x – – – x x
And dire sea-surge, | and there I oft spent
x – x – x – – x
Narrow nightwatch | nigh the ship’s head
– – – x – x
While she tossed close to cliffs.
He does far more than catch the feel of AS cadence – often he keeps the rhythmic form specific to the hemistich. Where a verse in the source front-loads its stresses, as in bitre brēostceare, Pound’s verse does too. When the source spreads the stresses evenly across the line, as in gecunnad in cēole, Pound does likewise. When the OE verse reserves the stresses for the end, as in atol ȳþa gewealc, Pound’s verse does that too. In this way he captures distinctive effects of the original, as in how the run of lightly stressed syllables before clifum mimes the rush of water towards the cliff. With alliteration, again, not only is the pattern preserved – in most lines the specific sound in the OE poem is kept. Pound translates the internal structure, what Hugh Kenner calls the “patterned integrity” (145), of the AS line, and does so because in a given pattern, a given intelligence is to be found, through which articulations not otherwise possible, are. Later he’ll call this a rose in the steel dust. That insight’s outside our purview, except that the AS scop, his line and his seafarer’s exile, were clerestory to it.
Phanopoeia – an image thrown to the mind’s eye – means immediacy. The image gets its power through the speed of its arrival. In “The Seafarer” Pound saw an accretive syntax that threw one image then another with minimal interruption:
Stormas þǣr stænclifu bēotan, þǣr him stearn oncwæð,
īsigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal
Storms, on the stone-cliffs beaten, fell on the stern
In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed
With spray on his pinion.
An image is cast on the mind’s eye, another succeeds it, and in their likeness contrast and interpenetration, a new perception arises. Storms beat on the stone cliffs – they fall on the stern – as the former image is seen dimly through the latter, the force brought to bear on a whole cliff-face is momentarily concentrated on the fragile hull of the boat. “In icy feathers” then lays over the brute impersonal force of the storm a sense of something animate, almost delicate; then the feathers of spray, overlaid by the cry of the eagle, become for a moment the eagle’s own feathers; the sequence ends by casting (icy-feathered) spray on the eagle’s own wing, giving a sense of completion (storm-wing meets eagle-wing) as the vortex comes to rest.
He’s doing Vorticism, an abortive movement but prelude to the Cantos, and doing in words the sort of montage Sergei Eisenstein worked out in pictures – both of them, as it happens, working from Ernest Fenollosa’s misapprehensions of the Chinese written character, though with Kenner I think Pound got some of his mojo from the Seafarer poet. It’s a lovely montage, one of many here, and it arrived as a new possibility for poetry in English. It did come though at the cost of turning a bird (stearn, “tern”) into the butt of a ship (“stern”).
Later, again using the scop‘s accretive syntax to cast images in quick succession, Pound shrinks cities (byrig) into berries.
Bearwas blōstmum nimað, byrig fægriað,
wongas wlitigað, woruld ōnetteð (48-49)
Bosque taketh blossom, cometh beauty of berries,
Fields to fairness, land fares brisker
Faithful as a dog to sound, brilliant opportunist with image, Pound looks kind of slobby with what the words “actually mean.” And though we know most of a poem’s meaning is outside its words’ denotations, we’re meaning junkies anyway and cry foul – or fool – when the straitened sense of the dictionary is sidelined. As here:
“reckon” (1) from wrecan, “recite”
“on loan” (66) from læne, “fleeting”
“shelter” (61) for scēatas, “surfaces” or “corners”
“twain” (69) for twēon, “doubt”
“English” (78) for englum, “angels”
One or two are felicitous; more look like gaffes; did he really just write in the ModE word the OE word reminded him of? Maybe we can find a reason for any given departure – this one was made to preserve the rhythmic or the alliterative fabric; that one refuses the connective tissue that would set images in logical or causal arrangements; angels are demoted for the same reason the devil is erased later, to draw the poem back toward what Pound thought were its pre-Christian origins – but when we take the glary errors all together, it seems we may have to say, Pound didn’t greatly value the semantic meanings of the poem’s words: not more than the sound matrix they belonged to, anyway, or the image cascades they composed.
He sacrificed sense to hold a sonic form, or to sharpen an image sequence. He valued those most in the poem so he translated those foremost. Or maybe just on an equal footing with sense, but the loss of sense stands out more to us. Perhaps we forgive or miss a loss of cadence or a diminution of image—those embodied, experiential aspects of the poem—more easily because we are in the end meaning junkies. Perhaps we are as greedy and eager for a paraphrasable meaning as the Seafarer is for a transcendent meaning, and as ready as he to travel off in mōd from our lived experience to an abstract construction elsewhere.
Where the poem commits fully to its abstract construction – Heaven – Pound makes his boldest change. He stops. He cuts the last 23 lines of the poem, sure they’re the work of some later pious other. He wasn’t alone in thinking so or in wanting to save an original pagan poem from a later Christian overlay. And a number of things do change at this point: The folio ends. So, at the same moment, do the sentence and the larger thought. At the start of the next folio, hypermetric lines set in, the Christian content intensifies, and there’s arguably a loss of poetic invention. For these reasons some have concluded that “The Seafarer” ends at the end of 82v, cut off by the loss of one or more folios, and what picks up on 83r is some other less interesting poem.
But the move to an earnestly Christian homiletic register would not have jarred an AS audience the way it does a modern reader. Indeed, the shift fits the arc of the poem as a whole and is consonant with other poems of its ilk. A lot of the impetus to break the poem in two came in the late 19th C. from scholars who wanted to recover a heroic pagan Germanic literature in a “pure” condition. While that impetus has long since expired, arguments that the poem is composite have not. Pope and Fulk:
[T]he shift at this place from the specifics of a retainer’s sad condition – the approach of decrepitude, the loss of a lord, the futility of burying gold with the dead – to a passage of mostly devotional generalities, in conjunction with a sudden change to hypermetric form, raises the possibility that The Seafarer is not one poem but fragments of two. It is not necessary to read the text this way … but unity of design is by no means assured. (102)
They like the question for being unanswerable, the sort of indeterminacy special to OE studies, with its single copies of poems handwritten by error-prone scribes in frangible manuscripts. And I am not one not to cheer thrice for indeterminacy. Still, novice and outsider that I am, I see a single poem, a single author. The hypermetric lines are not the first in the poem; the shift to them doesn’t last long; and six-stress lines come and go for no clear reason in a number of other Exeter poems. The switch to preacher voice, as said, fits, indeed completes, the dramatic, emotional, moral, and metaphysical arcs of the poem. What would be odd would be not to go there: you’d expect a poem that forswears the world of the living at some point to leave the life-world behind. And these closing lines do have poetic force, something in places quite majestic. Yes, the very last few are sententious, but many other OE poems of the first order have like passages, and as I note below, the scribe does quietly set them slightly apart. I see nothing out of fit here, just ordinary variousness.
The seam at line 103 is just one of the aporiae that have thrown the poem’s unity into question. Another is that its sea voyage seems literal at the outset, full of vivid material details that resist the point-for-point calculus of allegory mind – an ice-clotted beard, a mewgull’s cries; and yet accumulating misfires in the seafarer’s discourse around the voyage start to invite figurative reading and to load the voyage with allegorical freight; and yet, as one ventures into an allegorical reading, the voyage itself disappears from view, not to be seen again. Middle of the last century, Whitelock tried to solve the problem by levelling it: she presented the journey as, despite appearances, literal from start to end, and compiled a body of historical evidence that religious self-exile and pilgrimage were actual AS cultural practices. It was a persuasive case to many but didn’t end the discussion. Marsden argues the other side: the journey stands for the spiritual pilgrim’s journey from the earthly city to the heavenly city of Augustine. By this reading, the seafarer’s true exile is not his voluntary remove from the towns of women and men, but the distance between him and his “ancestral heavenly home” (221). I am always both-and and to me it seems the poem undergoes a conversion from literal to allegorical: the journey itself metamorphoses: it starts as journey-as-journey and gradually becomes journey-as-trope. Travelling itself travels; it’s a tropic trope; I’ll stop now. But part of its subtlety is, there’s no one point where it can be said to have changed condition. The transformation is as mysterious, imperceptible, and undeniable as the metamorphosis the pilgrim aspires to.
A third aporia is the speaker’s ambivalence towards sea voyaging. He hates it, loves it, loves to hate it. At sea he longs for the delights of human company. Among men and women he thirsts for his cold hard life at sea. His ambivalence, and especially the pressure he puts on the word forþon, “therefore” – which seems sometimes to mean just that, and sometimes about the opposite, “even so” or “just the same” – have led some readers to treat the poem as a dialogue. However, as Pope and Fulk point out (99), OE narrative poetry has very formal ways of announcing new speakers, and there are none such here. Frankly, as a poet who makes his living from mixed feelings, I have trouble seeing the problem. Keats, Negative Capability, problem solved. In fact, what’s interesting is that it’s been an interpretive problem, in the first place. Belonging to print and internet culture, we’re attuned to certain ways of rendering mixed feelings – synchronic ways, mostly, particularly irony, where one attitude is layered over another, with gaps for the underlayer to show through. Think George Eliot, Henry James, Jordan Abel, a well-crafted tweet. In “The Seafarer” oral storytelling conventions persist, and oral traditions don’t, to my knowledge, use irony to create interiority. Some, I know, convey mixed feelings diachronically. In The Odyssey, when Telemachus expresses two conflicting feelings adjacently, it’s not a contradiction or a change of heart, but a two-step account of an inner conflict: the poet describes one feeling, then the other, and his audience knows they cohabit in the boy’s mind. So some of what seems like self-contradiction in “The Seafarer” may be the work of unfamiliar narrative conventions. And some of it is the scop’s use of logopoeia in putting the word forþon in a highly charged relation to its ordinary usage. At any rate, the notion that there’s more than one speaker here, which had currency for a while, has by now been discarded.
There are two capital letters in the MS, both near the end of the poem, and I’ve broken the OE transcription into verse paragraphs accordingly. I don’t posit a new speaker for the final lines, let alone for the closing “Amen,” but rather the same speaker putting on the voice he has been voyaging to the whole poem.
Phew. Thanks for hanging in there. Just the first lines of mine …
I can from myself call forth the song,
speak truth of travels, of how, toiling
in hardship, hauling a freight of care,
I have found at sea a hold of trouble
awful rolling waves have, too often,
through long anxious nightwatches
at the prow, thrown me to the cliffs.
My feet, ice-shackled, cold-fettered,
froze, even as cares swirled hot about
my heart and inner hungers tore at
my sea-weary spirit. You can’t know
to whom on land all comes with ease
how I, sorrow-wracked on an icy sea
wandered all winter the way of exile,
far from kinsmen, my hair and beard
hung with ice, as hail fell in showers.
I heard nothing there but sea-surge
and icy surf, swan song sometimes,
took the gannet’s cry and the voices
of curlews for human laughter, made
the call of a mew gull my honeymead;
storms beat at stone cliffs, icy-feathered
the tern answers, a dew-winged eagle
screeches; no sheltering kinsman here
who might console a desolate spirit.
And, special treat! Ezra Pound reading his translation (with drums).
’Nother riddle for yehs. Birds? Or maybe it’s unsolvable & that’s the solution.
CLUTTER OF STARLINGS
Nightair carries little creatures over
the hillside, they are black, very black,
their coats are dark. Singing profusely
they spread out in bands, call out loudly –
treading wooded headlands, sometimes
in halls of men they name themselves.
CLUTTER OF STARLINGS
Đeos° lyft byreð lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa, þā sind blace° swīþe,
swearte, salopāde. Sanges rōpe,°
hēapum fēraþ, hlūde cirmað. ⬩°
Tredað bearonæssas,° hwīlum burgsalo
niþþa bearna nemnað hȳ sylfe.° :⁊
Though the birds are full of articulate noise, and cross at the end the verge of human dwelling, the poem is not in their voice, but that of a human riddler. The description of their flight habits suggests to me starlings, which travel in great clouds, following the contour of the countryside, sometimes at twilight. Muir goes with swallows, which have dark backs, pale underparts. And if we read blace (l. 2) with a long vowel, blāce, we get not “black” but “bright,” and a nice description of swallow looks and activity:
Little creatures ride the air over
the hillside, they are brightly black,
their coats are dark. Singing profusely
they go in flocks
Swallows too are more likely than most birds to swoop into a human dwelling. But, no way swallows can be said to tread the earth, while starlings are conspicuous walkers.
Niles (129) says the crow’s the bird most like to name itself, to have an onomatopoeic call. They gather in flocks, and by twilight (taking that trace of dark in Ðeos), and they tread the earth; but they’re about as songful as starlings – not at all – and not so little, neither.
Other solutions proposed, in Muir (623): swifts, jackdaws, house martins, bees, hailstones, raindrops, storm clouds, musical notes, damned souls, demons. Some bird seems most plausible to me, though the thought of musical notes tromping the countryside in black coats is awfully lovely.
It’s one of the Exeter riddles most resistant of solution. Warren’s discussion on The Riddle Ages of its undecidability, and how that connects to the inbetweenness of birds, is very good. Bartholomew the Englishman, he notes, discerned something in the substance of birds þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour 596). All the Exeter birds are metamorphic, Warren says, tending to elude naming; this riddle’s refusal of answer may be its answer. The crux is that final half line, which through the wonders of OE case endings can be read as an imperative, “name them yourselves,” also as a declarative, “they name themselves.” In the MS or on the voice, it’s not one or the other, it’s both.
Warren notes that the birds are liminal in the way this verse is. We must
inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands.” … [The riddle] manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.
That’s Isidore of Seville, his Etymologies, who writes of birds: “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney 264). That sentence should put to rest the notion that wordplay of the sort seen in Zukofsky’s A or Perec’s La Disparition or Alan Davies’s a an av es is a modern phenomenon. We’ve been switching letters to make new meanings for as long as we’ve been swapping nucleotides in codons under our rubric as sapiens, the languaged.*
- Ðeos. The demonstrative pronoun, but calls to mind þeostre, “darkness.” A suggestion then of dark air, twilight?
- blace. Usually read as “black,” so that the sequence blace swiþe, / swearte, salopāde translates as “very black, black, dark-coated.” A point heavily made. The word may alternatively be taken as blāce, “bright.”
- Sanges rōpe. “Bountiful of song.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “starlings” or “crows” (and doesn’t especially point towards “swallows”).
- The interpunct puts the poem’s turn here. The effect is to make the birds – whatever birds they are – into visitants in the last two lines, come out of the woods to the door of the hall. In the last line of my translation, “in” should maybe be “at” or “to.”
- Tredað bearonæssas. “Tread wooded headlands.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “swallows” (and points towards “starlings” or “crows”).
- nemnað hȳ sylfe. This phrase does double duty as an imperative, “name them yourselves,” and a declarative, “they name themselves.” Traditionally editors have preferred the former, as a frequent conclusion to riddles in the Exeter Book. But see commentary.
P.S. After checking out images of starling clouds. Maybe their song is synaesthetic – goes to eye not ear – astonishing chord of their synchronic flight.
* Sapiens goes not to language, straightway, but to its door the mouth. Latin sapere, “to taste, have taste, be wise,” from PIE root *sep- “to taste, perceive.” To taste and be awake and to be wise. Adam, take that. No really take it.
The final poem of Unlikeness Is Us. Undereating the whole thing.
A moth ate words. Which seems
splendid to me. Think of the wonder
that worm consumed, riddles we wrote,
a thief in darkness of our deep musings;
the stiff parchment too – and the thief not
a whit wiser for the words it swallowed.
Moððe word frǣt.° Mē þæt þūhte
wrǣtlicu wyrd, þā ic þæt wundor° gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm° forswealg wera gied° sumes,
þēof in þȳstro þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs (5)
wihte þȳ glēawra þe hē þām wordum swealg. ⬩
This one starts from an ænigma by Symphosius:
Littera me pauit, nec quid sit littera noui.
In libris uixi, nec sum studiosior inde.
Exedi Musas, nec adhuc tamen ipsa profeci.
(Glorie, vol. 133a, p. 637)
Letters fed me, but I do not know what letters are.
I lived in books, but am no more studious for that.
I devoured the Muses, but still have not myself progressed.
(Megan Cavell, trans.)
It’s not a translation but a transmutation of a Latin precursor. It has digested a prior poem, one by Symphosius, to arise as it-and-not-it, remade in a new language, a new rendering. The poem about a bookworm is a bookworm, also the flighted form.
Intertextuality. Modern word but an old preoccupation, as old as written text, or older really – old as stories themselves are, which change as they change hands and minds, recombining each time they’re told. Intertextual is the natural state of stories in an oral wild. It becomes “a thing” when speech and writing meet and the one sets the other down, seems to still it. An OE reader, for whom oral transmission was recent in memory, maybe still also ongoing all round, might have found the figure of a bookworm, a living moving form, lowly but wingéd, digesting writing uncomprehendingly and speaking of that – indeed gaining from the act the nourishment to speak of it – entertaining and provocative. [ADDENDUM. Made a dumb error here, not sure how. This riddle’s in the third person, so it’s not the bookworm speaking.]
These thoughts cued by The Riddle Ages, a smart unstuffy website digesting recent scholarship on the riddle poems. The OE reader of this poem would have had to settle what kind of word (l. 1) it was being eaten, written or voiced. If gied (l. 3) means “song,” that points toward an oral word. Two lines later, strangan staþol, “strong foundation,” directs one toward the read thing, parchment, binding. How to reconcile one gesture toward voice and one to written form and frame? John D. Niles suggests we have our cake, eat it too, with a written song – specifically the canonical psalms of King David. The Song of Solomon with its secret visits in the night also comes to mind.
Niles answers the riddle complexly enough – “maggot and psalter” – to imply another question: where do the sorts of thinking these texts meant to ask of a contemporary reader end, and the sorts of thinking they ask of a later scholar or literary translator begin? In other words, when is reading not riddling?
The usual answer to the riddle, once it’s settled it’s a written text, is “bookworm.” But just as that word is a metaphor for a certain sort of reader, some readers of that sort, namely scholars, have wanted to worm into the worm for a meaning more hidden. Drawing here again from The Riddle Ages and its meditation on the Latin ruminatio, which apparently worked dually just as our “rumination” does: it’s how a cow chews and chews, also how one mulls an idea, taking it in, thoughtfully. With this in mind, some say the riddle points to a monk or a student, especially since it’s the larval form of the creature that chews on the words, but now, having gone off, witless but winged, it’s gained some sort of mastery. A professor.
The worm’s become a moth, made matter energy, crawl flutter, parchment flight. It’s not a whit wiser nor the same neither. Who’s won this battle of wits, human inquisitor or indefatigable maggot?
- Moððe word frǣt. Williamson: “the initial half-line contains a double disguise: moððe for wyrm and word for bec.” The worm presents as its future as a moth, the book as the words it contains. Projective, metonymic. (Complexer still if we think with Niles that the word might be sung.)
- wundor. It’s actually the fact of consumption that’s a marvel. A more literal translation would at least move the comma over, maybe more. “Think of the wonder, / that worm consumed a song someone made.”
- wyrm. Note the play among near-homophones, word, wyrd, wyrm. Word, fate, and worm bound together in orþoncbendum, skillful contrivance. | gied. Usually “song,” but can also mean “riddle.” The word is in the singular, and wera gied sumes might literally be translated “a certain man’s song” (Niles).
The image atop is the front panel of the Franks Casket – riddled with holes, graven with a runic alphabet whose import as a whole’s up for grabs. Consider the opening paragraph of the online article that accompanies the image
One of the more vexing problems facing scholars of Anglo-Saxon art is the simple fact that we often do not know precisely what it is that we are dealing with. I am speaking not so much of the questions of dating and localization that hamper the study of medieval art. Rather, it is that we cannot even say for certain what many of our most famous objects even are, or were intended to be. The Franks Casket, for example, has been identified as a treasure chest or a book shrine, and was used in the later Middle Ages as a reliquary, but all we can say with any certainty is that it is a box that likely originally had a latch.
Riddle me this. This here worm, had he the time, would read it all. But bed.
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.
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.
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°. ⬩ :⁊
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:
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
(“Of Being Numerous”)
So did Niedecker
“We have a lovely
Nearby dark wood –
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.)
- swīgað. Marsden notes a play between this word, “be silent,” and swōgað (l. 7) “make sound.”
- wolcna strengu. “Power of clouds (or skies).” A kenning for wind.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
What I been working on. With a deadline pushing. Speaks tonight to my condition too, a bit lone a bit ferocious. So a bite from Unlikeness Is Us, fourteen carried o’er from the Old English, to come from Gaspereau fall 2017.
As if one had made the people an offering.
They will receive him if he comes in violence.
Unlikeness is us.
The wolf is on an island. I am on another.
Mine is secured and surrounded by marsh.
The men on that island are glad at war—
they’ll receive him if he comes in violence.
Unlikeness is us.
I have borne a wolf on thought’s pathways.
Then it was rainy weather and I sat crying.
When the war-swift one took me in arms,
the joy he gave me, it was that much pain.
Wolf—my Wolf—thoughts of you
sicken me. How seldom you come
makes me anxious, not my hunger.
Listen, overseer, to our miserable whelp
wolf bears to woods.
Easy to make two what was never one;
our song together.
Lēodum is mīnum swylce him mon lāc° gife.
Willað hȳ hine āþecgan° gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīc is ūs.°
Wulf is on īege, ic on ōþerre.
Faest is þæt ēglond, fenne biworpen. (5)
Sindon wælrēowe weras þǣr on ige;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
Ungelīce is us.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum wēnum dogode°.
Þonne hit wæs rēnig weder ond ic reotugu sæt. (10)
Þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde,
wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð.
Wulf, min Wulf, wēna mē þīne
sēoce gedydon, þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd, nāles metelīste. (15)
Gehyrest þu, ead wacer°, uncerne earmne hwelp
bireð wulf tō wuda.°
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,°
uncer° giedd geador.
More commonly “Wulf and Eadwacer.” A woman speaks. She’s pregnant and her people are hostile to the father of the child. Not much else is settled about the poem. Wulf may be a raider from another clan; is their encounter a rape, as has often been thought? That makes her longing for him awfully hard to account for. Something more mutual then. Still though the poem is riven with her ambivalence – she wants him to come, and wants him not to come, and the doubleness in her thought sickens her.
Her ambivalence streaks the poem with ambiguities. A refrain, Ungelīc is ūs, as odd in composition and placement as Stein’s “The difference is spreading.” A female speaker whose relation to the masculine warrior ethos is intimate but aslant and has, for us, only a few interpretive helpmates in the Anglo-Saxon corpus (primarily “Her Case”). Verbs that appear nowhere else in the literature and must be defined in a context as nearly unprecedented as they are. A scribal practice of leaving names uncapitalized that makes it difficult to discern person from epithet from animal. When is wulf a wolf and when is it her Wulf? An oral tradition, not long left behind, in which the utterance “wulf” could function without trouble as both. The scribe, following his lowercase practice, could preserve this ambiguity, but a modern editor has to decide.
I take ead wacer as an epithet, not a name, which plucks out the third party usually thought to be involved – a husband cuckolded by the raider Wulf. That’s extra, a late entry throwing off a poem exquisitely balanced dramatically. Her people and her own mind are opponent enough. Other readers have doubted this third party too: one has, for instance, read the compound as an epithet for Wulf himself, “joy guardian.”
In this translation, which is literally anachronistic, ead wacer is the one who gehyreþ the spoken poem, the wacer of the written poem, the listener, the reader. Not that we’re her imprisoner exactly – but if we weren’t here, she wouldn’t be, either. She’s been hurt into a consciousness so sharp it tears the fabric that gives it voice. Tears the air or page that binds her to, as it divides her from, her first and last interlocutor, us.
- lāc. Offering or gift, especially in a ritual sense. A sacrifice; in some contexts a message.
- āþecgan. The verb appears to mean “receive” in the sense of food, with a suggestion of killing, destruction, consumption.
- ungelīc is ūs. Literally, “(it) is different (with) us” or “(it) is different (between) us.” Disagreement whether the difference is between the speaker and Wulf, or between speaker-and-Wulf and the speaker’s people, or both.
- dogode. Possibly the past tense of an otherwise unrecorded dogian, meaning something like “to suffer” or “to follow,” maybe here in imagination (Marsden). Some amend to hogode, past tense of hogian, “to consider, to dwell upon” (Muir). My translation draws from both senses.
- ead wacer. Most take this as proper name, that of the speaker’s husband. Ead, “riches, prosperity, joy, property.” Wacher, “watcher.” A possessive spouse and enemy to Wulf. However, because the scribe does not use capital letters to distinguish names, the compound can also be taken as an epithet; one reader reads the compound as an epithet for Wulf himself: “joy guardian” (Marsden). I’ve translated something I hear near the core of the phrase, a sense of being thronged by eyes all round. Note that she calls on the watcher not to see but to hear. She will rip him if she can out of his crowning sense function.
- bireð wulf tō wuda. The verb, “bears,” may be in either the present or the future tense. Is she crying wolf here or naming her Wolf? Which is it carries, or will, her newborn whelp to the woods and to what end?
- Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð | þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs. Literally, “The man easily tears apart what was never joined.” The line doesn’t alliterate. Muir: “[It] has the ring of a gnomic utterance, and may well be an Anglo-Saxon rendering of the biblical ‘Quod ergo Deus coniunxit, homo non separet’ [Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate] (Matt. 19:6), which might account for its not following an accepted alliterative pattern.”
- uncer. First-person dual genitive – “of us two.” Ours as in yours and mine.
Image atop, a belt buckle recovered from Sutton Hoo burial site. Shining instance of orþoncbendum, inborn shaping, cunning clasping, what I am more and the more finding in these poems. Sneaky snakework of this mind.