An Anglo-Saxon #metoo?

On a final pass through the proofs for Unlikeness Is Us. The title mistranslates a line from a short lyric, “The Wolf,” spoken by a female protagonist. There aren’t many such Old English poems. Reading this one today, I was struck by how it sits in #metoo’s penumbra, though it was writ 1,000 years ago. It’s hardly news that our crises are not new. Still, the sudden feeling of historical depth caught me by surprise. Even though I’ve posted this translation before, that bit of vertigo felt meaningful enough to share, with revised commentary, and a few new thoughts appended.


THE WOLF

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, onlooker, to our miserable whelp
      a wolf bears to woods.
Easy to part what was never joined;
      our song together.


THE WOLF

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 īge;
willað hȳ hine āþecgan gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
      Ungelīce is ūs.
Wulfes ic mīnes wīdlāstum wēnum dogode°.
Þonne hit wæs rēnig weder &ic rēotugu sæt. ⬩                                   (10)
Þonne mec se beaducāfa bōgum bilegde,
wæs mē wyn tō þon, wæs mē hwæþre ēac lāð. ⬩
Wulf, mīn Wulf, wēna mē þīne ⬩°
sēoce gedydon, þīne seldcymas,
murnende mōd, nales metelīste.                                   (15)
Gehȳrest þū, ēad wacer°? Uncerne earmne hwelp
      bireð° wulf° tō wuda.
Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs,°
      uncer° giedd geador. ⬩ :⁊


COMMENTARY

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? Her longing for him is tortured but I don’t hear that sort of wrong in the past of it. Something more mutual then. Still, though, the poem is riven with her ambivalence; she wants him to come, wants him never to have come; and the doubleness in her thought sickens her.

That ambivalence streaks the poem with ambiguities. A refrain, Ungelīc is ūs, as odd in composition and placement as Stein’s “The difference is spreading” (9). A female speaker whose relation to her culture’s masculine warrior ethos is intimate but aslant and has, for us, only a few interpretive helpmates in the AS corpus—primarily “Her Case,” a poem as obscure in its own ways. Verbs that appear rarely or nowhere else and must be defined in a context almost as unprecedented as they are. A scribal practice that leaves names uncapitalized, making it difficult to discern person from animal from epithet. When is wulf a wolf and when is it her Wulf? And an oral tradition, contemporaneous or not long past, in which the spoken “wulf” could function without trouble as both. The scribe, following his lowercase practice, could preserve the ambiguity, but these days an editor has to choose.

Unlike most, I take ead wacer as an epithet, not a name, removing the third party usually thought involved—a jealous husband, Eadwacer, ready to avenge himself on the raider Wulf. Dramatically, that’s one extra, a late entry throwing off an otherwise finely balanced poem. Her people and her own mind, and Wulf too sort of, are opponents enough. A few other readers have also doubted this third party; Marsden suggests reading the compound as an epithet for Wulf himself, “joy guardian.” I go back and forth between “overseer” and “onlooker,” and end up choosing the latter because it hints at a break in the frame, an address to reader or auditor. That the speaker might assay such a move, moves me.

By this reading, which I admit is extravagant, ead wacer is the one who gehyreþ the spoken poem, the wacer of the written poem—you, dear lecteur, and I. It’s not that we’re her imprisoner, exactly, but consider, if we weren’t here, she wouldn’t be either. She’s hurt into a consciousness so sharp it rends the fabric that gives it voice—tears the air or page that binds her to, even as it divides her from, her only interlocutor, us. Many of the poems here perform like ruptures deliberately, either by addressing the reader directly—riddle poems that invite you to name their subject; maxim sequences demanding you speak from your heart—or by pointing in code, as the runes in “His Message” may, to the very surface they’re inscribed on. And why should the woman speaking here not tear the fabric her poem is made of? It may feel like her only way out.


That commentary done before the hashtag dawned. A few addenda—

Her cry against him isn’t, You violated me, or That was against my will, but more, This is the unlivable position I’m in now, thanks to you and our peoples. In directing to him a cry against more than him, she captures something about the complicity of an individual in a collective harm.

She first expresses concern for his wellbeing, only then for her own, and their unborn child’s. That her concern unfolds in that order is part of her predicament, and she and the poem both know it.

The power asymmetries between men and women in her culture mean that, while their circumstance may be fatal for both (all three) of them, he at least gets some agency. If he dies it was his choice to show up. All she gets to do is sit and grieve and await her fate.

She makes sitting, grieving, waiting, and articulating that, the work of resistance, and summons a force strong enough to rupture the frame.

The pathos of the poem then is that her resistance is at once minuscule and total.


NOTES

1 lāc. “Offering” or “gift,” especially in a ritual sense. A sacrifice; in some contexts a message.

2 āþecgan. The verb appears to mean “to receive” in the sense of food, but with a suggestion of killing, destruction, consumption (Muir 571).

3 Ungelīc is ūs. Either “(it) is different (between) us” or “(it) is different (with) us.” It’s ambiguous whether the gulf has opened between the speaker and Wulf, or between those two and the speaker’s people.

9 dogode. Possibly the past tense of an otherwise unrecorded dogian, meaning something like “to suffer” or “to follow,” maybe here in imagination (Marsden 337). Some amend to hogode, past tense of hogian, “to consider, to dwell upon” (Muir 571–72). My translation draws on both senses.

13 The punctum marks the end of folio 100v.

16 ēad wacer. Most take it as a proper name. Ēad “riches, prosperity, joy, property” + wacer “watcher.” Eadwacer, a possessive spouse and enemy to Wulf. However, because the scribe doesn’t use capital letters to distinguish names, the compound can be taken as an epithet; Marsden (338) suggests “joy guardian,” for Wulf. I hear near the core of the phrase a sense of being thronged by eyes all round. Where “onlooker” downplays the possessiveness in the compound, “overseer,” also possible, would emphasize it. 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.

17 bireð. “Bears.” Since OE lacks a distinct future tense, this can be read either as a present event or as anticipation of what’s to come. ¶ wulf. It’s ambiguous whether she’s crying wolf here or naming her Wolf.

18 Þæt mon ēaþe tōslīteð | þætte nǣfre gesomnad wæs. “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” (572).

19 Uncer. First-person dual genitive—“of us two.” Ours as in yours and mine.

Minor emendations. 16 earmne MS earne.

 

A clutter of starlings

’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.° :⁊


COMMENTARY

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.*


NOTES

  1. Ðeos. The demonstrative pronoun, but calls to mind þeostre, “darkness.” A suggestion then of dark air, twilight?
  1. 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.”
  1. Sanges rōpe. “Bountiful of song.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “starlings” or “crows” (and doesn’t especially point towards “swallows”).
  1. 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.”
  1. Tredað bearonæssas. “Tread wooded headlands.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “swallows” (and points towards “starlings” or “crows”).
  1. 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.

starling cloud


* 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.

A Bookworm

The final poem of Unlikeness Is Us. Undereating the whole thing.


A BOOKWORM

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.


A BOOKWORM

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. ⬩


COMMENTARY

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?


NOTES

  1. 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.)
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.

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.

Small incidental find

The Anglo-Saxons got ear wax out same as the rest of us (sans Qtip)

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Warms my heart, the thought of it. Some warrior, in his downtime back in the ranks, helmet off, little finger reaming his ear out.

Don’t need Game of Thrones to make the medieval real. Just need Bosworth & Toller. (Though when the first of the new season airs I’m there.) Next is look up nosepicking. I mean, they must have, right? a word for it?

 

The Wolf

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 2018!


THE WOLF

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.


THE WOLF

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.


COMMENTARY

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.


NOTES

  1. lāc. Offering or gift, especially in a ritual sense. A sacrifice; in some contexts a message.
  1. āþecgan. The verb appears to mean “receive” in the sense of food, with a suggestion of killing, destruction, consumption.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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?
  1. 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.”
  1. 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.