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’s based on an ænigma (no. 16, “Tinea”) by Symphosius:
Littera me pauit, nec quid sit littera noui.
In libris uixi, nec sum studiosior inde.
Exedi Musas, nec adhuc tamen ipsa profeci.
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.
(Cavell trans., n.p.)
Not a translation but a transmutation of a Latin precursor. It has digested a prior poem, one by Symphosius, to arise remade in a new language, and a new rendering. So the poem about a bookworm is a bookworm. Intertextuality is the modern word for this ancient preoccupation. It’s as old as writing is – older, in fact, as old as spoken stories are, which change as they change hands and minds, recombining each time they’re told. That interchange is pretty ordinary in an oral tradition and doesn’t warrant a lot of special attention. When writing fixes speech, though, tries to make it a thing durable, its ongoing decay on all sides becomes something to talk about.
One challenge in this riddle is to figure out whether the words eaten are oral or written (Cavell n.p.). The word gied (3) “song” suggests the former. How do you eat a spoken or sung word – by hearing it? Two lines later, strangan staþol (5) “strong foundation” points towards a thing that’s read, parchment, binding. You could eat that by reading it, but it’s clear this consumer’s no reader. How to reconcile one gesture towards voice and one towards written form and frame? John Niles (121–22) suggests we go with written song – specifically the canonical psalms of King David. The Song of Solomon, with its secret visits in the night, akin to thievery, also comes to mind. Whatever you take the text consumed to be, the consumer is usually thought a bookworm: that’s how to eat writing without getting it. Its work isn’t profitless though. Worm becomes moth, matter’s made energy, parchment flight. Not a whit wiser, but a marvel; and the worm knows what readers forget, that the text is a thing in the world, storehouse of energy.
Just as “bookworm” is metaphor for a certain sort of reader, though, some readers of that sort, scholars, will burrow into the bookworm for a meaning more hidden. I’m drawing from Megan Cavell’s post on The Riddle Ages and her thoughts on the Latin ruminatio, which worked dually, just as our word “rumination” does. It’s how a cow chews and chews, also how one mulls an idea, pre-digesting it. If the poem’s written with this sort of slow absorption in mind, it’s possible it does, in addition to its lateral metonymic work of turning parchment to worm to moth, also some vertical metaphoric work. Who else in its world chewed dumbly awaiting metamorphosis? The moth is cast across a region of unlikeness towards, perhaps, some poor monk or student with bad teeth, breath, acne. And the likeness that carries us with it across the lie? Moth and student are both larval forms, in waiting. (Isidore of Seville would enjoy it that in our English only one letter separates pupal from pupil.) A creature chewed uncomprehendingly on words, and now, having gone off, witless and winged, it’s gained some sort of mastery. A professor?
1 Moððe word frǣt. Williamson: “the initial half-line contains a double disguise: moððe for wyrm and word for bec” (285). The worm presents as its future as a moth, the book as the words it contains. Projective, metonymic.
2 wundor. In the OE, it’s the fact of consumption that’s a marvel, not a wonder that’s consumed. More faithful to the letter would be: “What a wonder! That the worm consumed words someone wrote.”
3 wyrm. Note the play among near-homophones, word, wyrd, wyrm. Word, fate, and worm bound together in orþoncbendum, skillful contrivance. ¶ gied. Usually “song.” Cavell (n.p.) translates this verse “a certain man’s song.” However, gied can also mean “riddle,” and to an uncomprehending worm, the whole library would be insoluble, if digestible.
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.