Another riddle for yehs. Birds? Or maybe it’s unsolvable & that’s the solution.
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.° :⁊
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.
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. Their flight habits seem those of starlings, which travel in great clouds, following the contour of the countryside, sometimes at twilight. Muir, however, sees swallows, which have dark backs and pale underparts; if you read blace (2) with a long vowel, blāce, it goes from “black” to “bright,” and you can get to a sort of swallowy look:
Little creatures ride the air
over the hillside, flashing brightly
black, dark-coated. Singing profusely
they go in flocks
Also, swallows are more likely than most to swoop into a human dwelling. But a group of them is not quite a hēap (4) “band, multitude,” and no way can they be said to tredað (5) “tread” the earth; while starlings come in crowds and are conspicuous walkers.
More birds than these two have been proposed; it’s one of the Exeter riddles more resistant of answer. Niles likes the crow, crāwe, as the bird most likely to name itself with an onomatopoeic call. Crows do gather in flocks, and they tread the earth, but they’re even less songful than starlings, and not so little neither. Other birds posited: swifts, jackdaws, house martins. Some readers go onward to bees, hailstones, raindrops, storm clouds, musical notes, damned souls, demons – but a bird does seem most likely, even if the thought of musical notes tromping the countryside in black coats is awfully surreally lovely.
In The Riddle Ages, a smart multi-authored blog devoted to the riddle poems, Michael Warren notes that all birds in the Exeter riddles elude naming to some degree. Transecting earth and heaven, betimes kissing-distance from human beings, betimes flyspeck-far in the sky, they are liminal to us, coming as they go, going as they come. So many of them, in such variety, and they flew off so fast, how could language catch them?
[S]cholars across the medieval period stress that what is most birdy about birds is their transformative abilities. Or to put it another way, what most defines birds is their habit of avoiding definition – they’re intrinsically unknowable in some respects, escapologists.
Medieval encyclopaedists like Bartholomew the Englishman and Saint Isidore of Seville found in birds, Warren adds, a locus for some of their more general anxieties about naming. Words are themselves birdy, keeping escaping us, and these bird riddles, with their soundplay and wordplay and the pressure they put on acts of naming, delight in linguistic mischief. Fugitive moments roost in them, small and large, chirping, singing, flitting, shitting – puns, innuendoes, ambiguities, runes, misfires. They like the unlikenesses.
In this one, the clues point akimbo, like jayfeathers after their bird fell into a bath and scrambled out. With the change of a vowel value black turns to bright. They may be named either to or in human halls. The crowning ambiguity’s in the last verse, nemnað hy sylfe, which can be read as either an imperative, “name them yourselves,” or a declarative, “they name themselves.” Read it one way, we’re told what to do, but we can’t, with the clues pointing this way and that. Read it the other way, we maybe get another clue – is their call onomatopoeic? – but it taunts us with the birds’ apartness: they call themselves a name we’re not told.
Reading this aporia, Warren suggests the riddle may be unanswerable, or even that its answer may be unanswerableness. We hold an object that’s also a subject, it remains nameless or polyonymous; empty, many-natured. The birds invite us, as Warren puts it, to
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.”
Or, if we must know, be holy fools in what we know. Isidore in his Etymologies writes of birds: “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways.” Let this riddle and that sentence put to rest any thought that wordplay of the sort seen in Perec’s La Disparition or Alan Davies’s a an av es is new in the world. 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 wise ones, the percipient.
2 blace. Usually read with a short vowel, as “black,” so that the sequence blace swiþe, / swearte, salopāde translates as “very black, black, dark-coated.” The redundancy is its own little puzzle.
3 Sanges rōpe. “Bountiful of song.” The phrase, which somewhat inhibits a reading of “starlings” or “crows,” doesn’t especially point towards “swallows” either.
4 The punctum puts the poem’s turn here. If it’s taken seriously, then tredað bearonæssas “tread wooded headlands” belongs to the closing verses and the final sentence, and the birds’ walking is kin to the human activity of these lines, hall building, meadjoys. It is almost as if they become human visitants.
5–6 hwīlum burgsalo / niþþa bearna. It is either to or in the burgsalo “city-dwellings” of niþþa bearna the “sons of men” the birds are named. Whether or not they set wing in a hall, a call penetrates, makes present.
6 nemnað hȳ sylfe. Either “name them yourselves” or “they name themselves.” Traditionally editors have preferred the former – it’s often seen at the end of riddles – but according to Warren the latter has recently gained favour.
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. See Pound’s Canto LXXV.