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.

 

Ancestral White Interiors

First couple paragraphs of my intro to the translations I’ll be reading on Saturday at the Canadian Writers Summit.


One morning last summer, as I was trying to start the intro to my book of translations from Old English, Unlikeness Is Us—it’s a mistranslation of a line, ungelīc is ūs, meaning something like “it’s different for us,” or “we are set apart”—I found myself thinking instead about white supremacy. White nationalists had just marched in Charlottesville, VA, and forest fires to the north of me in BC had obscured the sun in thick white smoke. Just think about those names for a second. A town named for Princess Charlotte, of England. A state named for a Virgin Queen, of England. Don’t get me started on British Columbia? And that Columbia doesn’t refer to a dove, or a wildflower. Anyway, part of the white nationalist schtick is to say poems like the ones I’d translated belong to a superior Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage. And the smoke was rising from a fire that “superior heritage” had fed—five centuries of colonial and industrial rapacity. Now a beetle overwinters more widely and up go the trees. White nationalism, a sky white with smoke, my white screen. What was I going to make of that. I typed out the first lines of the song of a woman caught between dread of her lover’s return and her longing for it:

Lēodum is mīnum          swylce him mon lāc gife.
Willað hȳ hine āþecgan          gif hē on þrēat cymeð.
     Ungelīc is ūs.

As if one had made the people an offering.
They will receive him if he comes in violence.
     Unlikeness is us.

Below it I tried to explain my title:

Ungelīc is ūs. It means something like “it’s different between us,” or maybe, “we are set apart.” To write instead “unlikeness is us” is to dive under the surface after something uncanny in it. Something familiar-strange, at once near and far, in all these poems, a thing not scary quite; unnerving. Freud’s word for it was unheimlich, “unhomelike.”


Rereading it now, I’m struck by how indirect and circumspect it is. Probably an expression of my unease – how confused and ignorant I feel when I try to speak to these questions. Too, though, there’s something to be said for nonlinearity. I’m reminded of the poet Will Alexander, for whom composing not lines of argument but lightning fields –

By thinking in an inclement register, I am prone to sigils, to poetic inveiglement, to what Deleuze and Guattari would call a minor register, an experiment fueled by anti-codification. I agree with them, that poetry is the philosophy of the present age, potent in its ability to inhabit Rhizomes, to de-fuel territorial hardening. Language by not functioning as a claimed dimension, where every iota of its motion opens itself to simultaneous openings, not claimed by a sovereign or a single opening. (Towards the Primeval Lightning Field iii)

– is an act, the activity, of resistance, in form.


With me will be Stephanie Bolster, reading from her wonderful manuscript-in-progress, Long Exposure, about, among many other things, the human catastrophe in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and images of same and their consumption, and Barbara Nickel, reading brand new poems about the draining of Sumas Lake in Southwestern BC, with devastating consequences for the Stó:lō Nation.

 

Constructions of Whiteness

A panel proposal put together by the best triangle I’ve ever been a corner to. (Side note, do you know how hard it is to persuade a room of undergrads that a three-legged stool can’t wobble? I do know now. I mean, you get it, or you don’t, how to explain it?) For next summer’s CCWWP convention (that mouthful’s the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) in Toronto. Has a thematic focus whose statement starts like this

As we live this moment of intensifying racial and gendered violence, discourses and policies of intolerance, and environmental crises, we are also bearing witness to and participating in a broad surge of resistance, resilience and reclamation as evident in movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. Literature has always had a role in responding, intervening and shaping the historical and cultural present. We believe literature is a way to interrogate anew what it means to be human and living in shared humanity on this land and in this time. Literature creates opportunity for the difficult conversations between us that might address our historical present, how we are haunted and how we can proceed.

and can be read whole here. We wanted to speak to the theme without presuming to speak from anywhere other than where we were. And so this.


In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls out the people “who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” He suggests that race is a shared fiction, one that served and serves the powers that wrote it, slavers, imperialists, eugenicists, white supremacists. Our ongoing shared belief in the fiction makes it real and lethal to Black kids on American city streets, Indigenous women of Canadian cities and prairies, countless others. This panel consists of three poets who, being white, can’t help but take part in the construction of whiteness. They’ll read from works-in-progress that ask whether whiteness might also be witness – how construction might also be re- or de-construction – and then open the room to questions and discussion.

Last summer, as Christopher Patton wrote the critical introduction to his book of translations from Old English, white nationalists were marching in Charlottesville, VA, and the air in Bellingham, WA, where he lives, was white with cross-border forest-fire smoke. His thinking sharpened some about ties between those thousand-year-old poems and white supremacy and climate change. Race wasn’t a thing when the poems were composed – tribe and ethnicity, yes, foreignness yes, but not race as we live in it now. And yet what were their warrior ethos and fear of the other, their love of gold and roiling suppressed anxieties, but raw material for the later construction of whiteness? Add profit motive and oceangoing ships and stir. Can a translator put such values back out in the world without validating them? What help is it, that other values run countercurrent in the poems, self-inquiry, dialogue, empathy for the outsider?

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori entered hundreds of ruined homes alone, with his camera. Stephanie Bolster resisted writing about these haunting, voyeuristic images for years, before accepting that the only way out was through; her project, Long Exposure, began in the interrogative mode, with her own voyeurism-once-removed. Evolving politics intensified the questioning and made her see her witnessing as white. In the New Orleans thread of her manuscript, she writes from empathy with the (mostly poor, mostly Black) former residents of these homes, but her recognition of her own subject position means she knows others may see that empathy as trespassing – or, worse, slumming. Can good art arise from, even overcome, guilt? How to strive for aesthetic authenticity amidst this complexity? How to write while wondering what one has the right to see, to say, to feel? Yet how much worse to be silent.

Barbara Nickel witnesses daily the loss of a body of water; she lives on lake-bottom land. The former Sumas Lake in the Upper Fraser Valley of British Columbia was drained in the 1920’s to create farmland. Named “reclamation,” the drainage was an act of irrevocable violence against the land and the Stó:lo people whose lives had depended on the lake. When Barbara discovered that Mennonite settlers from the prairies were some of the first to farm the newly drained land, the tension of her own witness was increased to include the complicity of her own people. Her response is made from vestiges – poems found in historical and contemporary voices, texts and other more visible remains –sandpiper in a museum drawer. As she writes over/in/of the lake’s ghost, she questions her right to do so, asks which roles are authentically hers – inquirer, trespasser, artist, friend?


I was browsing Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, hoping for something with enough texture visible to work in that upper heaven, top of the post, and came to this. Am caught by how all context is. Context of Black Lives Matter, the image is wake-up appalling. Context of Black Mountain, it’s American mid-century innocence enterprising. Phaidon‘s text on its generation, the painter collaborating with John Cage composer:

Rauschenberg said that Cage was the only driver in Manhattan willing to collaborate on such an unusual scheme. Perhaps this is a suitably flip comment to accompany so brisk a work. When asked if the work is a little like a musical stave, the artist demurred, preferring to compare it to a Tibetan prayer scroll. Yet, Cage drove over Rauschenberg’s scroll in the very same Model A Ford that he had carried him to Black Mountain College in a few years earlier; and doesn’t this single track bring to mind a little something of Cage’s featureless score for 4’33” – the silent work that’s never quite rid of the world’s noise?

A few closeups from it:

Road music. Rowed music. Rode music.

That innocence, it’s not gone, it ne’er was.

Augustine, whiteness, alienation

From the intro to the OE translation book. On the trope of exile and how it enacts Augustine’s “region of unlikeness.” But madness in Charlottesville and moral turpitude in Washington got in there. Am wanting to think through how the poems, composed by white men before “whiteness” was a thing, still inform this thing we know now as “whiteness.” The poems hold some of the raw materials – patriarchal culture of violence and valour and stoicism; will to dominance; constraint of women and suppression of what’s thought feminine; default stance of fear and suspicion towards the unknown; I could go on. Add ships and maps and a thirst for wealth and stir.

But also in them I find – mindfulness and curiosity, a tolerance for ambiguity, values of restraint and moderation, a love of beauty, playfulness, and the thought that much in the sense world could be animate, with its own ways of thinking and feeling through.

Caught between wanting to diagnose a sickness, and celebrate an innocence.


From Unlikeness Is Us: “Vagrant Introduction”

Exile in these poems is the felt reality of unlikeness. Unlikeness aware of itself, studying itself, in conversation with itself, maybe working to transmute itself, or to accept itself, or maybe mired in itself in alert despair. But keenly aware of itself. Unlikeness not aware of itself is alienation. On the other edge of the country I call mine for now a node of alienated whiteness drove through a crowd yesterday and killed someone. His idiot crew had flags on pointy sticks and torches, pointy sticks.[1] These poems may be ancestors to those supremacist pricks. They’re not on the hook for them, I insist that, but they may provide clues to them. The loneliness in the Anglo heart, the character Western restlessness later takes in it, bold and practical, industrious, venal, unscrupulous, when the age of exploration and colonization starts, and how that goes for the others met – there are clues to that in these poems. Maybe also seeds of the grotesque absurdities of Anglo-Nordic pride as it beetles from the fringes of American life pretty much as I type into the White House bedroom. But that’s later. The poems are wakeful. They take Augustine to heart, they believe in his unlikeness. They take unlikeness in, estrangement from the astonishing felt tissue of the present and their own blooming singing rampant bodies, and that may be tragic error. It might be the tragic subject all these poems have in common. But they hold a wakeful engagement with their condition as it’s given them. So, exile, estrangement, but not alienation – they don’t shut down, they stay brave, eyes open, looking out, looking in. They are at the root of one of the world’s great traditions of interiority.


[1]. “When questioned about the rationale for Trump’s evenhandedness, the White House clarified that both the protesters and the counter-protesters had resorted to violence. This is notable in that the United States was once a country that did not see Nazis and those willing to fight them as morally equivalent. Aside from that, however, there were no images of anti-fascist protesters mowing down reactionaries with their cars.” – Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.


P.S.? I hate hate hate having that photo there. Like the smell of fresh shit in a kitchen drawer. To lessen it I’ll note that the douchebags are using for their grand display tiki torches of the sort used to repel mosquitos at family BBQs. Ride, warrior, ride. (Noted by Vinson Cunningham, also in The New Yorker.)

P.P.S.? Not that there’s anything wrong with mosquitos, shit, or a douche, in their places.

Vagrant introduction, first para

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,[1] allegorically,[2] morally,[3] anagogically.[4]


[1]. Reading according to the letter. Record-breaking heat this summer, again, and a terrible wildfire season, again.

[2]. Reading for the “truth hidden under a beautiful fiction” (Dante, Il Convivio).

[3]. Reading for the teaching or instruction implied.

[4]. 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.[5] 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.


[5]. 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.

On “The Seafarer”

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 – for scholars not so much – Ezra Pound’s version of this poem is a watershed moment. His “Seafarer” in fact is a bearing point for any poet who translates into English; along with the Zukofskys’ Catullus and a couple of other seminal modern works of translation, Pound’s version, first 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 must contend with his garrulous and maddening astonishingly rightly-wrong one.

Pound spoke of three ways to freight words with poetic meaning: melopoeia, handling sounds; phanopoeia, throwing an image to the mind’s eye; and logopoeia, setting a word in a special relation to its usage.[1] Three worksites, ear, eye, mind. The trick with Pound’s “Seafarer” is that he translates faithfully for sound, opportunistically for image, and licentiously with thought. In setting these at the time somewhat scandalous priorities, Pound composed a translation of “The Seafarer” more objectivist than any heretofore, or probably since, though there have been sorry mimicries many.

As a patterned arrangement of sounds, Pound’s “Seafarer” is fidelity itself:

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 8.31.21 PM(x = primary stress)

He does far more than catch the feel of the AS cadence – often he keeps the rhythmic form specific to the verse. Where a verse in the source front-loads its stresses, as in bitre brēostceare, Pound’s verse does too, “Bitter breast-cares.” When the source spreads the stresses evenly across the verse, as in gecunnad in cēole, Pound does likewise, “Known on my keel.” When the OE verse reserves the stresses for the end, as in atol ȳþa gewealc, Pound’s verse does that too, “And dire sea-surge.” 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 specific intelligence is to be found, by which articulations of value not otherwise possible, are. Later he’ll speak of the rose magnetic forces shape in steel dust. That insight’s outside our purview, except that the AS poet, his line and his Seafarer’s exile, were clerestory to it.

Phanopoeia – an image thrown to the mind’s eye – means immediacy. In its speed of arrival is its power. 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
ūrigfeþra. (23–25)

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. Then “In icy feathers” lays over the brute impersonal force of the storm the sense of something animate, almost delicate; and then the feathers of spray, overlaid by the cry of the eagle, become for a moment the eagle’s own; the sequence ends by casting (icy-feathered) spray on the eagle’s wing, giving a sense of completion (storm-wing meets eagle-wing) as the sequence comes to rest.

He’s doing Vorticism, a short-lived movement in which he readied himself for The Cantos, in part by conceiving his ideogrammic method, which assayed in words the sort of montage Sergei Eisenstein accomplished in pictures. Both were incited by Ernest Fenollosa’s misapprehensions of the Chinese written character, but like Kenner I think Pound got some of his first stirrings from the Seafarer poet. Either way, it’s a gorgeous montage, one of many in his version, and it arrived as a new possibility for poetry in English. It came though at the cost of turning a bird (stearn “tern”) into the butt of a ship (“stern”).

Later, again using the AS poet’s accretive syntax to cast images in quick succession, Pound shrinks byrig “cities” 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 pup to sound, brilliant opportunist with image, Pound looks kind of slobby with what the words “actually mean.” And though in the abstract we may agree a poem’s meaning lies mostly outside its words’ denotations, still we’re like to cry foul when dictionary sense is just forgot.

“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? We can maybe find justification 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 to what Pound thought were its pre-Christian origins. But the glary errors, taken together, suggest Pound didn’t care very all that much for the semantic values of the poem’s words – not as he cared for the sound matrix they were in, or for the image cascades they composed.

He sacrificed sense to hold a sonic form, or to sharpen an image sequence. He valued those most so he translated them foremost. Or, is it that word, image, sense were on an equal footing, another unwobbling stool, but loss of sense stands out most to us because we’re prone to lean into a symbolist reading? We may be as eager for a semantic meaning as the Seafarer is for a transcendent one, as ready to travel off in mōd from our embodiment, ear’s wonder, eye’s honey, to an abstract immaterial construction elsewhere. That was the temptation Pound spent his long cracked terrible beauty of a poetic life arguing tangibly against.[2]

The poem calls its abstract immaterial construction “Heaven.” As it happens, the moment the poem commits to it fully, it also turns a page. And Pound stops here. Cuts the last 23 lines of the poem. He was sure they were the work of some later pious other. He wasn’t alone in that, or in wanting to save an ostensibly pagan original from a later Christian overlay. And he had some cause: Right where folio 82v ends, the sentence ends too, also the larger thought. Start of the next folio, hypermetric lines set in; pious commonplaces start to pile up; arguably, poetic invention falls off. More than Pound only have concluded “The Seafarer” is cut off by the loss of one or more folios, and what picks up on what’s now 83r is the middle some other, less interesting poem.

But the sudden shift to an earnestly Christian homiletic register would not have jarred an AS audience the way it does a modern reader. 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 drive has long since and thankfully died, the case that the poem is interrupted, a chimera, has not yet quite. 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 displaying a sort of indeterminacy special, they say, to OE studies, with its single copies of poems handwritten by error-prone scribes in frangible manuscripts. And I’m not one not to cheer twice for indeterminacy. Still, 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; six-stress lines come and go in a number of the Exeter poems. The switch to a homiletic register fits the dramatic, emotional, and spiritual arcs of the poem, and is consonant with other poems of its ilk. And the closing lines do have poetic force, something in places quite majestic. Yes, the last few lines are sententious, but other OE poems of the first order have like passages; and as I note below, the scribe does quietly set them a bit apart. I see nothing out of fit here, just ordinary variousness.

The seam at the end of the folio (l. 103) is just one of the aporiae that have thrown the poem’s unity into doubt. Another is that its sea voyage seems literal at the outset, full of material details that resist the calculus of allegory mind—an ice-clotted beard, a mew gull’s cries; and yet misfires in the Seafarer’s discourse around the voyage start to invite figurative reading and to load the journey with allegorical freight; and yet, as one ventures into allegory, the voyage itself disappears from view, not to be seen again. How to reconcile these signals and keep the poem one poem? Whitelock has argued (Pope and Fulk 100) that the journey is literal from start to end; religious self-exile and pilgrimage were actual AS cultural practices, and this is a composite account of such a journey. Conversely, for Marsden, the journey stands from the start for the Augustinian pilgrim’s passage from the earthly to the heavenly city; the Seafarer’s exile is not from the towns of men, but from Heaven, whence he also is bound (221). I take a middle position, feeling the poem morphs from literal to allegorical: the journey begins as an actual journey, full of resistant earthly textures, and gradually, thanks in no small part to the misfires around forþon crying there’s more here than meets the eye, metamorphoses into journey as allegory. The journey journeys. It’s subtle, there being no one point where we can say the journey has changed its nature, from literal to figurative. The transformation is as mysterious, imperceptible, and I think maybe 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 to treat the poem as a dialogue, though that reading has fallen out of favour. Frankly, as a poet who makes his living off mixed feelings, I have trouble seeing the problem. Keats, Negative Capability, solved. More interesting is that it’s been an interpretive problem in the first place. Belonging to print and internet cultures, 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, 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, though, convey mixed feelings diachronically. In The Odyssey, the consummate seafaring story as it happens, 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 young man’s mind. Some of what seems like self-contradiction in “The Seafarer” may be the work of unfamiliar narrative conventions. And some of it is the AS poet’s use of logopoeia in putting forþon in a torqued relation to its ordinary usage.

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 new voice he has aspired to the whole poem.


Phew. Thanks for hanging in there. Just the first lines of mine …

THE SEAFARER

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).


[1]. You can still charge words with meaning mainly in three ways, phanopoeia, melopoiea, logopoeia. You use a word to throw a visual image on to the reader’s imagination, or you charge it by sound, or you use groups of words to do this. Thirdly, you take the greater risk of using the word in some special relation to “usage,” that is, to the kind of context in which the reader expects, or is accustomed, to find it. – ABC of Reading (37)

[2]. I have tried to write Paradise // Do not move / Let the wind speak / that is paradise. – The Cantos (822)