Tuesday, September 9, 2008
The Earliest English Poems
Translated by Michael Alexander
The early Anglo-Saxon poems in Michael Alexander’s collection of translations comprise an origin point, if a point can truly be said to be anything more than an isolate cross-section of an uninterrupted line. For the sake of argument though, let us consider the pieces compiled here to be a point from which we can trace our movement outward. The initial point gains additional voice in context to its proximity to contemporary concerns and practices in poetries. The poems are excavations, inspired in that the actual artifact the poem unearths is nothing but the poem, which is an excavation in and of itself. Michael Alexander draws much of the included verse from “…one big English book about every sort of thing, wrought in song-wise. This is the ‘Exeter Book,’ the chief of the four codices of Old English poetry.” Reading through these poems, one is struck by their communal voice, these are songs of function; they are the ecstatic jewels of “the word-hoard,” as the Anglo-Saxon troubadours referred to the tools of their tradition.
It is worth noting, then, how we come to these poems as 21st century readers. Their origin lies in the oral tradition, to which we must remember we are not partial to its primacy. The artifacts we have of the oral tradition come to us at least in their second aesthetic skin. Observe how in ‘Beowulf’ a scop, the Anglo-Saxon troubadour, “…struck up, / found the phrase, framed rightly/ the deed of Beowulf, drove the tale, / rang word-changes…” as he traveled with Beowulf’s company. Here we see oral poetry in its function and its deed, it is the actualization of the deed through its preservation, that is, its incorporation into the word-horde, the shared literary pool of the people. The scop’s head is “...a storehouse of the storied verse, / whose tongue gave gold to the language/ of the treasured repertory…” Beowulf’s mighty deeds don’t gain a place in the status quo until they are recited. Beowulf boasts in the mead-hall of what he will accomplish – so we begin with the word. Beowulf accomplishes what he boasts – we move to the act. The scop recites Beowulf’s deeds – the transformation into the actualized word. The above quote also serves as a wonderful poetics, tucked within the larger narrative of the poem.
At some point, this purely oral tradition segued into the written. We leave the public of the recitative to the private of the book, in this case “The Exeter Book,” maintained by monks and kept within a library. The oral poem is transformed by the page, as it inevitably must be. The line is introduced, in addition to the breath, and “…the end of the line – so important in rhymed, end-stopped, or stanzaic verse, or any sort of printed poetry – is the creation of the editors of the Old English poems, for in the original MSS. the poems are written as continuous prose, the quill stopping at the end of the page.” The page provides shape, it is “…a term serving to declassify, requiring in general that everything should have a form…” as Georges Bataille writes of the word “formless” in his Critical Dictionary. Function also provides shape, as we see how the realities of these poems’ context alter the reality of the poems themselves.
The concrete reality of the poem is heightened, as we look further at the Exeter Book itself. The poem materializes as an object where previously it existed solely as function. Alexander describes the disfigurements to the book itself due to the centuries, how “…the front had been used as a cutting board and, more appropriately, as a beer mat; the back fourteen pages have been burnt through by a brand.” I am reminded of a scene from the “Latter Days” volume of the great graphic novel, “Cerebus,” where we see the title character reading through his complete set of a comic book series. Cerebus has the “already read” issues on one side of his chair, and the “unread” issues on the other side. Of course, Cerebus rests his beer on one of the piles. The disfigurement of the Exeter Book confirms a book’s physical properties. I remember just recently using my copy of “The Third Policeman” to flatten a fly resting on the wall in my kitchen. The Anglo-Saxon scop talks of the word-hoard, that is, the physical treasure of the poetic tradition. I am afraid the physicality of the book is all to often either ignored, or unduly fetishized, instead of being investigated. Poetry is for me a continual investigation. Investigation is fostered through conversation.
The treasure of the poetic tradition is that it comprises a conversation. Conversation is the proof of community; it creates community. Poetry is the great facilitator of conversation, as dialogue remains fixed in time and space, while somehow finding itself outside the constraints of linearity. The American poet Michael Palmer writes of the poem as an echo chamber - the conversation accrues texture and nuance within its confines. When considering early Anglo-Saxon poetry, one must be aware of the primacy of the mead-hall within society. The social “…unit, the cyan, was organized around its lord. These communities were truly united – to a degree we would find claustrophobic… the meal in the mead-hall, at which [the lord] presided, was a celebration of the success of human society.” The mead-hall, with its plentiful food and drink, must have served as the site of many conversations, of the sort of speaking against silence which poetry regularly confronts. Conversation, we see, it what preserves us from the silent terror of nature.
The elegies, “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer,” explicitly confront society’s connections to poetry and through poetry, community. The speaker of “The Seafarer” laments “No man blessed/ with a happy land-life is like to guess/ how I, aching-hearted, on ice-cold seas/ have wasted whole winters; the wanderer’s beat, / cut off from kind…” The speaker is depersonalized and unnamed – he is outside of society and therefore must inevitably be so marginalized. It is in society, on the fixity of land, that one finds themselves a name, and therefore an identity. Later in the poem, the speaker sings of “…deeds, achievements. / That after-speakers should respect the name/ and after them angels have honor toward it/ for always and ever.” Without the word-hoard, the act of accounting which poetry and community engenders, then a deed simply amounts to nothing more than senseless wandering. The sea churns and churns, but the wave is ultimately buried underneath successive waves, leaving nothing, “the wave, over the wave” and thus an incomprehensible flux – the constancy of change without meaning other than its own endlessness.
Anglo-Saxon verse celebrates society and what it has wrought, while it also ruminates on the tenuousness of man’s world in the face of the unknowable. Towards the end of Michael Alexander’s collection, we begin to see verse attempting to reconcile the Anglo-Saxon pagan tradition with early Christian ethos. The early terror of nature’s incomprehensibility takes root in Christian immaterialism. It was the pagan Anglo-Saxon tradition that “A man may bury his brother with the dead/ and strew his grave with the golden things/ he would have him take, treasures of all kinds, / but…” but the onset of Christianity invalidates this, and “The Seafarer” concludes with the reminder that “…gold hoarded when he here lived/ cannot allay the anger of God/ towards a soul sin-freighted.” The word-horde is the true treasure, the only treasure. It glimmers and holds the silence of nature at bay while material treasure only finds itself lost in the shadows.
“The Ruin,” the first of the poems presented in this anthology, holds special interest to me. It is every bit as mysterious as the “Riddles,” and as concerned with issues of community and history as “Widsith” or “Deor.” What ruin does the title refer to? On one very obvious level, we are discussing a fallen stronghold; “Snapped rooftrees, towers fallen…” The fortress is physically recreated, or simply shaped, within the poem. It is ironic that this creation of the stronghold is also an account of its disfigurement. The language is apocalyptic, telling of where the “Wall stood, / grey lichen, red stone…” and other schematic features of the ruin. I am reminded of Joyce’s recreation of Dublin as a city of language, or of Charles Olson’s similar shaping of an other Gloucester. The language of “The Ruin,” with its urgency and knotted phrases, often in a sharp past tense, even reminds me of Olson’s voice. Listen to the concluding lines of this fragment, how “Thence hot streams, loosed, ran over hoar stone/ unto the ring-tank…/…It is a kingly thing…/…city…” Those two final lines stopped me the first time I read them, and they continue to cause weighted pause.
I alluded above to the importance of the lord to the cyan, to the societal unit. The lord contextualizes society for man, placing him outside the silent terror of nature. In “The Ruins” we see vivid images of such a system, where “Bright were the buildings, halls where springs ran, / high, horngabled, much throng-noise;/ these many meadhalls men filled/ with loud cheerfulness: Weird changed that.” History and the events that occur within it, change everything. The cyan and the societal system that supports both master and man are here revealed to provide only the illusion of security. The king represents stability, but it is an illusion of stability –it too falls. The city is indeed “a kingly thing,” it is a splendid construction of mankind, but is an ultimately flimsy thing, as is a king. The poem becomes the ruin of the title. Here we see the poem becoming the thing, instead of a thing made. A thing made, remember, can always be unmade, while a thing becoming is always so.
Not a point, but a line moving inextricably towards and through.