POETRY: THE SUBLIME IN THE MIDDLE AGESby Scott Hightower
(Gaspereau Press, 2011)
A new translation of some landmark Anglo-Saxon poems has arrived: Curious Masonry, translated by Christopher Patton. It does not matter if poems are old or new, or whatever the language—all poetry is a real or imagined flare-up of being. The psychological state and the landscape of the flare-up colors each poem, making it unique. Except for being written in Old English, Anglo-Saxon poems are no different than any others. Another universal axiom: Like miniature (ruins), vastness (eternity) is a construct of the human imagination.
The opening pages of Mohammed A Bamyeh’s 1999 study The Social Origins of Islam (University of Minnesota Press), put forward a notion of epic Arabic poetry as the interplay of “halting” and “discourse”: The Arabian Peninsula—the cradle of Islamic culture—is dominated by two vast deserts and surrounded by seas. Such immense horizons compound the ideas of beginning, end, and ruin. As Bamyeh puts it, “An ideology sees in the spectacle of the horizon not so much an inviting mirage as the most fundamental picture of the emptiness of grandiose human quests.” Bamyeh writes extensively about the horizon both engendering and nullifying the human quest:
This perplexing appeal of the horizon situates it exactly at the borderline between two modes of wandering. One mode is to wander as a natural fate, preordained by the indifference of the desolate landscape to ordinary human needs ... Here, if there is a destination, one reaches it by simply moving ... For the wanderer, the desert formed itself and dissipated along the way, with no everlasting images. Such a nature formed itself in the mode of interruptions, as though to encourage existence a little longer, precisely when the wanderer was about to perish. This is how the nomadic ode itself proceeded until exhaustion (and not conclusion) consumed its energy. But until the regular production and preservation of discourse and sedentarism, such interruptions were no more than erasable bursts of life ... movement was the norm and halting the exception.
(The Social Origins of Islam, “The Ideology of the Horizons”)
Literacy in Arabic culture was affected by the continued decline and demise of Persian and Byzantine cultures. The 6th-century AD Arabic world (with representative Jahili poets like Imru’-al-Qais) lacked a formal writing system and relied on the oral transmission of poetics.
Pre-Homeric and Homeric oral songs and sagas not only had to find their way into writing, but were, at this particular time, in the process of finding their way through translations of Greek to Arabic to Latin. With the demise of the Roman Empire, very few people in the West were left who knew how to read Greek.
The predominant links between the language used in post-Roman Europe and modern English were formed by the Angles and Saxons, the Danish invasions, and a drop in Latin literacy. The seminal date that is proffered by every English teacher for the rising up of the new language is 1066, the year of the Battle of Hastings. Again, oral transmission of historic sagas would begin their journey to the hand-printed page.
That is just a glinting history of oral texts (poetic tropes, landscapes, languages) working their way toward a kind of literacy that would, in a few more centuries, find themselves in the even more fiercely standardizing face of Gutenberg’s print.
The Book of Exeter – the source for the pieces translated in Curious Masonry – is a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon codex, the largest-known anthology of Old English literature. It is an interesting enterprise of translation for these texts to be revitalized by the very modern language to which the Old English would succumb.
Curious Masonry is a physically thin, beautifully produced volume, an artifact in every since of philology. It contains a short preface, three translations from Old English (“The Earthwalker,” “The Seafarer,” “The Ruin”), and an artful poly-valent piece (“H*earth”).
Bede, in his early Middle Ages text The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, forged a lasting trope with a swallow flying momentarily into a Mead Hall window. The bird miraculously finds its way into a fire-lit sheltering lodge, flies through, only to fly out through a window on the other side:
... whilst he is within, he is safe from the wintry tempest,
but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes
out of sight, passing from winter to winter again. So man appears
on earth for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went
before we know nothing at all.
“The Earthwalker” is a wandering imagination, a weary spirit, in a landscape of travail and exile.
I have bound heart and mind in chains,
since years ago I covered a goldfriend
in the dark of earth and wandered off,
bearing a winter sadness over the weft
of waves, seeking, homesick, near or
far, some patron who knew my people,
who might in meadhall offer to comfort
a friendless wanderer, to draw him out,
delight him. Sorrow, all know who know,
is cruel companion to the one who holds
none dear, and none hold so. For him no
ring of wrought gold, nor earthly glory,
but an icy heart at the hearth of exile.
The lone Earthwalker, without the comfort of familiar landscape or kinsman, extolls temperance in the face of existential realities:
... the lives of men
give way abruptly, they leave the hall
bold warriors. The great earth itself
falls and decays each day, and no man
may be wise who has not passed many
winters on it. The wise man is patient,
neither hotheaded or quick to speech,
neither timorous nor reckless in battle,
neither afraid not heedlessly cheerful,
not greedy for wealth, nor ever keen
to boast till he has lived many years...
The cold wind of meaningless landscape extends from horizon to horizon. The human quest is fatally nullified by oblivion:
Where are mare and warrior now?
Where the dear lord? The assembled men?
The clamour they made in that bright hall?
O gleaming cup. O mailed warrior. They
and their time have gone under the dark
helm of night, as if they had never been.
“The Seafarer” is a precursor to modern poems such as Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish.” Richard Hamer translated the poem very closely to the original Anglo-Saxon literary text. There are extensive essays on Ezra Pound’s translation of the poem, which allows for phonetic flourishes. Patton artfully comes down somewhere between the two. Again the speaker of the poem is forlorn, without kinsmen or landscape, on “the way of exile.” He warns that one must only cling “moderately” to the rewards of the world:
The skinbag, when it loses its spirit,
can taste no sweet, nor feel any pain,
nor stir its hand, nor think a thought.
... a man must... hold hard
to his course honour all pledges, and be
pure in his ways; must hate whom he
hates, love whom he loves, moderately:
though he wants to see the one on fire,
he may also see the friend he adores
on a funeral pyre. Fate is far stronger,
Measurer mightier, than a man’s mind.
Patton’s Curious Masonry, being done well in every way, is a book that lends itself to reading and multiple re-readings.