Monday, 8 October 2012

Riddle 26 in The Exeter Book

This is the third in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

Philip Harvey

The modern English poet Craig Raine opens his most famous poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ (1979):

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings –

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

These flighty imagist verses continue on, describing common objects of Earth as seen for the first time through the eyes of a visitor. Clues in these three verses lead us to conclude that the Martian is looking at books. Raine, who could be thought of as a postmodernist, is practising the art of word pictures, using language to guess at something without naming it directly. The main clue is Caxtons, named after William Caxton, the first man to introduce the printing press into England. In fact, this form of poetry is one of the oldest in English literature. The riddle or, as they are sometimes called by academics, enigmatica is a developed form in Anglo-Saxon poetry, the most important collection of riddles being The Exeter Book. We do not have the names of any of these poets, though there is no reason to doubt that some may have cunningly hidden their names in the text..

Riddle 26 in that Book, written in indeterminate Saxon, has often been translated. Here is Richard Hamer’s version (1970):

Some enemy deprived me of my life
And took away my worldly strength, then wet me,
Dipped me in water, took me out again,
Set me in sunshine, where I quickly lost
The hairs I had. Later the knife’s hard edge
Cut me with all impurities ground off.
Then fingers folded me; the bird’s fine raiment
Traced often over me with useful drops
Across my brown domain, swallowed the tree-dye
Mixed up with water, stepped on me again
Leaving dark tracks. The hero clothed me then
With boards to guard me, stretched hide over me,
Decked me with gold; and thus the splendid work
Of smiths, with wire bound round, embellished me.
Now my red dye and all my decorations,
My gorgeous trappings far and wide proclaim
The Lord of Hosts, not grief for foolish sins.
If sons of men will make good use of me,
By that they shall be sounder, more victorious,
Their hearts more bold, their minds more full of joy,
Their spirits wiser; they shall have more friends,
Dear ones and kinsmen, truer and more good,
More kind and faithful, who will add more glory
And happiness by favours, who will lay
Upon them kindnesses and benefits,
And clasp them fast in the embrace of love.
Say who I am, useful to men. My name
Is famous, good to men, and also sacred.

‘Say who I am, useful to men,’ the poem asks, turning our attention back on all that has come before. The first person narrative leads us to guess various things, as each line speaks in conundrums. However we are given a big lead with ‘My gorgeous trappings far and wide proclaim / The Lord of Hosts, not grief for foolish sins.’ Furthermore, the conclusion states emphatically that ‘My name / Is famous, good to men, and also sacred.’ An object that is both famous and proclaims the Lord of Hosts narrows the possibilities considerably. That this is most probably a book, and that no ordinary book but the Bible, becomes clear by our knowledge of pre-Caxton book production. A book like the Bible, or a Gospel Book of the period, was made from vellum, i.e. mammal skin that had been washed, cleaned, stretched, shaved and bleached. The first-person narrator is the sacrificed animal whose pelt ultimately provides the pages, the ‘brown domain’ upon which the drops of ink are traced by the quill, “the bird’s fine raiment”. The physicality of the natural world and human action upon nature are noticed in every line of this Anglo-Saxon riddle. Medieval book manufacture is a time-consuming, arduous, and expert business, at every stage of the process. The poet’s care over each stage of this bookmaking is admiring and affirmative.

Two important figures from Anglo-Saxon literature are at work in this translation of the riddle. Feonda, here rendered as enemy, and the hero, operate in this poem not as forces in battle or contest, but as facilitators, as it were, of the book itself. While an ‘enemy’ or ‘fiend’ deprives the animal of its life, the ‘hero’ (so-called) transforms the resulting pathological materials into something remarkable, something that will bring honour, victory, joy and good life to those who use it. The hero is also the protector of the book who “clothed me then / With boards to guard me,” and he does this on behalf of the kinsmen, i.e. everyone in his own society. This is a world in which recognition is given for courageous actions; it is a standard subject in this verse tradition. But it is also a world in which kindness and faithfulness have become extolled as primary virtues, due in serious measure to the contents of the object being praised, and I would suggest that this is something new. Saxon fighting values are acknowledged but subsumed under the new Christian virtues adopted by Saxon society.

Indeed, the second half of the riddle speaks exclusively of the resounding value of the Bible as ultimate good, rather than the simple heroic achievements of the Saxon warrior. Just as the book is clasped in gold, so its message leads to an end in which the embrace of love is the final result of all this work. The conclusion is praise for the true benefit of all the hero’s labours, the Bible itself. It rewards especially the increased wisdom, happiness, and communal good inspired by the of words of the Bible. This makes it a very different riddle poem from Craig Raine’s, for as well as being a word game of charming effects, Riddle 26 is also a poem of testimony to the Testaments, an economical work of praise for the Word and thanksgiving for its transmission using the elemental technology of its day. One may conclude that the poem even has a certain didactic purpose in influencing its listeners to honour and respect the canon of Scripture itself.

And here is the poem in the original, with alliterations, caesurae, and all. You are welcome to add your own readings of these words in the Comments Box.

Riddle 26

Mec feonda sum         feore besnyþede,
woruldstrenga binom,         wætte siþþan,
dyfde on wætre,         dyde eft þonan,
sette on sunnan,         þær ic swiþe beleas
herum þam þe ic hæfde.         Heard mec siþþan
snað seaxses ecg,         sindrum begrunden;
fingras feoldan,         ond mec fugles wyn
geond speddropum         spyrede geneahhe,
ofer brunne brerd,         beamtelge swealg,
streames dæle,         stop eft on mec,
siþade sweartlast.         Mec siþþan wrah
hæleð hleobordum,         hyde beþenede,
gierede mec mid golde;         forþon me gliwedon
wrætlic weorc smiþa,         wire bifongen.
Nu þa gereno         ond se reada telg
ond þa wuldorgesteald         wide mære
dryhtfolca helm,         nales dol wite.
Gif min bearn wera         brucan willað,
hy beoð þy gesundran         ond þy sigefæstran,
heortum þy hwætran         ond þy hygebliþran,
ferþe þy frodran,         habbaþ freonda þy ma,
swæsra ond gesibbra,         soþra ond godra,
tilra ond getreowra,         þa hyra tyr ond ead
estum ycað         ond hy arstafum
lissum bilecgað         ond hi lufan fæþmum
fæste clyppað.         Frige hwæt ic hatte,
niþum to nytte.         Nama min is mære,
hæleþum gifre         ond halig sylf.

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