Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Old English Poetry and Translation (part one)

One of the books we read in the British Modernism class I was TA for last fall was A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. I'd studied it before, in the last modern British Literature class I took, back in my sophomore year of college. I'd loved it then, too, and the chance to return to it, and to lead discussion sections on it, was something I looked forward to immensely.

From the first day of class, however, I realized I was picking up entirely different things -- it helps that, for this college class, I'd underlined everything in really bright pink pen, which makes those distinctions pretty obvious visually as well as intellectually. A large part of this was the focus of the class itself: one of my favorite aspects of grad school is that no two profs ever teach the same book in the same way. My professor in the fall set a fascinating tone for our time with Forster when she began with the observation of the plethora of negatives that open the book. Chapter 1 begins "Except for the Marabar Caves -- and they are twenty miles off -- the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary." The focus on negatives continues through the first chapter, which although it’s only about three pages long, creates an atmosphere of sorts that continues to the final words of the novel -- "no, not there." The effect -- at least for me, and I know from friends' reactions to the novel that mine is by no means the only reaction -- is that the novel seems to be in stasis, a place of expectation without promise of fulfillment, what Forster articulates when he describes India at page 150 of the Harcourt edition: "She calls "Come" through her hundred mouths, through objects ridiculous and august. But come to what? She has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal."

There are, of course, a hundred problems with the novel that I'm in no way expert enough to talk about in any capacity. But what fascinated me with regards to Forster is that, when I was reading the introduction to Richard Hamer's A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse (which a friend gave me ages ago and I'm only just now sitting down to look through), A Passage to India immediately sprang to mind. From Hamer's "General Account": "Only about 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive; many of the poems which do are fragmentary, and we know the poets and places and dates of composition of almost none of them. Most of the extant verse is known from manuscripts written in Wessex at the end of the tenth century, though in many cases the poems must have been composed long before in other parts of the country, and much of the copying is demonstrably more or less inaccurate. No major works and few minor ones survive in more than one copy, so that the correction of errors and the reconstruction of originals is extremely difficult and often quite impossible. The selection of what has survived has depended entirely on the chances which have caused this manuscript rather than that to escape fire and the other hazards of time. Yet despite all these disadvantages we still possess a body of poetry which contains a quantity of work of the highest standard and whose variety is astonishing."

Aside from the value judgements (what is work of the highest standard when you don't have much to go on?), I think Hamer, writing in 1970, raises several interesting points about this poetry. The most important for me, however, is the number of negative constructions in this excerpt -- no authors, dates, places, inaccurate copying, no major works and few minor ones in more than one copy, impossible corrections. Further, the sense of the arbitrary Hamer leaves with this paragraph-- the phrase that comes to mind (and I think I'm lifting this phrase from Greenfield's work on Wanderer, but I'm not certain) is "vagaries of Wyrd." We've inherited a body of texts that is, at its most basic level, incomplete. This is certainly true of most bodies of text -- they are not whole, there are always references to works that do not survive. However, Old English is different somehow.

It's haunting, in a way -- as Hamer says "The selection of what has survived has depended entirely on the chances which have caused this manuscript rather than that to escape fire and the other hazards of time." Fire is a formidable enemy of the written word. But it's interesting for other reasons, too -- fire is a weapon of choice for the draca, the wyrm -- the dragon that kills Beowulf, in a story that itself was almost consumed by fire. Old English is, in some degree, defined by what is not -- what did not survive, what we do not know. Some of the most moving of the poems are about loss – things that do not last, a life that is irrevocably læne or lent. It's odd that a culture, and the field that studies it, can both be so defined by what is no longer -- and by what we cannot truly understand or translate (what is aelfscinu? When the Anglo-Saxons said enta geweorc, just how monstrous were those giants?).

There was a line in Forster that really registered for me this time through the novel. I'd marked it when I read the book in college, but I hadn't remembered it as important until I re-read: "Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle; they could not tell. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and sqabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one. They had not the apparatus for judging." The context is in a conversation between Adela and Fielding about the Marabar caves, her experience of them, Mrs. Moore's experience of them -- the caves destroy language, in a sense – reducing everything said within them to a resounding “boum.” Adela can offer no explanation of the caves, Mrs. Moore’s transformation from devout Christian to existentialist – she has not the apparatus for judging that, no more than she can understand anything deeper about life. Something about this line reminds me of the process of studying Old English literature. So much of my work is focused on gaining some sort of apparatus for understanding -- some way to measure, or explore more effectively what I'm looking at, moving beyond the instinctual love that I can't help feeling.

The poetry (and the prose for that matter!) of the Anglo-Saxons comes to us in translation. Old English, whatever PhD language requirements might say, is a foreign language, and like French or Italian or any other modern language, sometimes it's the faux amis (to recall a phrase my French teacher in high school used to use all the time) that trip you up. The valences of meaning that modern English elides somewhat or entirely. The ghostliness of gæstlic, that is combined with horror and dread is the example that comes to mind from my work on Wanderer. There are many others, some of which I'll catalog in future parts of this topic (when I can recall them -- my mind just came up entirely blank, which is a little disturbing...).

Yeah, I think I'll have fun this summer with my reading of Old English...answering this weird call that is, to use Forster's phrase, "never a promise, only an appeal." Or trying to discern an answer to the question Old English seems to ask me (were Calvino to be my muse for a moment) -- "like Thebes through the mouth of the sphinx."

to be continued...assuming I ever actually start getting work done, that is!


Eileen Joy said...

Hello "Old English in New York" from "Old English in South Carolina but soon to be Old English in Illinois Again" and used to be "Old English in Tennessee" and also the author of the BABEL website and the organizer of the "Is Beowulf Postmodern Yet?" sessions at Kalamazoo--

Your meditation on Forster's novel and the always-fragmentary and "lost" corpus of Old English literature is very moving. It is exactly what you are feeling that led me to my dissertation topic a few years back, "Beowulf and the Floating Wreck of History," which was an attempt, on my part, to write an intellectual history of "Beowulf" studies that would focus on the accidents, chaos, and randomness [as well as the nostalgia, despair, loss, etc.] in that history. I am a shameless propoent of doing presentist-minded medieval scholarship, and I think your rumination on Hamer viz. Forster's "Passage to India" would make a lovely essay, and since I am a reader for the online journal "Heroic Age," perhaps you'd like to write such an essay and submit it? I encourage it.

But trying to think symbiotically "in the now" about your comments, I offer you some quotes from an interview I was reading as you likely typed your post, between the two documentary filmmakers Errol Morris ["The Fog of War"] and Adam Curtis ["The Power of Nightmares"], in the excellent magazine "The Believer" [April 2006 issue]. They were discussing the Vietnam War and 9/11 [the subjects of their respective most recent films] and trying to collectively make the argument that there are no real conspiracies [and for academic studies, let's replace "conspiracy" with "ideology"] because history is always more random than that. Morris asked, "Is history primarily a history of conspiracy? Or is it just a series of blunders, one after the other? Confusions, self-deceptions, idiocies of one kind or another?" To which Curtis replied, "History is a series of unintended consequences resulting from confused actions, some of which are committed by people who think they may be taking part in a conspiracy, but it never works out the way they intended." And then, of course, there is your "vagaries of Wyrd" and Forster's caves that destroy language [and hence, understanding, or "meaning"]. Our problem is we think, as you say, that we can construct the proper apparatus, or methodology, that "meaning' [whatever that is] can more properly be "seen." It cannot be "seen" because it has to be invented, over and over again, by "us," here, and now.

Cheers, Eileen

Derek the Ænglican said...

Great post. Evocative of "the Ruins"...you probably could have fit a great ubi sunt passage in there somewhere... ;-)

anhaga said...

Eileen -- Your comments are thought-provoking, and I’m glad you enjoyed my post. As a grad student, there's always this weird tension between the present and the past -- what's applicable, after all, to reading medieval literature? The life of literature is, as you say, that meaning is precisely not fixed -- as you put it, "It cannot be "seen" because it has to be invented, over and over again, by "us," here, and now."

It's funny you should bring up The Believer -- a magazine I only just heard about recently from a friend who wrote something for it -- and particularly that article. It fits nicely with something I've been thinking a lot about lately. I was just having a conversation with one of my friends about Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. Both of the books of his that I’ve read have that moment that you know he was writing for all along -- that stark statement that completely floors you the first time you read it. My friend still has the book, but I remember a part of that moment from the book by heart -- "Invent, invent the plan, Casaubon. That's what everyone has done, to explain the dinosaurs and the peaches." It’s clearly not the same situation – but it seems to be another side of the same coin. Some things have a life of their own -- and the "bigger picture," if there could ever be one, isn't really something we can see.

You had a line over at JJC's blog that I thought was particularly compelling -- "Scholarship has to be practiced as a kind of art form--it is an artistic intervention into history." I realized when I read that sentence that the scholarly work I’ve always enjoyed most has been just that -- artistic, in some way. Your dissertation sounds compelling– are there pieces of it available in article form?

As for the article on Forster and Hamer – I will give it some serious consideration. I appreciate your encouragement – I’m not sure how it will work time-wise, but I certainly would love to write more about this, and seriously pursue some of these thoughts further. And I must also say – I was at one of the “Is Beowulf Postmodern Yet?” sessions, and found it to be one of the best panels I’d seen in awhile. I’m still actively thinking about the discussion that started there, and I’m excited to see the work BABEL will be doing!

Derek – Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. As for ubi-sunt passages…I was totally going to add one, but then I couldn’t figure out what to put in it…or what to be lamenting!

Eileen Joy said...

Anhaga--my dissertation was a monstrous behemoth which has since been parceled out into various articles and the fourth chapter of which is being developed into a monograph, the description of which, chapter-by-chapter, you can access here:


A portion of one of the chapters, "On The Hither Side of Time: Tony Kushner's 'Homebody/Kabul' and the Old English 'Ruin'," is forthcoming in "Medieval Perspectives" [a proceedings journal of the Southeastern Medieval Association], but I have also posted that online at:


I can understand, with how busy you are as a graduate student, that expanding your thoughts on Hamer and Forster into a more full essay could be daunting at present, but do keep it in mind. "Heroic Age" has a "Forum" section in which they publish shorter, 5,000-word-ish type scholarly "meditations," for which your idea/piece could be perfect, I think. I published something there myself, along those lines, titled: "James Earl's 'Thinking About Beowulf': Ten Years Later," which will also give you more insight into my thinking about scholarship as an "artistic intervention into history" (an idea I have partly pilfered from Terence Hawkes' book, "Shakespeare in the Present." Here is the "Heroic Age" piece:


Okay, that's one [or two] too many shameless links to myself in one blog post! But I think the way *you* obviously think about Old English literature, modern texts, the conjunctures between "present" and "past" moments/modes of expression & thinking, is so rare in our field, that I just want to encourage, encourage, encourage you! Of course, understanding the past "on its own terms" [whatever that may ultimately mean--it is endlessly debatable] is a worthwhile endeavor, but while we're at that task [as we often are] we also have to understand where we are *right now* and the ways in which these medieval texts exist alongside us in the present. We need a criticism that is inventive, that understands texts, as Edward Said wrote in "The World, the Text, and the Critic" as significant forms in which “worldliness, circumstantiality, the text’s status as an event having sensuous particularity as well as historical contingency, are. . .part of its capacity for conveying and producing meaning.”

Cheers, Eileen