Tuesday, November 25, 2008

After Elegy: or, Thinking Old English Without Loss

[Image credit here]

by Mary Kate Hurley

This past Wednesday I gave a presentation on the beginnings of the second chapter of my dissertation. At present, this chapter appears to be the required Beowulf chapter. I’ve been re-reading the poem, and contemplating a re-translating, for a couple weeks now, and I’m still trying to make my ideas cohere.

Every once in awhile, though, an object gets launched into my orbit, usually precipitated by an event like Wednesday’s MaRGIN (Medieval and Renaissance Graduate Information Network -- run by graduate students at NYU) workshop, and I can’t quite decide if it’s a gift or a grenade, or usually both. Gifts make my arguments come together – like when one adviser told me that my interest in my MA Essay was temporality, not subjectivity, or when another told me my first chapter was about translation and temporality, and that I should really focus on that rather than writing my whole dissertation in one chapter. Grenades – well, they’re just like gifts, except they do so in a way that shifts everything I think I know, and turns it on its head.

My colleague Liza Blake, a frequent commenter here at ITM and a really impressive scholar of Renaissance literature at NYU (second year of grad school, after an MPhil at Cambridge), launched one such item – a gift-grenade, if you will—into my thought processes this past week, which I wanted to share with a wider audience as I begin to think through my second chapter.

In the last part of the poem Beowulf, our hero meets his final monster: the dragon. However, before he finds himself actually engaging the dragon in a fight, we’re given a glimpse of how the dragon comes into the story of the poem. Like many Old English stories, it’s one about loss – more specifically, the loss of kinsmen, the loss of a people. We’re treated to the lay of the last survivor, which, if memory serves, is often compared to other elegiac poems, like The Wanderer. You can see the text, and translation at this website. I’m not a fan of the translation, really, but I don’t have my own in front of me. I’ll be using my own on-the-fly translation through the rest of this post where I need it.

The dominant mood of the poem seems to be grief: “Hold you now earth, now that warriors are not allowed to, the possessions of lords!” The speaker catalogues what these objects are: the helm, the sword, the chain mail, the cup. There is no one, the speaker says, who will use these things – who will keep them from disintegrating now that “violent death” has “sent forth” many of men (ll.2265-2266).

What’s interesting, and what Liza pointed out, is that the hoard, useless, and finally, dangerous to the people of the Geats – didn’t belong to the last survivor any more than it did to the dragon, or to Beowulf. Rather, the history told by the lay of the last survivor speaks of it with these words: “Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe gode begeaton” (2248-9). Grammatically this is a bit dense. on, when used with a verb with a sense of “taking,” translates as “from”, and so the line translates roughly to “Lo, it before from you [good ones] obtained.” In short – the materials of this hoard were taken from the earth in former times (aer), and now, the last survivor returns them to the hruse from which it came.

The poem goes on to describe the actions of the last survivor: Swa giomor-mod giohðo mænde, / an æfter eallum (ll. 2265-66). Again, we can get tripped up by the grammar: “thus, sad-minded he mourned cares, / alone after/for all [of them].” Chickering’s translation (the one I tend to favor) is “Thus in his grief he mourned aloud, /alone, for them all.” æfter, as a preposition, has several meanings, and nearly always takes the dative. Given my druthers, I wouldn’t choose between the meanings – keeping, therefore, a sense of longing with the sense of temporal distancing which works so well for this final survivor of a people destroyed.

What Liza’s suggestion highlights is that – as a human being myself – I tend to sympathize, even empathize with the human loss which is voiced so eloquently by the last survivor’s words. But I do so to the exclusion of the poem’s exposition of the dragon’s function in the poem:
Hord-wynne fond / eald uht-sceaða opene standan, / se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð, / nacod nið draca, nihtes fleogeð / fyre befangan; hyne fold-buend / swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall / hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold / warað wintrum frod; ne byð him wihte ðy sel.

He found hoard-joys, the old dawn-scather, to stand open, he who, burning, sought the hills, the naked malicious dragon, flies in the nights, encircled by fire; he the earth-dwellers widely dreaded. He shall seek hoards in the earth, there he heathen gold guards from ancient winters; it is not to him a bit of good.

What’s interesting here is what probably sounds familiar if you’ve any experience of the poem called the Old English Maxims (which essentially function as a kind of catalogue of knowledge of “the way things are”), the first line of which reads: Cyning sceal rice healdan (maxims II, l. 1). The King shall hold the kingdom. The dragon is doing, quite simply, what a dragon does. And – referring back to what has gone before in the poem – these treasures were taken out of the earth in the past, and now they simply return to the earth. Gold, taken in the form of metals (interesting role in OE for metals, if one thinks about them), is turned through human artifice into the materials that we think of as forming part of the social interactions of the Anglo-Saxon period. Rings, swords – all these things circulate in human society, and when there is no one left to keep this circulation in motion, the impulse is to mourn the loss to humans. But in essence, these things are simply returning to the earth from whence they came – no more useful to humans than it was when they first found it.

So my question, the one that’s been on my mind the past few days and will probably keep me thinking for awhile, is this: Can we think of Old English poetry and not think of “loss” as a part of what that poetry is describing? Is there a way to move beyond the idea of loss, to think an Anglo-Saxon poetry that portrays this complex interaction of human and non-human objects and materials in a way that doesn’t rely on metals – objects – or finally humans – being lost? What if they simply change form?

Could we ever be after elegy?

cross posted at ITM.


theswain said...

But isn't even a change of form a type of loss? Even if the change yields positive, winsome results, it usually entails the loss of what went before.

Good, thoughtful post as always MK....

For me, the "poetics of loss" is one of the things that makes A-S poetry so beautiful and attractive.

Anonymous said...

I didn't read your post. Actually, I saw your profile picture on a google search for something else and I was wondering what kind of dog that is in the picture. My dog looks very similar but we found her in Mexico so she's a mixed breed. Just curious.