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.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

For Friends in Mourning (a Rare Personal Post)

I'm in one of those periods of my life where it seems that a number of people who I care about deeply are in pain, for a variety of reasons. JJC has posted about his recent loss at ITM. Other people dear to me are mourning other losses, due to death or to the turnings of life. Some of them are folks I knew only tangetially nearly ten years ago. Others are close friends. Some of them have been grieving for some time now. Others are facing new pain. My thoughts are with all of them.

In the moments I need comfort most I turn to a place that seems odd to me, but still brings comfort: e e cummings, in his Introduction from New Poems. The sense of movement, of never-finished-ness, and more than anything else of possibility seems comforting somehow: as though even in endings, still many things are possible. Even, in a someday far or near in time, joy.

Miracles are to come. With you I leave a remembrance of miracles: they are somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn,a human being;somebody who said to those near him,when his fingers would not hold a brush "tie it to my hand"--

nothing proving or sick or partial. Nothing false,nothing difficult or easy or small or colossal. Nothing ordinary or extraordinary,nothing emptied or filled,real or unreal;nothing feeble and known or clumsy and guessed. Everywhere tints childrening,innocent spontaneaous,true. Nowhere possibly what flesh and impossibly such a garden,but actually flowers which breasts are amoung the very mouths of light. Nothing believed or doubted;brain over heart, surface:nowhere hating or to fear;shadow,mind without soul. Only how measureless cool flames of making;only each other building always distinct selves of mutual entirely opening;only alive. Never the murdered finalities of wherewhen and yesno,impotent nongames of wrongright and rightwrong;never to gain or pause,never the soft adventure of undoom,greedy anguishes and cringing ecstasies of inexistence;never to rest and never to have;only to grow.

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There is No Future without Love (a Rare Political Post)

The election is over. History made. But last night on Countdown, Keith Olbermann made a comment that I think is central to the work of the humanities. You can view it in the embedded video below -- and it is worth viewing in its entirety.

California voted in favor of Proposition 8, which denies same sex couples the right to married. A right hitherto granted same sex couples in the state was banned, dissolved. An electorate actively voted to deny others the rights they themselves enjoy.

If you voted for this Proposition or support those who did or the sentiment they expressed, I have some questions, because, truly, I do not understand. Why does this matter to you? What is it to you? In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don't want to deny you yours. They don't want to take anything away from you. They want what you want—a chance to be a little less alone in the world.

Only now you are saying to them—no. You can't have it on these terms. Maybe something similar. If they behave. If they don't cause too much trouble. You'll even give them all the same legal rights—even as you're taking away the legal right, which they already had. A world around them, still anchored in love and marriage, and you are saying, no, you can't marry. What if somebody passed a law that said you couldn't marry?

Olbermann goes on to point out that we have done this before. Inter-racial marriages were illegal in 1/3 of the country until 1967. Marriages between slaves were not recognized in the era of slavery.

What strikes me more than anything else Olbermann says in this comment is how unthinkable a choice this is when you put it in terms of the literal heart of the matter -- when you put it in terms of love.

What is this, to you? Nobody is asking you to embrace their expression of love. But don't you, as human beings, have to embrace... that love? The world is barren enough.

It is stacked against love, and against hope, and against those very few and precious emotions that enable us to go forward. Your marriage only stands a 50-50 chance of lasting, no matter how much you feel and how hard you work.

And here are people overjoyed at the prospect of just that chance, and that work, just for the hope of having that feeling. With so much hate in the world, with so much meaningless division, and people pitted against people for no good reason, this is what your religion tells you to do? With your experience of life and this world and all its sadnesses, this is what your conscience tells you to do?

With your knowledge that life, with endless vigor, seems to tilt the playing field on which we all live, in favor of unhappiness and hate... this is what your heart tells you to do? You want to sanctify marriage? You want to honor your God and the universal love you believe he represents? Then Spread happiness—this tiny, symbolic, semantical grain of happiness—share it with all those who seek it. Quote me anything from your religious leader or book of choice telling you to stand against this. And then tell me how you can believe both that statement and another statement, another one which reads only "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I realized yesterday that I've spent seven years of my life -- nearly a quarter of it -- studying Anglo-Saxon literature. And if there is one thing that Anglo-Saxon literature speaks most clearly to me, it is the centrality of human love to any kind of real life, to any kind of ethical stance against the very barrenness described here. It reminds me, as so often this modern life does, of the Wanderer, of his travels in a barren place, a wintery sea, and the ice-flecked waves that bear him ever farther from human love and belonging:

Storms buffet rocky slopes, and snowfalls
cover the earth with the silence of winter.
Darkness falls, night’s shadows grow gloomy
hailstorms beat down from the sky,
they are hateful to men.

All men are miserable in earthly kingdoms,
for fate leaves no-one under the heavens unchanged.
Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsmen are fleeting.
This earthly resting place becomes empty.

So many threatening forces beat upon humankind from the outside in the Anglo-Saxon poetic world. The world stands cold against the warmth of a hall -- and in the imagery of Bede, life flies by, as might a sparrow through a hall, and for a single, sparkling moment, the winter fades away, and all is warmth and light. ac þæt biþ ān ēagan-bearhtm and þæt læste fæc, ac hē sōna of winter on winter eft cymþ. "But that is only an eye's twinkling, and that least interval -- and he soon out of winter into winter again comes."

The hall is where we come together, to share, however imperfectly, a kind of human love which can warm the coldness of a wintry world. I feel the hurt of the passage of Proposition Eight as a human being, because I care for and about other humans. But I care about it as an Anglo-Saxonist and a medievalist too. Because the winters of the past are done and gone, and still I hear the pain that resonates down the centuries of what it is like to be alone, to be cast out, to be without love, and moreover -- to be without an official status, a place of stability.

You don't have to help it, you don't have it applaud it, you don't have to fight for it. Just don't put it out. Just don't extinguish it. Because while it may at first look like that love is between two people you don't know and you don't understand and maybe you don't even want to know -- It is, in fact, the ember of your love, for your fellow person just because this is the only world we have. And the other guy counts, too.

Knowing all of this -- how could I deny others a right to "permanence and happiness," to the rights still others enjoy simply because they fit into an artificial idea of a "norm"? How could I not, as Olbermann suggests, embrace that love?

Put another way: how could I stand in the way of a wanderer who longs for a place to call home?


The title of this post is from a Brian Andreas poem, which you can access here.