Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Sun and the Seed-Corn

Following on from this recent post about Anglo-Saxon wisdom literature, here are two extracts from the 'Metres of Boethius', a sequence of Old English poems based on the metrical sections of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. This is Metre 3.

Eala, on hu grimmum and hu grundleasum
seaðe swinceð þæt sweorcende mod,
þonne hit þa strongan stormas beatað
weoruldbisgunga, þonne hit winnende
his agen leoht an forlæteð,
and mid uua forgit þone ecan gefean,
ðringð on þa ðiostro ðisse worulde,
sorgum geswenced. Swa is þissum nu
mode gelumpen, nu hit mare ne wat
for gode godes buton gnornunge
fremdre worulde. Him is frofre ðearf.

O, in how fearsome and how fathomless
a mire struggles the darkening mind,
when the stern storms of worldly trouble
beat against it! Then, battling on,
it loses its own light,
and in grief forgets the eternal joy,
driven on into the darkness of this world,
oppressed by sorrow. So now it is
for this mind, now it knows no more
of God's goods but grieving
in an unwelcoming world. It needs comfort.

Here's the section on which this is based; the Old English is briefer and simpler, and somehow more poignant to me for that reason. My translation can't capture how much the sound of the poetry contributes to this picture of a mind growing dark, squelched by sorrow, sinking into a bottomless pit: the sweorcende mod, sorgum geswenced. Say out loud the word gnornunge - couldn't you guess without being told that it means 'grieving, lamenting'?

By contrast, here's the OE Metre 22, for which compare this.

Se þe æfter rihte mid gerece wille
inweardlice æfter spyrian
swa deoplice, þæt hit todrifan ne mæg
monna ænig, ne amerran huru
ænig eorðlic ðincg, he ærest sceal
secan on him selfum þæt he sume hwile
ymbutan hine æror sohte.
Sece þæt siððan on his sefan innan,
and forlæte an, swa he oftost mæge,
ælcne ymbhogan ðy him unnet sie,
and gesamnige, swa he swiðost mæge,
ealle to þæm anum his ingeðonc,
gesecge his mode þæt hit mæg findan
eall on him innan þæt hit oftost nu
ymbutan hit ealneg seceð,
gooda æghwylc. He ongit siððan
yfel and unnet eal þæt he hæfde
on his incofan æror lange
efne swa sweotole swa he on þa sunnan mæg
eagum andweardum on locian,
and he eac ongit his ingeþonc
leohtre and berhtre þonne se leoma sie
sunnan on sumera, þonne swegles gim,
hador heofontungol, hlutrost scineð.
Forðæm þæs lichoman leahtras and hefignes
and þa unþeawas eallunga ne magon
of mode ation monna ænegum
rihtwisnesse, ðeah nu rinca hwæm
þæs lichoman leahtras and hefignes
and unþeawas oft bysigen
monna modsefan, mæst and swiðost
mid þære yflan oforgiotolnesse,
mid gedwolmiste dreorigne sefan
fortihð mod foran monna gehwelces,
þæt hit swa beorhte ne mot blican and scinan
swa hit wolde, gif hit geweald ahte.
þeah bið sum corn sædes gehealden
symle on ðære saule soðfæstnesse,
þenden gadertang wunað gast on lice.
Ðæs sædes corn bið symle aweaht
mid ascunga, eac siððan mid
goodre lare, gif hit growan sceal.
Hu mæg ænig man andsware findan
ðinga æniges, þegen mid gesceade,
þeah hine rinca hwilc rihtwislice
æfter frigne gif he awuht nafað
on his modsefan mycles ne lytles
rihtwisnesse ne geradscipes?
Nis þeah ænig man þætte ealles swa
þæs geradscipes swa bereafod sie
þæt he andsware ænige ne cunne
findan on ferhðe, gif he frugnen bið.
Forðæm hit is riht spell þæt us reahte gio
ald uðwita, ure Platon;
he cwæð þætte æghwilc ungemyndig
rihtwisnesse hine hræðe sceolde
eft gewendan into sinum
modes gemynde; he mæg siððan
on his runcofan rihtwisnesse
findan on ferhte fæste gehydde
mid gedræfnesse dogora gehwilce
modes sines mæst and swiðost,
and mid hefinesse his lichoman,
and mid þæm bisgum þe on breostum styreð
mon on mode mæla gehwylce.

He who wishes to search in an ordered way
for the right, inwardly,
so deeply that no man may drive it out,
nor any earthly thing at all
corrupt it, he shall first
seek within himself that which for a time
he had once sought outside himself.
He must seek then in his mind within,
and utterly forsake, as often as he can,
every anxiety which is useless to him,
and gather, as much as he can,
all into one his inner thought;
say to his mind that it can discover
all within itself which it is now so often
always seeking outside itself:
every good. He will then perceive
all the harmful and useless things which he had long kept
within his inner chamber,
just as clearly as he may look upon the sun
with his present eyes;
and he will also perceive his inner thought,
lighter and brighter than the radiance
of the sun in summer, when the jewel of the sky,
serene star of the heavens, shines most brightly.
For the sins and heaviness of the body
and all its bad ways cannot
take from any human mind
reason, although now for every being
the sins and heaviness of the body
and its bad ways often trouble
the mind of man, greatly and cruelly,
with the evil of forgetfulness,
draw a mist of error over the sorrowful spirit,
the mind of every man,
so that it cannot blaze and shine
as brightly as it wants to, if it had the power.
But there will always be
a seed-corn of truth held within the soul
as long as the spirit and body live entwined together.
This seed-corn will always be quickened
by asking, and then by
good teaching, if it is to grow.
How may any man find an answer
for anything, a person with reason,
though a man might ask him about it
properly, if he has nothing
of wisdom or counsel in his mind,
great or small?
There is no man so entirely bereft of reason
that he cannot find any answer
in his mind, if he is questioned.
For it is a true speech which the ancient philosopher,
our Plato, long ago told us:
he said that anyone forgetful of reason
should swiftly turn within his own mind's memory;
in his secret chamber he will find reason,
hidden fast within his mind
amid the turbulence of his spirit
every day, greatly and cruelly,
and amid the heaviness of his body
and amid the cares which in the heart disturb
a man in his mind at all times.

This is complex and intricate and hard to translate - hard for me, and hard for the Anglo-Saxon poet, I would think. But Old English poetry had many ways of talking about the processes of the mind and the memory, and they get a good workout here. This is sophisticated psychological and philosophical reasoning, and it draws on Old English poetic diction as well as on Boethius and 'our Plato': there's a characteristic kenning for the mind, runcofan, 'secret chamber' ('chamber of secrets'?) as well as the usual vocabulary of mod and ferþ and sefa - the mind, spirit, heart, soul. And although the metaphor may be Boethius', the lines about the sun contain two beautifully Anglo-Saxon kennings:

and he eac ongit his ingeþonc
leohtre and berhtre þonne se leoma sie
sunnan on sumera, þonne swegles gim,
hador heofontungol, hlutrost scineð.

and he will also perceive his inner thought,
lighter and brighter than the radiance
of the sun in summer, when the jewel of the sky,
serene star of the heavens, shines most brightly.

Yesterday in Oxford the sun was blazing down, sunnan on sumera at its very brightest, hottest, most all-embracing. Can the mind, sinking in so fearsome and fathomless a mire, really ever learn to be as bright as that?

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