The final poem of Unlikeness Is Us. Undereating the whole thing.
A moth ate words. Which seems
splendid to me. Think of the wonder
that worm consumed, riddles we wrote,
a thief in darkness of our deep musings;
the stiff parchment too – and the thief not
a whit wiser for the words it swallowed.
Moððe word frǣt.° Mē þæt þūhte
wrǣtlicu wyrd, þā ic þæt wundor° gefrægn,
þæt se wyrm° forswealg wera gied° sumes,
þēof in þȳstro þrymfæstne cwide
ond þæs strangan staþol. Stælgiest ne wæs (5)
wihte þȳ glēawra þe hē þām wordum swealg. ⬩
This one starts from an ænigma by Symphosius:
Littera me pauit, nec quid sit littera noui.
In libris uixi, nec sum studiosior inde.
Exedi Musas, nec adhuc tamen ipsa profeci.
(Glorie, vol. 133a, p. 637)
Letters fed me, but I do not know what letters are.
I lived in books, but am no more studious for that.
I devoured the Muses, but still have not myself progressed.
(Megan Cavell, trans.)
It’s not a translation but a transmutation of a Latin precursor. It has digested a prior poem, one by Symphosius, to arise as it-and-not-it, remade in a new language, a new rendering. The poem about a bookworm is a bookworm, also the flighted form.
Intertextuality. Modern word but an old preoccupation, as old as written text, or older really – old as stories themselves are, which change as they change hands and minds, recombining each time they’re told. Intertextual is the natural state of stories in an oral wild. It becomes “a thing” when speech and writing meet and the one sets the other down, seems to still it. An OE reader, for whom oral transmission was recent in memory, maybe still also ongoing all round, might have found the figure of a bookworm, a living moving form, lowly but wingéd, digesting writing uncomprehendingly and speaking of that – indeed gaining from the act the nourishment to speak of it – entertaining and provocative. [ADDENDUM. Made a dumb error here, not sure how. This riddle’s in the third person, so it’s not the bookworm speaking.]
These thoughts cued by The Riddle Ages, a smart unstuffy website digesting recent scholarship on the riddle poems. The OE reader of this poem would have had to settle what kind of word (l. 1) it was being eaten, written or voiced. If gied (l. 3) means “song,” that points toward an oral word. Two lines later, strangan staþol, “strong foundation,” directs one toward the read thing, parchment, binding. How to reconcile one gesture toward voice and one to written form and frame? John D. Niles suggests we have our cake, eat it too, with a written song – specifically the canonical psalms of King David. The Song of Solomon with its secret visits in the night also comes to mind.
Niles answers the riddle complexly enough – “maggot and psalter” – to imply another question: where do the sorts of thinking these texts meant to ask of a contemporary reader end, and the sorts of thinking they ask of a later scholar or literary translator begin? In other words, when is reading not riddling?
The usual answer to the riddle, once it’s settled it’s a written text, is “bookworm.” But just as that word is a metaphor for a certain sort of reader, some readers of that sort, namely scholars, have wanted to worm into the worm for a meaning more hidden. Drawing here again from The Riddle Ages and its meditation on the Latin ruminatio, which apparently worked dually just as our “rumination” does: it’s how a cow chews and chews, also how one mulls an idea, taking it in, thoughtfully. With this in mind, some say the riddle points to a monk or a student, especially since it’s the larval form of the creature that chews on the words, but now, having gone off, witless but winged, it’s gained some sort of mastery. A professor.
The worm’s become a moth, made matter energy, crawl flutter, parchment flight. It’s not a whit wiser nor the same neither. Who’s won this battle of wits, human inquisitor or indefatigable maggot?
- Moððe word frǣt. Williamson: “the initial half-line contains a double disguise: moððe for wyrm and word for bec.” The worm presents as its future as a moth, the book as the words it contains. Projective, metonymic. (Complexer still if we think with Niles that the word might be sung.)
- wundor. It’s actually the fact of consumption that’s a marvel. A more literal translation would at least move the comma over, maybe more. “Think of the wonder, / that worm consumed a song someone made.”
- wyrm. Note the play among near-homophones, word, wyrd, wyrm. Word, fate, and worm bound together in orþoncbendum, skillful contrivance. | gied. Usually “song,” but can also mean “riddle.” The word is in the singular, and wera gied sumes might literally be translated “a certain man’s song” (Niles).
The image atop is the front panel of the Franks Casket – riddled with holes, graven with a runic alphabet whose import as a whole’s up for grabs. Consider the opening paragraph of the online article that accompanies the image
One of the more vexing problems facing scholars of Anglo-Saxon art is the simple fact that we often do not know precisely what it is that we are dealing with. I am speaking not so much of the questions of dating and localization that hamper the study of medieval art. Rather, it is that we cannot even say for certain what many of our most famous objects even are, or were intended to be. The Franks Casket, for example, has been identified as a treasure chest or a book shrine, and was used in the later Middle Ages as a reliquary, but all we can say with any certainty is that it is a box that likely originally had a latch.
Riddle me this. This here worm, had he the time, would read it all. But bed.