A clutter of starlings

’Nother riddle for yehs. Birds? Or maybe it’s unsolvable & that’s the solution.


CLUTTER OF STARLINGS

Nightair carries little creatures over
the hillside, they are black, very black,
their coats are dark. Singing profusely
they spread out in bands, call out loudly –
treading wooded headlands, sometimes
in halls of men they name themselves.


CLUTTER OF STARLINGS

Đeos° lyft byreð          lytle wihte
ofer beorghleoþa,          þā sind blace° swīþe,
swearte, salopāde.          Sanges rōpe,°
hēapum fēraþ,          hlūde cirmað. ⬩°
Tredað bearonæssas,°          hwīlum burgsalo
niþþa bearna          nemnað hȳ sylfe.° :⁊


COMMENTARY

Though the birds are full of articulate noise, and cross at the end the verge of human dwelling, the poem is not in their voice, but that of a human riddler. The description of their flight habits suggests to me starlings, which travel in great clouds, following the contour of the countryside, sometimes at twilight. Muir goes with swallows, which have dark backs, pale underparts. And if we read blace (l. 2) with a long vowel, blāce, we get not “black” but “bright,” and a nice description of swallow looks and activity:

Little creatures ride the air over
the hillside, they are brightly black,
their coats are dark. Singing profusely
they go in flocks

Swallows too are more likely than most birds to swoop into a human dwelling. But, no way swallows can be said to tread the earth, while starlings are conspicuous walkers.

Niles (129) says the crow’s the bird most like to name itself, to have an onomatopoeic call. They gather in flocks, and by twilight (taking that trace of dark in Ðeos), and they tread the earth; but they’re about as songful as starlings – not at all – and not so little, neither.

Other solutions proposed, in Muir (623): swifts, jackdaws, house martins, bees, hailstones, raindrops, storm clouds, musical notes, damned souls, demons. Some bird seems most plausible to me, though the thought of musical notes tromping the countryside in black coats is awfully lovely.

It’s one of the Exeter riddles most resistant of solution. Warren’s discussion on The Riddle Ages of its undecidability, and how that connects to the inbetweenness of birds, is very good. Bartholomew the Englishman, he notes, discerned something in the substance of birds þat beþ bytwene þe tweye elementis þat beþ most heuy and most liȝt (that is between the two elements that are most heavy and most light) (Seymour 596). All the Exeter birds are metamorphic, Warren says, tending to elude naming; this riddle’s refusal of answer may be its answer. The crux is that final half line, which through the wonders of OE case endings can be read as an imperative, “name them yourselves,” also as a declarative, “they name themselves.” In the MS or on the voice, it’s not one or the other, it’s both.

Warren notes that the birds are liminal in the way this verse is. We must

inhabit a space somewhere between knowledge and ignorance, just as the birds themselves sometimes dwell with niþþa bearna “the sons of men” and sometimes move beyond our boundaries to the bearonæssas “woody headlands.” … [The riddle] manifests the sorts of anxieties over naming birds and their characteristics evident in texts like Isidore’s – these are birds that apparently name themselves, but (still) can’t be named.

That’s Isidore of Seville, his Etymologies, who writes of birds: “They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways” (Barney 264). That sentence should put to rest the notion that wordplay of the sort seen in Zukofsky’s A or Perec’s La Disparition or Alan Davies’s a an av es is a modern phenomenon. We’ve been switching letters to make new meanings for as long as we’ve been swapping nucleotides in codons under our rubric as sapiens, the languaged.*


NOTES

  1. Ðeos. The demonstrative pronoun, but calls to mind þeostre, “darkness.” A suggestion then of dark air, twilight?
  1. blace. Usually read as “black,” so that the sequence blace swiþe, / swearte, salopāde translates as “very black, black, dark-coated.” A point heavily made. The word may alternatively be taken as blāce, “bright.”
  1. Sanges rōpe. “Bountiful of song.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “starlings” or “crows” (and doesn’t especially point towards “swallows”).
  1. The interpunct puts the poem’s turn here. The effect is to make the birds – whatever birds they are – into visitants in the last two lines, come out of the woods to the door of the hall. In the last line of my translation, “in” should maybe be “at” or “to.”
  1. Tredað bearonæssas. “Tread wooded headlands.” The phrase that most inhibits a reading of “swallows” (and points towards “starlings” or “crows”).
  1. nemnað hȳ sylfe. This phrase does double duty as an imperative, “name them yourselves,” and a declarative, “they name themselves.” Traditionally editors have preferred the former, as a frequent conclusion to riddles in the Exeter Book. But see commentary.

P.S. After checking out images of starling clouds. Maybe their song is synaesthetic – goes to eye not ear – astonishing chord of their synchronic flight.

starling cloud


* Sapiens goes not to language, straightway, but to its door the mouth. Latin sapere, “to taste, have taste, be wise,” from PIE root *sep- “to taste, perceive.” To taste and be awake and to be wise. Adam, take that. No really take it.