Monday, April 13, 2009

Poetry and power; Bede and Caedmon

An evening, sometime between 658 and 680 AD, near or in the abbey of Whitby (Streanaeshalch) in Northumbria. It’s a double monastery, which means that it contains both monks and nuns and is ruled over by a woman, Hild(a). After the meal everyone takes it in turn to sing. Embarrassed by his inability, Caedmon, the man who looks after the cattle, sneaks out of the room. Safe in the hay with his beasts, he’s soon asleep. In his dream a figure appears and the conversation, in OE, always sounded better than the poem to me:

"Cedmon, sing mē hwæthwugu."
Þā ondswarede hē ond cwæð: "Ne con iċ nōht singan; ond iċ for þon of þeossum ġebēorscipe ūt ēode ond hider ġewāt, for þon iċ nāht singan ne cūðe."
Eft hē cwæð, se ðe wið hine sprecende wæs: "Hwæðre þū meaht singan."
Þā cwæð hē: "Hwæt sceal iċ singan?"
Cwæð hē: "Sing mē frumsceaft."

And so he does. Waking up, he finds he remembers the song and rushes to find officials.

The next bit of the story is one I forgot, but it’s interesting in terms of mindsets.

Þā cōm hē on morgenne tō þǣm tūnġerēfan þe his ealdormon wæs; sæġde him hwylċe ġife hē onfēng; ond hē hine sōna tō þǣre abbudissan ġelǣdde ond hire þā cȳðde ond sæġde. [16] Þā heht hēo ġesomnian ealle þā ġelǣredestan men ond þā leorneras, ond him ondweardum hēt secgan þæt swefn ond þæt lēoð singan, þæt ealra heora dōme ġecoren wǣre, hwæt oððe hwonon þæt cumen wǣre.

At first they are suspicious; obviously not all dream visitors are welcome. They take him to the abbess who has him examined and then they give him a test. Soon they are mollified. The poem is written down. The story is told by Bede in the most influential, “A History of the English Church and People” and “Caedmon’s Hymn” enters English history. In Price’s translation, Bede describes Caedmon’s later productions as “delightful and moving poetry” and writes: ”Others after him tried to compose religious poems in English, but none could compare with him…”(Price 251) Although Bede says he went on to compose many more pieces, nothing else survives.

For a reader used to the maneuvers of modern poetry, it’s tempting to say that if this is divine poetry, then God has IF framed on the office walls and a complete set of Robert Service (leather bound) on the shelves. But leaving the poem to one side for a moment, the story of its composition, standing at the beginning of the history of poetry in English, offers a range of interpretative possibilities. There’s at least two ways of thinking about the packaging that is the story.

The first, most obvious, would be to lament all that Bede doesn’t tell us. He’s like a witness to a turning point in history who insists on telling you about the hat his mother was wearing. What kind of songs were sung at the table before Caedmon ran away? Were they songs in the modern sense, of composed texts which exist prior to, and independent of, a particular performance, or were they improvised pieces? It’s difficult to imagine being the tenth person at a table waiting for your turn to sing if the pieces were of the length of “The Wanderer” or “The Seafarer”. Does the story point to a type of “poem”, like the hymn, short, well known, but now lost? Did the women sing? Did they sing the same songs as the men? And how did the people at the table react to Caedmon’s song when they heard it? Did they agree with Bede about its quality? Were they astonished by the quality of the poem or by the fact it was Caedmon who created it? There’s nothing short of a time machine that could rescue the information.

Or, secondly, we can play the games I’m supposed to teach my students. Here, on the ground floor, we can watch the process of Canon Formation at work. Literature is an institutionalized art form. Quality is not the issue: power is. The text carries with it the validation of Caedmon’s name and the story of its composition: it’s not just any nine lines scribbled in the margins. It has the backing of one of the most powerful intellectual establishments of the age: the monastery of Whitby, with the added weight of it having taken place during Hilda’s impressive rule. The story is told by the most influential historian of early British history, the poem transmitted in a book that will dominate English historiography for centuries. And it is divinely inspired.

We can interrogate the story by asking the questions it won’t answer and reveal the bias at work. How many visions went unrecorded? How many divinely inspired bits of doggerel were forgotten? In the religious atmosphere of the seventh century, was Whitby the only abbey where this happened; Caedmon the only person it happened to? Did Bede know other stories and reject them because it didn’t fit his agenda? Or was Whitby’s PR simply more effective than that of its rivals?

However, when you’ve finished, when you’ve explored the cultural context, the power relationships, the gaps and silences, when someone has inevitably used the word patriarchal, you have to accept the given facts of the art form: It’s not fair. There must have been many poets who never had a John Taylor to stand beside them until their third volume made a reputation, and many Emily Dickensons whose families burnt the box of paper under the bed. There seems to be something faintly absurd, if not actually pointless, in showing that Bede wrote this “text” for his own purposes, not ours and that his story carries with it the values of its time. This seems a characteristic maneuver where I work; however, I live within walking distance of the Pacific Ocean. I don’t need to travel all the way to Whitby to discover that the North Sea is wet.

The reality, from Caedmon to the reviews in today’s journal, is that any art form requires power brokers. The poet needs patrons and partisans: publishers or editors or critics, people who will promote his or her work, first to an audience and secondly to avoid Hardy’s “second death”. The history of English literature is characterized by the way different groups have been marginalized; by fashion, by prejudice, by politics. The difficulty, however, is while the theorist and the poet might rail at this apparent injustice, a visit to reveals what happens when anyone can publish whatever they like. Why some writers receive support and others don’t is often unfathomable. The argument that quality will always rise to the surface is comforting but untenable. But so is the argument that power is the only factor in a poem's reception. Simply promoting the poem as divinely inspired is not going to make it popular if it didn’t fit in with existing ideals of excellence.

(Old English text from OE Aerobics)

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