Vintage and Vantage: The Redress of Old Literature

In all my teaching and writing, I have been preoccupied with certain old texts, in particular the poetry composed and transcribed by literate monks in the monasteries of Anglo-Saxon England. Their surviving work addresses a surprisingly wide range of matter, not all of it confined to the concerns of early medieval Christian orthodoxy. Having learned how to read them as more than just relics or artefacts, I hear in those voices faint notes of solace, enlightenment and even pleasure. Such conversation enlarges: others’ wisdom may not be ours, but the crossing of our different vantages can heighten both. This is a point made in the opening lines of Maxims I, a roughly tenth-century collection of aphoristic wisdom utterances:

Interrogate me with your searching words:
don’t leave your own heart hidden; don’t conceal
your utmost learning. My secrets I will hide
if you withhold from me your own mind’s power,
your deepest thoughts. Wise men should exchange
their well-considered words.i

Wisdom concealed, hoarded or withheld enlightens no one; it is a sterile nullity. Only in reciprocal exchange can its real pursuit of deep truth be undertaken and its scope enlarged. Modern readers still engage, albeit less frequently these days, with classical, medieval and other ancient literatures (Western and non-Western), and their experience demonstrates how such reciprocity need not be confined to our contemporaries. With the right learning and informed sympathy, we can overhear discourses shared by minds distant from our own, engaged with a different world, in circumstances we might at first find bewilderingly unfamiliar. But given time and patient attention—rare commodities too often shouted down by our ends-obsessed, short-termist preoccupations—we can at least begin to hear in such writings a music unlike anything that sounds through modernity’s hyper-kinetic sensationalisms.

The various online cults of the immediate, the up-to-date and the latest thing, of which the TikTok short constitutes perhaps the absolute nadir, have inflamed the already well-established cult of modernity spawned by the Enlightenment’s disgust at what it regarded as the backward, reactionary and often cruel aspects of medieval and renaissance authoritarianism (both political and intellectual). It largely defined itself in opposition to these, with a shudder best epitomised by Voltaire’s Écrasez l’infâme—a call to arms against the centuries-old bullying of independent thought by a church wholly entrenched in its inherited authority. The bright dawn of sweet reason that Voltaire envisioned, however, little resembles the cacophonous ship-of-fools bray and bleat of today’s social media. Rather than meas1ured ratiocination, the dominant mode of the internet’s like-and-click-bait economy is the dark art of the Skinner box and the lab rat coaxed through a behaviourist labyrinth. Stimulus and response—and never mind taking time to reflect, to consider alternatives or (heaven forbid!) to dissent. But as any dedicated materialist will inevitably insist, you may have moral/rational/conceptual differences with the behaviourist model, but they all founder on the hard fact that it works. Ask any social media influencer or advertising/PR magus. Conditioned reflex rules, and our late capitalist environment is tuned to value only such profitable results, with scant concern for how they might have been achieved.

In other words, our every cultural boundary marker signposts the here-and-now, the immediate result, the what’s-in-it-for-us calculation of advantage, profit or pleasure. Such orientations look only one way: a short distance ahead, around no more than the next turn in the lab maze. In such an environment, voices from the far past cannot cut through the present jangle of nerve endings fed on nothing but stimulus. We live in a kind of cultural brain-storm or epileptic fit that answers to no sane inhibitors; such conditions leave us little disposed to discern the wisdom of only five or fifty years ago, let alone that of one or two millennia. Such disinclination to regard the past as more than a high-toned tourist attraction imposes a grotesque ignorance on us, and on those responsible for shaping our world—our leaders and legislators, our educators and cultural icons—and their (and our) understandings of the world we all dance around. A kind of cosmic parochialism.

Many will ask, ‘But what about relevance?’ We can legitimately question how the thoughts of people who lived and died a thousand or two thousand or three thousand years ago, in settings very different from those we know today, could possibly speak to how we live now. I can only draw from my own habit of reading medieval English literature, as well as that of others who read biblical or classical literatures at even greater removes in time, to point to experiences that continually astound us with their play of identity and difference—a pageant of ancestral memory that can both enlarge and challenge the modern mind in encounters with its remote ancestors.

Then and now, we are all human, yet to catch a glimpse of what that word ‘human’ might actually mean at different removes of historical and evolutionary time demands slow reflection. And ears: any poetry beyond the jingling rhymes of the nonce-pop or greeting-card variety can haul up from our depths a core sample of the human psyche’s hinterlands, whence it has carried its heritage through long ages and perils to reach its present perch in space and time. Ancient poetry, if regarded with a sufficient degree of attention and sympathy, can afford glimpses of vanished worlds through the eyes of their inhabitants. Look long enough and you will realise the sometimes-shocking truth that those worlds and their inhabitants still linger in out-of-the-way corners of our own mayfly brief minds. Attending to them can lend heft and ballast to the thoughts and choices we take up amidst the maxed-out flurries of modern experience. Those flurries encourage habits of brutally quick information extraction, like some modern mining enterprise blasting its way to paydirt by the shortest route: they brush aside all the delicate resonances and harmonics that can communicate the mind behind an ancient text into our consciousness.

Such habits have been only exacerbated by the rise of digital culture in recent decades, in which the effortless scroll of text on screen conditions the eye to a flickering keyword flutter across the surface of any text. Such ‘reading’ may afford quick gains—in efficiency, certainly, as measured by time spent assimilating so much information. But not all reading is data collection. Meaning is not data: it cannot be digitised and tidily transferred from A to B like a carton of pencils or a download. Like a candle-flame or a vine-cutting, to be passed on it must take hold and strike roots in a new mind. It must grow there, slowly and alive.

The modern English verb ‘read’ descends from an Old English ancestor, rædan, whose range of meanings included ‘to interpret’ or, figuratively, ‘to unravel’. It accompanied the collateral verb writan, whose meanings included not only ‘to write’ but also ‘to inscribe’ or ‘to incise’, a reference to the pre-Christian Germanic literacy of runic alphabets, which incised short texts on wood, stone or metal. Of the inscriptions that have survived, many are purely factual or informational—memorial inscriptions on gravestones or an owner’s or maker’s name on the blade of a sword, for example. But in addition to such straightforward applications, runic literacy acquired an aura of magic and mystery, a good bit of it retrofitted by post-conversion nostalgia. Modern academic runologists tend to dismiss as fanciful reconstruction any suggestion that runes might have represented the survival of a vanished pagan mentality whose approach to life, the universe and everything ran along very different channels than those followed by those of later generations.

The Old English word run does not even mean ‘runic character’, but rather ‘mystery’. Its related verb runan means ‘to whisper’ or ‘to confer’, with overtones of conspiracy or secret deliberation. In this context it is not hard to glimpse how the meaning of the verb rædan would have carried connotations of unlocking mysteries such as those broadly denoted by the noun run. Even in our day we can speak of ‘reading’ someone’s face or the portents of some imminent event. Even more tellingly, the derived abstract rædels means ‘riddle’ (of which a good few survive in the verse compiled in the Exeter Book). ‘Reading’ a ‘riddle’ in Old English would have meant something like ‘solving’ it: interpreting its ambiguous hints and suggestions in order to determine the identity of the object or being it both conceals and reveals.

In its broader sense, ‘reading’ thus denotes a range of activities that, like the solving of riddles, demand the investment of time, intuition and imagination. No riddle can be ‘read’ hastily or glancingly. Nor can it be mined directly for its information or data content:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies

as Emily Dickinson observes in one of her own many enigmatic wisdom-pronouncements. The butterfly-glances of users sitting square-eyed in the glow their screens simply will not sit still before any text long enough to allow any of its depths to emerge. Even someone of my years, come of age in the televisual age but pre-computer and pre-internet, will remember the possibility of slow reading. Not all of us will have done it, but those who have still recall the pleasure of sinking into a book, usually an engrossing novel, so deeply the outer world recedes to the very edge of our consciousness as the other world conjured by the author’s words floods our thoughts. It is almost a trance-state, in which hours and sometimes hundreds of pages can pass by before we re-emerge into the hard light of day, blinking but inwardly transformed by the journey we’ve taken. It is the diametric opposite of any data-collection model of reading. In the latter we remain above what we read, hunting and pecking for isolated nuggets of fact like a prospector panning for gold.

The deeper sorts of reading I am trying to describe here are much more like gardening than prospecting. Whether it’s the Iliad or Beowulf, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Nicholas Nickleby or yesterday’s blog post, the text read with slow care sows seeds—perhaps images, perhaps concepts, perhaps a particularly memorable character who becomes a genuine acquaintance—and these must be given time to strike roots and flourish, be allowed to bear what blossom and fruit they will, without irascible meddling from forebrains too quick to demand ‘Just what is going on here?’ like a horde of gold-rush hopefuls ploughing up a field of dazzling sunflowers in the hope of laying bare veins of dead ore beneath.

I fear that such habits of reading as we will retain into future ages of the internet, text-messaging and fact-based economies (let alone the giddy horrors of TikTok) are being groomed in directions that will maroon us in a temporal ghetto of our own making, in which we view the cosmos and our place in it from the single narrow shelf of our immediate time, place and increasingly material culture, without the relief of any other vantage—no parallax, no depth perception, just a shallow field of now that flattens any consciousness we might have cultivated of the history of human consciousness and its slow evolution over long stretches of time. No feel for how the world once may have appeared from beneath outward skies and inward weathers far different from our own.

If there is in fact some direction to the one-way passage of the human psyche through time—if we can read any of it in the arc of literature from Gilgamesh to Genesis to Shakespeare and Blake, Whitman and Dickinson—how will we ever perceive it except by prolonged meditation on those ‘monuments of unageing intellect’, those messengers come from far lands and times precisely to let us get a feel for how far they (and we) have come? How else can we gauge how far our paths have carried us toward whatever end awaits the restless unfolding of mind in matter, the god-blown wind (take that literally or figuratively as you please—neither your opinion nor mine matters the least at this level) that gives shape to the bellying sails of our every thought, imagining and dream?

The material advantages of the new information culture still ramifying around us at a steadily accelerating clip fill some with hope for the future. Yet there are days when those hopes seem superficial to me, imposing an exile from our psychic roots long before we have even noticed the loss, let alone taken the time to consider its implications. The past is not a far-off place. It lives still, as much in every word we read, write and speak as it does in the DNA sequences in the nuclei of every cell in our bodies. Its spirits inform the shapes of our values and institutions. They may even preside over the most intimate fabric of our hopes, fears and visions. Should we allow ourselves to be distracted by mere gizmology, away from any sympathetic engagement with those aspects of our being, those spirits may make themselves felt in harsher and more frightening manifestations as we fall farther from one another’s ken.

i Bernard Muir (ed.), The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry,Exeter: Exeter UP, 1994. Translated by Robert DiNapoli.

About the author

Robert DiNapoli

Robert DiNapoli is a poet, translator, essayist and erstwhile lecturer on English language and literature. His books include A Far Light: A Reading of Beowulf (2016), Engelboc (2019) and Reading Old English Wisdom: The Fetters in the Frost (2021).

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