Wednesday, June 14, 2006

137. CAEDMON - Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov - Caedmon

All others talked as if
talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
Early I learned to
hunch myself
close by the door:
then when the talk began
I'd wipe my
mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
I'd see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
of deep untroubled sighs.
The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched by tongue
and pulled by voice
into the ring of the dance.

The following commentary, condensed, is from

Cædmon (fl. 658-680)
Commentary by Ian Lancashire

Caedmon gives hope to all would-be poets. For most of his life, he worked in animal husbandry for a monastery, living with the non-religious, and reporting to the reeve, a steward who superintended the abbess' estates. When the workers routinely ate together in the hall at a table, they entertained each other by singing lyrics to a hand-held harp, passed around. Surviving Old English poetry hints at what they sang about: historical battles like Maldon, mythic heroes like Beowulf, lonely wanderers by land and sea such as Widsith, and riddles. Before Caedmon's turn to sing came, he left for home or for the stable where he kept the livestock overnight. One time, when his turn came to sleep with the animals, he had a dream. In it a man called him by name and told him to sing. When Caedmon explained that he could not sing to the others, the man asked him to sing to him instead. When Caedmon said that he did not know what to sing about, the man told him, "the Creation of all things." In the dream, Caedmon did so, with verses he had never heard before. Awaking, he remembered his dream and the song, and added more to it.

The religious for whom Caedmon performed his song later attributed his singing as a gift by God's grace. He must have seemed to them like one of the disciples in the gospels whom Jesus had called by name to God's service. Creativity in making songs, to them, happened when a greater power took over the poet and made him its voice. John Milton also attributed his poems to a "Heavenly Muse." Late in life, and blind, like Homer, he composed Paradise Lost in his mind early in the morning and waited until his daughters arrived to "milk" him, that is, take dictation. However, the monastic brothers were wrong about Caedmon's "gift." The man in his dream gave him, not the verses, as a Muse might, but the subject matter. Like a teacher, this man only set the topic. Caedmon, and only he, composed the verses. What astounded the monastery's scholars was the immediacy of his composition. The verses came out without work or prompting of memory.

Caedmon's account of what happened to him is cognitively true. When people speak, they seldom rely on a mental script that they copy in uttering. Our words emerge unself-consciously, spontaneously. Our language process relies on a form of memory termed implicit or procedural. We cannot search for how to compose an utterance, as we do in trying to remember a name or a date, some part of our knowledge of the world which we have stored in long-term memory. All we can do is to want to say something and then "recall the procedure" of making language by actually doing it. We may sense, mentally, a welling up of an inchoate need to utter something on a topic at hand. The uttering then is a relief. Often it comes in words that we have never before used in that combination before. We can be surprised by what happens to us in speaking. If we stand before a crowd, charged with speaking off-the-cuff, we can become conscious of our state of unknowing, and it can unnerve us. It is like standing before a cliff and jumping out into thin air, in the belief that we will fly. That fright leads to stuttering, blocking, silence, and sometimes escape. Caedmon experienced this very same "stage fright" when the harp approached him. His dream released this damming up of his power to utter. Surprised, given no time to worry, Caedmon just obeyed the man's command. That Caedmon was unselfconscious of how he managed to sing what he did wonderfully captures the reality of language cognition. We may often not know what we are going to say until we have said it. That he had something to say on the topic, on the other hand, is obvious. No one worked for a monastery without repeatedly hearing the story of Genesis or the duty of man to praise God for it.

Caedmon does not say that he penned his song after waking up, but that he remembered it. Bede clearly explains that one of Caedmon's abilities was to store up what he was taught in his memory. He wrote down nothing, as far as we can tell, and he was likely illiterate. Reading and writing then were technical skills, needed by few, and so taught to few. Herdsmen would not have been among that number. The astonishment with which Caedmon's song-making skills were met by learned people reflects the skepticism that they feel in hearing of an undereducated person composing expertly. (For centuries, Shakespeare has borne the brunt of such disbelief; he was the son of a glover and had a grammar school education, good for its times, but comparable to leaving school after grade eight.)

The text of Caedmon's hymn of the Creation also perfectly satisfies the cognitive needs of an utterance that, once generated, must be memorizable so that it can later be recalled by rote. Each Old English line has two balanced phrases with four stressed syllables, three of which alliterate. Each half-line, if uttered musically, in time to the plucking of a harp, would fit nicely into our phonological working (short-term) memory, which can accept two seconds of speech only before recycling. The poet phonologically encodes each first half-line to make recall of the closing half-line easy. For example, "hergan" (`praise') alliteratively -- that is, musically -- calls up "hefaenricæs" (`Heaven's kingdom'), as "metudæs maecti" (`the creator's might') does "modgidanc" (`thought'). Half-lines often are formulas, common fixed phrases that repeat themselves, such as "eci dryctin" (`the Eternal Lord'). The same word often begins different half-lines, such as "hefaenricæs" (1) and "hefen to hrofæ" (6), or ends such lines, like "uard" (1, 7) and "mehti" (2, 9). For such reasons, literary historians term Old English poetry as "oral formulaic": meant for publishing only as speech, and so not available in written form, poets filled their works with formulas, easily re-used and remembered building blocks. Caedmon's hymn has just two sentences, which can be summarized: "Let me now praise God the Creator" (1-4), and "God created Heaven, earth, and man" (5-9). The assertion itself has a simple logic that ensures Caedmon can link together, in memory, the larger units, the full lines, into a verse paragraph. Its length may also reflect a common cognitive upper-limit on large text segments.

Most poems take from and contribute to a pre-existing body of poetry. In T. S. Eliot's terms, Caedmon drew from a Biblical poetic tradition. The brothers fed him stories from the Old and New Testaments, and he versified them. Denise Levertov, in "Caedmon," in turn draws from Bede's story of Caedmon's first hymn to create a very modern poem about how poets make poetry. Her lovely revisioning, however, substitutes her own poetics for his. She turns a dream into an angelic visitation and so substitutes the monks' Muse-based account of inspiration for cognitive one that is based on memory and is truer to what Caedmon said happened to him and to what he actually composed.

Levertov writes a dramatic monologue, from Caedmon's perspective, using the first person. She makes him physically clumsy (3) and psychologically insecure, hunching down at the back of the room near the door, and nervously licking his lips. In Bede's account, confidently enough, Caedmon sits at the table. His persona in Levertov's poem does not understand "talk" that sounds like a "dance," that is, words put to music, or song, and so he breaks the "gliding ring" that forms when men pass a harp from one to another around a table. Her Caedmon feels like one of the unspeaking "warm beasts," "at home and lonely," enjoying the silence or the simple sighing and "body sounds" of the feeding cows. He prefers being at table with the animals in the near-dark, where a lighted "twist" (of hemp) creates shadows. His transformation comes, not in a dream but in real life, and by means not of a man but of a "sudden angel" in great light, his wings sparking with "feathers of flame." In picturing a "hand of fire" touching Caedmon's lips and tongue and pulling his "voice / into the ring of the dance," Levertov adapts the events of Pentecost in the New Testament. Then the Holy Ghost descends among the apostles with tongues of fire and gives them all the ability to speak many languages. With these, the once retiring disciples spread throughout the earth to preach Christ's gospel, often facing martyrdom. For Levertov, poetic inspiration comes with pain, unaccountably wrenching the shy, inarticulate, awkward person into public performance. The source of poetry for her is the "muse of fire" of which the Prologue in Shakespeare's Henry V speaks.

However she may differ from Bede's account, Levertov's "ring of the dance" beautifully describes the communal aesthetics of poetry. As the harp passes from one poet to another, each taking up the same dance motif, so poets take the traditions of poetry as their source and inspiration. By creating his persona, Levertov becomes Caedmon. The ring comes full circle after 1400 years. Where Caedmon wrote of God's creation, on the other hand, Levertov writes of man's. Even as monastery brothers told Caedmon what to write, so he, a monastery brother, gives her the poem's subject. A gradual secularization of poetry -- its separation from institutional religion -- has turned poets inward, describing aspects of themselves rather the external world. Time has made Caedmon's creative process, in Levertov's eyes, less cognitive and more supernatural or mythic.

Of course, by Levertov's time, poetic method had changed drastically. No longer did a modern Caedmon compose in or publish from memory. Most poets today store text on paper or disk so that it can be edited and read rather than revised in memory and recited by rote. Yet she begins by imitating the Old English form. Her verse splits in two Caedmon's conventional joined half-lines and uses alliteration comparably. For example,
All others talked as if talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet would break the gliding ring.
I'd wipe my mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds of the simple ones.
slow in the wake of deep untroubled sighs.

Once she describes the angel's "hand of fire," at the word "Until," lines become more irregular in length, imitating the abrupt, fearful summons of the angel. By indenting lines 30 and 33, especially, Levertov shows how the image of the words on the page -- here the indenting -- replaces the sound of the poet's voice and his harp in segmenting the lines expressively. Yet by echoing lines 1-4 in the final two lines, Levertov makes her poetic form imitate her subject. Both come full circle.