Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?


It would be profoundly mistaken to underestimate the sophistication of Anglo-Saxon literature; there is no progress in English writing but, rather, a perpetual return to the original sources of inspiration. The ninety-five riddles in the manuscript known as The Exeter Book, for example, composed in the early eighth century, afford direct and unmediated access to a complex and suggestive culture in which elaboration, difficulty and highly wrought obscurity are qualities assiduously to be pursued:

I stretch beyond the bounds of the world, I’m smaller than a worm, clearer than the moon . . . 1

The verses contain the occasional refrain that the “wise” or “clever” man will “say what my name is” or “say what I am called”; in this example it is creation itself that is being announced in cryptic and enigmatic form.

It seems that one of the Anglo-Saxon definitions of intelligence lay precisely in the ability to unravel complex significations. The whole pursuit of art and literature is to find vital formal or spiritual meanings within the disparate array of the material world; the economy of means chosen bears some relation to Anglo-Saxon art, while the abiding interest in paradox and contrast is an aspect of that violence of expression which is also intrinsic to the Anglo-Saxon sensibility. The combination of austerity and brilliant subtlety is one of the profound gifts of that sensibility which subsequent English writers have learned to share. From where else do the Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, and the riddles of Lewis Carroll, spring? That great elucidator of English literature Jorge Luis Borges was well aware of its Anglo-Saxon derivations—particularly as an intellectual game, or an intricate pattern or puzzle.

Some of these riddles may be related to folk-charms, but most of them are highly literary and extravagant exercises in word play which are part of the fascination for ornamentation of every kind in runic signatures and gnomic verses. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that there is nothing “naturalistic” about this literary style; the keen curiosity and vivacity of the Anglo-Saxon imagination keep on breaking through. The manuscript volume in which the riddles are inscribed has the stains of daily use upon it; there are the marks of knives and the indentations of cups on the first folio as a fitting accompaniment to verses that celebrate the presence of household objects.

There are condensed metaphors here for the ink-well and the quill, the onion and the wine cup, the loom and the well-bucket, the bellows and the book-case; here also are lancets and helmets, swords and ploughs, oysters and weathercocks, all of them announcing their identities in the first person—“I travel onward; I have many scars,”2 confesses the plough—as if the whole world were instinct with life. The poem then becomes a magical act of reclamation.

There is another active principle in these poems, with their propensity for crude or lewd humour; the jokes about male and female pudenda abound. So “I grow very tall, erect in a bed.” When a girl recalls our meeting “Her eye moistens.”3 The answer might be an onion or, on the other hand, it might not. The Anglo-Saxons initiated a tradition of “blue” humour and innuendo which has flourished in England ever since.

There is another inheritance, by way of English paradox. Although it would be fanciful to suggest any direct connection between the Anglo-Saxon Aldhelm’s Enigmata and Elgar’s Enigma Variations of 1899, other associations may tentatively be made. Certain sixteenth-century epigrams of Thomas Wyatt, such as

A lady gave me a gift she had not And I received her gift which I took not

also bear witness to the delight in puzzle and “wit-spell” which continued well into the twentieth century. Musical riddles were also popular devices in the sixteenth century with the fashion for “puzzle canons,” often for three voices; according to one musical historian, they seem “to be a purely English invention.” 4 A Tudor chronicler notes that Henry VIII “made to the Ambassadors a sumpteous banquet with many riddels and much pastyme,” and Jane Austen depicts the early nineteenth-century English delight in anagrams and acrostics. We are not so far from Arthur Bliss’s Knot of Riddles, performed in 1963, nor from the musico-mathematic illogic of Lewis Carroll. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

The intricacy of Anglo-Saxon verse is suggestive in another sense because it affords access to an entire phase of English culture; it is one of the tenets of this book that no art or activity need be seen in isolation, and that all partake of the same continuum of perception and desire. The structure of Beowulf, for example, is as ornate and intricate as that of the Anglo-Saxon riddle; patterns of repetition and variation, parallel and antithesis, are woven as tightly within the fabric of the poem as the echoes and anticipations of alliterative sound. It represents the fascination with what is difficult, and the resistance to easy interpretation. In the narrative itself the scop, or bard, is reported to “wordum wrixlan,” or vary words, in precisely this sense. The poet Cynewulf describes the same effect with his announcement that “ ic . . . wordcraeftum waef,” or “I wove my word-craft.” In the composition of Beowulf scenes and episodes are similarly “woven” into a pattern of contrast and recapitulation so that the effect is of formal intricacy and immediacy rather than any linear development. The association with the weaving of tapestry is apposite here, and the poetic technique has become known as that of “interlace.” The “interlace structure” has thus been defined as expressing “the meaning of coincidence,” the recurrence of human behaviour, and the circularity of timeas the thread of words crosses and recrosses itself in endless weaves and knots.

It is not simply a technique, therefore, but a vision of the world. The great stone crosses of Northumberland and Cumberland, hewn in the early eighth century, are carved with abstract interlace patterns in which bands or threads or vines turn back upon themselves to form woven intersections or knots. They may be symbols of eternity, like the spirals upon even more ancient stone, but they seem also to display a delight in intricacy or ornament for its own sake. Ivory caskets, sword-hilts, brooches and rings are emblazoned with the same labyrinthine device; a large gold buckle, discovered during the excavations at Sutton Hoo and dated to the early seventh century, has an interlacing of snakes and birds’ heads wrought upon it. It was what the Beowulf poet described as “hring-boga ,” ring-coiled. The manuscript illuminations from the seventh and eighth centuries are irradiated by interlace; the initial pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels are peculiarly rich in this art, with one page bearing several thousand “intersections” while in another only two threads or bands are employed to create an entire and effortlessly detailed “carpet-page.” The pattern occurs at a later date. When one Middle English poem, known as The Owl and the Nightingale, is depicted in terms of “chain-stitch”the relation to the “carpet-page” of the illuminated gospels is reinforced. If it is indeed a vision of the world, it is one which has no beginning and no end; there is no sequence and no progress, only the endless recapitulation of patterns and the constant interplay of opposing forces. Thus “interlace” has variously described Malory’s Le Morte Darthur and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Langland’s Piers the Plowman and the penitential lyrics of the thirteenth century. The term has been used to define the novels of Charles Dickens.

In an embroidered alb of the twelfth century, humankind is depicted as a man caught in the interlaced coils of a dominant absorbing pattern. The nature of the embroidery here reveals another design—that is to say, the design of Englishness itself. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries the most rich and elaborate embroidery was known throughout Europe as opus anglicanum; England’s most famous luxury and most celebrated export was finely wrought silk with gold patterns and coloured grounds. There are 113 examples in the Vatican inventory of 1295 and various feats of English workmanship are to be found in France, Spain, Belgium and Italy. It was truly a native art, with origins at least as early as the ninth century. It is perhaps no accident, then, that “complex part writing” for the organ has been described as a “fine native tradition”7 or that the “polyphonic carol” is “a uniquely English phenomenon.” 8 Throughout this volume the English interest in pattern and elaborate decoration will become apparent; it is aligned with the affection for bold outlines and complex surface coverings in which frames and figures are interlaced or interwoven.

Art, therefore, is known to be artifice; it may eschew interiority or depth for the sake of striking ornament and exciting contour. But it may not lack significance, since the art of the surface is itself a bold one. Consider what interlace may mean in a different context. It has been often said of Elizabethan theatre, for example, that it was distinguished from all other European drama in its capacity to interweave comic and serious episodes; popular drama of the sixteenth century is prodigal of scenes and characters which, as it were, exist simultaneously. One historian of that drama has described the interplay between comedy and tragedy with the further reflection that, when “strand eventually coheres with strand, the effect recalls Spenser’s ‘interlacement’ in The Faerie Queene.” 9 These writings are all of a piece, with many figures in view; the concern is for elaboration and “intrigues” rather than principle or emotion.

In turn The Faerie Queene has been compared with a manuscript illumination, with a tapestry, and with a stained-glass window in an English church, because of its delicate links, its interconnecting scenes, and its profusion of principal and subordinate figures; in that poem there is no single or intense emotional stress, since “the conflict of character and motive is undeveloped.”10 The “interest in exact detail and love of pattern are traditional in English art from its earliest appearance, and are to become firmly established as time goes on.” 11 In architecture, too, “the characteristic English development lay in decoration rather than in pure architecture’;12 in stained glass the passion was for the “ornamental patterns” of the windows in Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey,13 while the eloquent prose of Sir Thomas Browne is preoccupied with “the making of mosaic patterns with fragments of knowledge.”14

What manner of imagination is this? It is one that eschews purity of function for elaboration of form, that strays continually into anecdote and detail, that distrusts massiveness of conception or intent, that avoids “depth” of feeling or profundity of argument in favour of artifice and rhetorical display. The twentieth-century architectural historian Sir John Summerson has remarked that Renaissance art made its way in England only “as a mode of decorative design”;15 the diamond patterning to be seen at St. John’s College, Cambridge, is typical in this respect, and sixteenth-century portraiture in all its elaboration of ornamental detail comes close to abstract and decorative pattern.

In the earliest examples of architecture this passion for decoration may in part be regarded as the horror of vacuity, of blankness, that emerges in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. Has this something to do with their horrified refusal of the blank landscape all around them? Art is then the alternative to nature. It has, in fact, been suggested that “the special gifts of the Anglo-Saxons may have lain in decoration rather than in architecture,” 16 and the same predilection can be seen in the decorated patterns of the great nave at Ely and the richly inscribed stone of Durham Cathedral no less than in the eight bands of carving within the south porch of Malmesbury Abbey. There is a concern for “rich surface display” 17 in Wells Cathedral which anticipates the ornamental coverings of Victorian upholstery and the flatness of Pre-Raphaelite painting. It can also be seen in the rococo of the Georgian period, in the ornamental ironwork of the Great Exhibition, in the floral wallpaper of William Morris. The open elaboration of the Lloyds Building and the Pompidou Centre, by Richard Rogers, can also be understood in this context. It is everywhere in the English sensibility. We seem to have come a long way from Anglo-Saxon art and poetry but, in the imagination, there is no distance at all.

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