Spolia in Old English verse

Borrowed objects and the art of poetry examines seven Exeter riddles, three Anglo-Saxon biblical poems (Exodus, Andreas, Judith), and Beowulf to uncover the poetics of spolia, an imaginative use of fictional recycled artefacts to create sites of metatextual reflection. Old English poetry famously – and for a corpus rather interested in the enigmatic and the oblique, appropriately – lacks an explicit ars poetica. This book argues that attention to particularly charged moments within texts – especially within texts concerned with translation, transformation, and the layering of various pasts – gives us a previously unrecognised means for theorising Anglo-Saxon poetic creativity. Borrowed objects and the art of poetry works at the intersections of recent interest in materiality and poetics, balancing insights of thing theory, and related approaches with close readings of specific passages from Old English texts.

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Bringing stone, flesh, and text to life in Andreas

This chapter concerns itself with Andreas, a poetic version of the apocryphal narrative about the Apostle Andrew’s journey to Mermedonia, an island of cannibals, and his subsequent martyrdom and conversion of Mermedonians. Two clear examples of architectural spolia emerge in the Old English poem, diverging greatly from its analogues. In the first scene, Jesus animates an angel sculpture in a Jerusalem temple to manifest his divinity. In the second passage, Andrew speaks to a stone pillar in his prison cell, causing it to issue a flood that drowns – and baptises – the violent Mermedonians. Both artefacts come to life thanks to powerful figures, Jesus and Andrew, who function as the author’s alter egos as they animate artefacts from the past. The larger pattern in Andreas of material fragments in search of a new integration occurs twice more: in the hero’s bodily fragmentation caused by the Mermedonians, and the metatextual excursus in which the narrator speaks of presenting the material ‘lytlum sticcum’ [in little bits]. Far from reading Andreas as an incompetent poem, this chapter argues that attending to spolia and other textual and physical fragments found in the text helps us uncover a sophisticated, self-conscious poetics behind the work.

in Borrowed objects and the art of poetry
Resistance to incorporation in Judith

This chapter focuses on Judith, a poem that describes the eponymous Hebrew heroine’s successful decapitation of the evil Assyrian king Holofernes. Holofernes’s head provides a literal example of plunder. Unlike her biblical inspiration, Judith accepts the Assyrian’s gore-smeared armour as an offering from her people. The irony of this instance of spolia increases because the woman whom Holofernes wishes to claim as his plunder in the end plunders him. Two sets of opposing methods surface regarding spolia and similar objects. Certain passages in Judith feature zooming out and quickening of the narrative pace, while in others zooming in and slower rhythm predominate. The narrative allows us neither to neglect the dangerous, seductive detail (often a type of spolium) nor to linger too long on it. The foreshortened narrative itself invites and resists appropriation through allegorisation, whether religious (as a Christian typological exercise) or political (as a statement about the Viking attacks). The chapter argues that Judith thus complicates two common, contrasting theoretical approaches to it: the psychoanalytical criticism emphasising the heroine’s subversion and the exegetical interpretations that contain the protagonist and her actions within orthodox medieval belief.

in Borrowed objects and the art of poetry
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Powerful fragments: Ruin, relics, spolia

The introduction defines and distinguishes different types of recycled artefacts. It begins with a reading of the Old English lyric The Ruin that demonstrates interest of Anglo-Saxons in incomplete objects from the past that inspire literary imaginings. It then turns to the role of relics in the Middle Ages in order to interpret the dream vision, The Dream of the Rood. Finally, it provides evidence for preponderance of spolia, both architectural and textual, in medieval England and on the Continent. The introduction argues that ruins, relics, and spolia shape Old English poetry in similar ways because they complicate the boundaries between temporal layers (present/past/future), the global and the local, the textual and the visual, and the animate and the inanimate.

in Borrowed objects and the art of poetry
Combinatory powers of loot in the Exeter Riddles

This chapter offers a new reading of a selection of Exeter Riddles. The Riddles speak to each other; they often come in larger thematic clusters, sometimes in pairs and triads, and oppositional groups. Like spolia, they gain their meaning and allure from juxtaposition, mystery, and elusiveness, and they contain multitudes in a small space. The chapter identifies a ‘plunder cluster’ within the collection, consisting of, at least, Riddles 14 (‘Horn’), 20 (‘Sword’), and 29 (‘Moon and Sun’. Then it proceeds to four other Riddles, numbered 49, 40, 60, and 95 (‘Bookcase/Oven’, ‘Creation’, ‘Creation’, ‘Book’), that, like Beowulf, ponder accumulation. The selected Exeter Riddles begin to reveal traces of a sophisticated ars poetica, at once playful and deeply serious, that conceives of texts as remnants that paradoxically communicate while holding back.

in Borrowed objects and the art of poetry
Transformative potential of plunder in Exodus

This chapter looks at the Old English Exodus. It begins with a sudden, enigmatic appearance of an African woman, who helps the Israelites divide the treasure stripped from the drowned Egyptian army. The chapter frames this episode with the repeated figure of burh [city or enclosure] and the metamorphosing pillar of cloud, a biblical element largely expanded in Old English. Both iconic images exhibit spolia-like effects due to their specific relationship to space and time. Functioning at once as a memory of old cities and a premonition of future cities for the Israelites, the burh constantly changes and acquires new meanings. The pillar, on the other hand, functions as a fragment of the future, able to suggest on its own the larger protective structure of the Christian Church. These three key textual moments together provide the key to the work’s modus operandi. Exodus seems to encourage both exegetical and political readings, but it also produces an excess of meaning, indicating that something irreducibly strange always remains.

in Borrowed objects and the art of poetry
Paradoxical materiality of loss in Beowulf

This chapter takes Beowulf as its subject. It looks at several memorable and representative examples of plunder in which objects escape human efforts to contain them. They include the torque that the Danish queen Wealhtheow gives to Beowulf, and the sword carried by a Dane but formerly belonging to a Heathobard that will bring about discord, according to Beowulf’s prophecy. The chapter then turns to the hoard at the end of the poem. Acts of hoarding would seek to deactivate individual objects, but even so some of their previous change remains. The interplay between hoards and plunder, or the subsuming and the subsumed, highlights the paradox at the heart of Beowulf: a poignant, pervasive sense of loss seems to carry a material weight. The poem exhibits ambivalence towards pagan material culture, which it can neither fully embrace nor condemn.

in Borrowed objects and the art of poetry