Also, I am giving a paper at the ASSC graduate conference at Yale this weekend. Mary Kate Hurley over at Columbia, and who blogs at Old English in New York and In the Middle, will be responding. We thought we'd try to stage a first part of our conversation on our blogs, so I will post my paper, rough edges and all, here for display and comment:
A Tasty Turn of Phrase: Cannibal Poetics in Andreas
Andreas is a poem preoccupied with history and change, but one determined to enjoy that preoccupation. If not a joke, what else could one call the coincidence of sending an apostle, commanded to “eat such things as are set before you” (Luke 10:8), into a land of cannibals? The center of the conflict between the anthropophagite Mermedonians and the apostolic Andrew boils down to a disagreement with what to have for dinner. The stranger who must survive off foreign food travels to the nation where they eat strangers. The idea is funny, but also has a serious purpose, one suggested by the postmodernist examination of the cannibal fantasy, beginning with William Arens’ The Man-Eating Myth (1979): why has western civilization always seen man-eaters when it looks into the remote corners of the world. The discourse of cannibalism is deeply engaged with time: not only does it rest at the psychic roots of human society (as suggested in numerous origin myths worldwide and posited by Freud in Totem and Taboo), but the fixation upon its continuing practice serves as a reminder of that past’s proximity to the contemporary moment. Food practice comes to the forefront of a collision between points of historical identity: Mermedonian cannibalism and its conflation with the heroic, pagan past, the apostolic Christianity of Andrew and Matthew, and the Jewish, Old Testament roots against which Christianity defined itself. The poem’s shifting sense of past is displayed structurally as well, through the use of extensive appropriation from its poetic predecessors. That Andreas contains extensive verbal parallels to other Old English poems—repeated lines, analogous scenes, identical formulae—has long been known, but the implications of the observation have yet to be fully explored. It was not until a recent dissertation by Allison Powell that it became systematically apparent just how many lines it borrows: comparing it with Beowulf and the signed poems of Cynewulf, her research reveals that about 10% of Andreas is repeated from the earlier poems (as well as repeating its own language in 50% of its lines) (Verbal Parallels in Andreas and its Relationship to Beowulf and Cynewulf, 2002). My own comparisons, though incomplete and unsystematic have turned up many more parallel passages, extending throughout the extant poetic corpus. Though I am indebted to past work on the formulaic nature of Anglo-Saxon poetry, this paper will not attempt to define the mechanics of repetition in Andreas. I am more interested in what is communicated across the repetition; how the citation responds to the source. This paper will present two ideas: one, that the parallel passages in Andreas are conscious quotations of earlier works; and second, that this practice of quotation is a skillfully-used rhetorical device that contributes to the poem’s unique examination of the embodied experience of historical identity; an experience analogous to the ingestion of food. The author of Andreas uses citation much like Eliot does in The Waste Land: as the residue of past identities, strata upon which the present is built but which nevertheless communicates with it. Strategic quotation acts as a localized phenomenon, a small-scale version of the poem’s larger movements examining the past, and together they present an integrated poetic investigation of a culture’s temporal consciousness.
Criticism of Andreas has long been bound up in its subordinate relationship with other, more canonical, Old English poems. The primary effect of early critical awareness of the “borrowings” of Andreas was entirely to the poem’s disadvantage: the common take was that the Andreas -poet was a hack (E.G. Stanley referred to him as a “poetic dunderhead”) that stole liberally from his more illustrious forebears, but, like a student plagiarist, failed to integrate this booty into the fabric of his poem: the pieces stick out as foreign, used without any decorum. One notorious example of the poet’s meager skills even as a plagiarist comes at lines 302:
“Næbbe ic fæted gold ne feoh-gestreon,
welan ne wiste ne wira gespann,
landes ne locenra beaga, þæt ic þe mæge lust ahwettan,
willan in worulde, swa ðu worde becwist.” (301-4)
“I have no ornamented gold nor money-treasure, [nothing of] wealth nor sustenance nor woven wire broaches, lands nor locked rings, that I can provide your desire, your wishes in this world, as you have said in word.”
The half-line “landes ne locenra beaga” appears in Beowulf 2995, and preserves the partitive genitives of the original, apparently non-grammatically, in the Vercelli text:
þa he to ham becom,
Iofore ond Wulfe mid ofer-maðmum,
sealde hiora gehwæðrum hund þusenda
landes ond locendra beaga. (2992-5)
When he returned to his home,
to Eofor and Wulf with many treasures
he gave to each of them a hundred thousand
of land and locked rings.
The traditional critical response to this example reveals a dead-end in the response to the repeated passage: arguments are made about grammar but nothing is said about why these particular words appear here, and nowhere else in the poetic corpus.
The obvious connection between the two passages is contrasting amount: in Beowulf the amount is overwhelming to the point of being nonsensical, while in Andreas there is nothing. Their immediate contexts both involve the role of reward and payment in the proper observation of one’s loyalties. Hygelac rewards Wulf and Eofor for their battle-acts as is proper to a king, while Andrew carries nothing of value with him since his instructions as an apostle require him to carry neither purse nor scrip nor shoes on his travels (Luke 10:4). However, there is an important distinction in the reason why the two warriors are rewarded: They have killed the Swedish king, and by rewarding their actions Hygelac maintains the feud. The chain of violence created will end in an eventual Swedish invasion after Beowulf’s death and destroy the Geats. The system of violence and reward perpetuates an endless cycle of further violence. Andrew, bearing his life and peace instead of weapons, requests passage to Mermedonia to end their ongoing feud against all strangers, a system that not only relies upon an absolute distinction between friend and enemy, but also makes the Mermedonians utterly dependent on hostility (perhaps this is what is meant in line 30 by their unlædra eafoð [violence of the wretched]). The endlessly consuming feuds of Scandinavian tribes are set up as a parallel to the anthropophagite predations of the Mermedonians, and Andrew’s mission is intended to free a people in the present from a destructive cycle that characterizes the past.
Andreas strategically reverses the values of Beowulf through its practice of selectively quoting the earlier poem. The death-ship of the first Beowulf (32ff.) is recalled in the description of the ship that carries Andrew to Mermedonia (360-2); the treasures of the people replaced with something higher. Andrew’s approach to the prison of the Mermedonians (981-1003) strongly parallels Grendel’s to Heorot (710-733). The Mermedonians themselves recall in many ways the descriptions of Danish warriors. These examples help to sketch out the most compelling reason for the poet to cite this predecessor. Beowulf has bee understood as an attempt to engage the past, to understand the transition between then and now. Andreas takes its cue from this temporal perspective, launching its own exploration of the different identities of the past, identities that continue to claim us in the present.
Beowulf is not the only source of Andreas’s quotations, and the distant past represented in that poem becomes augmented through engagement with other poetry, including but not limited to the poems attributed to Cynewulf. For example, in a climactic moment of Andreas, the saint addresses a stone outside his prison cell in order to invoke the flood that will destroy the Mermedonians and release him from their torment (#2):
He be wealle geseah wundrum fæste
under sælwange sweras unlytle,
stapulas standan, storme bedrifene,
eald enta geweorc. He wið anne þæra,
mihtig ond modrof, mæðel gehede,
wis, wundrum gleaw, word stunde ahof:
He saw by the wall, rooted fast beneath the plains of time, columns —and not small ones— pillars standing battered by the storm, the old work of giants. He, mighty and mind-bold, wise and wonderfully sagacious, held a moot with one of them and heaved up a word at once. (1492-7)
The final half-line “word stunde ahof” appears nowhere else in the corpus except for Elene 723, when Judas Cyriacus, recently released from torment in a dry well, prays for guidance to find the cross:
ond hwæðre geare nyste,
hungre gehyned, hwær sio halige rod,
þurh feondes searu foldan getyned,
lange legere fæst leodum dyrne
wunode wælreste. Word stunde ahof
elnes oncyðig, ond on Ebrisc spræc:
And yet, reduced by starvation, he did not know exactly where the holy Cross, buried in the earth by devious trickery, long unmoved in its resting place, secreted from the people, lay in its grave. At once, conscious of courage, he sent up these words and said in Hebrew. (719-24, Bradley)
The similarity in the circumstances are striking: In either case, the threat of imprisonment and torture is close at hand, and the speaker will ultimately pray for deliverance from the sins of an entire people. In Elene, Judas speaks in Hebrew; while in Andreas, Andrew will speak of notable Hebrews (Moses, Joshua and Tobit). The character speaks to encourage the earth to reveal the secrets of its history, which are fixed in the ground. Their presence may be patent, as in the “eald enta geweorc” of Andreas or the hidden below the surface within the featureless plains of Calvary, but they can be discovered through verbal address. The idea of a conversation with history itself is what makes this parallel so impressive: time is a force that can be communed with, spoken to and asked to divulge what it contains.
The subject of my final example involves another way of looking at time—that is, engaging its forward progression—and it also demonstrates that quotation in Andreas reaches beyond the big-hitters of Anglo-Saxon poetry. In the case of lines 129-33, the Mermedonians’ intentions towards their prisoners are revealed:
Woldon cunnian hwæðer cwice lifdon
þa þe on carcerne clommum fæste
hleo-leasan wic hwile wunedon,
hwylcne hie to æte ærest mihton
æfter first-mearce feores berædan.
They wished to prove whether the ones, while they dwelt in that comfortless place, remained alive in the prison, secured by chains; who they would be able to deprive of their spirit the soonest according to their appointed time for eating.
The combination of words in line 133, “æfter fyrstmearce feorh-” does not appear anywhere else in the extant corpus except for one other appearance. In the Phoenix 223-6, after the magical bird burns itself on its pyre, it is reborn with the following description:
Hwæþre him eft cymeð
æfter fyrstmearce feorh edniwe,
siþþan þa yslan eft onginnað
æfter ligþræce lucan togædre,
geclungne to cleowenne
Yet life anew comes to him again, after the appointed time, thereupon the cinders soon begin to coalesce after the flame’s violence, clinging into a ball.
The first image that relates the two passages is their similar use of enclosing imagery: the prison and the chains of Andreas give way to scattered or dispersed life versus the coalescence of what has already been scattered, the ashes of the phoenix’s pyre. The orderly passage of time is also important to both of these passages, but with contrasting effect. The Phoenix begins with destruction and moves towards rebirth after the “fyrst-mearc,” while the Mermedonians start with life. Where the phoenix has destroyed itself in order to reborn, the Mermedonians destroy other men to renew themselves, setting a tension between opposite processes of death and life. The phoenix, in a cyclical pattern, destroys itself to be reborn. This, however, is a pattern that rests outside of history; and although it can be compared to the growth of seeds, and is allegorically mapped onto the incarnation of Christ, there is no end to the cycle and no progress can be made. There is only an eternal exchange of self for self in a closed circle. The Mermedonians represent a more open, more dialectical exchange. Although they are described as sylfætan (or lierally, “self-eaters,” line 175), they capture only strangers to be eaten, and through a process of preparation convert their victims to the intellectual and ethical status of animals. They eat their own kind, but try to make them as different as possible before the slaughter. In this way the Mermedonians are much more like us, for all animals must incorporate what is foreign and outside into its body in order to replenish and maintain itself. However, their alienated relationship with nature requires absolute hostility to the outside world, an eternally perpetuated cycle of feud. They have no way to interact with others except to eat them. The two models of consumption suggested by this parallel passage can be mapped onto another historical comparison made in the poem between Jewish and Christian identities. But there it’s not a question of whom these peoples eat, but with whom they can eat.
Jesus’s instructions to the apostles are much more than a logistical precept: refusing to bring anything of one’s own food forces dependence on the foreigner, and partaking of whatever is given him makes the stranger more familiar with every bite. It is an ambitious attempt to transcend one’s historical identity bodily through a shared meal. It reverses the exclusions set up by the demands of Mosaic dietary law and makes an international religious movement possible. It is also mirrors the process by which the Andreas-author has constructed his poem. Andy Orchard has recently outlined the importance of reusing literary formulae, the language of previous poems, in the composition in Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Latin poetry, but in the case of Andreas there is something that extends beyond this. There is more to the quotation than the acknowledgment of well-used language or the participation in a tradition, but an acknowledgment of their chronological difference and a response to the source’s context. Making an analogy from the incorporation of formulaic language to the metabolic implications of diet, we can see how the poem is altered through its intimate contact with the material of the other. The satisfaction provided through this consumption suggest the presence of thematic and philosophical needs that are satisfied through devouring other poems. This state perhaps explains the strangely melancholic nature of anthropophagites in Anglo-Saxon literature (such as the Donestre or the Mermedonians). Cannibal and poet are locked in a struggle with time—knowing that the cycle of time, whether metabolic or ritual, will place them in need of killing and devouring someone much like themselves again, and will leave them again with the aftermath of broken wholes. The act of devoration leaves the eater with a raw sense of the self in time, of one’s utter dependence of the presence of the past with which to construct a present, and a lingering sense of absolute difference from the apparent integrity of those pasts.
[Update: For Mary Kate's response, go here .