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The Bookworm -- Anonymous

       
(Poem #958) The Bookworm
 A moth, I thought, munching a word.
 How marvellously weird! a worm
 Digesting a man's sayings --
 A sneakthief nibbling in the shadows
 At the shape of a poet's thunderous phrases --
 How unutterably strange!
 And the pilfering parasite none the wiser
 For the words he has swallowed.
-- Anonymous
 From the Exeter Book, riddle No. 47.
 Translated by Gerard Benson.

[About the Exeter Book]

 Probably transcribed c960-970, and later owned by [Leofric,] the first
Bishop of Exeter. The riddles vary greatly in subject and style. Many are
about the animal kingdom, others are about artefacts and yet others about
the forces of nature -- and there is a sprinkling of teasing double
entendre, of a type still popular, which leads the reader to imagine two
parallel solutions, one obscene, the other innocent.

        -- "Poems on the Underground"

[Commentary]

 The physicality of language fascinates me. Not just the sounds of words,
nor even the feel of syllables rolling in my mouth; I'm equally entranced by
weight and texture, the heft of a good book in my hands, the beauty of its
pages. No surprise, then, that I love the curlicues and incidentals of of
medieval illuminated manuscripts such as the Winchester Bible and the Book
of Kells. And, of course, the Exeter Book, the oldest and most venerable of
them all.

 Today's poem is typical of the hundred or so riddles that make up the bulk
of the book (along with four major poems - The Seafarer, The Wanderer,
Widsith, and Eadwacer). It describes an object (in this case, the bookworm)
cleverly and well, yet every phrase can be interpreted differently, and
rather less charitably: the disparaging comments the author makes about the
bookworm could very easily apply to a certain type of scholar. After a
thousand years, the criticism remains ingenious and perfectly apt.

thomas.

[Links and stuff]

Minstrels Poem #676, "Eating Poetry", by Mark Strand, is similar to today's
poem, but also very different.

We've done quite a few pieces by that most prolific of authors, the
reclusive Anon.:
Poem #167, Pangur Ban  -- Anon. (Irish, 8th century)
Poem #109, The Viking Terror  -- Anon. (Irish, 9th century)
Poem #372, Icham of Irlaunde  -- Anon. (Irish, 14th century)
Poem #145, Ice  -- Anon. (Old English, 10th century)
Poem #326, The Seafarer  -- Anon. (Old English, pre-10th century
Poem #897, Grendel -- Anon. (Old English, pre-10th century)
Poem #333, Gnomic Stanzas  -- Anon. (Welsh, 12th century)
Poem #175, I am Taliesin. I sing perfect metre  -- Anon. (Welsh, 13th
century)

Here's a a short description of the Exeter Book, along with an image of a
page from the book - specifically, the page containing the opening lines of
"The Wanderer":
http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng211/exeter_book_and_wanderer.htm

Here are three riddles from the book which appear obscene on first reading,
but turn out to have perfectly innocent answers:
[broken link] http://itsa.ucsf.edu/~snlrc/britannia/flowers/enigmata.html

Here is another page from the book, featuring the starting lines of
"Widsith":
[broken link] http://www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk/Gallery/Library/L01.html

[Endnote]

There's a lot more I could say about the questions that today's riddle poses
on the relationship between form and content, idea and realization, meaning
and representation, reading and understanding. An additional frisson arises
from the fact that the riddle occurs in the Exeter Book, a truly lovely work
of art whose appeal lies as much in its form (the "physicality" alluded to
above) as in its content; furthermore, said content is always at a layer of
remove due to the artifice of translation, another subject I'm endlessly
interested in...

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