The Lyric as Key to Salvation: An Example of Old English Poetry as Instrument of Meditation

The Lyric as Key to Salvation: An Example of Old English Poetry as Instrument of Meditation

By Carolin Esser

Paper given at the Medieval Religion Research Seminar at the Unviersity of York

Abstract: The Paper offers a further insight into the nature and function of the first of the so-called ‘Christ’ poems of the Exeter Book: ‘The Advent Lyrics’. It agrees with others, such as Judith Garde, that the group of Lyrics fashioned around the Monastic O’Antiphones are didactic. Rather than being didactic about the commonplace Christian content, however, I propose that the lyrics teach a more advanced student of Christian doctrine and the process of sacra pagina to use Old English poetry as a medium for meditation. Comments to this effect can be found in the texts, but the group does so mainly by example. Each lyric offers a different approach to rumination upon the underlying antiphon – and the group as a whole is a meditation upon a larger scale.

Introduction: Among the collection of riddles in the Old English poetic anthology known as the Exeter Book is found the following example:

A curious thing hangs by a man’s thigh,
under the lap of its lord. In its front it is pierced,
it is stiff and hard, it has a good position.
When the man lifts his own garment
above his knee, he intends to greet
with the head of his hanging object that familiar hole
which is the same length, and which he has often filled before.

The answer is, as you have surely all guessed directly – a key.

Riddle 44 is only one of the sub-groups of riddles based on sexual innuendo and ambiguity, that of the onion being another famous representative of this group. While the sexuality is limited to a few, the ambiguity of meanings is a feature prominent not only in the riddles, but popularly employed throughout Old English poetry in general. The riddle was designed to lead our understanding astray. Other poems use the interplay of various layers of meaning to express a deeper truth and to reflect the complexity of relationships between different elements of their subject. They thus expand the sense that can be derived from them. Such interplay is the product (and witness) of rumination upon a subject and can be followed in turn by the recipient to unravel the enigma of that deeper truth and meditate upon it. On a morphological level, literal meanings are complemented by figurative ones, for example, or paralleled to other literal meanings of polysemous words. Etymological interpretations can be incorporated.

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