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Earth of earth earth enough

October 6, 2012

This short Middle English lyric is so earthy as to be almost incomprehensible:

Erþe toc of erþe erþe wyþ woh,
Erþe oþer erþe to þe erþe droh,
Erþe leyde erþe in erþene þroh,
Þo heude erþe of erþe erþe ynoh.

Modernized it’s not much better:

Earth took of earth earth with woe,
Earth other earth to the earth drew,
Earth laid earth in an earthen pit,
Then had earth of earth earth enough.

Counting “earthen,” the word “earth” is repeated three times every line, which adds up to twelve out of the twenty-six words. One response to this is to say that the poem reeks of the physical world, the ground, the dirt, the open maw of the pit. And that response captures something of the poem, no doubt; it is a very earthy poem. But jumping this way of reading assumes we know what “earth” means here. Why assume that? We could instead approach the poem as a definition of an unknown quantity: “X took of X X with woe; X other X to X drew; X lay X in Xen pit; then had X of X X enough.” There’s enough here to define the grammar of X, of earth, of earth acting on earth.

Earth acting on earth is different than earth piling up on earth. What happens here isn’t repetition at all, properly understood, but reflexivity. Repetition is when the same thing appears in the same way over and over, but somehow we perceive it differently as it piles up. (Repetition is, incidentally, the route into faerie-land.) Here the same thing appears over and over in different ways--nominative, accusative, dative–and we understand it through the ways it relates to itself. This doesn’t make us think of matter, but of mind. Of course when we hear “earth” twelve times in four lines we start thinking of dirt and mud and pits, but that’s the point–we think, not feel, we try to understand what the earth means. We solve the equation for “earth”, and in doing so we dissolve the grime that clings to the word. If the poem reeks of anything, it is of this solvent.

Interestingly, the perfect example of an X that relates to itself so convolutedly is not “earth” at all, but “God”, in the Christian conception of the Trinity. This poem doesn’t make perfect sense if you replace “earth” with “God,” of course–or if it does, it’s not about the Christian God; there’s too much woe–but I think the suggestion is useful. Maybe it’s not about the Trinity indirectly, but it can be about it indirectly, channeled through Christology (as so many medieval poems are). A Christological reading is actually not that difficult to begin, though it ends up being very difficult to finish, and doesn’t necessarily end up being particularly orthodox (that one word “enough” is enough to cause serious problems when thinking about atonement, catharsis, exhaustion, …).

I leave playing out that line of thought as an exercise to the reader. I’ll end here by acknowledging how strange it is to turn a poem almost half of whose words are “earth” into a poem about God. Strange as it is, though, I think it’s permissible, given its medieval context, and ultimately necessary, given its metaphysical grammar. This strangeness is actually why I thought the poem worth posting here. I’m always drawn to works that stick assiduously to the surface of things and yet somehow lead us to deeper thoughts than the mere presentation of depth can possibly suggest.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2012 7:20 pm

    Could it also be a riddle?

    • October 8, 2012 7:26 pm

      Indeed that crossed my mind, and I won’t say that it can’t be a riddle. If it is, what’s the answer?

      (Though, this is middle english, not old english…, was the riddle tradition still alive by the 12th century? I don’t know.)

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