‘Who am I?’
This question lurks in all stories, poems, speeches that use the first person, the ‘I’ voice: from a Shakespeare soliloquy, to a Victorian novel, to a contemporary poem. One of the texts below directly asks ‘Say what I’m called’, but all probe these questions of identity, and of how we relate to the voices and things around us.
What are these texts? They’re riddles in Old English. In some an object speaks about itself (a technique known by the Greek word prosopopoeia), while others are told by an observer, marvelling at the strangeness of the thing they’re describing. These riddles invite us to search for meaning, play with words, and take pleasure in an eventual recognition. Sometimes the solution is obvious, sometimes ridiculous, but along the way they investigate the natural world and its transformations; a whole spectrum of emotions; gender and hierarchy; the power of language; death and what comes after; and the lives of objects – not to mention jokes about sex.
This selection is from the Exeter Book, a manuscript written late in the tenth century CE. It was bequeathed to the monastery at Exeter in Devon by a bishop called Leofric in 1072, and is still in the cathedral library there. In Leofric’s will, it’s described as ‘one big English book about various things, composed in poetry’. It’s one of the great treasures of English literature, containing many beautiful and haunting poems which demonstrate the rich culture of Anglo-Saxon (pre-Conquest) England. It includes about a hundred riddles, some being versions of Latin riddles (aenigmata).
The Exeter Book’s texts look at first like prose, written right across the page in a stylish, clear script. But when read aloud, they reveal that they are composed in Old English verse, which uses alliteration to structure its lines, along with a four-stress beat based on the important words in each line. Those lines usually have two or three stresses that alliterate, and one (the last one) that doesn’t, with a gap (caesura) in the middle. An equivalent in modern English would be this line:
I browse an old book, to banish my sorrow.
Here, ‘browse’, ‘book’, ‘banish’ and ‘sorrow’ carry the main stress. The first three alliterate, and the caesura after ‘book’ gives balance to the line, placing one action (reading) in apposition to its effect (banishing sorrow). This balance, rhythm and movement are integral to the sound qualities of Old English verse, which is designed to be heard, even when it’s written down.