Friday, January 7, 2011


A man sits mournful,            his mind in darkness,
so daunted in spirit          he deems himself
ever after          fated to endure.
This Anglo-Saxon poem (titled "Deor," and here translated by the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney) meditates on the recurring sorrows that strike in human life. Deor is a minstrel-poet, a bard, who's been "let go" from the service of his lord; in the feudal society of Anglo-Saxon England, he is essentially exiled from all that made life worth while.

One can only imagine, from our brightly-lit world, how vivid would have been the metaphor of "darkness" in the winter night of a 10th-century village. Or does Deor mean real, not metaphoric darkness? perhaps he sits alone in literal darkness, excluded from the mead-hall and its torches, with only his songs and tales for company.

These Anglo-Saxon poems are full of the wintry, the sleet, the long cold nights of the northern island. The darkness is full of the melancholy old myths, the saga-tales about those who "suffered woe" -- a soldier getting old, a king turned into a wolfish tyrant, a woman sick for love.

But the darkness holds more than sorrow. It also holds the passage of time, and time changes those sorrows as it may change the sorrow of today. Deor says again and again:
That passed over,     this can too.
Sorrow seems to "winter" in these men and women, to "banish sleep," to "shackle us in sorrow" (all these metaphors are from "Deor"). But with time the sorrows "pass over." They do not disappear: they are transformed. Into what? Perhaps into the endurance that Deor sees as his fate. Perhaps into that quasi-Christian stoicism that the Anglo-Saxons often asserted:
                               how throughout the world
the Lord in his wosdom     often works change -- 
meting out honor,     ongoing fame
to many, to others       only their distress.
Or, perhaps into art. Deor is a poet, leoþcraeftig, "skilled in song." In his hands, in darkness, grief is crafted into song, into metaphors, which are not the same as reality.

The "shackles" of sorrow are different from the shackles of slavery; the "banishing" of sleep is different from the woes of exile; the "winter" of sorrow as cold and dark but not as painful as the stinging sleet of January.

A modern analog: the great symphony of grief and endurance, Tchaikovsky's sixth and last, the "Pathétique." Last night -- in the bright hall, with outside the swirling snow of an Ohio winter night -- the Cleveland Orchestra played this.

Tchaikovsky, tormented and soon to die, was, like Deor, "skilled in song." Melodies of passion, exuberance, energy and almost unbearable sadness, transforming grief into the vitality of musicians' collective breath, beat, swing, and soul.
That passed over,     this can too.
The Anglo-Saxon poems are from the newly-released book, The Word Exchange, ed. Greg Delanty and Michael Matto (W.W. Norton). 

The Tchaikovsky was performed at Severance Hall, Jan. 6, by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi.

You can listen to the amazing final movement (Adagio lamentoso) played by the NHK Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hiroyuki Iwaki (it's in two separate YouTube videos).