A passage in J.A. Baker’s obsessive, wonderful little book, The Peregrine, brought together a number of threads which have been tossing around my head lately. He writes, describing his home in the south of England “out there at the edges of things,”
Farms are well ordered, prosperous, but a fragrance of neglect still lingers, like a ghost of fallen grass. There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten. There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like grey clouds. It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields. Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterize all sorrow. (8)
The same sense, of loneliness, loss and exile, pervades the Anglo-Saxon poetry that I’ve been enjoying recently. We might forget it today in the wake of England’s great empire, but the British Isles were truly at the edge of the world in the geographical consciousness of the Middle Ages. Gerald of Wales in his Topography of Ireland puts it beautifully,
For beyond those limits [of Ireland] there is no land, nor is there any habitation either of men or beasts — buy beyond the whole horizon only the ocean flows and is borne on in boundless space through its unsearchable and hidden ways. (31)*
Beautiful, but terrifying. No wonder then that Anglo-Saxon poetry is so riven with sorrow and loneliness, a desperate craving for the warmth of home and fire. No surprise also that there’s an almost overwhelming feeling of tenuousness in their poetry and in the writings of authors like Bede, a recognition of just how fragile the security that hall and hearth provide, think Heorot. Against this background, Bede’s monasteries are anchors, squat fortresses of stability in an ever-shifting landscape. One can see the appeal.**
At the edges of things, reality becomes frayed. Gerald tells us
For sometimes tired, as it were, of the true and the serious, [Nature] draws aside and goes away, and in these remote parts indulges herself in these secret and distant freaks (31)
And not only are we at the edge of space but time as well. The world has grown old and grey, the past faded and fallen into ruin
The days are gone
of all the glory
of the kingdoms of the earth;
there are not now kings,
nor givers of gold
as once there were,
when they, the greatest, among themselves
performed valorous deeds,
and with a most lordly
All that old guard is gone
and the revels are over
the weaker ones now dwell
and hold the world,
enjoy it through their sweat.
The glory is fled,
the nobility of the world
ages and grows sere,
as now does every man
throughout the world. (83-9)
Nature tires and warps in her decay,
This indeed was the true course of nature; but as the world began to grow old, and, as it were, began to slip into the decrepitude of old age, and to come to the end, the nature of almost all things became corrupted and changed for the worst. (53)
Unsurprising then that she might throw up monsters in the dark, against which all we can do is huddle around the slimmest glimmers of light.
*Strangely, Irish literature seems to display less awareness of this. Perhaps they’re so on the edge that they don’t realize they’re on the edge.
**You get a similar sense in a very different context in Richer of Saint-Rémi’s Histories, a book I hope to write about at length later.