Sunday, March 24, 2013

Your Sunday Poem

In medieval times, paper being expensively next to non-existent, the great holy books were written on more permanent velum and gloriously illuminated by monks.  One of the best of these works is the magnificent "Book of Kells." And, since paper was virtually non-existent, the good monks would often make personal secular comments in the margins of the great books, often snippets of poems, droll observations about the follies and naughty doings of their fellow scribes.  If you track down a CD by Samuel Barber, "Hermit Songs" you'll hear many of these snippets/poems set to music, including a lovely poem to Pangur, a scribe-monk's beloved white cat.

This poem is by Seamus Heaney from "Opened Ground; Selected Poems 1966-1996" 

The Scribes  

I never warmed to them.
If they were excellent they were petulant
and jaggy as the holly tree
they rendered down for ink.
And if I never belonged among them,
they could never deny me my place.

In the hush of the scriptorium
a black pearl kept gathering in them
like the old dry glut inside their quills.
In the margin of texts of praise
they scratched and clawed.
They snarled if the day was dark
or too much chalk had made the vellum bland
or too little left it oily.

Under the rumps of lettering
they herded myopic angers.
Resentment seeded in the uncurling
fernheads of their capitals.

Now and again I started up
miles away and saw in my absence
the sloped cursive of each back and felt them
perfect themselves against me page by page.

Let them remember this not inconsiderable
contribution to their jealous art. 


Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

Late to the game this week - wonderful poem! I had no idea that the scribes wrote comments in the margins! I'd think someone might have objected! Hilarious! I can see how they might be frustrated with a job like that and might tend to wander. I took a calligraphy class once and yikes, it was hard! Very pointy concentration with lots of bated breathing.

Churadogs said...

I suspect the notations were in the part of the margins that would be hidden once you bound the various folios. And were discovered when the folios were un-bound for cleaning or to be rebound etc. over the years.

Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

Ahh, so that's how it happened! Really, I love this little subversion! Kudos to the long dead scribes and hopefully to the living ones who will reveal themselves in some future cleaning!

Churadogs said...

In the text of "Hermit Songs" were sly comments about certain monks who were not celibate, so hiding those would have been necessary. Love it!

Sewertoons AKA Lynette Tornatzky said...

I love it too! Hilarious! I wonder if there was a book, as opposed to songs, about this?

Churadogs said...

Might google "hermit songs," the liner notes of the LP mentioned some of the fragments were from manuscript margins but others were old Irish poems, like Pangur is/was a well known poem waaaayyy back in the day. Samuel Barber drew from a variety of sources.

The monkish things I love best in illuminated manuscripts are the odd little figures doing daily things that were carefully placed throughout the elaborate scrollwork surrounding the main illuminations, or put in as decorations on the blank edges of pages of plain text, many of them rather enchanting -- much like the wonderful little drawings that are dotted throughout the New Yorker.