Went back to the apartment in good spirits after a dinner with friends but progressively felt more tired and feverish upon arrival, though I couldn't sleep. To divert myself, I picked up a critical edition (with modern English interpolations) of Alfred the Great's Anglo-Saxon translation of the Venerable Bede's Latin history of the Christian foundations of England. I had been meaning to read it but had to finish and organize my thoughts on other books first.
I was distracted from my unseemly inward whining about invisible aches and pains by the rendering of one passage, in particular. The scene takes place on the outskirts of York, where the buildings of ancient Eburacum, the Roman capital where Septimus Severus died, were still in only the first stage of their existence as ruins. Edwin, king of Northumberland, at that time the most powerful prince of the British heptarchy, had recently received a request from a Christian missionary to evangelize in his land. He summoned his council. As was fitting, the high priest of the local deities, a certain Cofi, was invited to speak first.
"To be frank, Your Highness," he said in effect, "since I have served our gods and presided over our sacrifices, I have been neither happier nor more fortunate than a man who is not devout, and my prayers have rarely been granted. Therefore, I am in favor of welcoming another god who may be better and stronger, if he can be found."
The priest spoke pragmatically; the leader of the clan who followed spoke as a poet. Asked to give his opinion on the introduction of a god named Jesus into Northumberland, this thane, whose name (according to the scholarly commentary) is unknown, replied:
"The life of man on earth, my lord, in comparison with the vast stretches of time about which we know nothing, seems to me to resemble the flight of a sparrow, who enters through a window in the great hall warmed by a blazing fire laid in the center of it where you feast with your councilors and liege men, while outside the tempests and snows of winter rage. And the bird swiftly sweeps through the great hall and flies out to the other side, and after this brief respite, having come out of the winter, he goes back into it and is lost to your eyes. Such is the brief life of man, of which we know neither what goes before nor what comes after."
The thane's conclusion accords with that of the priest: since we know nothing, why should we not appeal to those who may know? The monk Augustine was then authorized to preach Christianity in Edwin's lands and the rest, as they say, is history.
But setting aside this history and its effects, let's go back to the thane's speech, which I found very interesting. Adveniensque unus passerum domum citissime pervolaverit, qui cum per unum ostium ingrediens, mox per alid exierit. Bede's Latin prose is awkward and yet perhaps still too classical to express the metaphor contained in the passage. Alfred's English, on the other hand: Cume an spearwa and braedlice thaet hus thurhfleo, cume thurh othre duru in, thurh othre ut gewite. (But for all that, it's misleading to fall into the cliche that would set this mental world, which looks forward across a thousand years to the somber poetic universe of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," in opposition to Greco-Latin parameters of thought, which is assumed to be more logical and much less mysterious. It's a matter of epoch, I think -- a hero out of Homer or an Etruscan lucumo might have spoken the same way).
Looking closely at the text, which is beautiful in itself, one perceives that the thane's thought opposes certain age-old habits of mind which persist even today. Those who, like Vigny, see life as a luminous interval between two infinite periods of darkness readily depict those two shadowy zones of before and after as inert and undifferentiated, a kind of frontier of nothingness. For Christians, despite their belief in a blessed or infernal immortality, what will follow after death (they pay little attention to what came before life) is perceived, above all, as eternal rest. Invideo, quia quiescunt, said Luther. For this unknown man, in contrast, the bird issues from a storm and returns into a tempest. Between these two storms, the thane interprets the flight of the bird across the hall as a moment of respite (spatio serenitatis). That's quite surprising. Edwin's thane knew perfectly well that a bird which has flown into a house of men darts about madly, running the risk of dashing itself against walls, of burning itself in the fire. Life as we know it is hardly a moment of respite. Yet, there it is.
Of course the image of the bird come out of nowhere and gone back into nowhere is a valid symbol for man's brief and inexplicable passage on earth. One might even go further, and make another symbol of the hall besieged by snow and wind, lit up for a brief moment in the depths of winter -- a symbol, perhaps, for the mind, that lighted chamber, that generating fire, so to speak, placed for each of us temporarily at the center of things, without which neither the bird nor the storm would be either imagined or perceived.
To bed, I think. It's so chilly here.