Friday, 22 December 2017

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Mundi Domina, the Door Between the Worlds

Wisdom depicted as a female figure enthroned (BL Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.36)

O mundi domina, regio ex semine orta,
ex tuo iam Christus processit alvo tamquam sponsus de thalamo;
hic iacet in praesepio qui et sidera regit.

O Lady of the World, sprung of royal race,
now Christ has come forth from your womb as a bridegroom from his chamber;
here in a manger lies he who rules the stars.

This is one of a number of antiphons which in medieval tradition were grouped with the seven 'O Antiphons' in the days leading up to Christmas, though they are addressed not to Christ but to other figures or ideas in the story of the Incarnation - in this case Mary, 'Lady of the World'. This text forms the basis, loosely speaking, for the section comprising lines 275-347 of the Anglo-Saxon Advent Lyrics. The Old English poem expands this brief antiphon into a much longer and more allusive meditation on Mary's role in Christ's entry into the world; this is the longest section of the poem (at 72 lines) and it follows immediately on from the second longest (the 60-line poem based on O rex pacifice). It feels like the work of a poet excited by his or her own poetry, wrestling with imagery which is difficult to conceptualise and challenging to put into words - yet determined to go on until it has yielded up everything it has to offer.

Eala þu mæra middangeardes
seo clæneste cwen ofer eorþan
þara þe gewurde to widan feore,
hu þec mid ryhte ealle reordberend
hatað ond secgað, hæleð geond foldan,
bliþe mode, þæt þu bryd sie
þæs selestan swegles bryttan.
Swylce þa hyhstan on heofonum eac,
Cristes þegnas, cweþað ond singað
þæt þu sie hlæfdige halgum meahtum
wuldorweorudes, ond worldcundra
hada under heofonum, ond helwara.
Forþon þu þæt ana ealra monna
geþohtest þrymlice, þristhycgende,
þæt þu þinne mægðhad meotude brohtes,
sealdes butan synnum. Nan swylc ne cwom
ænig oþer ofer ealle men,
bryd beaga hroden, þe þa beorhtan lac
to heofonhame hlutre mode
siþþan sende. Forðon heht sigores fruma
his heahbodan hider gefleogan
of his mægenþrymme ond þe meahta sped
snude cyðan, þæt þu sunu dryhtnes
þurh clæne gebyrd cennan sceolde
monnum to miltse, ond þe, Maria, forð
efne unwemme a gehealdan.
Eac we þæt gefrugnon, þæt gefyrn bi þe
soðfæst sægde sum woðbora
in ealddagum, Esaias,
þæt he wære gelæded þæt he lifes gesteald
in þam ecan ham eal sceawode.
Wlat þa swa wisfæst witga geond þeodland
oþþæt he gestarode þær gestaþelad wæs
æþelic ingong. Eal wæs gebunden
deoran since duru ormæte,
wundurclommum bewriþen. Wende swiðe
þæt ænig elda æfre ne meahte
swa fæstlice forescyttelsas
on ecnesse o inhebban,
oþþe ðæs ceasterhlides clustor onlucan,
ær him godes engel þurh glædne geþonc
þa wisan onwrah ond þæt word acwæð:
"Ic þe mæg secgan þæt soð gewearð
þæt ðas gyldnan gatu giet sume siþe
god sylf wile gæstes mægne
gefælsian, fæder ælmihtig,
ond þurh þa fæstan locu foldan neosan,
ond hio þonne æfter him ece stondað
simle singales swa beclysed
þæt nænig oþer, nymðe nergend god,
hy æfre ma eft onluceð."
Nu þæt is gefylled þæt se froda þa
mid eagum þær on wlatade.
þu eart þæt wealldor, þurh þe waldend frea
æne on þas eorðan ut siðade,
ond efne swa þec gemette, meahtum gehrodene,
clæne ond gecorene, Crist ælmihtig.
Swa ðe æfter him engla þeoden
eft unmæle ælces þinges
lioþucægan bileac, lifes brytta.
Iowa us nu þa are þe se engel þe,
godes spelboda, Gabriel brohte.
Huru þæs biddað burgsittende
þæt ðu þa frofre folcum cyðe,
þinre sylfre sunu. Siþþan we motan
anmodlice ealle hyhtan,
nu we on þæt bearn foran breostum stariað.
Geþinga us nu þristum wordum
þæt he us ne læte leng owihte
in þisse deaðdene gedwolan hyran,
ac þæt he usic geferge in fæder rice,
þær we sorglease siþþan motan
wunigan in wuldre mid weoroda god.

Anglo-Saxon ivory plaque of Christ and Mary (c.1000-20, V&A)

O glory of the world,
the purest queen of all those
who have ever existed across the earth!
How rightly all speech-bearing ones
throughout the world address you and say,
joyous in heart, that you should be the bride
of the best Gift-giver of the skies.
And so too those highest in the heavens,
thegns of Christ, proclaim and sing
that you should be the lady, by holy powers,
of the heavenly host and of all the earthly kinds
of orders under the heavens, and of hell-dwellers.
For you, alone of all mankind,
gloriously resolved, courageous in purpose,
that you would bring your maidenhead to the Measurer,
give it without sin. There has never come another such
among all mankind, any other bride adorned with rings,
who since with shining spirit has sent the bright gift
to heaven-home. For the Lord of Victory commanded
his high messenger to fly here
from his glorious majesty and swiftly make known to you
the abundance of might, that you should bear the Lord’s Son by a pure birth
as mercy to mankind, and you, Mary,
from henceforth would remain ever undefiled.
We have also heard this, what long ago
a truth-bearing prophet said of you
in ancient days, Isaiah:
that he was led to where he beheld
life’s dwelling-place in the eternal home.
The wise prophet gazed across all that country
until he saw a spot where a noble entrance-way
had been established. That immense door
was bound about with precious treasure,
fastened with wondrous clasps.
He was sure that no man
could ever, in all eternity,
lift up those bars so firmly fastened,
or unlock the barriers of the city gates;
until an angel of God unraveled the matter,
glad in thoughts, and spoke these words:
‘I can tell you what will come true:
that God himself, by the power of the Spirit,
intends to pass through these golden gates
at a time yet to come, the Father Almighty,
and to visit the earth through these fastened locks,
and after him they will then stand forever
closed, always and eternally,
so that no other, except the Saviour God,
will ever be able to unlock them again.’
Now it is fulfilled, that which the wise one
there beheld with his own eyes.
You are the door in the wall; through you the All-wielding Lord
once only journeyed out into this world,
and even as he found you, adorned with powers,
chaste and chosen, Almighty Christ,
so the Lord of Angels closed you behind him again
with his limb-key, the Giver of Life,
immaculate in every way.
Show forth to us now the grace which the angel,
God’s word-bearer Gabriel, brought to you.
O, this we city-dwellers pray:
that you reveal that comfort to the people,
your own Son. Then may we all
rejoice in hope, united in mind,
when we gaze at the baby upon your breast.
Intercede for us now, bold in your words,
that he may not allow us any longer
to go astray in this deadly valley,
but that he may bring us into his Father’s kingdom,
where we, free from sorrow, may afterwards
dwell in glory with the God of hosts.

The virtues outside a city gate (BL Cotton MS Cleopatra C VIII, f.31v)

This section of the poem offers two images of Mary, each extraordinary in its own way. Elsewhere among the Advent Lyrics, Mary is the subject of 'O virgo virginum' and of the dialogue which begins 'O Joseph'; the latter brings to life the tension and pain in the story of her child-bearing, dramatising the anguished thoughts of a couple who have had a world-changing miracle erupt in the middle of their marriage. That's an emotional, intimate conversation - the Incarnation as personal human drama.

This poem gives us a very different view of Mary. Here she is a queen, and on a cosmic scale - ruler of the forces of heaven, earth, and hell. God and Mary are described in language and tropes drawn from Anglo-Saxon heroic poetry: they are the brytta and his bryd, the generous ring-giving lord and his resolute queen. Described thus, they might easily be Hrothgar and Wealhtheow in Beowulf, or even Cnut and Emma. Like many another woman in Anglo-Saxon poetry, Mary is a bride 'adorned with rings' (beaga hroden), but this bride is far from a passive figure: she is courageous and determined (þristhycgende, 'steadfast in mind'). This poem frames her situation in a distinctive way, presenting it as if she has decided to undertake a diplomatic mission from earth to heaven. Though literally this decision is made when she accepts Gabriel's message to her, the poem describes it as if she set out to travel on a journey to unite herself with God:

Forþon þu þæt ana ealra monna
geþohtest þrymlice, þristhycgende,
þæt þu þinne mægðhad meotude brohtes,
sealdes butan synnum. Nan swylc ne cwom
ænig oþer ofer ealle men,
bryd beaga hroden, þe þa beorhtan lac
to heofonhame hlutre mode
siþþan sende.

For you, alone of all mankind,
gloriously resolved, courageous in purpose,
that you would bring your maidenhead to the Measurer,
give it without sin. There has never come another such
among all mankind, any other bride adorned with rings,
who since with shining spirit has sent the bright gift
to heaven-home.

This kind of mission calls to mind the idea found in Anglo-Saxon literature of a royal bride as a 'peave-weaver', whose marriage makes a truce between two warring tribes; in this case the tribes Mary unites are heaven and earth, which are brought together in peace through her actions. The beorhtan lac she brings to God as a wedding-gift (lac means both 'gift' and 'offering, sacrifice') probably refers to her virginity, but it would also be an apt epithet for Christ, and it's a reminder that gift-giving too was part of a medieval queen's royal duty - Wealhtheow, the most famous peace-weaving queen in Anglo-Saxon poetry, rewards Beowulf for his services to her people with generous gifts of arkenstone-like treasure.

This view of Mary as a resolute, powerful queen continues to the end of the poem, where she is asked to intercede þristum wordum 'with bold words', on behalf of mankind. All this is perhaps inspired by the antiphon's reference to Mary's 'royal race', which the poem skillfully translates into the imagery and vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon royal womanhood. But in its second half the poem turns away from the antiphon completely to reflect on the vision of Ezekiel of the gate through which only God can pass:

Wlat þa swa wisfæst witga geond þeodland
oþþæt he gestarode þær gestaþelad wæs
æþelic ingong. Eal wæs gebunden
deoran since duru ormæte,
wundurclommum bewriþen. Wende swiðe
þæt ænig elda æfre ne meahte9
swa fæstlice forescyttelsas
on ecnesse o inhebban,
oþþe ðæs ceasterhlides clustor onlucan...
Nu þæt is gefylled þæt se froda þa
mid eagum þær on wlatade.
þu eart þæt wealldor, þurh þe waldend frea
æne on þas eorðan ut siðade.

The wise prophet gazed across all that country
until he saw a spot where a noble entrance-way
had been established. That immense door
was bound about with precious treasure,
fastened with wondrous clasps.
He was sure that no man
could ever, in all eternity,
lift up those bars so firmly fastened,
or unlock the barriers of the city gates...
Now it is fulfilled, that which the wise one
there beheld with his own eyes.
You are the door in the wall; through you the All-wielding Lord
once only journeyed out into this world.

The reference is to Ezekiel 44 (though the vision is mistakenly attributed to Isaiah), and the gate is interpreted as an image for Mary and her unique role in salvation - her unique place in the universe. One interesting feature of this poem is that the imagery of the first half is characteristically Anglo-Saxon, that of the second half firmly Biblical; but they are seamlessly woven together, and support and enrich each other. The union between heaven and earth which is implicitly brought about by Mary's peace-weaving in the first section is here given a different, but parallel expression; now she is the point of intersection between heaven and earth, the door through whom - and only through whom - Christ enters the human world. Mary, the great and terrible queen, is also the 'door in the wall' which separates us from the vast world beyond our universe - beyond human imagination, and yet accessible to us 'when we gaze at the baby upon [her] breast'.

Though Biblical in origin, the idea of this immense door between the worlds is the kind of metaphor which feels more at home in fantasy and science fiction than anywhere else - perhaps that's the only place now where we might encounter such a portal to another dimension as is imagined here. Mary is the wealldor: the door in the back of the wardrobe, the looking-glass with another world behind, the 'magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn'.

Stairway to heaven (A Matter of Life and Death)

The idea of Mary as the 'gate to heaven' (porta caeli), and the 'ladder to heaven' (scala caeli) are both metaphors with an ancient history, but to modern ears they can be surprising. I've had students find the image as applied to Mary in this poem difficult to grasp and almost unpleasant, so far is it from the much safer, small-scale religious imagery most of us are familiar with; but it's all the better for that. If it's initially challenging, the more rewarding the process of trying to comprehend it. This is the kind of image which opens a door onto the vast ambition of medieval writing about Advent and the Incarnation, which makes the modern equivalent (squabbles about whether we're allowed to sing about kings in Christmas carols) look utterly banal. Ancient texts about Advent are big: their scope is cosmic, their imagination boundless. They talk about Christ as ruler of time, creator of the stars, mystic fulfilment of all the myriad forms of human desire - not just (although, of course, also) a little baby in a manger. They are the very opposite of an exclusive, domesticated, cosy Christmas; they call down the powers of the whole universe, and all the powers and images which poetry has to offer - from the Bible to Beowulf - to find expression for this unimaginable marvel.

4 comments:

Helena said...

Dear Eleanor

Thank you for sharing your knowledge and your sensibility with the world here throughout this year.

I wish you a joyous Chistmas and a yea r filled with light.
Xxx

John said...

My massive thanks for this blog. Every speck of the effort you put into it is more than worthwhile for this reader. Merry Christmas!

sophy0075 said...

Interesting to learn that the Anglo-Saxons venerated Mary as a powerful woman, and expressed the concept of the Virgin encompassing the entire universe within her womb. The latter thought is venerated in the Greek Othodox Church.

Simon Abrahams said...

What a beautiful poem and lucid explanation.. Thank you.