When asked what the book is about, I usually describe it as being about textual dimensions, even while I recognize that such a description probably doesn't communicate much of anything to anyone.
|Agnes D Garbey's Interlace Poem, dated June 9, 1855.|
But it was a delight to be able to purchase this piece of manuscript poetry recently. It brings together, quite remarkably, many of the topics that have been occupying my mind as I've been writing this book. (And I recognize that the image is probably not legible here: the original is written in very tiny script--the whole thing is about 7" tall from top to bottom--and I need a magnifying glass to read the actual page itself).
It is, I think it is fair to say, a puzzle-poem, with the first "lines" reading "Begin and see if thou canst shew/ the starting point and place of ending too." The design, I think, can usefully be described as an interlace design--the single ongoing linear text of the poem wrapping around, with numerous crossing points and tricky turning points.
Such interlace designs were common in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts (and elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon art), and a well known critical essay by John Leyerle even concerns itself with "The Interlace Structure of Beowulf." It is difficult to tell if Agnes D. Garbey (if I am reading her name correctly) had Anglo-Saxon models in mind, but the interlace effect of her poem could not be more obvious. And the poem's use of the phrase "The endless knot" will also recall Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for readers who know that poem well. We will probably never know for certain if medieval models have influenced this poem, but it is possible that they did: the middle nineteenth century was, if possible, even more fascinated with all things medieval than we are today.
In terms of the book I've been working on, this poem is a two-dimensional text: any attempt (such as the one I will offer below), to linearize it, to re-present it in a single textual line, without crossovers or overlap, will diminish the poem and its effect upon readers. Too often, we suppose that a poem can be read aloud, and maybe even that a poem should be read aloud. This poem, on the other hand, must be seen to be appreciated.
The argument of the book I am writing, of course, is that we have long ignored or misunderstood two-dimensional and three-dimensional aspects of some literary texts, though manuscripts in particular have often enough made use of more than a single linear dimension. Agnes Garbey's poem, here, is a reminder that even as recently as the nineteenth century, manuscripts might make use of complex visual structures in ways that deserve our attention and respect.
I don't know if I'll be able to use this poem in the book itself. I am tempted, though, to offer it up as a possible image for the cover--if only it were a bit more legible!
Begin and see if thou canst shew
The starting point and place of ending too;
Oh! mortal behold and thou shalt see,
The endless knot Love's twined for thee.
But like this knot a point of winding
And like this knot Love has no ending.
Is love like a moat that lives but a day,
On the beams of the sun and vanishes away?
Or like the flower that blooms at the morn
At noon of its beauty and lasciviousness shorn?
No, true love may [be] likened to the beautiful rose,
That from its leaves sweetest fragrance throws.
It buds, it blooms and dies, its presence is done,
Yet sweetness remains though the body is gone.
Oh! What wants life be de[ . . . ]ed of true love
Of heaven's cheering beams from our Father above;
A dark howling wilderness. --thick gathering gloom,
Spreading o'er our sad journey to the place of the tomb.
June 9th 1855 Agnes D Garbey.