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stream flowing out of a stone tunnel

Because the Words Lie Hidden

A review of Richeldis of Walsingham, by Sally Thomas

Jane Clark Scharl

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“My soul’s great with remembering.” – Richeldis, circa 1080

Sally Thomas is a poet fascinated by sound. Her poems are not metaphorical puzzles to be worked out on the page. They need to be read aloud and tasted on the tongue, felt in the ears. So it is no surprise that in her latest chapbook, Richeldis of Walsingham, she leans heavily on the more aural ancestor of modern English: Anglo-Saxon.

Modern English is a smorgasbord of influences. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, we can say that it springs from two primary fonts: the Greco-Latinate and the Germanic. The Latinate influence on modern English is profound, but many poets, including such creative giants as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Seamus Heaney, have felt the pull of the darker, earthier Anglo-Saxon current.

Richeldis of Walsingham is a tribute to that current in both its language and its theme. The chapbook explores the story of the pilgrimage site at Walsingham, in Norfolk, built by Richeldis, the Lady of the Manor, in 1061 after she received a series of visions from the Virgin Mary. According to Richeldis, the site was an exact model of the house in Nazareth where the Annunciation took place, and it stood beside a miraculous spring opened by angels to water the area. It thrived as a pilgrimage site for over five hundred years until the Protestant Reformation swept through England and the site was destroyed. The area remained desolate until the 1920s, when the Anglican Church rebuilt a model of the ancient house.

Thomas’ poems probe both the ancient and modern existence of the shrine, with some poems set in the eleventh century in Richeldis’s own voice and others observing contemporary visitors to the holy place. In the first of three poems titled “richeldis circa 1080,” Richeldis sits alone and remembers the first time Mary came to her, musing, “It’s now—this time of year—/I expect her.” By contrast, in “wendan (to turn)”, a bus winds along the roads of Norfolk in the modern era to a town with no hotel rooms open. But there are things held in common from the eleventh century to the twenty-first. As “wendan (to turn)” says:

this
is the weekend for the pilgrimage, and already
people are pouring barefoot into the town.

People still travel the road to Walsingham, carrying their timeless piety and love of sacred things.

The images in the poems evoke an England of the deep past – an England of stone shrines and vast forests, a gray and green land suddenly illuminated with the golden flame of Christianity. But even more than the images, Thomas pours her poetic vision into the sounds. Her attentiveness to word choice leads her to rely on Anglo-Saxon words rather than their Greco-Latinate synonyms. This can be as simple as the choice to use the Anglo-Saxon word “sea” rather than Greco “ocean” in the line, “There is the sea, the headland’s headdress”. This choice serves two purposes: the ‘s’ sound enhances the musicality of the line; and the one-syllable word maintains the meter.

Her reliance on Old English roots gives the poems a clear voice and music. Without the “stratified columns” (as Seamus Heaney called them) of Latin upholding the poems, Thomas’s lines have organic movement; they creak and groan like ropes against stone or like trees in high wind. To Anglo-Saxon poets, alliteration was the lifeblood of verse, much as meter are the lifeblood of Greek and Latin poetry. Consider this line, from hus (house): “High heaven harrowed a dew-fallowed field …”, or this line from biddan (to pray): “There is the cold sky, cloud-combed.” This is a simplified version of the structure that governs ancient poems like Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn, where alliteration ties together at least three quarters of the stressed syllables in a line. Thomas’ meter is looser than Caedmon’s, but the echoes of the old forms are there.

Most of the poems’ titles are a single Anglo-Saxon word, with the modern English translation provided in parentheses. This could easily become a gimmick, an excuse for passing off overly simplistic titles as deep (such as the title duru, which translates “door” and does not contribute much to the poem). In some places, however, the Anglo-Saxon word provides immediate resonance. For example, the title of the poem biddan is translated as “to pray,” but also evokes the idea of being bidden to do something. This brings to mind the great mystery at the heart of Christian prayer: we are bidden to do it, to beseech God, but we have no guarantee that He will respond in a recognizable way. Christian prayer does not work along the lines of pagan invocation, where a sacrifice is calculated to elicit a response. Christian prayer is a cry, at once of faith and longing, thrown into a mystery. Coming after the title biddan, the poem takes on new depths:

There is the rope’s moan on the well-lip.
There is the cold sky, cloud-combed.
There is the sea, the headland’s headdress,
Folding, folding, far afield,
Sun born from barn roofs, the tree-bare rise.
is the lick of Lauds-bell, the wind’s weeping.

Biddan: Ic bidde. We bidden.
Bed-making. Bidden, the soul’s housewife sweeps
Clean the clod-cold hearth, furnishes fire
To see by, with sighing more wordful than words.

So she might have written.
So she surely said—Ic bidde. We bidden.
So I say, because the words lie hidden.

The last line of biddan (to pray) indicates the core of Thomas’s collection: the interplay of the seen and the unseen, that which is lost to history and that which exists now, that which is beyond time and that which we can see and feel and touch and hear. She writes about an age very different from ours, an age of sound and symbol rather than word and sign, and the poems ring like the steeples of many churches spread across a land, each making a music of their own but resonating with the sounds made by the others. Richeldis of Walsingham seems at first like an elegy to a world that has been lost, but by the end we realize that this world is merely hidden, withdrawn a little from our immediate apprehension – a world of sacred things singing together in a tongue at once old and new.

Richeldis of Welsingham by Sally Thomas

Get the book: Richeldis of Walsingham by Sally Thomas

Contributed By

Jane Clark Scharl is a writer based in Phoenix, AZ.

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