The Wanderer Illumination

I chose to illuminate the poem “The Wanderer” for this workshop, because it is a medieval poem, and illumination was a medieval practice. I must say, I felt somewhat cheesy for doing this once I realized that the class was working with more contemporary poetry for the most part. However, I am currently translating this poem for another seminar, and so I thought that this choice was apt. I hoped that illuminating the poem might reveal some aspect of it which strictly attending to language would not. The illumination also functions as a translation in its own right, i.e. in illuminating I was attempting to “bring across” some aspect of the poem, albeit for myself — although by illuminating a poem after reading it, one might always be acting in a hybrid reader / writer capacity. I chose a side-by-side translation of the poem, because I wanted to foreground the fact that it has been translated. Similarly, I wanted the illumination to intersect only with the modern translation, as a sort of nod to the fact that I can never get at the original, and will always come up short in my efforts in translation.

As I surveyed the various examples of illumination provided in class, I noticed that motifs of geometric patterns were common — particularly in the older examples. As the dominant images in this portion of the poem are metaphors for internality and the sea, I chose not to illuminate the poem with concrete imagery, such as a man in a boat. Additionally, I am not certain that the speaker in the poem is a man. In fact, part of me wants to leave that a mystery, although there could perhaps be linguistic features which indicate that it is indeed a male speaker. The purple, blue and green wave forms along the side of the piece are intended to reflect the sense of forward movement in the text, represent the dominant images of icy water, as well as, convey the alliterative stress rhythms of Anglo-Saxon poetry. The color palette was also supposed to reflect the cold imagery in the poem. The blueish green was intended to invoke the pervasive emotion of heart-sickness that runs throughout the poem.

I wanted the irregularity of the geometric shapes to reflect the irregularity of the stress patterns. The bits of yellow adorn the negative space within graphemes at the beginning of lines, as well as, the negative space within graphemes that form words regarding the internal state of the speaker such as: “spirit-chest”, “treasure-chamber”, “thoughts”, etc. Halla, who was kind enough to augment my initial illumination efforts, chose to adorn words such as “I” and “one” in blue to reflect the frozen state of the speaker in the poem. The first grapheme is intended to appear like the moon. Because the wave forms run down the side — rather than across — my hope is that the reader might reorient the page to view it as a image. If they did this, the flecks of yellow and blue might then appear as stars and precipitation respectively. The desire for the reader to reorient the page is bound up in the issue of translation.

The illumination activity has confirmed the relationship between image and graphemes for me. Although, if one accepts the post-structural definition of “text” as anything that can be read, then this is not a “relationship” per se — as they are not discreet units of meaning — but unity. There seems to be little to gain from thinking image and graphemes separately. An unforeseen consequence of the project is that medieval illumination practices feel more contemporary than modern print, insofar that in the digital age, hybrid texts are the norm. When one is reading digital native texts in the web 2.0 environment, “text” always means graphemes and images, whether it is the icons associated with the webpage or the task bar at the bottom of the screen. This has been on my mind the entire semester. Moving forward, I want to continue attempting to consider ways which considering medieval practices can inform how I interact with modern texts, and text making practices.

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One thought on “The Wanderer Illumination

  1. This is a period-appropriate poem, of course, and I especially appreciate the choice of a dual language text, which also wouldn’t have been uncommon within medieval manuscript environments. I was intrigued by your comments about how the text and image aren’t really distinct interpretive units – this is the case, as you mention, within digital platforms, but it’s especially the case for many medieval manuscripts. At times, it’s difficult to distinguish text from image, particularly because text was itself a kind of image (e.g. historiated initials).

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