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Poetry

from the Colloquy of Aelfric (955–c. 1010)

i. Fisherman

Master: Would you catch a whale?
Fisherman: No.
Master: Why?
Fisherman: Because it is a dangerous thing to catch a whale.

How do you catch a whale?
No net you could knit is large enough
to contain it, no hook you fashion
strong enough to tug it towards you.
With what would you lure it?
It needs nothing you offer,
neither can force bring it to you alive.
What, then, can be said to catch
a whale? Only the barnacle,
floating eyeless, unknowing.
The way to catch a whale
is to wait until it comes close
and fling yourself on its breaching back.
The best way to catch a whale
is to dig in, to root, to ride
with it the deep down tides,
listening to its unfathomable song.

 

ii. Salter

Master: Salter, how does your craft benefit us?
Salter: Everyone benefits a great deal from my skill. No one enjoys his breakfast or dinner unless my skill is present in it. Indeed, all the butter and cheese would go bad unless I looked after it.

O Lord, our God,
how delicious is your name!
And glad is everyone who recognizes
in the world the works of your fingers.

You shall eat fish in summer,
and in autumn, the garden’s bitter greens.
You will brine the harvest for winter’s broth.
And in spring, you will sprinkle salt and herbs
on the eggs of your fruitful hens.

The treasures of the mines and the seas
will be precious to you, and the trees and vines.
You will season all of God’s creation with joy.
Order and radiance will follow your footsteps.

The Lord will bless those who cure,
who sow the tears of the sorrowful and harvest
the feathered sheaves of peace.
Blessed are those who preserve the earth,
for they shall be preserved.

 

iii. Birdcatcher

Master: How do you feed your hawks?
Birdcatcher: In winter, they feed both themselves and me, but in the spring, I set them free to fly away to the woods, and in the autumn, I catch young birds and tame them.

The lucky hawks are those I catch.
They learn the joy of being trained,
of answering to a name, a whistle
that calls them over distances,
and a wrist that holds their weight.
From thousands of nests, they are chosen.
In winter’s wastes, they no longer wander.

But in restless spring, when drawn
to nests among the rocks, to hares
in greening woods, and the preen
and dance of feathers, their chained
talons chafe and ache, and the safe
perch ensnares. Then, in pity, I set
them free, for their own, pitiless, sake.

 

iv. Merchant

Master: What have you to tell us, merchant?
Merchant: I embark on board ship with my wares and I sail over remote seas, sell my wares and buy precious objects that are unknown in this country. I bring these things to you over the sea enduring great danger and shipwreck. I bring purple cloth and silk, precious stones and gold, various sorts of clothes and dyes, wine and oil.

Come with me to his shop, come with your empty bags.
Much of what you miss you’ll find there.
Bind amber-beaded silver round your arms,
lambs’ wool lush as grapes around your waist.
Brass bells, pearled slippers, ebony bowls,
candles that weep with the spice of cloves.
If you’re hungry, there’s bread for the taking,
there’s oil, there’s fruit that falls from the pit.
If you need to sit, there are pillows and chairs.
Needles for mending, ointment for scars.
There are skulls, and ash, and stumble stones.
There are boxes you’d better not touch.
You’ll find words to pin to your fraying hems,
to thread in the braids of your hair.


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