14 June 2016


Kennings are one of the most important parts of Anglo-Saxon poetry (she said, with all the novice's baseless confidence). A kind of metaphor and a kind of riddle, they consist of two words which serve to replace a more concrete single noun. Often they can take a moment to figure out, and to think about them at all is to enter into a peculiarly delightful puzzle-logic whereby the human body is a bone-house, a good king is a ring-giver, a snake is a valley-fish. The Anglo-Saxons loved riddles, and I submit that this is why they produced such great poetry.

To ken is to know. I've no idea if a genuine etymological connection exists (It does. Do your research.—Ed.) but still I wonder if a kenning is a knowing. I wonder if you can fit together metaphor without knowing intimately the thing you wish to describe, or if anyone can know anything without the poet's guidance. Certainly I wonder if I ever knew the sea until I knew it at last, with the Beowulf poet, as hron-rād: whale-road. This is among my happiest memories, as it happens. Two summers ago I was seventeen and scared stupid, and I spent a day riding shotgun as my dad drove through eastern Kentucky and told me about Beowulf. Just the two of us. My mother and brother were in another car, driven by the family friend whose cabin we were visiting. I gazed out the window and he explained kennings and caesurae and alliterative verse as we wound through and around those ancient sloping hills. I asked for a modern English example of caesura; we both stopped to think, and in a small-town grocery store we said "admit impediments. Love is not love" at almost precisely the same moment.

God as father, θεός ὁ πατήρ, pater noster, is a metaphor no less than the sea as a road, and I'm lucky beyond luck that my life has been such that I understand this metaphor as it is meant. If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

"Hron-rād" is one of the best gifts I've ever been given. It struck me at the time, and has ever since, with that kind of electric rightness you sometimes find in very great poetry, evoking both the cold Danish sea and the lovely wild Caribbean I knew already. Of course the sea is a road for the whales, and of course such a juxtaposition of the vast and the literally down-to-earth is the best way to name that homely threatening murderous nourishing expanse. Watch me now, piling up adjectives to try and recreate what an anonymous scop more than a millennium ago did in six letters and a hyphen. And like all great metaphors it works both ways: the word evokes the thing, and now when I stand by the sea the word is what comes to mind.

Pause for a tedious discourse on the signifier and the signified. Resume.

I recently read Lauren Winner's last-but-one book (her best yet, by my lights) Still. She claims it isn't a memoir. The author being dead and the text being right here before me, a memoir is just what it is, albeit rather an unusual and non-narrative one. Among its many treasures, it contains a brief passage on kennings, here in reference to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I'm not certain that all of the two-word descriptors of God which Winner points to—gigantic sum, tender pioneer, brave beloved—are what you would technically refer to as kennings. Then again, this is because I am what you would technically refer to as a pedant. In any case literary analysis was scarcely the point of the exercise. Winner's point is that she sees in Dickinson's metaphor a deep knowing of God, a knowing she rather envies:
You have to know Jesus well, closely, to call him the giver of the Gigantic Sum. 
You must know him well to reach for him with words like Tender Pioneer. 
One day maybe I will know Jesus well enough to ken.
Metaphor arising from understanding. Understanding that grows from other people's metaphors. Dickinson's understanding transferred over time and space, in a poetry that makes the top come off your head. Dame Julian called Christ our "endless bliss," our "true mother," "the ground of our beseeching." Eliot called him "wounded surgeon," and Hopkins "thou Terrible." This is of course without the pictures that Scripture provides—God is a crooked judge, a friend you borrow bread from at midnight, a woman measuring out yeast. What is any of this but metaphor, puzzle, joke? What is a parable, if not a riddle?

Who borrows bread at midnight?

(Parables, says Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking, "are really jokes in their way, at least part of whose point seems to be that a silly question deserves a silly answer.")

This bit is important. I do not love metaphor and riddles and poetry because they are a way towards God. It could never work that way around and, while I'm an expert at the missionary parlor game of turning random images into sermon illustrations, I sincerely hope that this isn't what I'm doing here. Poetry for me is a way to God because I already love it, for itself, and because God in his mercy chooses to speak to me in the language I know best. God's not an American, you see; he speaks more than one language. (Joke. Don't write in.)

"The road to heaven," says Fr. Robert Capon in his magnificent cookbook The Supper of the Lamb, "does not run from the world but through it." Through reading poetry and kneading dough, through long walks and good talks. Through embracing thoroughly our humanity here and now. Through, heaven help us, Beowulf. Even Screwtape knew that "the deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point with which the Enemy has furnished him." Christ plays in ten thousand places, and "play" is just the word.

He's having (forgive me) a whale of a time.

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  1. I love it when you unlock your word-hoard.

  2. kennen is the dutch verb for 'to know', so I think you're safe in your 'kenning-knowing' assumption. Beautifully written, makes me look forward to teaching it again.