Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book/4

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An annotated version of this text is available.


4 (K-D 39)

The books tell us     that this thing has been
among mankind     through many ages
clear and manifest.     A special power
it has much greater     than any men know.

It wishes to seek     all living beings
one by one;     then goes its way;
no second night     in the same place;
but homeless roves     for ever and aye,
the path of exile.     It is none the poorer.

It has neither foot nor hand,     nor touches the ground,10
nor two eyes nor mouth     nor speaks with men.
It has no mind,     but the books say
it is quite the poorest     of all creatures
that were ever begotten     according to nature.
 

It has no soul nor life,     but makes its way
far and wide     through this wonderful world
It has no blood, no bone,     yet gives aid and comfort
to many men     the wide world over.

It never reached to heaven,     it may not to hell,
but forever it must     live by the teachings20
of the King of Glory.     Long is it to relate
how its way of life     will go thereafter
fate’s crooked ways.

                                  This is a marvelous
thing to say:     it is all true
that ever with words     is told about it.
It has no limit.     It lives nevertheless.

If you can straightway     rede this riddle
with true words,     tell what its name is.

The usual answer is Moon and Day. The paradoxes remind one of 11 (k-d 40), with which it has some metrical and stylistic similarities. Both may be by the same author. Mrs. von Erhardt-Siebold, who regards it as “one of the finest” and praises its “ingenious and fascinating poetry,” offers the tempting solution (PMLA lxi [1946], 910–15) of given an identity Death, in the manner of Plato. She divides it into seven parts (as printed above): death is not real, not abstract; it comes privately and only once; it is a “suprasensible entity”; it is not really lifeless: it has eternal life; this is not conjecture, but fact; you first explain it and then name it.