7. Signifying the Coming of Christ in The Advent Lyrics
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7 Signifying the Coming of Christ in The Advent Lyrics We return now to the twelve poems of The Advent Lyrics to explore how they collectively merge art and prayer. The Advent Lyrics (also called Christ I) furnish us with the longest example of a poem that incorporates ritual signs in a sustained and meaningful way. The antiphons and prayers of Advent and Christmas seasons ring forth in this poem, metonymically bringing to bear their roles in the liturgy. The ritual signs of The Advent Lyrics represent the third kind of hybrid poetic signifier that I address. The twelve extant poems of The Advent Lyrics translate from Latin to Old English the liturgical antiphons of Advent, Christmas, and the Octave of Christmas. Each poetic translation of an antiphon augments the antiphonal structure: invocation, amplification, and petition (or appeal). The lyrics key the beginning of a paraphrase with the cry eala (translating the Latin “O”), which gives way to reflections upon an event in Christ’s story or the mystery of Christ before concluding with a prayer for salvation . Individual lyrics explore topics stemming from their antiphons, including the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy, Christ’s birth and his immanence in the world, the sacred city of Jerusalem, the Trinity, and various issues related to Christ’s three advents (his historical incarnation, the Day of Judgment, and his visits to the soul in the present moment).1 Because the lyricsaredenselywovenwithbiblical,typological,andpatristicreferences, critics tend to read them as occasions for meditation and reflection, espeo Signifying the Coming of Christ in The Advent Lyrics · 129 cially regarding Christ’s past and future advents. By attending to the role of ritual signifiers in The Advent Lyrics, we see how vividly these lyrics tie past and future advents to the audience’s present moment. Using signifying practices that parallel oral-traditional ones, they employ liturgical language and imagery that bear witness to Christ’s advent in the hearts of the faithful. Other scholars have envisioned a mysterious and powerful connection between the antiphons and The Advent Lyrics, and, by extension, between the modesofrepresentationinritualandpoetry.2 A collection ofpoems so thoroughly invested in the liturgy seems to obey a different set of rules regardingitsgenericandmediaboundaries .PatrickConnersuggeststhatthe poet of The Advent Lyrics “tends to create psalms out of antiphons which inspired him” (“Religious Poetry” 265), a notion that changes verse into a sacred, communal act.3 In a similar vein, Roger Lass calls the sequence of twelve poems “more a poetical liturgy than anything else.” He elaborates by connecting The Advent Lyrics to a sacramental mode, in which “a symbol is made both temporally fluid and presently efficacious” (3).4 Dom Edward Burgert focuses on the act of composition, decrying the idea that the poet (whom he believes to be Cynewulf) drew his inspiration from an antiphonary at hand. Instead, he proposes a mode of inspiration that shares features with oral tradition and writing: [T]he sources became for him, as it were, living themes, and he proceeded to paraphrase them as living thoughts of his own inner self, stamped with his own religious views and emotions. The very order in which the paraphrases appear in the poem must then have been a natural one without any forced positions. They must flow, not indeedfrom a lifelessandcoldlistcontainedin anyonebook, butfrom the very life which the distinct members of the list receive in their proper liturgical setting. (54) Burgert’scommentsusefullyconnectthepoet’sexperiencesofliturgywith the composition of verse. Extrapolating from Burgert’s interpretation, I describe how the “living themes” of the liturgy can be integrated with other poetic expressions. When paraphrased in writing, the antiphons of Advent can refer metonymically to their enactment in the liturgy—just as oral-traditional expressions resound with meaning when they arise in a poetic register tuned, as it were, to oral performance. Both liturgical and 130 · Signs that Sing oral-traditional signifiers develop within (and create anew) meaningful performances for communities—performances that use both verbal and bodily modes of communication. Like written oral-traditional expressions, the Old English paraphrases ofliturgicalantiphonsandprayerswouldhavebeenlegibletoAnglo-Saxon audiences who experienced them and knew their meaning in Latin. These audiences could hear andreada poemthatresonates with liturgical significance , moving beyond the literal wording of the paraphrased antiphons and their associated exegetical commentary. The yearly process of singing or hearing the antiphons would transform how Anglo-Saxons—familiar with metonymy in Old English classical verse—hear and interpret a poem that reenacts them. In the next section I address how ritual can resound in verse by focusing...


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