Ecosemiotics in Early Irish Lyrics

Paper presented at ”Scél lem dúib: Gerard Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics Revisited. A Symposium to Celebrate the 65th Anniversary of the Publication of the Anthology,” also marking the 1500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Columcille (Columba). University College Cork, Department of Early and Medieval Irish. Friday, Oct. 16, 7530 (Oct. 29, 2021, civil calendar).

It’s an honor and joy to present at this event at University College Cork, amid some friends whom I have not seen for a long time, but who were very kind when my family and I spent a term with you all. My topic, “Ecosemiotics in Early Irish Lyrics,” references a fairly new field, which however I will argue has relevance for the ancient literary culture we are examining, as well as in a generic way to nature writing. Ecosemiotics is also called environmental semiotics, a companion field to biosemiotics. It involves a view of meaning as entwined with the natural world, on a spectrum of communication that would include the way that a bird might find meaning in the color and other signs of a plant in gathering nectar, and how a work of poetry or prose might shape a human community’s sense of a natural landscape.

The field emerged in the last couple decades from what it sometimes called the Tartu-Copenhagen-Moscow school of semiotics, which has a relation to the early-twentieth-century work of the Baltic biologist Jakob von Uexküll who developed the concept of the Umwelt as a meaningful world of an organism, as a basis for understanding life as based on communication or information. There is a kind of Venn diagram there between secular ecosemiotics and what has been called early Christian pansemiotism, or a view of Creation as a communicative experience of mysterious meaning fully known to God. There arguably is a link in that overlap to the literary culture of what Gerard Murphy called early Irish lyrics.

I would like hopefully to illustrate how a model from ecosemiotics can be applied to three poems in the collection, indicating also the relevance of Professor Murphy’s work to this field, and then talk briefly about how this new model relates to the early Irish Christian cultural context and its engagement with nature.

Ecosemiotics stems partly from the work of von Uexküll and partly also from that of the American semiotician Charles Saunders Peirce in the nineteenth century. Peirce has rightly been called the most famous American philosopher that Americans do not know, as attested by his popularity in circles of ecosemiotic study such as at Tartu University in Estonia, while his work sadly is virtually unknown in American academic circles today.  Peirce’s contribution to semiotics was to emphasize, at odds with De Saussure’s more influential work in the modern West, that signs relate to the environment. Peirce said the making of meaning or semiosis involved a threefold overlap of sign, object, and what he called interpretant, the coupler between sign and environment, which has since been unpacked into the categories of both author and reader. De Saussure’s binary view of semiotics famously placed the making of meaning in signs arbitrarily, and internalized, in the factors of the signified and the signifier. Peirce’s work raised the possibility of an environmental link to semiotics. More recent writers such as Timo Maran at Tartu have adapted Peirce’s terminology. So Maran speaks of the text, the environment, and unpacks the interpretant into both reader and author. This makes the Peirce model more of a fourfold than a threefold, although still in effect based on the latter. Maran calls his model of text, environment, reader, and author the nature-text. It seeks to articulate how a text does not exist in isolation or in total internalized and arbitrary processes of meaning, but exists in relationships of contexts, which can include the environment. In this way, the ecosemiotic model combines aspects of interpretations of texts through reader reception, historicism, and close reading, as well as ecocritical. The environment as a component of Maran’s model can include physical and cultural environment.

I’ll first briefly try to sketch simply how this twenty-first century approach can be highlighted by poems 51, 52, and 53 in Gerard Murphy’s collection, and then talk about early cultural conjunctions with this approach.

Poem 51 comes from the Acallam na Senorach. Scottish musicologist John Purser has compared it to the tone of James Macpherson’s later Ossian poems, with regard to what he called the early poem’s quote “romantic scene-painting, tinged with a world-weary nostalgia.” Yet there is a contrast between Cailte’s lament for the past, identified with winter, in the introductory frame, in which he says time has arrived for stags and does to withdraw to inmost parts of hills and rocks, and the poem itself, which speaks actively of the swift stag belling, a stag not lying to the ground, and another listening also to wolf-music. At the same time, another stag is described as pressed to the earth sleeping as if beneath water on a very cold night. They all are identified with the narrator as aged, and his season passed with the coming of winter. The poem is said to be recited at Samain on the cusp of the death of the year that also marks its birth. The night, as in biblical and monastic traditions, is the start of the day, vesperal. So the belling of the stag suggests the rutting season at the end of a cycle that points toward spring. At the end the narrator’s voice, and the poem itself perhaps, is identified with that cycle of life, with the explicitly Christian ending. The poem expresses thanks to the higher king, Christ, and His Mother, identified with the portal between the earth and heaven, beyond the narrator’s old role in commanding armies. Now he is cold in the cycle of mortality, but there is both a natural and a higher hope of rebirth and resurrection.

Here Maran’s model can be applied rather simply. The first of the four elements, the text, relates to stories of the Finn Cycle, the Acallam, Irish lyric poetry about the natural world, place and kingly lore associated with pagan times, and Christian texts. The environment references specific place names and a sense of physical landscape identified also with both animals and the narrator being part of the seasonal cycles of mortality and rebirth in a landscape. For the author, we have the person of Cailte, and the context of the Acallam as a dialogue, overall between pagan and Christian lore, the latter personified by St. Patrick. In the reader’s context, we have what we can surmise of the early audience, including perhaps nobles and monastics and listeners from among various other classes of people at the time, when Norman rule was being established over Ireland, and perhaps a native Irish landscape was especially being asserted or reimagined in response to that cultural stress. Of course the reader component can also include modern scholars in early Irish, as well as translations in modern Irish and other languages. Current readers can bring interests such as ecosemiotics. All of these contexts together overlap and arguably help shape the text as kind of a landscape itself, in which the identity of the reader as a reader emerges as part of engagement with the text that is also a landscape, identified with the natural world and a particular geography, yet also with suggestions of a kind of otherworldliness of the landscape, through its connections to the Finn cycle and the non-human world, the stag sleeping in winter as if underwater, as well as the Christian reference to divinity and the Mother who bore the Creator God in her womb.

In Poems 52 and 53 we have also texts related to the Finn cycle, although the provenance of 53 according to Prof. Murphy’s notes is a gloss on a poem attributed to Saint Columcille. Poem 52 highlights the entwined elements of text and environment in a close evocation of a landscape, in which a reader is invited to form an identity associated in the opening introduction with pagan spiritual practices. These also have Christian resonances, arguably, in the contexts of author and reader in the early audience, as a poetic practice of what I’ll call landscape-grounding. The May Day poem arguably offers a kind of grounding in the natural order of things. The pagan illumination techniques narrated in the introduction also might have been seen as types for Christian monastic meditative and chanting prayers, such as those known from the desert fathers. While the latter did not involve marrow-chewing for example, they did involve rumination, and what church fathers described as getting the mind into the heart, and of course Christian communion of the body and blood of Christ. There is a going out of thought and vision in the poetry into the landscape, yet it has a predominantly embodied aspect as well as an ecstatic one, hence the sense of grounding At the end, we are told that unlike the frail man who fears loudness, the constant man sings with a heart on May day. This may not be the quietude of meditative prayer. But it does invoke an embodied singing or chanting in the horizon of the natural order, a mindfulness, so to speak, appropriate for a season of rebirth and resurrection. A flock of birds settles on land where a woman walks, with noise in every green field through which a swift bright rivulet flows. The harmonies of Creation flow here for different senses, a reminder perhaps that harmony as well as word is a translation for logos, and that Christian commentators like Gregory of Nyssa referred to Creation as a symphony. The walking woman might well evoke also thoughts of the Mother of God, and the noise of the rivulet of living waters of baptism amid green pastures. Yet it is all reminiscent, too, oddly of the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in which humans and animals move together in a natural order rooted in spiritual mystery. I can’t resist mentioning here, by the way, that although Chaucer’s models are usually cited as continental, he was attached as a young man to the earl of Ulster, and some have seen echoes of Irish poetry too in his iambic pentameter, and speculated that he may have visited Ireland, so that personally forgive me but I like to think of him as a potential partial Anglo-Irish poet as well. But getting back to the definitely Irish poem at hand, its practice of what I have called landscape-grounding involves getting the mind into the heart in a connectivity with landscape. This reminds a bit not only of Chaucer’s frame but of the modern cure for seasickness—looking to the horizon, a grounding in focus in the natural world, here through lyric.

Professor Murphy’s poem 53 is short. It appeared as a gloss about the sea, a note to a poem attributed to the Christian saint Columcille. Here the sea is described in the otherworldly side of the year, of darkness into winter. Perhaps this parallels Adomnan’s Life of Columba in which the Latin word desertum is used for the sea, a reminder also of the otherworldliness associated with landscape by the desert fathers of the East, a tradition translated to the islands by the texts of Cassian and others, where the sea became the desert. This otherworldly yet natural landscape may remind us of the otherworldliness of the sea in the voyage of Bran. Like the desert, it can be terrible and also a rich place of spiritual growth in the apophatic darkness of the waning year. Yet in this poem any otherworldliness is definitely quite incarnational in specific ways. This latter point or paradox will carry me into the last section of my paper, on Christian ecopoetics.

Here I’ll try to suggest further how the ecosemiotic model of Timo Maran, in the secular twenty-first-century context of environmental humanities, overlaps in some ways with what has been called the pansemiotic view of Creation as a symbolic network in first-millennial Christian literature culture, which helped shape these poems. Perhaps most articulate and exemplary of this are writings of Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century in Greek, but mainly written in Rome, which not coincidentally greatly influenced the Hiberno-Latin philosopher John Scottus Eriugena in the ninth century. I have elsewhere called Eriugena in a sense the theorist of what has been called often romantically the Celtic Otherworld, in the sense of a view of nature as both that which is and that which is not, a kind of overlay landscape of mysterious symbolic meaning with embodied physical experience. This reflects Maximus’ earlier writings, which sought in part to offer a kind of early summa of Chrisian philosophy of nature.  Maximus significantly was a great retrospective apologist for the Fifth Ecumenical Council, which was called at Constantinople in the sixth century under the Emperor Justinian. That Council famously condemned what it characterized as the disembodied abstractions of Origenism and upheld an incarnationalist view of Christian teaching that emphasized Theopaschism, or the birth and suffering and death and resurrection of an embodied God. A later Byzantine hymn would describe Christ on the Cross as the “hidden God,” Whom the Wise Thief recognized, although a bloodied tortured human being. That phrase the “hidden God” can also be a useful one I think in thinking about early Irish poetry that claims to bridge pagan and Christian worlds with a focus on the natural world and in the case of these poems with a dearth of direct religious references.

Interestingly, it is also during the time of Justinian that reconquests of territory in the West and an expansionist culture of the Christian Roman Empire that came to be known as Byzantium, left archaeological evidence suggests some trade with the Eastern Mediterranean in the Irish Sea zone. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the sixth century was also a time of some communication between Eastern desert monasticism and the establishment of early Irish monasticism and what became its literary culture.

To the aftermath of that era, Maximus brought a sense of the textuality of the natural world. He did so through his writings, particularly in his Ambigua, about what he called the logoi of the Logos, most often translated in English as the words of the Word. Of course the range of meaning of the word logos is tremendous, and that phrase can mean also the harmonies of the Harmony, the reasons of the Reason, the stories of the Story, and so forth in English. Yet for Maximos the Greek phrase indicated how the Logos, Christ, spake or sung into being the Creation that God sustains and grows by His Providence. In this Maximos indicates the logoi to be expressions of the energies or grace of God, which in Greek tradition are articulated as uncreated divine energies or grace. They in a sense both shape and sustain, as well as redeem Creation, in a kind of living, embodied, and immersive textuality based in God the Word. This pansemiotic sense of Creation as textuality again could be described, drawing on the Byzantine phrase already mentioned, as a poetic tradition of the hidden God in nature.

Such immersive, incarnational yet transcendent textuality of nature, highlights some issues of emerging yet conjoined genres of literature in the first millennium of the Christian era and beyond. There is in that incarnational yet transcendent sensibility, I would argue, an unexpected parallel between elements of this early lyric nature and vision poetry and the development of the novel. There is a shaping of a world within this poetry, related to Timo Maran’s nature-text model. The encounter of the persona of the poet in the poem with the persona of the reader establishes a sense of dialogue as landscape that reflects not only the secular nature-text but also arguably four elements of Christian ecopoetic literary tradition. The latter is related also to the development of the novel, emerging in Byzantine Greek contexts, but paralleled in elements in other forms in the West such as the Acallam na Senorach and even the Ulster Cycle and Icelandic sagas, all of which like the Byzantine novels emerged from a re-imagination of dialogue between pagan landscape and Christian literacy. Ecosemioticians like the term ecotone to describe boundary areas in landscape that are especially ecologically rich because of the boundaries between types of life and related human cultures they engender. The Baltic region itself could be considered such a boundary region. But so too the archipelagic region around the Irish Sea, with a literary culture occupied also with the boundary of pagan and Christan landscapes.

There are four elements in Christian ecopoetics that lent themselves to the development of novelistic forms, but which find parallels in elements also of this early poetry of nature and vision. These include an overlay landscape, about which we have already spoken, the shaping of an imaginary world still related to physical landscape and actual geography. Then also there is a sense of relational identity, such as that between authorial voice and readerly experience in such a nature-text, and the human and the non-human. Then there is also a sense of transfigurational virtue, virtue that is identified with otherworldly grace, with the logoi of the Logos, and which in the poems at hand could said to be implicit in a kind of humble and mindful experience of Creation. Finally, a fourth element of this tradition, that of the cosmic symbolism of marriage, is least apparent in this poetry, but could be echoed biologically in the belling of the stags in the poems, in the reference to the migratory cycle of the barnacle geese, and spiritually in the mention of the Virgin Mary who is described in Christian tradition both as the Mother of God and the Bride of God, as well as perhaps archetypally in the lady walking among a set of flocking birds. In Christian scripture there is an association of the Church as the Bride of God with the wings of a great eagle, given to her that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, given the identification also of the Mother of God with the earth, and parallels in early Irish tradition between figures of the goddess of sovereignty and the Christian Mother of God. Symbolically, the relation of male and female in Christian ecopoetics involved a sense of the reciprocal coming together of worlds, as well as the intimate relation of the divine and the human. Those early religious frameworks find parallels in Timo Maran’s model of the nature-text, in which the worlds of the text and the environment come together, as well as those of the reader and the author, and both with natural landscape. These shape the type of experience of a landscape in a text that became later familiar on a larger scale in the novel. Such elements of Christian ecopoetics, however assembled in different genre forms, relate to an extent to an underlying premise of ecosemiotics, namely the close intertwinement between language and the physical world, at least in certain types of texts, and the role of that intertwinement in shaping human identity in the environment, as a landscape text or assemblage of cultural landscape.

But there is, in the original contexts of these poems, a reflection also I think of the apophatic and cataphatic sides of theology referenced in the works attributed to St Dionysius the Areopagite, an influence on the writings of both Maximus the Confessor and Eriugena. The Dionysian writer indicated a cataphatic sense, of being able to find signs of God in Creation, the pansemiotic incarnational words of the Word so to speak. Yet he also most famously wrote of the apophatic mystery of the essence of God, the hidden God of nature, Whose Essence is beyond explanation, even as His uncreated energies expressed in His logoi can be experienced and even participated with in theosis. There is a conjunction there of the hidden in the incarnational, which I think carries us as readers across the centuries into the miraculous impression of natural detail and presence in this nature poetry.


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