We have been reminded this week how our modern English fails to map onto the language of the poet of The Panther, as we try to make sense of a creature that defies our modern English dictionary definitions and mental images of ‘a panther’. For the poet, the visual image of the (a very specific kind of) panther is key: it’s an imagined creature that lives in and is the realm of wonder. As such, it spells its being out visually, as in l. 19a-20b (with two versions of translation shown):
19 ðæt is wrætlic deor, wundrum scyne
That is a striking animal, with stunning colours
He is a marvellous beast, wondrously brilliant
20 hiwa gehwylces;
Of every shade;
In every hue,
We wonder how this colour-creature translates into modern English. Does colour hit the right tone, or should we rather speak of hues or shades, as our two translators have done? ‘Hue’, being phonetically closest to ‘hiw’, has an interesting etymology, as the following two OED entries (dating back to 971) reveal:
1. Form, shape, figure; appearance, aspect; species. Obs.
2. Colour. Down to the 16th c. app. exactly synonymous with ‘colour’; but it appears to have become archaic in prose use about 1600, for it is included by Bullokar, Cockeram, etc., in their collections of ‘Hard Words’, and explained as = ‘colour’. In modern use it is either a poetic and rhetorical synonym of ‘colour’, or a vaguer term, including quality, shade or tinge of colour, tint, and applicable to any mixture of colours as well as to a primary or simple colour.
The first entry’s meaning is ambiguous. ‘Form’, ‘figure’ and ‘species’, for example, mean both the outer contours or outer type of somebody or something, as well as a representation, an embodiment, of something else. (Incidentally, the latter meaning has in most cases become obsolete just as the 1st entry above.) The Bosthworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary points to a similar tension when listing, besides ‘colour’, both ‘appearance’ and ‘symbol’ under ‘hiw’. May the panther thus be a literal ‘image’ of this paradox that is inherent in ‘hiw’ / ‘hue’? If so, as well as being classifiable and knowable as the species ‘panther’, the poetic panther here then is imagined through both its colours (as per 2nd entry) and its ‘marvellous’, unknowable qualities, being through its appearance, very much in the spirit of neo-Platonism. Thus the panther may be showing its true colours, quite literally.
The panther’s colours and hues are then compared with the iconic, biblical colours of Joseph’s coat, rich in colour and hue:
21 […] Iosephes / tunece wære telga gehwylces/ bleom bregdende,
[…] Joseph’s / Tunic [that] was woven with/ Every colour,
The description of the panther that follows these lines is an exercise in creating a superlative for the panther that exceeds all previous superlatives, even Joseph’s blessed coat. The panther is ‘blæc brigda gehwæs, beorhtra ond scynra’, ‘Shining brighter and more beautiful in every variety’, and ‘wundrum lixeð’, ‘Gleams with wonders’. Being asked to visualise the – or, a – panther that actively ‘gleams with wonders’, we are not being invited to know the nature of the species ‘panther’. What is clear, however, is how intensely this poem rejoices in translating the unknown, or unknowable, into the realm of the known, or knowable, through words and images, even at the expense of creating a clearly outlined form.
Jenny Baer – OETG