How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! the stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street.
(Lamentations, 4:1, KJV)
One of the uncanny things about reading the English Bible, particularly in the King James Version, is the way few people can ever really read it for the first time. Even if they’ve never picked up the book before, the experience of reading the Bible involves a sort of reverse echo, where stumble across the source of lines we know from other situations. The same is true of Shakespeare, of course, rather like the apocryphal story of a Guards officer overheard in a Victorian theatre bar halfway through Hamlet declaring “Rum play this, by George – the fellow’s put a whole lot of quotations in it!”
These moments are even stranger when we didn’t know the words originated in another work, highlighted by the tea-towel which at least two of my friends possess which lists the phrases we use without realizing we’re “quoting Shakespeare”. This experience can be genuinely “uncanny” at times, presenting us with something which is at one intimate and familiar – even mundane – and suddenly alien and ancient. The first few times I attended a Communion service using the Book of Common Prayer I was faintly knocked off course by the fact that the liturgy seemed to be running through P.D. James’ Greatest Hits before lurching into Beowulf, echoing backwards and forwards across hundreds of years.
The line from Lamentations at the head of this post wasn’t as eerie as the Book of Common Prayer, but it bothered me for a bit, since I couldn’t remember where I had seen it. It was somewhere very familiar, and eventually I tracked it down to an epigraph in Geoffrey Hill’s work, which I must have flicked past hundreds of times, unconsciously registering the words whilst on my way to other poems. Even having worked that out, though, the feeling wouldn’t go away. There was another echo somewhere. Eventually I realized this verbal memory was older that those hours spent in the corner of the college bar with Hill’s Collected Poems…
When the smell of the rainwashed pavement
Comes up clean, and fresh, and cold
And the streetlamp light
Fills the gutter with gold
(‘My Time of Day’ from Guys and Dolls, Frank Loesser.)
In my school, when a musical was cast, there was always a quandary for the teachers: singers or actors? The choirs and the drama group didn’t have so many members in common that they could cast whilst being confident that any given person could deliver a line decently and also carry the tune when necessary. So when I ended up as Sky Masterson (surely due to my bold and radical work as “unnamed character A” in a Beckett short and Tiresias in Oedipus Tyrannos, during which I had remembered all the words and that) it was gently conveyed to me that I had better learn that part note by note and not screw it up. ‘My Time of Day’ is probably the trickiest song for a non-singer in that show, so I went through it time after time after time, and the words must be etched into some part of my brain which the line in Lamentations blew the dust off.
It’s not a bad parallel, in fact, whether or not the Biblical text influenced Loesser in any way. Both are about deserted streets which hold a powerful sense of absence, about the enchantment and disenchantment which can happen in the flicker of light on a stone. The gold and precious stones which were wasted and debased in Lamentations seem for a moment to be still lying around the gutter for Sky to find. And both recall a terse half-line in Beowulf, during the hero’s funeral, where the poet comments on how the heaped treasure brought to the barrow is “gold on greote” – “riches in the dirt” and as useless to men as it always was. Coming near the end of a poem which intermittently glories in the Anglo-Saxon values of clan loyalty and hunger for gold, it’s a line which marks the transformations gold has undergone through the telling of Beowulf’s story.
The symbol of power and renown, the medium through which esteem can be distributed amongst a leader’s followers, has become a dirty mess which will be consigned to oblivion with the hero’s body (most likely until it comes back into human society via grave-robbing, to cause more violence.) The horror at debasement is here as well as the longing and sense of melancholy, if – as some people read the poem – the version of Beowulf we have is a passionate lament by a Christian poet for the Scandinavian world and its mythologies which have been irrevocably changed by God’s revelations. The image of gold shining on the ground ricochets between these texts, opening them up to each other, and letting us wonder how these echoes might affect our reading.