21 October 2011

In praise of good design and fine workmanship

The Beowulf poet cannot seem to mention a tool of a warrior's trade without giving a physical description of it, sometimes the name of its creator or original owner, and its fine protective or offensive qualities.

He sometimes does this for swords (in lines 1694-1698)
Engraved in the gold of the glowing hilt,
the uprights of runes, rightly inscribed,
set down and said the sword's first owner,
the man it was made for, that matchless blade
and winding-snake hilt.
Sometimes, helmets (in lines 1446-1451)
The shining helmet that sheltered his head
and would swirl up mire from the mud below,
creating currents, was crusted with treasure
in elaborate bands for long before
a weaponsmith worked, wonderfully lengthened,
and fastened boars as a firm sign
that not blade at all could ever bite.
But, invariably, shirts of mail.
“But if I sink in death, send Hygelac 452
“the wonderful armour worn over my breast,
“the best of hauberks that Hrethel left me,
“Wayland's handwork."
“An aid against foes, my armoured shirt 550
“strong and hand-linked, helped me withstand,
“safeguarding my breast, my braided sark
“adorned with gold"
The modern reader might wonder why so much attention goes to an item of protective clothing, but the listeners apparently never tired of hearing such details. Perhaps we can understand them by describing items of narrow but deep interest to particular groups. For example, passages like this would interest one segment of society.
His vehicle waited,   a V-8 turbo
with twin overhead cams   that came from his father
an avid collector.   The Camaro was painted
in metallic red.   A racing stripe
adorned its length   and leather seats,
factory-fresh,   in front and back.
An over six-thousand   cc engine
carefully tuned   by qualified techs
zoomed in three seconds    from zero to sixty.
If you are aware whether Camaros had 6000 cc V-8 engines, you are a perfect audience for this type of description. Other people would pay attention to
A chinois Chanel   shaped to perfection...
A Mac computer   from Cupertino...
I begin to appreciate why Richard  Wilbur chose alliterative verse to praise objects (and discarded objects at that). That function is common in alliterative verse.

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