Frank Grady, “Looking Awry at Saint Erkenwald” (Exemplaria 23 [Summer 2011]: 105-25]


Saint Erkenwald has always been a text that invites historicist readings. Starting with its first modern edition, critics have sought to establish its occasion, the cultural and political circumstances of its production, and its place in the medieval theological controversies that are presumed to inform its miraculous narrative. These efforts mirror, after a fashion, the work of the poem itself: Erkenwald begins with the historicizing prologue common in the alliterative corpus (though its initial foray is into ecclesiastical rather than political history), carefully establishes the historical setting of its own narrative in seventh-century London, and devotes much of its second half to investigating the history and spiritual status of its amazing discovery, the perfectly preserved and unexpectedly animate corpse of a pagan inhabitant of pre-Christian Britain.


In what follows I want to refuse the poem’s invitation and look at St Erkenwald from a different perspective than I have in my own previous work on the poem, taking a broadly psychoanalytic view of the poem’s quirkier and (as I will argue) more symptomatic moments and exploring the ways in which the series of questions that structure the poem corresponds imperfectly with the series of answers that it supplies. In fact, the narrative of Erkenwald produces two different kinds of questions. One set is prompted by the discovery of the body — how did it get here, who is it, why is it so perfectly preserved, what ought we to do about it? — while the other is provoked by the first set: why are we finding it so difficult to answer these questions? The first set addresses the poem’s mystery, while the second will turn out to have more to do with the relations produced or implied by such mysteries. Exploring the libidinal investments at stake within Erkenwald will help us to better understand not only the poem’s dynamics, but its place in our own critical discourse. Bracketing for the moment the bedeviling questions about the poem’s oblique relationship to hagiography that have often (and productively) occupied the criticism, I will engage the poem on the formal level with the goal of measuring the poem’s resistance not to a set of generic expectations, but to the acknowledged and unacknowledged repetitions that organize its own explicit narrative. Erkenwald is a poem full of doublings, and a certain kind of analysis reveals this pattern to be structural. It is structured by an inevitable mobilization of desire, an urgent and unsettling response of the unconscious to a putatively new trauma that it both does and does not recognize — a return, in other words, of what has been repressed, along with what has literally been buried.