An Old English Interlude: The Phoenix’s Garden as Heaven and Earth

LHM writes: Having recently attended the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, MI, in May, I was really disappointed not to be able to attend one of the few garden-oriented sessions on the programme (I was chairing another session at the time!). The Idea of the Garden in Medieval Literature, organised by Shannon Gayk at Indiana University – Bloomington and sponsored by Indiana University’s Medieval Studies Institute, took place on Saturday, May May 13 at 3.30pm in Valley I Shilling Lounge. The HC team is therefore delighted to have received a guest-blog contribution from Evelyn Reynolds on her paper from that session, focusing on the significations of the garden imagery in the Old English poem, The Phoenix. Since the HC project does not cover material before 1100, we are particularly pleased to see the dialogue about medieval literary uses of gardens opened up for us in this way.

An Old English Interlude: The Phoenix’s Garden as Heaven and Earth

by Evelyn Reynolds

Despite the importance of medieval gardens as a way to think through basic binaries – binaries such as human/non-human, order/disorder, creativity/decay, life/death, permanent/transient – critics tend to ignore Old English portrayals of heaven as a garden. Scholars from Johan Huizinga to Barbara Newman have disparaged medieval heavens in general as static, totalizing, affectless, and alien. Regarding Old English particularly, Graham D. Caie calls Judgment Day II’s heaven “bland,” since the “perfect state… cannot be visualized” – though Judgment Day II, a long Old English poem, vividly describes heaven as a city-garden filled with heaps of red roses.[1]

Figure 1. Exeter Book: The opening pages of the Old English poem The Phoenix.

Another long Old English poem, The Phoenix, begins and ends with a garden. Against critics who claim that heaven cannot be represented, The Phoenix gives its audience an experience of heaven precisely by “extrapolat[ing] from earthly pleasures” – specifically, from the pleasures of the garden[1] Why? The Phoenix pictures heaven as a garden to suspend its audience in formal play. In this depiction of a garden, formal play holds the audience still in heaven, in eternity, during their present, transient scene of reading. As a result, The Phoenix’s garden makes claims about the relationship between eternal/transient, visible/invisible, now/future. Heaven and earth are not binary. Heaven’s joy is both apophatic and cataphatic; it is, in fact, inherent in earth, especially in the garden.

At the poem’s outset, its garden is simultaneously an earthly place, a Scriptural place, and a spiritual place. The poem folds time, so that present, past, and future coexist:

Hæbbe ic gefrugnen    þætte is feor heonan
east-dælum on    æþelast londa,
firum gefræge.    Nis se foldan sceat
ofer middan-geard    mongum gefere
folc-agendra,    ac he afyrred is
þurh meotudes meaht    man-fremmendum.
Wlitig is se wong eall,    wynnum geblissad
mid þam fægrestum    foldan stencum.
Ænlic is þæt ig-lond,    æþele se wyrhta,
modig, meahtum spedig,    se þa moldan gesette.
Ðær bið oft open    eadgum togeanes,
onhliden hleoþra wyn,    heofon-rices duru.
Þæt is wynsum wong,    wealdas grene,
rume under roderum. (1-14, emphasis mine)[2]

[I have heard that the noblest of lands, well-known to people, is far from here in the  eastern region. That region of the earth is not accessible to many of peoples’ rulers over      middle-earth, but it is far from sinning [ones] through the maker’s power. All that plain  is beautiful, gladdened with joys with earth’s fairest smells. That isolated land is unique, [its] maker noble, bold, abundant in power, he who established the earth. There a door of heaven’s kingdom is often open toward the blessed, revealing the joy of singing. That is a joyful plain, its forests green, spacious under the skies.]

In the present, on earth, this garden is “east-dælum” [in the eastern region], located in a particular quarter of the actual world. At the same time, this association with the east carries Scriptural or mythological weight, since the east was the Biblical location of Eden. Like Eden, this garden is inaccessible. Finally, this garden is a spiritual place, unique, where “heofon-rices duru” [a door of heaven’s kingdom] opens. The garden, therefore, folds times within its physical place: it is present and earthly, “firum gefræge” [well-known to people]; it is past and mythical, separate from normal experience; it is future, intersecting directly with eternity.

In addition to folding times, this opening passage uses concrete imagery for this garden – it has good scents, the sound of singing, and green forests. It can be smelled, heard, seen, and touched. Against Janie B. Steen’s argument, The Phoenix’s bliss is not “unimaginable”; rather, its heaven exists in a folded time that can be experienced by the audience’s imagination now.[3]

Anaphora characterizes the rest of The Phoenix’s description of the garden, from line 14 to the scene’s end at line 80. This anaphora, like the poem’s folded time, baffles critics, since the poem chooses a negative word – “ne” [not] – to repeat. Steen – in the same critical strain as Newman, Spearing, and Caie – reads this formal element of the poem’s garden as an instance of the Latin “inexpressibility topos,” in which “‘negative’ anaphora… enumerates absent pains in order to suggest unimaginable bliss.”[4]

Figure 2. The phoenix in its garden (from Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 764, Folio 70v).

The “ne… ac” [not… but] anaphora does not oppose heaven and earth as wholes, though. More precisely, it opposes aspects of the earthly condition to other aspects of the earthly condition in order to describe this earth/heaven place. Each section of repeated “ne” [not] invites imagination by representing concrete forces of transience – violence, winter. The audience can picture fire and rain, can imagine how sickness and rot cause pain. Yet the fact that The Phoenix uses “ne” [not] as the repetition word, as the marker of anaphora, erases these images before they appear in the reader’s mind. “[N]e” [not] precedes each absent object, as in the opening two lines: “Ne mæg þær ren ne snaw, / ne forstes fnæst    ne fyres blæst” [Nor may rain nor snow, nor frost’s blowing nor fire’s blast] (14-15). The poem seems to invite the reader to imagine the forces of change – rain, snow, frost, and fire – but syntax actually crosses out each of those images before the mind can picture them. Because “ne” [not] comes first, the audience encounters these forces of loss as themselves lost.

So, in this garden, transience itself is transient, gone before it even exists. With the repetition of “ne” [not], The Phoenix holds its reader still. These passages create the illusion of absorption in earth’s transient landscape – harsh weather, severe cliffs, dying bodies, rotting fruit – while syntax breaks that absorption. As a result, the poem implies that what is absent from this earth/heaven place is not earthly pleasures but whatever causes death. The garden is also the place of eternity.

At its conclusion, The Phoenix describes the New Jerusalem. Here, the forms of the garden reappear specifically embedded in eternity. This metonymy lets the poem echo its beginning and its end. Thus, repeated forms – imagery and anaphora – sustain the poem’s claims about earth and heaven’s mutuality, and about the ability of language to communicate heaven.

In lines 579 to 610, the poem incorporates imagery from the garden: fruitfulness and brilliance. First, “wæstmum geniwad,” translated “renewed in forms,” could also mean “renewed in fruits” (580). It is the same word as in the garden, where “[s]indon þa bearwas… / wlitigum wæstmum” [the woods are hung… with beautiful produce] (71-72), and where “[w]æstmas ne dreosað” [fruits do not decay] (34). Heaven is a place “in ead-welum    æþelum stencum” [in prosperity and noble fragrances] (586), as the garden is perfumed “mid þam fægrestum    foldan stencum” [with earth’s fairest smells] (8). Not only is heaven an earthly landscape, but in heaven humans become fruitfully incorporated into that landscape. As flowers unfalling and fruit undecaying weigh garden branches (71-80), so crowns tower above the blessed (603-604). As the garden trees are “gehladene” [laden] (76), so the heads of the blessed are covered with glory (604-605). For thirteen lines the poem rests on this imagery of an abiding crown that, like fruits, “æfre ne sweþrað” [never fades] (608).

Second, The Phoenix depicts heaven as brilliant. Christ embodies the sun, and people reflect that light: “þær seo soþfæste    sunne lihteð / wlitig ofer weoredum    in wuldres byrig. / Ðonne soðfæstum    sawlum scineð / heah ofer hrofas    hælende Crist” [where the true sun shines beautifully over the hosts in the city of glory. Then Christ the savior high over roofs shines on true souls] (587-590). Just as light fills the phoenix’s garden (33-34), so the resurrected shine in Christ’s presence “sunnan gelice” [like the sun] (601). Imagery of fruit and light calls back to the prologue; the prologue now calls forward to the New Jerusalem so that, again, heaven lives in the earthly garden, and the garden lives in heaven.

As well as imagery, the poem relies on anaphora during its description of heaven:

… þær se longa gefea,
ece ond edgeong,    æfre ne sweþrað,
ac hy in wlite wuniað    wuldre bitolden,
fægrum frætwum,    mid fæder engla.
Ne bið him on þam wicum    wiht to sorge,
wroht ne weþel    ne gewin-dagas,
hungor se hata    ne se hearda þurst,
yrmþu ne yldo.    Him se æþela cyning
forgifeð goda gehwylc.   (607-615, emphasis mine)

[… where enduring joy, eternal and ever new, [will] never end, but they [will] live in         beauty, covered with glory, clothed with ornaments, with the father of angels. Nor will            [there] be in that place anything to [make] them sad, [neither] fault nor poverty nor struggle-days,    [nor] the hot hunger nor the hard thirst, [neither] disease nor ageing. The     noble king [will] give them each of goods.]

Like the poem’s opening, this conclusion negates transience, not earth’s goods. Negation eats away sorrow, poverty, struggles, hunger, thirst, disease, and ageing, parts of earthly life that eat away humans. What hollows human lives turns into hollows within the text’s structure.

With its gardens, The Phoenix contradicts Johan Huizinga’s foundational claim that medieval literature argues for the “evil of everything material” until “[u]ltimately, there is nothing left but pure negation.”[1] In The Phoenix, the garden as fruitful permanence sets eternity in the mortal context. Thanks to folded time, negative anaphora, and imagery, this poem renders in form the tension between earth’s present, transient situation and its simultaneously present, eternal material. The poem claims that the garden is a foretaste of heaven, and that heaven encompasses physical characteristics of mortal life.


[1] Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago, 1996), 254, 258.

[1] Barbara Newman, “The Artifice of Eternity: Speaking of Heaven in Three Medieval Poems,” Religion & Literature 37.1 (Spring 2005): 1-2.

[2]For text of The Phoenix, see The Phoenix in Old English Shorter Poems, vol. 1: Religious and Didactic, ed. and trans. Christopher A. Jones (Cambridge, MA, 2012), 18-63. Translations are mine.

[3] Janie B. Steen, Verse and Virtuosity: The Adaptation of Latin Rhetoric in Old English Poetry (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 43-44.

[4] Steen, Verse and Virtuosity, 43-44.

[1] Graham D. Caie, The Old English Poem ‘Judgment Day II’ (Cambridge, U.K., 2000), 79.


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