Seamus Heaney, “The First Gloss”

The First Gloss
Seamus Heaney

Take hold of the shaft of the pen.
Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.


1. The Gloss, in a sense, might as well be the Bible. From Wikipedia:

Glosses and other marginal notes were a primary format used in medieval Biblical theology, and were studied and memorized for their own merit. Many Biblical passages came to be associated with a particular gloss, whose truth was taken to be scriptural. Indeed, in one case, it is generally reckoned that an early gloss explicating the doctrine of the Trinity made its way into the Scriptural text itself, in the passage known as the “three heavenly witnesses” or the Comma Johanneum, which is present in the Vulgate Latin and the third and later editions of the Greek Textus Receptus collated by Erasmus (the first two editions excluded it for lack of manuscript evidence), but is absent from all modern critical reconstructions of the New Testament text, such as Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf, and Nestle-Aland.

The question we’re left with: What urge drove someone to try to comment on – maybe even amend – the Bible? What exactly makes us want to interpret? Are we trying to play God?

2. “Take” and “subscribe,” the central actions of the poem, are imperatives. If we imagine a monk dutifully copying, something is driving or commanding him to say something else (“Take hold of the shaft of the pen”). This isn’t to say revelation is tyrannical. It is to say there may be something rote or mechanical about it at times. Not every moment speaks to us as miraculous.

That’s only the first action, taking hold of the pen itself. The pen as an instrument of writing is still to be discussed:

Subscribe to the first step taken
from a justified line
into the margin.

“Subscribe:” our writer/copyist is still dutiful, but in a strange way. The “scribe” is subordinate to some other power. A first step is taken from the “justified line,” the line everyone else has considered just, the line that has historical value in its literalness. The step has to be into the margin, and one might say that the Gloss has a certain humility. They are marginal notes; the Word of God stays intact, the human assumes its place. I’m not entirely sure of this, despite the fact that many think in explicating their views they stay faithful.

It’s easy to forget, in a free society, that literalness and strict adherence to ritual, reading and tradition defined mankind for at least hundreds if not thousands of years. That entire sects which bound and crossed nations dominated the world based on what a few sentences were thought to mean. The first step taken is a reading, not the reading. Sure, it becomes dogmatic in time. But in its origin, it is an opinion before it is truth. And that’s to speak the full value of opinion and not diminish the truth it has. After all, those same copyists understood that no less than the moral life was at stake in every word. They had to say something about justification, as to take it for granted would be to deny that morality ever had anything to do with humanity.

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