A Review of Prosody and Poetics in the Early Middle Ages: Essays in Honor of C. B Hieatt.Edited and with an introduction by M. J. Toswell
H. T. Kirby-Smith
University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Copyright © H. T. Kirby-Smith 1997
Received: 26 May 1997; Published: 27 May 1997
KEYWORDS: Old and Middle English prosody, Medieval English orthography and phonology, Old English poetic style, computer analysis of of Old English meter, names and alliterative meter, Old English poetic dialect.
REVIEW OF: Prosody and Poetics in the Early Middle Ages: Essays in Honor of C. B. Hieatt. Edited and with an introduction by M. J. Toswell. 1995. University of Toronto Press, Toronto. pp. 223.
ISBN 0-8020-0653-1 (hb)
The title of this collection is a little misleading since all the essays are concerned with
Old and Middle English, except for one that deals with Old Norse poetry. If we accept that
limitation and focus, however, we will find ourselves grateful to all those who made this
Festschrift possible; it includes an array of studies remarkable for their learning and intelligence,
and for the clarity with which they are written. One senses the genuine affection and respect that
the contributors felt towards C. B. Hieattthat they felt obliged to offer their best work for the occasion.
M. J. Toswell's introduction is itself a kind of review of the contents, summarizing the
arguments of the various essays and connecting them with relevant scholarship in the field.
Toswell also attempts to gather the contents of the book under a single rubric: "What all of these
papers have in common is a concern with the style of the poetry." This generalization is not
entirely successful, since Toswell does not seem to have arrived at a clear understanding or
definition of style, rather taking it for granted that we already share some notion of what it
means. The six-page discussion of style, though, is valuable even in its inconclusivenessand in
fact Toswell has at the outset supplied the key to the problem in summarizing an earlier treatment
by T A. Shippey: "However, he says, 'in Old English style is not the man.' The verse is a learnt
technique with almost a separate poetic language . . .".
Post-Renaissance concepts of style are just not very useful in explaining Old English
poetrysomewhat as twentieth-century-American concepts of "voice" are not particularly useful
in discussing Chaucer or Shakespeare. The very word style is derived from the Latin (or French) for
pen, and came into use after the invention of printing as a metaphor of the individual
characteristics of the author. The word's use also reflects a humanistic, possibly Protestant,
concept of the writer's distinctive identity. The variety and complexity of twentieth-century
literature has generated appropriate critical tools or approaches, one of which is stylistics, that
help account for our differing experiences in reading, say, Woolf and Hemingway, Stein and
cummings. Toswell is well aware of the dangers of critical anachronism, though, warning that
"the study of style, like any other study of Old English poetry, requires a careful distinction
between what one wishes to find, and what is there in the material to be found." I would go
further and simply say that style as it is usually understood is not very relevant to Old English
poetry. Let those who have immersed themselves in the poetry report their experience and try to
account for it on its own terms rather than attempting to apply, extrinsically, twentieth-century
literary theory and its accompanying jargon. Happily, that is what the authors in this collection
Thomas Cable performs the remarkable feat of writing for ten pages on the phonology of
the final -e in Middle English poetry in a lively and interesting fashion. His point is simple: that
we cannot use manuscripts from the period as reliable guides to the presence or absence of a
pronounced -e that would have been part of the prosody of poems written during that time. That
is, the manuscripts are not reliable as records of grammatical transformation, and that much of
the time the presence or absence of the -e is as much a function of the habit, or whim, of the
scribe as it is a record of usage: orthography, not phonology. It seems a reasonable point of viewand even better, it is carefully and clearly argued by Cable. He uses as an example a passage
from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from which he has experimentally removed every final -e,
then replacing them according to rules of grammar and usage that might require their presence.
When compared with the original manuscript the correlation is haphazard. The combination of
common sense, erudition, and meticulous argument is inspiring.
One's heart also rises when, at the start of his essay, "The Battle of Maldon and
Beowulfian Prosody," Robert Payson Creed announces that his "goal in the present study is to
make possible a reasonably authentic performance of The Battle of Maldon." How refreshing to
see prosody subordinated to the larger intentions of a poem! He goes on to offer a substitute term
for alliteration as a structural element in the Old English poetic line, preferring "sound-linkage."
It may be too late to change the terminology, but it is always worth insisting on the function of the
pattern as something more dynamic than mere repetition of sounds.
As he pushes his analysis further, however, Creed may have strayed too far into an
elaboration of his own somewhat idiosyncratic methods and terminologies. A plethora of
ingeniously analyzed examples makes one think of St. Augustine's exhaustive working out of all
the possibilities of Latin quantities in De musicaor perhaps a revival of Sieversian pigeon-holing, making spaces this time for a much larger flock of birds. I am disposed to take on faith
that everything Creed says makes sense and supports his conclusion, into which we emerge from
the briar-patch of evidence: "In composing verse that conveys a sense of immediacy, of the
complexity of generalship in the world of the 990s, and even of the very voices of the fighters,
the Maldon poet seems to have been, like the Beowulf poet, a virtuoso of the tradition." It occurs
to me that the looseness or unaccountablity of many lines in the Battle of Maldon may give it
something of the character of alliterative free versethat is, that its author might have stretched
and at times abandoned the convention for expressive purposes.
The insights offered by John Miles Foley in "The Poet's Self-Interruption in Andreas" are
fascinating; the author is clearly at home in the world of contemporary Old English scholarship
and conversant with numerous points of view on subjects that have proved sources of contention.
Foley moves around his subject with grace and urbanity. That is, in some sense, the problem with
this essay: it is too much a perambulating stroll, a sort of scholarly promenade, that does not take
us anywhere in particular. The most valuable thing it accomplishes is, tangentially and almost
subliminally, to argue for good-natured flexibility in understanding the conditions out of which
Old English poetry came into existence. Specifically, we are to abandon doctrinaire positions as
to the degree to which any poem may have been oral or literary, extemporized or composed with
writing implements. The paper takes a rather minor problem, the question of why the poet
interrupts himself in the middle of Andreas to express a sense of his own insufficiency to the
subject, and constructs a kind of scholarly homily around this. Charming in places, it is perhaps
too much of a good thingmore protracted scholarly performance than scholarship.
M. S. Griffith's "Alliterative Licence and the Rhetorical Use of Proper Names in The
Battle of Maldon" is really a group of three short essays that have to do with different functions
and aspects of the numerous proper names that occur in that poem. Most interesting to me is the
first section, in which Griffith demonstrates a strong correlation between the irregularity of
certain lines and the inclusion in those lines of proper names. Arguing against incompetency of
the poet or scribal corruption of the text, Griffith arrives at an interesting conclusion: "In these
verses, the common purpose and shared loyalty of the warriors is actually highlighted by the
technical abnormality, and by the use of a kind of dissonance, of a surprising clash of sound, the
poet focuses our interest onto the names themselves." This seems reasonable, though one might
also say simply that the poet's desire to leave us as authentic an account of the participants in the
battle as possible overrode the requirements of classical alliterative meter. The resulting
abnormalities, together with others, have led to discussions of the poem as if it represented a
decline of a great tradition; neither Griffith nor Creed cares to see it this way. To me, the
handling of the meter seems similarat least in some waysto the loosening of meters in modern
languages that seems to occur each time that a classical standard has become well established. To say this is in no sense to try to contradict or amend Griffith's conclusions, which are based on a depth and thoroughness of learning that preclude such impertinence.
James Keddie ("Simplifying Resolution in Beowulf") confronts the Sievers system of
scansion head-on and offers modifications to it. His aim is to provide a more generalized
definition of the Sievers types so that we can be relieved of the unnecessary clutter of anomalous
subtypes. His tool for achieving this is to allow resolution, or the combining of two unstressed
syllables, to substitute when needed for an actual stress, providing the lift needed at that point in
the verse. Keddie apologizes for the briefness of his treatment; to me, it seems more than
adequate. One thing that does puzzle me, though, in many of these discussions of Old English
metrics, is the inattention to the theories of J. C. Pope. Given the abundant evidence that these
poems were in fact delivered as quasi-musical performances, the notion of temporal
equivalencies surely has some place in understanding the nature of the meter.
Keddie's study must be of much interest to the authors of the next paper, in which O. D.
Macrae-Gibson and J. R. Lishman report on their progress in "Computer Assistance in the
Analysis of Old English Metre: Methods and ResultsA Provisional Report." In their conclusion
they say, "One important possibility, on which we are working, is to improve the categorization
of rhythmic types." It really is not clear at this time how useful statistical analysis, made so easy
with computer programs, will turn out to be when applied to Old English verse. At this point
identification of authorship seems the likeliest application. As devoted as I am to my 133 MHz
Pentium with all its ancillary apparatus, I remain skeptical as to its ability to tell me much about
poetry. The authors of the paper, to do them justice, are modest and tentative in their claims.
"The Case Against a 'General Old English Poetic Dialect'" (David Megginson) is really a
case against the notion that a certain orthographic consistency in Old English poetry confirms
and extends the idea of a specifically poetic dialect. That is, Megginson's paper considers the
effect of Kenneth Sisam's 1953 book, Studies in the History of Old English Literature, on
scholarship in succeeding decades. Not only did Sisam's concept come to be accepted in many
quarters as fact, but led to the assumption that a general poetic dialect must have required a
particular orthography to transcribe it. Megginson handily demolishes this latter accretion but
leaves intact, at least for the time being, the theory of a poetic dialect. For the last several
decades, some scholars have refrained from trying to identify Old English poems with particular
locales (or dialects), assuming that some kind of orthographical consistency made this
Had I never read Douglas Moffet's "The Intonational Basis of Layamon's Verse," I would
never have known that there was such a thing as an intonationist, nor would I have heard of the
Hat Pattern of intonation. The preceding sentence concludes (at least to my newly enriched
understanding) with four intonational Hat Patterns, the first of which is "I would never have known
that there was." To tell the truth, I cannot quite follow the reasoning with which this essay
explains the simultaneous use of alliteration and rhyme found in Brut in terms of Hat Patterns. I
do think that Moffat's study points in a very useful direction, which is to see Old and Middle
English alliterative verse as a regularizing of normal patterns of intonation. Also, scattered
through the essay are many perceptive comments on Brut, of which the concluding sentence is a
good example: "We study Spenser's Medievalism to learn about Elizabethan perceptions of an
older time and primarily to learn about Spenser; we should take the same approach with
"Constraints on Resolution in Beowulf," by Geoffrey Russom, is a highly technical and
detailed analysis of the ways in which two short syllables can "resolve" into a strong, or stressed,
metrical position in Old English poetry. I have no idea how many persons exist who are qualified
to comment on Russom's work, but I suspect there are very few and I know that I am not among
them. One trusts that the ultimate effect of such work will be to improve the metrical
interpretations of problematic lines of poetry.
I pass over without comment the last three essays in the collection, by Brian Shaw, T. A.
Shippey, and Eric Gerald Stanley, not because they do not deserve attention, but because they are
not concerned with prosody. To say this is not to imply either that there was anything improper in
including them in this distinguished volume, Prosody and Poetics in the early Middle Ages, but
only to keep the focus of this review appropriate to the present critical venue. One is left with a
sense of regret at never having made the acquaintance of C. B. Hieatt, and a wistful longing that
one could have been at some point one of her students.