Versification: an interdisciplinary journal of literary prosody
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27 May 1997, Vol. 1, No. 1

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. Hieatt—that 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 inconclusiveness—and 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 poetry—somewhat 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 do.

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 view—and 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 musica—or 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 verse—that 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 thing—more 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 similar—at least in some ways—to 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 Results—A 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 impossible.

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 Layamon's Anglo-Saxonism."

"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.