The Medieval Review 11.03.16

Tiffany Beechy. The Poetics of Old English. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010. Pp. 142. $89.95 ISBN 9780854669173. .

Reviewed by:

Leslie Lockett
The Ohio State University

In the introduction to this brief monograph, Beechy makes the provocative claim that the Anglo-Saxons did not recognize Old English prose as a category distinct from Old English poetry. According to Beechy, there survives no metadiscourse that names prose as a type of Old English text, even though Anglo-Saxon authors do explicitly refer to Old English poetry, as well as to Latin prose and poetry. Furthermore, building upon the work of Paul Kiparsky and Kristen Hanson (linguists who have recently collaborated on studies of poetics), Beechy claims that unlike present-day Anglo-American culture, which regards prose as the default or "unmarked" literary language and poetry as "marked" by special patterning, the Anglo-Saxons had more in common with primary-oral cultures in that their unmarked literary language was poetry; Anglo-Saxon authors accordingly did not privilege clarity or transparency or referentiality to an extent that demanded the cultivation of a separate prose marked by a lack of poetic patterning. Consequently, Beechy maintains, there was no Old English prose, but rather all Old English literary language was "poetic" in the sense that its primary function was to create meaning through formal patterning rather than through referentiality. This bold hypothesis represents an intriguing contribution to the ongoing conversation about the significance of regular metrical patterning in texts that cannot be classified as classical Old English verse--a conversation that has recently been advanced in Thomas A. Bredehoft's monographs Early English Metre (2005) and Authors, Audiences, and Old English Verse (2009).

The starting-point for Beechy's argument is the Old English Boethius, which survives in (what scholars have classified as) an all-prose version and a prosimetrical version. The preface that circulates with the all-prose version puzzlingly states that King Alfred translated Boethius's Consolatio philosophiae "from Latin into English speech [spelle]...and then worked it into verse [leoðe]" (33). Beechy argues that, for the Anglo-Saxons, both the all-prose version and the prosimetrum were actually "poetic" texts, a claim that she defends by examining uses of leoð elsewhere in the Old English corpus and also by invoking Walter Ong's theory that the non-literate and semi-literate reasoned according to a fundamentally different epistemology than that used by the literate: hence, Beechy explains, Alfred--who is here suggested to have been "operating from a position of residual or partial orality"--occasionally rejects Boethius's linear and abstract reasoning and replaces it with experiential reasoning like that of "the semi-literate Siberian" to whom we have been introduced in an anecdote borrowed from Ong (28).

After the opening chapter on the Old English Boethius, which applies a complicated theoretical apparatus to a rather circumscribed sample of Old English text, the book turns toward a series of minutely detailed formal analyses. In chapter 2, Beechy applies three different systems of scansion to brief excerpts from several Old English homilies: each passage is laid out on the page in such a way that the scansion of each line is marked according to Bredehoft's system and Hanson and Kiparsky's and Michael Getty's all at once. The end result of this elaborate display is Beechy's confirmation that these homilies exhibit something approximating classical Old English poetic meter (as quite a few scholars, notably Bredehoft and Andy Orchard, have already explored in detail). The rest of this chapter is devoted to a case study of a single Old English homily that exists in multiple versions, including Blickling 9 and Vercelli 10. Few other scholars have treated the formal intricacies of homiletic texts with the depth of attention that Beechy devotes to the stylistic devices that operate in this homily, including meter that fits Bredehoft's criteria for late Old English verse, extremely dense alliteration, ring composition, chiasmus, parallel structure, etymological wordplay, doublets, litotes, and elegiac diction. The chapter concludes, quite reasonably, that readers of Old English homilies are missing out on the poetic sophistication of Old English homilies if we focus on content at the expense of style. It is, however, difficult to reconcile this chapter with Beechy's insistence, in the introduction and first chapter, that poeticism is not restricted to language that obviously adheres to commonly acknowledged metrical and formal criteria. Here she seems to argue the opposite: that an ostensibly prose text is poetic if it exhibits some of the metrical and formal features ordinarily associated with poetry.

The third chapter proceeds in a similar fashion to challenge the commonly accepted boundary between prose and verse, based on both sets of criteria (i.e., formal patterning and the degree to which the language of the text is meant to be transparently referential). Beechy illustrates the syntactic parallelism, alliteration, and assonance exhibited in some sections of the Anglo-Saxon law codes; through a Jakobsonian lens, these stylistic features constitute poetic structure, which "exerts binding force, generating authority for the statutes it asserts" (77). The poetic quality of the law codes is further reinforced by occasional instances of evocative, "riddlic" language, which "are not ornamental flourishes but rather further the discursive projects of their texts and genre" (85). The sporadically "riddlic" character of Old English law codes is most fully expressed in Old English charms and the riddles of the Exeter Book, which do not bear solution-titles. The ostensibly nonsensical lines of the charms are deeply meaningful by virtue of their sound-effects and their utter lack of concrete referentiality; the most insoluble of the riddles resist referentiality in order to function purely as "language at play" (92). This is the epitome of poeticism as Beechy has defined it.

Beechy's fourth chapter troubles the overall trajectory of her argument by focusing on verse texts that exhibit an unusually high concentration of stylistic embellishments. Interestingly, she juxtaposes several disparate texts under the rubric of "praise structure in Old English": Christ I, lines 104-8; the æcerbot ("field-remedy") charm; and the Nine Herbs Charm preserved in the medical text Lacnunga. Beechy calls attention to accumulations of sonic effects and structural parallels far denser than those required in classical Old English verse, and she hypothesizes that these hyper-poetic lines "may be examples of a once-productive mode of praise perhaps typically directed toward natural objects" (114). The poem Deor is also singled out for its complex syntactic parallels and internal echoes, which "creat[e] the sense of the rings within rings we see in Insular interlace" (121). The relevance of this material with respect to the argument Beechy initiates in earlier chapters is unclear: she writes rather vaguely that "the prose texts [are] enriched for us by a recognition of Old English poetics" (99), but nothing in this chapter directly pertains to the problem of the prose-verse boundary.

In her concluding remarks, Beechy does not forcefully uphold the bolder version of her argument, namely that the Anglo-Saxons themselves did not recognize a distinction between prose and verse; she instead maintains the much more circumspect claim "that reading Old English texts with an eye for form illuminates the texts... allowing previously unrecognized levels of suggestion, coherence, and play to reveal themselves" (127). This milder claim is amply sustained by the evidence that she musters over the course of the book. In fact, I think that Beechy's textual analyses also support two slightly stronger claims: that much (though perhaps not all) Old English prose is "poetic" in the Jakobsonian sense, in that it does not depend utterly on external referentiality for its meaning; and that Old English prose is "poetic" in the Hanson-Kiparsky sense, in that the Anglo-Saxons did not regard any register of their literary language as exempt from (nor required to suppress) the sort of formal patterning that produces an "aesthetic effect."

With that said, I nonetheless find Beechy's invocation of the concept of "patterning" in association with Hanson and Kiparsky's poetics to be unsatisfactory. For example, she sees "pattern" in a mere pair of lines of Old English verse that exhibit "a preponderance of high and mid vowels (/i/, /y/, /u/, and /e/)" (101), where I see only a couple of lines that happen not to include /o/ and /a/; there must be hundreds of such lines in the poetic corpus. In numerous instances, her observations of this sort are based upon very small samples of Old English text, so I am left unconvinced that the effects in question were perceived as meaningful patterns by Anglo-Saxon authors or audiences. On the other hand, she defines prose as literary language that "suppresses" or "bans" formal patterning. This seems particularly inappropriate with reference to Old English, in which the most prosaic language typically orders subject, object, and verb in predictable patterns and introduces new clauses paratactically, often repeating the same conjunctions and adverbs again and again (ond þa ...ond þa...). In contrast, it is Old English poetry, not prose, that thrives on hyperbaton, i.e., the intentional and artistic disruption of the pattern of prose syntax.

As for the stronger version of Beechy's claim: to argue that the Anglo-Saxons did not conceive of any meaningful difference between prose and poetry in Old English is to wage a brave, uphill battle against common sense. The firmest point in favor of her claim is the absence of a metadiscourse applying the terms prose and poetry to Old English. However, as she acknowledges, such a metadiscourse certainly exists in Old English, where Ælfric applies it to a discussion of Latin prose and poetry. The notion that Old English prose and verse were two different species of literary language is implied by the very existence of an all-prose version and a prosimetrical version of the Old English Boethius: the Old English versifier regarded the prose translations of Boethius's metra as non-poetic, or at least as having been written in a language that was not poetic in the same way that the Latin metra themselves are poetic (which, from the Old English versifier's perspective, probably had very little to do with Jakobson's definition of poeticism and a great deal to do with formal features).

The stronger version of Beechy's claim, though I regard it as ultimately untenable, is nonetheless a useful and stimulating contribution to current discussions of Old English aesthetics and the relationship between classical Old English verse and other classes of literary language in the vernacular, whatever we might wish to call them. Because Beechy's initial argument is progressively less relevant to each successive chapter of the book, I wonder whether her intellectual purposes might have been better served by presenting her material in another format. In fact, three of the four chapters of this book have already been published (or are forthcoming) as stand-alone essays, which makes it all the more puzzling that she should have put the four chapters together in this monograph, in such a way that a considerable proportion of the material covered does not actually pertain to her central argument. A general lack of commitment to the coherence of the project also comes across in the unevenness of Beechy's bibliography. In numerous instances, she quotes Old English texts directly from The Dictionary of Old English Corpus rather than from critical editions; she makes reference to authors of secondary sources that are not specified in the bibliography, and occasionally she provides insufficient documentation of her primary and secondary sources, such that they cannot be followed up in the bibliography. Her chapter on the Old English Boethius relies on the obsolete edition by Sedgefield, and while the new edition by Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine may have appeared too late for Beechy to take account of it, this does not explain why her bibliography includes none of Godden's numerous earlier essays on the Old English Boethius. As a whole, the book does not live up to the promise of its stimulating first pages because care was not taken to turn this series of stand-alone essays into a cohesive and thoroughly researched monograph.