contributor.author: M.J.Toswell

title.none: Jones, Strange Likeness (M.J.Toswell )

identifier.other: baj9928.0803.016 08.03.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: M.J.Toswell , University of Western Ontario, mjtoswel@uwo.ca

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Jones, Chris. Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English on Twentieth Century Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 266. $105 ISBN-13:978-0-19-927832-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.03.16

Jones, Chris. Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English on Twentieth Century Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. x, 266. $105 ISBN-13:978-0-19-927832-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

M.J.Toswell
University of Western Ontario
mjtoswel@uwo.ca

Jones might have considered a more precise title for this book, since its focus is specifically British poetry of the twentieth century in what one might term the modernist tradition, with chapters on Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Edwin Morgan, and Seamus Heaney. Other poets who produce occasional poems referencing OE poetics in theme or style are mentioned, but the focus is on these poets, constructed by Jones as the major figures in what he terms this shadow tradition. What is particularly useful here is that the book pulls together a large array of published scholarship, much of which was produced in a kind of scholarly vacuum, and ably demonstrates that the vacuum has been filled. Jones argues that there is a tradition to be adduced; this monograph offers a very solid analysis pulling together and reworking materials already published about some of the major figures in that tradition. Most importantly, Jones focuses very tightly on these four poets, exploring for each one the exact parameters of the response to auctoritas, the reconfiguring of OE tropes, the imitation or appropriation of OE, the linguistic and poetic ethos behind the use of past tradition in order to continue the evolution of language and literature. The greatest strength of the book, and its focus, is its close reading of these poets and their works. Jones probably does not succeed in his aim of claiming the "nativist other of a Saxonist poetry" as "one of the significant defining axes of allegiance in twentieth-century poetry in English" (242); nonetheless, the game is worth the candle.

The introduction begins by reviewing the most difficult issue: is there any continuity between OE and later poetic traditions, or is the engagement with OE poetry always and only a construct, a taught expertise, a scholar's byway? Jones evades the issue by simply pointing out that several major and influential twentieth-century poets have explicitly been influenced in content and technique by OE literature. Their work, he posits, takes its force from the "strange likeness" of his title, the alterity which is also similitude, the sense of retreating to origins which are unrecognized in order to achieve a kind of conservative radicalism in the poetic ethic, the opportunity to foreground "the otherness that is sited within the subject, not beyond it" (14).

Perhaps the most persuasive chapter of the book is the first one, which argues that for Ezra Pound, OE modes and expressions were a lifelong influence, beginning from his undergraduate years at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Here and elsewhere Jones demonstrates careful archival research, searching out course materials and letters in which Pound expounds his fascination with OE, and even unpublished fragments of poetry imitative of OE. In particular, the influence of Stopford Brooke's History of Early English Literature is considered at some length, as is the vexed question of the "accuracy" of Pound's version of The Seafarer. At times, Jones does miss an OE reference; thus he castigates Pound's "In icy feathers; full oft the eagle screamed" for having "an unnecessary excess of /f/s" (33), but fails to notice that Pound is exactly reflecting his OE source here. Thus, although Jones defends the scholarship of the poet and argues for his knowledge of OE, he does occasionally fall himself into the trap for which he castigates other scholars who claim that Pound follows OE too closely and that on the other hand that his diction is strained, syntax awkward, and the poetic line too heavily interrupted by alliteration. Nonetheless, Jones does here work closely and successfully with the metre of Pound's imitation, and in particular with the way in which Pound's engagement with OE metre becomes part of his "rhythmical signature"(38). The detailed analysis addresses some early poems, Cathay, Canto I and its hybridity, a reference in Canto II to seabirds bathing in a way that recalls The Wanderer, and the continuation of OE tropes, vocabulary techniques, and alliteration through later Cantos. Late in life, Pound linked the OE half-line with two Chinese ideograms, notably in his work on the Fenollosa papers, deducing a link between the kenning and the ideogram as concrete signifiers, part of a poetry of juxtaposition and accretion. Two points of criticism may be relevant: Jones assumes that the reader also knows the OE texts very well, which may not always be a fair assumption; also, when Jones considers a particular passage he always concludes that Pound is recalling an OE trope or technique, when some mediation by other poets might well be at work. For example, lines such as "And the sea with tin flash in the sun- dazzle,/Like dark wine in the shadows" may perhaps shift its plasticity of vocabulary from the Greek epithet to the Anglo-Saxon compound, but that shift seems to me mediated by the metrical and lexical techniques employed by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The second chapter, on W.H. Auden, is more difficult to assess because Auden has received substantial attention from Anglo-Saxonists interested in his use of OE tropes and metre. He reviews the onomastics of Auden and the perception of his name and origin that the poet inherited from his antiquarian father and Auden's own excitement about OE as an undergraduate at Oxford but failure to do well on the relevant Finals papers, before focusing at some length on the early play "Paid on Both Sides," its source in Beowulf, and its elliptical language and syntax. The metre is a kind of blank verse with an "appeal to OE rhythmical patterning through lineation and letter case" (82), the expression an attempt at the inflected syntax of Anglo-Saxon, and the play explores the blood-feud and notions of vengeance with heavily OE overtones, concluding with an attempt at synthesizing the two major modes of OE verse: the heroic and the elegiac. Auden's other early poems show similar, if less extensive, gestures redolent of OE, although Auden dropped many of these texts from later reprints and selections. Jones then turns to The Orators and its "increasing identification of Saxonist rhetoric with public and communal utterances"(112), and concludes the chapter with a brief consideration of The Age of Anxiety and its dialogue with OE heroic poetry. He seems unaware of Auden's own comments on this issue, as published in Jane Toswell and Alan Ward, "Two New Letters by Auden on Anglo-Saxon Metre and The Age of Anxiety" Year's Work in Medievalism XV (2001 for 2000): 57- 72.

The second half of the book shifts gears from poets for whom OE was an inspiration for themes or styles to those who explicitly reproduce an OE text in modern English translation. Jones reviews translation studies and its theories while executing this turn towards Edwin Morgan's translation of Beowulf as his own war poem, a product of his experiences in World War II. Jones attempts a recuperation of Morgan's approach to the poem and its history, considering his fascination with compounds and his anti-modernist elements as in productive dialogue with the urge towards modernism and simplicity suggested by the translator's introduction and by the unusual use of regular accentual blank verse. Later collections by Morgan, a prolific poet, include translations of OE elegies, and science-fiction poetry which Jones argues partakes of the futuristic impulse of medieval literature (as Morgan saw it). Here Jones moves further toward acknowledging Morgan's adventurous approach to OE texts, referring to his "willingness to interfere with the monuments of the past" (157), and noting that he could be compared with Auden in terms of a queer Saxonist poetics, although he avoids self-disclosure and uses a variety of masking personae in most of his poetry. Morgan also published a critical essay on Dunbar, in which he argued that OE poetics survived in Dunbar and in later Scottish tradition. The idea derived in part from Ritchie Girvan, from whom Morgan had learned OE. Its conclusion was that cultural hybridity, based partly on Anglo- Saxon, was essential to Scottish identityan unusual theory indeed. Jones takes over the theory, arguing that Scottish poets of the twentieth century were not subalterns writing back against the postcolonial empire of England, but part of a genuine Anglo-Saxon tradition. Along the way in the chapter Jones briefly discusses W.S. Graham, some of the translations of Michael Alexander, the poetry of Alexander Scott and Tom Scott (both of whom, following Morgan, made translations from OE into Scots). His conclusion is that for Morgan, "Old English is as unavoidable as Grendel in his fen" (180).

Finally, Jones turns to the most famous practitioner of Anglo-Saxon poetics in contemporary poetry, and unusually calls Seamus Heaney the "Caedmon of The North." Here too, Jones plumbs Heaney's first encounters with OE as an undergraduate at the Queen's University in Belfast studying with John Braidwood, a scholar particularly interested in Scots and Ulster Scots dialects. Jones focuses on the physicality, the sense of solid workmanship of OE poetry in Heaney's understanding, although Heaney also appears to see OE as a kind of "linguistic animus, capable of making itself felt throughout literary history, seemingly regardless of the need for direct transmission"(193). Jones briefly canvasses Heaney's relationship to Ted Hughes and to Gerard Manley Hopkins, before looking at Heaney's early collections and their use of OE (which in Heaney's construction blurs into Old Norse) images and metrical structures. He focuses particularly on the use of the ban-hus or bone-house, and on the image of digging, of excavating the past. The collection North is the main focus of debate concerning Heaney's Anglo- Saxonist usage, although Jones notes that allusions to OE poetry are more common throughout Heaney's poetry than has usually been acknowledged. The chapter ends with a brief consideration of the translation of Beowulf and its reception, focusing on the "Hibernicization of the word-hoard" (229) and on the purposes for which the translation was made.

Jones has an eye and an ear for the clever locution. Not all are apt (on page 66 a kenning is "a radiant node," on page 92 occurs the unlikely "Queued by the title, it is possible to uncover allusions," on page 142 Jones describes the way that Morgan "adjectivalizes a finite verb") but they do make reading this book a delight. There are decisions as to the content of the book with which one might well quibble: why Edwin Morgan and not Basil Bunting or Geoffrey Hill or David Jones? Why include two translators, Seamus Heaney and Edwin Morgan, and not any of the other translators of the poem who have reached for poetic import (Kevin Crossley-Holland, Burton Raffel)? But these may be arguments for a later day.