Phyllis R. Brown

title.none: Clemoes, Interactions of Thought and Language (Brown)

identifier.other: baj9928.9803.007 98.03.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Phyllis R. Brown, Santa Clara University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Clemoes, Peter. Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 12. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xvii, 523. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-30711-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.03.07

Clemoes, Peter. Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 12. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Pp. xvii, 523. ISBN: ISBN 0-521-30711-2.

Reviewed by:

Phyllis R. Brown
Santa Clara University

As the preface announces, Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry concentrates first on "Old English poetry's primary store of generalized allusive language, working in the interests of communal stability in aristocratic warrior society," and then on "the transformation undergone willy-nilly by poetry's inherently social system of expression after the advent of Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England" (xi). While accurate, these statements hardly suggest the vast knowledge of and love for the language, literature, and culture of the Anglo-Saxon people conveyed throughout the book.

Chapter 7, "Vernacular poetic narrative in a Christian world," for example, draws on evidence from Anglo-Saxon architecture and other material artifacts, the prose record of Bede's Ecclesiastical History, Anglo-Latin poetry, homiletic prose, continental literature, and vernacular poetry to set the stage for his rich and nuanced reading of Andreas, the chapter's primary example. After amassing diverse cultural evidence of changes resulting from Christianity's increasing influences in Anglo-Saxon England, Clemoes shows that while both the Beowulf-poet and the Andreas-poet dramatized actions and conflicts of an elite societal subset, the Andreas-poet "reached out into a universe of spiritual light and conflicting darkness" (272) in which the promise of future eternal reunion with God was more important than traditions and stories from the past. Central to Clemoes' argument is the idea that "the active principle in vernacular poetry," in earlier Anglo-Saxon society serving traditional Germanic heroic values, in the hands of the Andreas-poet "was capable of generating its own brand of spiritual melodrama" (250). Thus Clemoes observes, "By the time the apostle had arrived in Mermedonia, wafted there by angels at Christ's command after much elevated discourse. . . , all that was needed for language to cast off any remaining earthiness was an overt revelation of divinity," provided in lines 910-12. Then "The verbal medium which had served human society over the centuries had finally gone into free spiritual orbit" (258).

In the process of developing his larger interpretation, Clemoes' close reading of Andreas offers many new insights into the poem itself and Anglo-Saxon poetic artistry more generally. For example, on pages 265 and following, Clemoes discusses how parallels between the apostle's behavior and Christ's behavior, typological motifs, and imagery of light and darkness or good and bad weather contribute to the poet's narrative strategy and his artistry.

Similarly, Clemoes' new readings of Exodus, of the Cynewulf canon, and of poems like The Wanderer (to name just three of many) make Interactions a treasure-trove for those interested in Anglo-Saxon poetry. His Index I, which lists all "quotations of two or more 'lines' of Old English poetry" (504-5), provides easy access for those unwilling to read the entire 500-page context Clemoes places them in.

Not all of this book is new, however. Much of the first section, "Part I: The poetry of an aristocratic warrior society," develops the premises of Clemoes' earlier article "'Symbolic' Language in Old English Poetry" (in Modes of Interpretation in Old-English Literature), in which he defines Anglo-Saxon poetic symbolism as "dramatically exploitable and evocative pieces of language which combine socially established semantic potential with culturally established conformity" (10). Building on this definition, in Interactions Clemoes considers specific details in the poetry to be symbols of traditional Anglo-Saxon societal norms. He even goes so far as to say,

The intrinsic duty of a poet as an instrument of tradition was to recreate an emblematic tale by means of a fresh draught on the analogizing, generalizing, symbolizing potential of conventional poetic language. . . . The recomposer of a traditional tale had the essential function of once more making the all-embracing language of poetry interact organically with his story, of calling on linguistic symbols yet again to bring to bear society's age-old perceptions of active being on the particular specimen of narrative living with which he was dealing. (170)

However, since the poetry is the main means of hypothesizing what the traditions were, it seems a bit circular then to argue that the poetry was conventionally required to recreate those traditions through language not of particulars but of universalizing symbols. How would our understanding of Anglo-Saxon tradition and convention be affected had just one other epic survived? And does the satisfaction of a closed system justify essentializing an entire aristocratic warrior tradition?

Also not new to Interactions is the discussion of the date of Beowulf. The core of chapter 1, "The chronological implications of the bond between kingship in Beowulf and kingship in practice," is a reworking and amplification of Clemoes' arguments concerning the dating of Beowulf, earlier published as "Style as the Criterion for Dating the Composition of Beowulf" in The Dating of Beowulf. As it turns out, Clemoes' argument that Beowulf as it survives in an early 11th-century manuscript is a poem dating from no later than mid-8th century, is fundamental to his argument about symbolism. The book as a whole requires that we accept Beowulf as an early poem so that its symbolism, as Clemoes interprets the details, can provide a contrast to later developments when Christianity absorbs vernacular poetry for its own purposes. Some readers may find the interpretations of individual poems in part II of the book more satisfying in isolation than as part of this larger argument because, to make his point, Clemoes reduces pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon aristocratic society to a monolithic unity.

Thus, according to Clemoes, by the time Cynewulf composed his poems, "thought and expression were not, as they once had been, the inseparable parts of a single cultural organism transmitted by indigenous social tradition" (241). Similarly, Clemoes argues "narrative in a poem such as Christ III was concerned not with actions symbolizing the principles of society's military elite, as in native pre-Christian tradition, but with thoughts and feelings epitomizing the drama of living in a God-centred world" (304). More generally, Clemoes says,

Communal witness, assessment and judgement constituted the moral basis of symbolic story. The individual was the proper focal point of this attention. There was a prevailing belief that the individual was all important to society, a general agreement that the common welfare depended on how individuals of aristocratic status operated the system of understanding and the code of practices which custom had long established. Story had to do with an individual as society saw him (or her), not an individual view of society. Interest was in a sequence of action which tested how an individual's endeavour to realize his inherited potential through interplay with surrounding forces benefited or harmed the corporate good. (208)

As Clemoes explores this society, the corporate good is uniform, devoid of tension, despite the binary conventions (two-part compounds, alliteratively linked a- and b- verses, and "two-member appositional syntax," for instance) and binary thought he identifies as creating the symbolic unity. Thus, Clemoes concludes chapter 4, "The language of symbolic expression," saying that the symbols "impart an intelligible cultural cohesion to the interplay of opposites inherent in human experience itself" (168). However, this "intelligible cultural cohesion" depends on our accepting that the specific details of the individual poems are symbolic in a way defined by a reading of Beowulf as an early text providing a key to a monolithic value system.

Nevertheless, if one puts aside Clemoes' tendency to an essentialist view of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon society and his insistent repetition of the relationship between "active being and narrative living" (85 and passim), Interactions has much to offer students of Anglo-Saxon literature. The intermittent discussion in chapters 2-6 of the ways a noun- heavy language creates rich depictions of action is philologically rich and convincing. Even readers not willing to accept as symbols all the words Clemoes wants us to read symbolically will find the discussion of the words themselves, made easily accessible through Index II "A representative selection of the symbols and word pairs cited in discusssion," richly nuanced and enlightening. The sheer volume of information about the Old English language and the poetry makes the book challenging and valuable, a fitting final work of a scholar and critic "snottor on mode."