David G. Allen

title.none: Lester, The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry (Allen)

identifier.other: baj9928.9808.001 98.08.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: David G. Allen, The Citadel,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Lester, G. A. The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry. The Language of Literature. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. Pp. vii, 182. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-15869-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.08.01

Lester, G. A. The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry. The Language of Literature. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. Pp. vii, 182. $39.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-312-15869-6.

Reviewed by:

David G. Allen
The Citadel

Near the beginning of Looking for Richard, Al Pacino's movie about producing Richard III, several folks on the streets of New York are asked to make sense of the play's first lines, "Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York." Of course no one knows what to make of them. Not a clue. To address this incomprehension, the film launches into a mini-lesson on the Wars of the Roses. While this is certainly appropriate, anyone who has labored to teach Shakespeare recently would notice that it ignores the most basic cause of befuddlement--the syntax of the lines. Surely the first move, before saying anything about York and Lancaster, would be to change that "is" to "has been" while uniting the verb phrase--"Now the winter of our discontent has been made glorious summer by this sun of York."

Every teacher of early English literature knows how a student's failure to comprehend syntactic twists and turns can encourage apathy and frustration. How well worn a path it is from "I have no idea what that means," to "It says here in my book [i.e., Cliff's Notes]. . . "! So texts like Norman F. Blake's Shakespeare's Language or David Burnley's A Guide to Chaucer's Language are increasingly critical, both for teachers and students. In providing "a sensible starting point for those who may wish to go on to look at the language of medieval English poetry more closely" (2-3), G. A. Lester's The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry takes its place in this field, intended perhaps to fill in for Blake's somewhat more general The English Language in Medieval Literature (Rowman and Littlefield, 1977). Lester's volume is written at a somewhat more accessible level than this now out-of-print precursor. While usually perceptive, it is, however, not as useful as it might be, because its examples are frequently not fully explained.

The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry is in nine chapters, the first of which is the introduction. The second and third provide background information about the social context of medieval England and about the "literary and linguistic context" (meaning basically the forms of poetry written in the period and the history of the language). There are then two chapters on Old English, one on poetic diction and the other on the structure and organization of the poetry. Two chapters on the same matters in Middle English verse follow. The book's eighth chapter deals with dialect issues in Old and Middle English, and the final chapter summarizes the book by analyzing the "lay of the last survivor" section of Beowulf and the description in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight of Gawain's painful trip through "contrayez straunge" in search of the Green Knight's chapel.

Despite their lack of any bibliographical citations or guides for further reading, the two background chapters fulfill their function. Lester is good at highlighting facts and weaving names and dates into an easily comprehended narrative. But the difficulty with examples does come up. To give a sense of the "rhythmical structure" of some representative lines from "The Battle of Maldon," Lester turns to "Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater" (30-31)--an unfortunate choice if we want our students to see how alliterative lines function as serious poetry. And no one would dispute that "Old English meter is a complicated matter to explain in detail" (31), but the brief effort to illustrate the types of half-lines is more confusing than illuminating. This is particularly so since Lester wants us to see the persistence of the meter in the Modern English translations of the lines. What will a beginning student, one with barely a grasp of iambic pentameter, make of the application of Type B (x/x/) to "over billows' surge"?

Chapters four and six on poetic diction in Old and Middle English verse are the book's most successful. Lester does an excellent job of explaining the importance of noun phrases in Anglo-Saxon poetry: he gives very good examples of the common practice of the conversion of adjectives to nouns (49), and he clearly defines "kennings" by usefully contrasting them with more literal compounds (56-58). In his discussion of the different registers of Middle English poetic diction, Lester is particularly strong on word borrowing and on the vocabulary of the poems of the Alliterative Revival. The chapters on the structure and organization of Old and Middle English poetry are much less successful, largely because the level of explanation needs to be more basic. For instance, in talking about how the flexibility of Middle English syntax served poets' metrical considerations, Lester mentions that the perfective aspect of the verb can be formed with either have or be, and he gives an example of each. Lester uses the line "The messengere ys come and gone," to show that "the expression ys come and gone, as opposed to came and went, is essential to both rhythm and rhyme" (123). To be sure, but "the general reader and beginning student" (3) for whom this book is intended ought to feel some minor discomfort about "ys" instead of "has," and that discomfort is worth at least a parenthetical remark.

Nowhere is the frequent mismatch between intended reader and example more evident than in the translations of the Old and Middle English examples. Over and over again, Lester obscures his points about the language by failing to provide literal translations. For instance, he cites the line "The ha[th]el heldet hym fro, and on his ax rested" to show a "preposition placed in final position in prepositional phrase," but then he omits the particular preposition and its phrase from the translation, "The man turned back, and rested on his axe" (118). The other prepositional phrase in the line is the only one translated, and it doesn't at all illustrate the point. So unless the reader is already comfortable with the point (and, therefore, probably doesn't need the translation), he or she is likely to find the example much more of a hindrance than a help.

The two extended analyses that conclude The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry reveal both the strengths and the weaknesses of the volume. Lester does a thorough job of describing the difficulty of the passage from Beowulf, centering on the poet's "compression of the verse into compact lines" (154) and the occasional failure of grammatical concord (155). He points to lines 2249b-2251a as being particularly difficult, but he largely omits how the actual words work. The discussion of the passage from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is even less detailed. Lester makes an excellent point about how the poet manipulated syntax "in the disposition of accented syllables coincident with the alliterating syllables" (161), but his examples are badly underexposed: "Major components of clauses--subjects, objects, adjuncts--are placed in a variety of positions relative to the verb (e.g. object/subject/verb/adjunct [line] 1, subject/verb/object/adjunct [line]4, object/adjunct/subject/verb [line] 6" (161-62). Space constraints surely played a part here. But it is asking too much to expect a reader to flip from this cryptic sentence back to the passage from SGGK and its not at all literal prose translation (which, by the way, has no line numbers), and then back and forth again and once again.

Although the problems with examples are real, G. A. Lester's The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry is by no means an unworthy effort. Students of medieval English poetry will find much of it valuable, particularly the chapters on poetic diction. They will, however, have to be very patient and dutiful students.