Greg Waite

title.none: Blockley, Aspects of Old English Poetic Syntax (Greg Waite)

identifier.other: baj9928.0206.016 02.06.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Greg Waite, University of Otago,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Blockley, Mary. Aspects of Old English Poetic Syntax: Where Clauses Begin. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Pp. i, 247. 39.95. ISBN: 0-252-02606-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.06.16

Blockley, Mary. Aspects of Old English Poetic Syntax: Where Clauses Begin. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Pp. i, 247. 39.95. ISBN: 0-252-02606-3.

Reviewed by:

Greg Waite
University of Otago

Old English syntax is a field of research that has advanced greatly over the past two decades, with the appearance not only of Bruce Mitchell's Old English Syntax, providing a comprehensive survey and large quantities of data, and of machine readable texts and concordances, particularly those arising out of the Dictionary of Old English project, but also with the sustained work of scholars like Mary Blockley, who in this book gathers together the fruits of several years' research. Some chapters are revisions of work already published, while others are new. All are concerned with the distinctive features of poetic syntax, when contrasted with prose syntax.

Whether there is an absolute dichotomy between prose and poetry in Anglo-Saxon England or these terms are points of reference on a stylistic continuum is a matter for debate. Yet most scholars would agree that in the Old English language there exists a well-defined body of poetry sharing a remarkable degree of uniformity in its employment of a particular form of metre, some distinctive (and perhaps archaic) phonological and morphological forms, marked lexical items not normally found in non-metrical writing, and some syntactic features, including systems of clause boundary marking and clausal subordination, also not normally found in 'prose'.

It is also the case that many scholars would agree that the Old English poetic style is a richly suggestive and allusive one, even deliberately ambiguous or riddling in some instances, even outside the obvious domain or sub-genre of riddles themselves. Roberta Frank, for example, has pointed out the use of lexical paronomasia, and Fred Robinson has demonstrated how the Beowulf-poet exploits not only the double-valency of words that possess older pre-Christian senses and newly developed Christian uses, but also appositions of words and larger syntactic units to suggest to the audience, without explicitly stating them, meaningful links. As Blockley observes in her introduction, one result of the recognition of these dark and suggestive aspects of Old English poetry has been a retreat by recent editors from prescriptive modern punctuation that would restrict the multiplicity of linkages and syntactic possibilities open to an audience hearing a poem recited, or reading it in its manuscript form, with (normally) only one mark of punctuation, designed for rhetorical rather than grammatical purposes. Yet, Old English poetry is not grammatically anarchic, and its metrical system, however one describes or analyses it, demonstrates that poets and audiences worked within a system of tight constraints and conventions. Kuhn's first and second laws indicate the degree to which syntax and metre are related, and have long been cited as benchmarks for metrical analysis and textual emendation. With Thomas Cable, Blockley has written elsewhere on what they see as fallacies in Kuhn's Laws (a scepticism shared by Mitchell, but resisted by other analysts including Robert Fulk). Her contention in this book, nevertheless, is that fresh analysis of poetic syntax, in relation to the prescribed poetic line- forms and metre, does reveal distinctive rules governing the structure of clauses and clausal relations within sentences, and furthermore that these rules may be viewed as syntactic conventions peculiar to poetry and distinct from the conventions of written Old English prose.

Each chapter of the book considers an aspect of poetic language where syntactic rules particular to verse, and sometimes contrasting with the rules of prose syntax, may be identified. Chapter one, for example, examines the forms of the interrogative in prose and verse. Blockley makes a powerful opening case for the importance of her work when she is able to argue compellingly, if not with absolute finality, that a famous line in Beowulf ("Eart thu se Beowulf, se the with Brecan wunne", line 506) is not in fact a question, as it is almost universally taken to be, but rather a statement of fact. If the syntactic data indeed indicate that VS word order does not by itself indicate that a question is intended, and explicit markers such as a verb of interrogation (like 'frignan') or lexemes like 'hwaether' are absent, then we had best heed the OE evidence rather than our intuitions about word order derived from OE prose or later interrogative forms in English. To what degree Blockley convinces the reader here, or to what degree she reconciles her arguments about Beowulf line 506 with the discussion of the equally famous question (or statement of fact) from Maldon ("Gehyrst thu, s>lida, hwaet this folc segeth", line 45) remains open, but the importance of her line of enquiry is clear.

Chapter two explores rules governing the distinction between phrasal coordination (marked by 'and/ond' explicitly or implicitly) and apposition. Among the rules that Blockley identifies operating within this system is one that states "when an off-verse noun S is followed by an on-verse with conjoined grammatically parallel phrases, those conjoints are regularly taken as coordinated with it". (216) Such rules, if they governed the poets' and audiences' expectations of structure in verse, equally need to be heeded by modern readers. Chapter three explores the function of clausal 'and' and leads into the following two chapters on subordination and clause-boundary marking. OE is notorious for its ambiguous particles ('tha, thonne, thaet, swa'), which may function as adverbs or conjunctions (among other things). Blockley argues that the conjunctions "are defined by element order even more than has been acknowledged, and therefore less by function than has been assumed by the anachronistic punctuation of verse". (219) Her argument is built largely on patterns of usage for the one unambiguous conjunction 'gif'. For verb-initial clauses, Blockley argues again that form is significant, and that in verse most such clauses must be taken as independent. Chapter six, on contracted and uncontracted forms like 'naes/ne waes', has been published already, with resulting reactions from Mitchell and Jack, among others. Clearly more work is needed on this problem, but in the meantime, Blockley1s general maxim that "the uncontracted form implies the presence of understood and otherwise unexpressed sentence elements" within the clause, or if the clause is complete "takes to itself as a dependent clause the subsequent and apparently independent clause after it" (220) deserves serious consideration. The book concludes with a chapter titled "Perfecting the Old English Past", also previously published, which explores the possibility that the 'we' of Beowulf line 1 refers to the poem or book itself, since the use of the simple past instead of the periphrastic present perfect is deliberate and contrastive.

In some respects Blockley's book is uneven in its manner and method, perhaps reflecting the bringing together of items published separately elsewhere. Often line references are mentioned, but the actual lines are not quoted, or translated for the benefit of those only conversant with OE language. Broad and stimulating generalisations or problems posed sit among passages whose construction or organization seems hasty. It is indeed an 'Aspects' approach rather than a comprehensive one, but one that opens up challenging questions, and deserves to be read by literary critics and editors as well as syntacticians. For quick reference the rules are helpfully summarized in an appendix, and the index includes all poems and lines cited.