Liesl Smith

title.none: Donoghue, Old English Literature (Liesl Smith)

identifier.other: baj9928.0502.005 05.02.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Liesl Smith, Suffolk University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Donoghue, Daniel. Old English Literature: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Pp. xvii, 140. $54.95 (hb) 0-631-23485-3. ISBN: $21.95 (pb) 0-631-23486-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.02.05

Donoghue, Daniel. Old English Literature: A Short Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. Pp. xvii, 140. $54.95 (hb) 0-631-23485-3. ISBN: $21.95 (pb) 0-631-23486-1.

Reviewed by:

Liesl Smith
Suffolk University

By the author's own admission Old English Literature: a Short Introduction takes an idiosyncratic approach to the literary corpus of Anglo-Saxon England. Rather than proceeding according to either genre or chronology, Daniel Donoghue organizes his discussion of Old English prose and poetry according to dominant figura. While disclaiming any transcendence for the figures he has chosen (the vow, the hall, the miracle, the pulpit, and the scholar), this approach enables the author to make highly effective thematic connections across the Old English corpus and the resulting study proves to be both instructive and stimulating.

Donoghue's book will be an extremely useful introduction for students as he brings a wealth of knowledge about the Anglo-Saxon context, as well as the literature and language, to bear upon the literature in a way that opens up and illuminates the material. The work instructively connects poetry and prose side-by-side to the productive cultural forces at work in Anglo-Saxon England without ever reducing the examination of the literature to mere "cultural archaeology."

The introduction not only treats the literature with respect to dominant figures, it cogently takes students through difficult passages and particular interpretive challenges. Indeed one of the great attractions of the book lies in the fact that Donoghue effectively models a variety of interpretive concerns and methods. In some cases, such as his discussion of The Wanderer, special attention is paid to places of potential misunderstandings where our modern cultural preconceptions clash with Anglo-Saxon culture. In other cases he demonstrates the mutually revealing relationship between language and literature although this is very much literary rather than linguistic work. As an example, the chapter on "The Pulpit" begins with an examination of the last sixteen lines of The Seafarer and the effect and purpose of the rather homiletic "uton" (80-1). His momentary foray into grammar and etymology not only helps students consider how to tackle the closing moralizing tone of this particular poem, but also models for them how to practically deal with an interpretive challenge via recourse to syntax. Certainly Donoghue presents his own learned interpretations, but more than that he offers students models of how to interpret and alerts them to much that is richly evocative, but of which they might otherwise be unaware.

Due to the introductory nature of the book certain issues, like linguistic ones, are not covered as thoroughly as some readers might like. For example, source and manuscript issues are treated as if unproblematic. Hence, Donoghue refers to the Cotton-Corpus legendary as the source for Ælfric's Lives of Saints without any qualification though the Cotton-Corpus itself postdates Ælfric (66). The reasons for such treatment are obvious: these matters are often abstruse and nearly always cumbersome. Still, the acknowledgement of the presence of such problems, in the endnotes for instance, would be useful for at least making students aware of some of the material, textual difficulties.

Ultimately, Old English Literature does what a teacher of an introductory course on Old English desires: it represents the breadth of the literature in a cohesive manner and offers readers rich material and perspectives for doing the work of interpretation. On occasion the figural organization leads to the inclusion of Old English material under a particular figure in a manner that seems a bit forced (e.g. the discussion of riddles in his chapter on "The Scholar"). Yet even in this case, where the riddles seem to be included primarily because of their manuscript context, Donoghue's conclusion to the section on the scholar, and in fact the book, segues so artfully into the phenomenological question of "how language means," and takes up the question of what exactly constitutes comprehension that it seems petty to complain. As for those matters upon which Donoghue touches lightly, the linguistic and the metrical, his introduction well may whet rather than satiate the appetite, but perhaps that is no bad thing. The figural organization of the book is at once instructive and challenging, repudiating as it does easy generic distinctions in favor of a corpus-wide dialogue. Donoghue's Old English Literature is expansive without being unwieldy or tangential, and his analysis is unfailingly lucid.