Richard Marsden

title.none: Nash, Departed Music (Richard Marsden )

identifier.other: baj9928.0609.002 06.09.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Marsden , University of Nottingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Nash, Walter. A Departed Music: Readings in Old English Poetry. Hickwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006. Pp. 240. $34.00 1-898281-37-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.09.02

Nash, Walter. A Departed Music: Readings in Old English Poetry. Hickwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2006. Pp. 240. $34.00 1-898281-37-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Richard Marsden
University of Nottingham

This is a puzzling book, for I have read it from beginning to end without forming a clear idea of its intended audience; neither the Foreword nor the dust-jacket is of help (and the latter, incidentally, gives us two versions of the title, either with or without the words "Readings in"). But the blurb on the jacket does suggest that "the reader", whoever this may be, will be given "the opportunity to appreciate the cultural importance of the surviving body of [Old English] poems, the worldview that inspired them, and the subtleties of individual poems". Up to a point, this claim is certainly justified.

The greater part of the book is taken up with six chapters which deal with Old English poetry thematically. They are entitled (1) "The Poetry Business", (2) "Of Cruel Battle and the Fall of Kin", (3) "Exiles and Lamentations", (4) "Rulers of the Darkness", (5) "Avenger and Redeemer", and (6) "Tunes on a Broken Lyre". The technique is to intersperse a narrative on the relevant theme with sections of translated poems to illustrate it. Only the shortest of the poems (Deor , Wulf and Eadwacer and Cædmon's Hymn , among them) are given in full. In general, we get only selections: in ch. 1, for instance, there are five lines from Fortunes , eight chunks of Widsith (of from two to seven lines), then a passage from Hreimskringla (Old Norse material is interspersed with Old English at will), then five lines from Beowulf , then Deor , then ten more lines from Fortunes , and so on. The chapter titles will suggest the sorts of texts used in each case, and the sorts of passages from them which are likely to be exploited. Ch. 6 includes much information on Old English metrics.

The title of the book hints at a certain feyness of approach and parts of the Foreword seems to confirm this: All human life is here in this lively Saxon world of soldiers, sinners and saints, poets, lonely women, ladies and learned monks, and "simple folk looking to the medicine man to cure their aches and pains" (7). (What a put-down for the skilled physicians of Anglo-Saxon England, and the elites who sponsored the medical books!) These Anglo-Saxons seem to exist (most of them "behind palisades") in a single, indivisible moment of creative time, too, coexistent with their cousins in the Norse sagas. Then ch. 1 begins with the information that "scop" is "a little term for a large calling"; quite. But the discussion of the poems is generally good and often insightful. The extracts from them are translated with both accuracy and attention to modern idiom, and often more effectively than in some of the versions currently in print. There are, however, many oddities: that poetic gem, Cædmon's Hymn , is dismissed as "a text which, if the truth be told, does no more than hint at the possibility of a poem" (20). The complexities of the original of Beowulf are reduced to a bald statement of refreshing but entirely dubious simplicity (22). Supposed parallels with modern poets are frequently drawn, thouigh usually they seem wide of the mark. I did, however, enjoy the quotation of an ubi sunt poem by Edgar Lee Masters (147). There are occcasional errors, such as the translation of lastword as "last word" (52).

Supplementing the commentaries, there are footnotes. These are often quite long, conspicuously erudite and rather interesting, but they are sporadic. There is no note, for instance, to guide us to an edition of Bede in the discussion of Cædmon's Hymn , yet, on the next page, we have a note on Alcuin (prompted by reference to the famous question about Ingeld) which gives us chapter and verse for the MGH edition of his letters in Latin. The footnotes are indeed self-indulgent, in the sense that they are prompted, not by a consistent policy of catering for a perceived reader's need, but by what tales Nash's fancy. Etymologies especially seem to intrigue him, along with Germanic lore, hairstyles and, on occasion, phonetics. Indeed, so taken is he with his own notes that, in one of the most bizarre aspects of this book (revealing an unusually complaisant publisher) is the section which follows the six thematic chapters: it is called "Postscripts", and in it all the footnotes (except those containing only brief references) are repeated, as main text, under individual headings. This, Nash tells us, is "for supplementary reference, and for indulgent browsing".

After this comes a further unexpected section, called "Samples". These are twenty-two "representative extracts or gobbets", that is, extracts from the poems dealt with earlier (or full poems in the case of short ones) in Old English. They in turn are in sections, "Poetics", "Wisdoms", "Elegies" and "Heroics". Each is accompanied by notes which deal with details and difficulties of translation. The Old English seems to be given accurately and the notes are good, though, as ever, idiosyncratic, rather than consistent.

So far, so good, but the question of perceived readership remains. The book cannot serve undergraduates because, even if they were studying Old English poetry only in translation, they would need a representative selection of complete poems, not extracts. And they would need some introduction to the subject. The only attempt to put Old English poetry into any sort of perspective is hidden within the commentary in chapter 6. Chronology is especially hard to grasp in this book (and the giving of a date for the Anglo-Saxon settlements which is a century out, on p. 22, does not help). No one at the stage of learning Old English will find this book a help, either. In his introduction to the "samples", Nash claims that their purpose is "to provide some access to the texts in the original language", but in fact the notes presuppose the ability to read Old English at quite an advanced level already; they deal only with specific difficulties, not the general aspects of the language. No glossary is given. Furthermore, readers who do have the ability to benefit from Nash's notes will prefer to use books which give them whole editions of the poems, not gobbets. The Bibliography is another oddity. There are a lot of web-sites listed, including good ones, such as the Georgetown "Labyrinth" and Carole Biggam"s "Bibliography", but also others of lesser promise, such as one called English Heathenism (which I failed to connect to). One of Nash's recommended "basic" textbooks is, astonishingly, the 1927 Cambridge History of English and American Literature Vol. 1 . Other more obvious volumes are absent. Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's name is spelled wrongly, and some dates are wrong.

This is a genial and often an absorbing book, not without scholarly merit, and I enjoyed much of it (and learned a few things), but it is fragmented and too unfocused to be a serious textbook. One gets the impression that an enthusiast for Old English has decided to publish his personal commonplace book. Only if accepted in that spirit can it be enjoyed.