Jane Toswell

title.none: Tyler, Old English Poetics (Jane Toswell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0709.004 07.09.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jane Toswell, University of Western Ontaria,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Tyler, Elizabeth M. Old English Poetics: The Aesthetics of the Familiar in Anglo-Saxon England. York, Woodbridge, U.K.: York Medieval Press, Boydell and Brewer, 2006. Pp. xvi, 194. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-1-903153-20-8, ISBN-10: 1-903153-20-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.09.04

Tyler, Elizabeth M. Old English Poetics: The Aesthetics of the Familiar in Anglo-Saxon England. York, Woodbridge, U.K.: York Medieval Press, Boydell and Brewer, 2006. Pp. xvi, 194. $85.00 (hb) ISBN-13: 978-1-903153-20-8, ISBN-10: 1-903153-20-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Jane Toswell
University of Western Ontaria

Combining two of Tyler's long-standing interests, Old English poetic stylistics and the theme of treasure, this book in an introduction, four chapters and an extended conclusion argues that insufficient attention has been paid both to the longevity and to the fundamental conventionality of OE verse. Lasting for some six hundred years, the verse form invited patterns of repetition, collocation, variation, and rhetorical usage which partook of a tradition so deeply ingrained that OE poems result from a process more accretive than creative. The book concludes with a somewhat perfunctory bibliography (which does not distinguish primary from secondary material), and an array of four indexes: of words, of poems, of modern scholars, and a general index. Rather than provide appendices with the collocations and formulas that are at the heart of her analysis, Tyler refers to them by poem and line number in the text. She does a deft job of situating each collocation in its thematic context, but the reader does have to take on faith her choice of relevant collocations, and to some extent the definition of a relevant collocation.

The main argument begins with a review of the role of treasure in OE poetry, in which Tyler argues that treasure is a positive force in all genres, except in two circumstances: treasure has negative force when it is being hidden, and if not used properly it can lose its use value. This analysis specifically focuses on the poetic use of treasure, and in later chapters tends to consider figurative and metaphorical usages, and explicitly turns away from any materialist analysis making use of archaeology, so that quite a lot of work on treasure in OE texts is ignored. Less clear is why Nida Surber's book Gift and Exchange in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Corpus: A Contribution Towards the Representation of Wealth (Geneva: Slatkine, 1994) is not present. Tyler is so unrelentingly positive about the ubiquity of treasure that one is tempted to identify poems in which treasure and its language does not appear. There are not many of these, though the late Christian poems make less use of this convention, and the analysis of the book continually swirls round and round a relatively small group of texts (notably Beowulf, but also The Phoenix and to some extent Genesis A and Guthlac B). The central claim that treasure is a convention, part of the fabric of poetic discourse, is convincing. Tyler also notes the remarkable absence of silver in poetry and its use only of gold, and comments on the role of kings as the controllers of the hoard.

The central section of the book, from pages 25-100, addresses the five main treasure-words in OE poetry, considering their usage and especially their collocations. Madm is the only one of these words that can be used to refer individually to one piece of treasure, rather than to a collective, although its most common deployment is as a general term for treasure, perhaps less frequently in religious texts. Tyler analyses ten collocation patterns, including a fine consideration of the Scyld Scefing episode and its complex of vocabulary, and various patterns of gift-giving and enumeration of precious objects. More likely in religious and figurative contexts (especially involving the body and/or the soul) is hord, which has eight sets of collocations reflecting this focus. Tyler first considers collocations connecting the hoard to the mind, body, soul, or spirit, then the linkage of word and hord, especially with respect to Creation imagery in various poems, and finally turns to notions of binding, guarding, and locking the hoard. She analyses several formulas, and especially considers the hoard in Andreas and the final passages of Beowulf with the dragon and the hoard. The third word for treasure, gestreon, is a general word for treasure although its connotations appear to include a notion of treasure as being transitory; its collocations include one well-known formula but are generally "ordinary rather than conventional" (75). Next to be considered is sinc for its use as a general term for treasure, often ornamented treasure, and also often in religious contexts. Tyler investigates collocations which link to heroic verse, to several specific formulas, to drinking, to silver, to halls, to swords, to the south, and to decoration. This noun has more alliterative collocations than the other four. Finally, the plural fraetwe occurs almost entirely as a simplex, and focuses on ornamentation and beauty, with collocations that tie to its nobility, its brightness, its ability to shine, its beauty, and its connection to the land; this is the only treasure-word that appears in formulas having thematic content. There is much solid analysis in the detailed consideration of the collocations and careful analysis of passages in specific poems, although at times a detail is used to support a generalization that does not seem entirely convincing. Given the depth and breadth of Tyler's knowledge of the OE poetic corpus, her conclusions may well be right; thus, for example, after discussing the epithet beaga brytta in Beowulf she concludes that this illustrates, contrary to Homeric usage, that in the poem "epithets are true to the situation though not specific to the person" (78). The observation is a gem, but it may not rest upon a sufficiently firm foundation.

Tyler then turns to a more general approach, investigating in the third chapter the notion of the formula, beginning with the classic formulation of Donald Fry and working her way through oral-formulaic studies to 1990 or so. She ends with the argument that linguistics now recognizes all language as formulaic, and that study of the formula must in future keep this broad framework in mind. In between, Tyler argues that overlapping semantic fields remarkably do not seem to lead to formulaic structures, but that semantic fields do need to be considered in discussions of the formula's definition. Similarly, the lexical context, especially alliterative pairs, needs consideration, as does syntax. She finds less convincing Riedinger's concept of a thematic formula, and argues that "the poetry that has survived is suspended between orality and literacy in ways we find hard to conceptualize, or even imagine, with each poem potentially representing a distinct negotiation of these two modes of communication" (113). A given formula can meet both aesthetic and utilitarian needs, sometimes at once, sometimes one or the other, within the compass of the same poem. Moreover, she proposes, the oral- formulaic definition of the formula cannot sufficiently distinguish between a formula and simple repetition of the half-line. A formula requires a more fluid definition involving a range of contexts, and an understanding that some formulas are more restrictive and conventional than others. Neither a continuum nor Reichl's notion of a spectrum, the range of formulas requires more definition. In particular, considering the linguistic patterns of prose and everyday speech (inasmuch as that is identifiable) as against the syntax, metre, lexis and style of poetry would be useful.

Finally, Tyler turns to verbal repetition both in discrete passages and across entire poems, wanting to address the ways in which a poet or poets make meaning and the extent to which repetition--which to the modern ear is detrimental to good poetry--was part of the background, the fabric of OE poetry. The chapter reviews repetition throughout the OE corpus, with a special focus on Beowulf, considering various envelope structures, strings of repeated words, several poems with very dense structures of repetition, clusters of repeated words which do not appear significant, possible thematic elements of repetition, the building up of polysemy in various poems, and the way in which OE poems are a process (involving a poet and successive poets) rather than an event. The convention of treasure is used throughout as a way to ground the analysis in the collocation studies of the earlier chapters, and to establish more clearly the sense that repetition of all kinds partakes of traditionality and timelessness. Using a ubiquitous theme to investigate similarities among OE poets provides a particular lens on that conventionality, one which idealizes tradition but also provides the opportunity to comment on tradition. The concluding chapter reproduces the argument of Tyler's chapter in a collection on narrative and history, and demonstrates how one specific poet, the creator of the Battle of Maldon, chose to make use of the traditional poetic style, even to the point of substituting references to gold when the Vikings were later bought off by silver coins according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries. She uses lexical analysis to address the poem's social and political agendas, including ties to Wulfstan, issues of social status, ways to approach dealing with the Vikings, and especially Byrhtnoth's specific role as a leader with treasure--as exemplified by the references to treasure in his dying moments.

It has to be said that this book needed both copy-editing and proof- reading. For example, while it may be easy to confuse OE hord with MdnE "hoard" the two should not be interchangeable, nor should "flags up" be a repeated idiom; there are many spelling and especially many punctuation errors throughout. Moreover, long and convoluted sentences which could readily be corrected are very common: "Only here and not elsewhere in the poem does the poet draw a sharp distinction between the mind and its location; a distinction which contributes to the meaning of the passage in which the seafarer hopes to escape sorrow by letting his mind fly free from his body" (56). Similarly, with respect to Beowulf, Tyler states: "The result is not the product of a poet (or succession of poets at different points in the poem's compositional history) unaware that he is composing within a traditional framework rather he actively repeats conventions and juxtaposes them to offer a critique of the old ways" (153). This lack of attention to detail in the expression is worrisome, partly because it occludes and raises questions about the accuracy of the underlying and most important argument of the book. Tyler is asserting throughout that OE poets were fully aware in every respect of the traditional and conventional nature of the verse they were composing--including its fabric of verbal repetition, formulas, specified collocations and so forth--and in their work the better poets used this fabric creatively to tantalize the audience, to play with the production of a new effect infused both with the collocation of repetition not used, and the new expression the poet presents. This is an important argument, with unexplored implications for John Miles Foley's theory of oral narrative and for our sense of the circumstances of composition of OE poetry throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. In addition, Tyler makes useful points about such stylistic matters as wordplay and punning, the timelessness which is so profoundly a part of OE poetry, and the difference between repetition which is foregrounded and the ordinary repetition for which the Anglo-Saxons must have had a high tolerance since it occurs so frequently in the poetry. Larger issues such as the proper interpretation of Beowulf also push their way into the text. The patient reader will glean many insights and find much to ponder in this book.