03.03.29, Swanton, English Poetry before Chaucer

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Susan Yager

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.029


Swanton, Michael. English Poetry before Chaucer. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pp. ix, 379. ISBN: 0-85989-633-1.

Reviewed by:
Susan Yager
Iowa State University

English Poetry before Chaucer is a revision and expansion of Michael Swanton's English Literature Before Chaucer (New York: Longman, 1987, now out of print). The change of title is welcome, as the 1987 text did not pretend to cover pre-fourteenth century English literature exhaustively, and made almost no reference to prose. Even the new title, however, suggests a scope quite a bit broader than the book affords. Instead, the new edition covers some of the major, and a few less-often discussed, English works from the period pre-1300. Though it aims to offer students and general readers a series of "starting-points" for independent work, this book is better suited to more advanced students, and to their instructors. Its language and allusions can be nearly as recondite as those of the Anglo-Saxons, and its selection and discussion of texts is better suited to readers already at home in the discipline. At its best, however, English Poetry before Chaucer is interesting and thought-provoking. It is a fine guide to re-reading -- not so much a handbook to early English literature as a true companion, one who enjoys showing you all his favorite haunts.

The outline of chapters and supplementary materials of the revision is identical to that of the earlier edition (though two of the works discussed are given different titles). Swanton begins with a sweeping but clear and fascinating overview of post-Roman Britain through the period of the Crusades. One or more maps would be very helpful in this section, especially for students, but nonetheless it works well for Swanton's intended audience. Following this introduction are four chapters on Old English poetry, concentrating on Beowulf, a few of the great elegies, and religious poems, concluding with Layamon's Brut. Two further chapters treat early Middle English poems, though without the depth and forcefulness of the Old English chapters. A brief epilogue carries the discussion forward into the fourteenth century, and the book concludes with an introduction to early English prosody, along with a chronology, set of suggested readings, and list of works and authors.

Clearly Swanton is most at home with pre-Conquest literature, and the chapters on Old English are the strongest in the book. Swanton moves effortlessly from one poem to another, insisting on close textual readings while also sketching larger structural and thematic elements. Many of his individual readings are quite moving, almost meditative. Of The Ruin, for example, he writes, "The ruined state of the poem, far from obstructing our appreciation of it, only corroborates the truth it imports. Here is an impressive, beautiful, and complex construction, carefully and cleverly put together -- but itself in the same ruined state it seeks to expound" (132-33).

Particularly in these early chapters, Swanton presents a unified set of readings, for example by tracing the mutability theme and the relation of the personal and social in both Old English and Middle English poems. He also develops a theory of early English literature as malleable and open: in scriptural exegesis, analysis might open up "a whole range of levels of meaning, or rather possibilities...The likelihood, even inevitability, of plural response to public literature of this kind is clear" (83).

In presenting this set of readings, Swanton makes little distinction between Old and Middle English. For example, he includes Layamon's Brut in his chapter discussing Guthlac, Judith, and the Battle of Maldon (190ff.). For the most part, Swanton's casual dismissal of traditional period boundaries, and even genre definitions and boundaries, is beneficial in that it challenges the easy assumptions of readers who know this territory. I suspect, however, that Swanton's silence on periodization may confuse the beginning student. Another hazard for beginners is Swanton's flat assertiveness about authorship and dating. He claims, for example, that the author of Beowulf "in its final form" writes "at the very close of the European Heroic Age" (70), omitting any reference to different opinions on the date of the poem.

Although the book's outline is the same as in the 1987 edition, and many of the discussions are repeated verbatim, English Poetry before Chaucer contains a number of differences from the earlier version, several for the better. There are many more notes, for example, and some points are subtly expanded or clarified. The layout is also clearer, with on-page citations and with page headings that indicate the poem under consideration. The discussion of Beowulf has been thoroughly revised and now includes a greater proportion of analysis, yet it loses nothing in clarity and interest.

To some extent, the editorial changes in this new version seem geared to attract and benefit a student audience. Several new passages contain friendly references to "we" readers, and explain details like the meaning of "Deor" and of Heorot's "princely" name. Some of these additions, however, are likely to grow stale before long, if they are not already. For example: "We ourselves are not necessarily able to appreciate early medieval poetry on the same grounds that a contemporary might appreciate it. Much would depend on where they, as we, were 'coming from'" (8). The discussion of prosody refers twice to rap, which will certainly mark this book as belonging to a certain time. So, perhaps, will the user-friendly discussion of line-stress (e.g., "di-boom-di-boom," 310).

Another set of changes involves Swanton's linkage of medieval and modern warfare. The 1987 volume draws occasional parallels between events of a poem and Dunkirk, Gallipoli, and Spion Kop, and in the revised edition Swanton includes several more. These parallels are quite engaging, as when the experiences of World War II veterans are compared to those of the Wanderer and the Seafarer in chapter 4, though to some young readers the reference to Montgomery and Rommel may seem as distant as those to Beowulf and Hrothgar.

The revised text does have some additions that prove more distracting than engaging. Swanton makes numerous references to film (James Bond, The African Queen), popular culture (Batman, Beatrix Potter's Farmer McGregor, the Broadway musicals Carousel and West Side Story) and contemporary politics (comparisons of Maldon's fighters to suicide bombers) in a series of notes and asides. The effort to keep old books relevant is laudable, of course, but these links are somewhat strained.

Some idiosyncrasies, of course, are expected, even welcome, in a companion. Of greater concern is the bibliography, which is expanded but not always updated. Mitchell and Robinson are cited in the second (1982) edition, and the Chaucer text cited is the 1957 Robinson, already out of date when Swanton's first edition appeared. And this book does not escape the errors in production which seem to be a plague in modern publishing.

On balance, Swanton's new volume, though not a sweeping revision, certainly deserves a place on the library shelf. Learned, insightful, sometimes eclectic, Swanton's English Poetry before Chaucer offers a wealth of specific readings on some important, and often-taught, poems.

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Susan Yager

Iowa State University