The Medieval Review 14.10.05

Clayton, Mary. Old English Poems of Christ and His Saints. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. xxv, 401. $29.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9780674053182 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Leslie Lockett
The Ohio State University

This edition with facing-page translation of ten Old English poems belongs to the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) series, which publishes medieval literature in Byzantine Greek, Latin, and Old English according to the principles and purposes of the Loeb Classical Library that has long been sustained by the same press. The stated aspiration of this series is to attract a broad, non-specialist audience. While many features of Mary Clayton's edition, translation, and annotations cater to the envisioned needs of general readers, the volume nonetheless has much to offer to two groups of readers whom I suspect will far outnumber the target audience: students in advanced undergraduate and MA-level coursework, and professional scholars in disciplines other than Anglo-Saxon studies, all of whom will appreciate an entrée to this literature in translation before (or without) investing the effort to read the poems in Old English.

The poems gathered in this volume complement one another on the basis of their shared interest in New Testament, apocryphal, and hagiographical narratives: Advent (sometimes known as Christ I), Christ in Judgment (sometimes known as Christ III), Guthlac A, The Descent into Hell, The Vision of the Cross (elsewhere known by the title The Dream of the Rood), The Ruthwell Cross Crucifixion Poem, The Brussels Cross Inscription, Andreas, Christ and Satan, and a Distich on Kenelm. The range of thematically appropriate poems available for Clayton to include in this volume was constrained by the DOML publication, also in 2013, of Robert E. Bjork's The Old English Poems of Cynewulf, which includes Fates of the Apostles, Elene, Juliana, Christ II: The Ascension, and Guthlac B. Consequently, Clayton's most canonical selection, The Dream of the Rood, appears alongside items that will be unfamiliar to non-specialists (Advent, Christ in Judgment, Guthlac A, The Ruthwell Cross Crucifixion Poem, and Andreas) and even some items that few Anglo-Saxonists have studied closely (The Descent into Hell, Christ and Satan, The Brussels Cross Inscription, and the Distich on Kenelm).

The format of Clayton's edition is uncluttered, with no macrons, no footnotes, and restrained editorial punctuation. Prose translations appear on the facing page. Preceding the texts, an eighteen-page introduction acquaints the reader with each poem's subject matter and the material context of its preservation, whether in a manuscript codex or on an inscribed artefact. The end-matter includes a concise statement of Clayton's editorial method, a list of her emendations of the Old English texts, seventeen pages of commentary on the poems, a selective bibliography, and an index, chiefly of proper names.

As befits a series intended for non-specialist readers, Clayton avoids controversial emendations in her edited texts and tendentious interpretations in her translated texts, which in turn makes it unnecessary to report extensively on earlier textual criticism in the endnotes. In some instances, significant editorial intervention and explanation are unavoidable, as in Descent into Hell, which survives only in damaged leaves at the end of the Exeter Book: in such cases, Clayton's translations smooth over the difficulties for the benefit of the casual reader, while concise endnotes clarify her editorial decisions for readers interested in the relationship between the printed text and the manuscript text.

I found much to admire and enjoy in Clayton's prose translations. With the Old English text readily available on the facing page, the Modern English rendition need not imitate it by way of archaizing diction and strained syntax. Instead, Clayton uses spare, unpretentious language that captures the tone of each poem while communicating its subject matter with terrific clarity. This is no small feat since the tone varies widely among these poems, from the exultant prayers of Advent and The Descent into Hell and the understated humor of Andreas to the dire admonitions of Christ in Judgment and the surreal psychological turmoil that dominates The Dream of the Rood. Moreover, several poems in the volume are more lyric or contemplative than narrative, and therefore more difficult to render accessibly in sensible Modern English syntax, but Clayton has made the meditative and highly typological content of Advent, for instance, as comprehensible as the more linear narrative of Andreas. While Clayton judiciously prioritizes clarity ahead of artistry, certain nuances of her translation style will serve specialist readers particularly well. For example, where the Advent-poet uses the Latin epithet sancta twice in his Old English lyrics (lines 50 and 88), Clayton retains the Latin form in her translation so that it will not escape the reader of the Modern English version that these two lines of Advent are macaronic. Clayton tends to translate recurring words and phrases in a consistent fashion rather than varying her word choice to suit different contexts; I found this tendency extremely helpful, since reading her Modern English renditions made me aware of diction patterns in the Old English texts that had escaped my attention when reading other translations or working through the Old English.

Although the introductory materials are quite slender, Clayton's formidable expertise with Old English adaptations of apocryphal and hagiographical narratives enables her to orient readers very efficiently. Those who are new to Old English poetry will appreciate that the introduction treats each poem individually under a separate section-heading, usually providing a synopsis of its narrative or contemplative content, highlighting notable structural or stylistic features, and summarizing scholarly opinion about the poem's sources and dating. The introduction brings to light nuances in the poetry that might otherwise go unnoticed, such as the two episodes of "comedic incongruity" in Andreas (xviii), or the fact that the central concern of Guthlac A "is not in the telling of the story of [St. Guthlac's] life so much as in the psychology of eremitic and monastic lives and in spiritual warfare for the soul" (xiv). Clayton's expertise enables her to offer observations that even specialist readers will find illuminating and surprising: she reports, for instance, that "Guthlac A is the only Old English poem on a saint to have no direct source" (xiii); she boldly adduces textual parallels supporting the hypothesis that the author of Andreas had read and deliberately imitated Beowulf (xviii and 379-85 passim); she relays Jessica Brantley's opinion that the sequence of events treated in The Descent of Hell is likely owed to pictorial rather than textual sources (xvi). In an understated manner, Clayton's commentary even provides a corrective to distorted perceptions that Old English specialists may harbor because of the important role that a few canonical texts play in our teaching and our scholarship. I was surprised to read, for instance, that "[t]he paucity of saint's lives in Old English poetry is striking. Apart from the two lines on Kenelm, Guthlac is the only Anglo-Saxon saint to feature in Old English poetry, and Andrew is the only individual apostle" (vii).

The endnotes, too, are brief and selective, but Clayton has done a marvelous job of anticipating the sort of questions that her readers will most urgently need to have answered while they are reading the poems. The notes to Advent foreground the Latin O-antiphons upon which the Old English poem elaborates, which I found useful, as it is easier to keep track of the objectives of the brief Latin prayers than to follow the more meandering trajectory and multi-layered symbolism of the Old English. In several poems, notably Advent and The Descent into Hell, Clayton's notes are indispensable for keeping track of who is speaking.

Two features of the introduction significantly enhance this volume's suitability as a textbook for upper-level literature courses such as an honors undergraduate seminar or an MA-level survey of medieval literature. First, Clayton often calls attention to images, narratives, and distinctive vocabulary that recur across multiple texts: for instance, the repeated use of the interjection eala in Advent and in The Descent into Hell, or the personification of Christ's cross as a co-sufferer during the Passion in both The Dream of the Rood and Christ in Judgment. In this way the introduction lends a sense of coherence to a group of poems that are, in most respects, highly diverse (notwithstanding their loose thematic connections) and thereby provides starting-points for student discussion and research. Second, Clayton foregrounds the material conditions of each poem's survival and provides a concise, accessible introduction to the manuscript codices and inscribed crosses that transmit each of the poems, encouraging readers who are so inclined--especially student readers--to engage with questions such as when, why, how, by whom, and for whom these poems were composed and copied.

I applaud Clayton's choice to apply the editorial titles Advent and Christ in Judgment to the first and third poems of the Exeter Book respectively; these titles are gaining traction among Anglo-Saxonists after many decades in which most editors have saddled these poems with the unhelpful names Christ I and Christ III. On the other hand, it seems unnecessary to change the title of the widely anthologized Dream of the Rood to something as bland and Latinate as The Vision of the Cross. To the best of my knowledge, no other publications employ the latter title, which means that student readers and scholars in other fields are going to find it difficult to use indexes and bibliographies to find further commentary on the poem, unless they are eagle-eyed enough to spot Clayton's brief mention of the usual editorial title (xviii).

Because the DOML series demands that the annotations be kept so brief, readers will inevitably identify topics that they wish Clayton had been able to treat in more detail. For example, if I were to assign this book to an advanced undergraduate enrolled in an Old English class, or to a graduate student whose specialization lies outside the field of Anglo-Saxon literature but who might use this volume to prepare for comprehensive exams, I would feel obliged to supplement Clayton's commentary by pointing out that many specialists do not attribute Guthlac B to Cynewulf. Clayton states simply that "recent critical opinion attributes the second [Exeter Book poem about Guthlac], Guthlac B, to Cynewulf, and so it has been edited in the Cynewulf volume in this series" (xiii). Understandably, Clayton wished not to undermine the reader's confidence in the principle of selection behind the poems included in Bjork's DOML volume, but it would have been useful to refer the reader to a few studies that support Bjork's decision as well as some recent scholarship that still adheres to the long-held view that the only poems attributable to Cynewulf are those that contain his runic signature. Elsewhere, missed opportunities to suggest further reading occur when Clayton states that "[m]uch has been written on" lines 99-106 of The Descent into Hell (376), or that "there has been much interesting work recently" on the significance of the landscape in Andreas for an Anglo-Saxon audience (xvii). Statements such as these cry out for citations of at least one or two studies that discuss the matter more fully. I was also surprised that the endnotes offer no discussion of the Ruthwell Cross and Brussels Cross inscriptions. Surely a non-specialist audience would benefit from a few introductory words about the runic text from which the Ruthwell Cross inscription has been transliterated into the Roman alphabet (especially since the transliteration produces characters not normally seen in edited Old English texts, such as ŋ and œ), as well as directions to consult any of the reliable scholarly introductions to Anglo-Saxon runes and richly illustrated books on Anglo-Saxon art that show standing stone crosses and processional crosses.

However, any desiderata that I can identify are insignificant compared with Mary Clayton's success in making these ten poems not only accessible but also appealing to a potentially broad readership. Her lucid translations and pithy annotations invite general readers, students, and scholars alike to appreciate the artistry of these poems and to use them as starting-points for contemplating categories such as narrative and lyric, Latin and Germanic, Christian and heroic, Scripture and apocrypha, codex and inscription.

Copyright (c) 2014 Leslie Lockett

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