The Medieval Review 15.04.05


Lenz, Karmen. Ræd and Frofer: Christian Poetics in the Old English "Froferboc" Meters. Costerus New Series, 195. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2012. Pp. xiv, 130. €39.00 (paperback). ISBN: 9789042035539 (paperback).



Reviewed by:


Britt Mize
Texas A&M University
bmize@tamu.edu

Karmen Lenz's Ræd and Frofer might be understood as a complement to Nicole Discenza's 2005 book The King's English, the most recent holistic reading of the Old English Boethius before Lenz's. Discenza had focused on the first, all-prose Old English adaptation of Boethius's prosimetrical Latin De consolatione Philosophiae. Lenz now offers a similarly holistic treatment of the later, prosimetrical Old English version, whose alternation of verse and prose chapters loosely imitates the form of Boethius's Latin original. When Malcolm Godden and Susan Irvine's critical edition of the Old English Boethius appeared in 2009, Lenz's work was already well advanced, and the difficulty of her project at the time she began it should be noted: all previous editions had extracted the poetic passages and presented them as a separate sequence rather than intercalating them with the prose chapters, making it nearly impossible in practice to keep sight of the prosimetrical Boethius as a single continuous work and to read it according to its manuscript arrangement in London, British Library, MS Cotton Otho A.vi. The publication of the Godden and Irvine edition, which restores the textual sequence of the Cotton version, was a boon to Lenz's project in its late phases, of course, and is the edition from which she cites. (She refers to the Boethius throughout with the Old English title Froferboc; here I retain the conventional editorial title.)

Lenz gives attention to both literary and intellectual aspects of the prosimetrical Boethius, as it deserves. Early commentators on the poetic portions (the Meters) regarded them as pedestrian versifications of the corresponding chapters of the all-prose version. Lenz's approach contributes to a growing scholarly awareness that in adapting the earlier prose, the Meters often exhibit their own poetic purpose and conform well to the Anglo-Saxon aesthetic sensibilities that we infer from the rest of the surviving corpus. More than this, the verse chapters of the Boethius participate together with the prose ones in a carefully engineered trajectory of the main character's education and moral development to which they are integral, as Lenz sets out to show. I found particularly adept her first main chapter's guided tour of the prosimetrical version's structure, concerning Boethius's progress of thought and the sometimes confusing conceptual relationships among the Boethius character, Wisdom, Mod, and Gesceadwisnes.

The other three chapters are intelligent close readings of several thematic threads in the prosimetrical Boethius. Lenz first considers aspects of the world-view expressed in the Meters that help communicate the stages of the Boethius character's thought and naturalize the translation of the De consolatione to its Anglo-Saxon context. Here she focuses on strategies in the poems for establishing sympathy between Mod and Wisdom, with emphasis on imagery of nature and of chaos and order, and for developing the political dimension of the work toward applicability to a man of worldly affairs as Boethius is portrayed to be. Next Lenz turns to the language and images by which the Meters conceptualize and explain inward meditation, such as will enable Mod's fuller comprehension of virtue, and with it, maturation of his perspective as Wisdom draws him closer to full moral participation in the divine order. The final chapter concentrates on clusters of environmental and architectural imagery by which the poetic portions of the prosimetrical Boethius describe the virtuous soul's destination in or habitation with God, and their inversion in visions of decay and destruction representing the disordered, immoral alternative to learning the lessons that Wisdom delivers.

It must have been tempting at some point to organize Ræd and Frofer as a sequential reading of the Cotton Boethius, moving through each successive Meter and its prose context. Lenz's choice instead to build chapters around major constellations of ideas and motifs, ranging widely in the prosimetrical version for each, is wise in its cognizance that while the Boethius does have a linear shape, the major steps in the protagonist's progress are few and slow. Her approach based on patterns of image and concept lets her avoid lingering over portions of the text that have little to tell us about the stages of Boethius's development with which she is most concerned, allows her to produce sharp analyses of the Meters she foregrounds, and gives her the freedom to select only the most meaningful turning points or the most indicative textual moments for discussion. I admire the conciseness of this series of chapters: it would have been easy to write a longer book, but also a less readable one, by determined inclusion of each Meter.

Signs of cut corners in the book's production by Rodopi appear: a scattering of typographical errors, omissions, or repetitions (a full sentence is repeated on p. 3), and infelicities of word choice like the statement that certain earlier works "echo" a later one (p. 97), would have been eliminated by the careful copyediting that academic publishers should always provide.

A more important shortcoming is Lenz's reluctance to either answer current doubts about Alfredian authorship of the Boethius or else reconcile her analysis to those doubts in some way. I recognize the awkwardness of seeing relevant new work appear as one's own project approaches completion, and it is understandable that Lenz would not subject her perspective to a complete overhaul. Still, Alfredian authorship of the Boethius's Meters has never been taken for granted by all scholars, and in 2007 Malcolm Godden articulated in print a reasoned view that there is no strong evidence for King Alfred's personal authorship of any text. A book published in 2012 could surely manage more than a passing comment that "despite mounting arguments to the contrary," to which Lenz gives references, she will treat the prosimetrical Boethius "as [the work] of Alfred the Great" (2).

Readers can compensate with continual mental adjustments to the book's phrasing but should not have to. Thus when Lenz, taking a cue from David Pratt, offers this paragraph--

"In the Froferboc, Alfred examines the crisis of faith in the man engaged in worldly affairs. Indeed, Alfred identifies the character of Boethius as such a man, referring to him as an official (heretoga) and judge (domere)... A psychological tension between the exterior life of the Boethian character with manifold earthly cares and his interior spiritual life runs throughout the Froferboc." (4)

--all I object to is the distracting and unnecessary attachment to the person of Alfred. Even at a late stage of revision, statements like these might have been refocused so as to emphasize the Boethius's rhetorical effect rather than the personal intentions of a known author. In order for the worldly engagement of this text's Boethius character to guide analysis, for example, it is enough to adopt the less questionable premise that the Boethius and other works in the same broadly "Alfredian" group emerged from politically elite circles in the expanding West Saxon domain, during or relatively soon after Alfred's reign. Brief remarks on pp. 30–31 indicate Lenz's awareness of this option; because few if any of her views on the work's themes and function would need to be altered, one wonders why in final revision she did not reword accordingly throughout.

Lenz argues that the prosimetrical translation of Boethius's Latin converts a basically philosophical to a basically theological perspective, makes sophisticated adjustments to the narrative structure of the original, and adds or changes some features with application to contemporary Anglo-Saxon society in mind. These claims about the Old English Boethius's relationship to the Latin original (for each of which she appropriately acknowledges precedents) serve as the backdrop for her understanding of the poems' role in the prosimetrical Boethius as a whole. Interestingly, Lenz sees the Meters as being more directly engaged with Boethius's Latin metra than have most scholars, whose general opinion is that the verse chapters of the prosimetrical version usually depend only on the corresponding prose chapters that had been previously translated from the metra. Lenz's analysis in itself does not rely heavily on this belief, and because it is not central to her purposes as she defines them, she does not often provide the text of Boethius's metra or the Old English prose version for comparison (although in quoting from the Meters she does italicize elements that are new to that version).

As a side-effect of this reasonable choice, there is little opportunity for a reader to give consideration along the way to Lenz's view of the Meters as less mediated by the prose than is usually imagined: an opportunity that would hold value for many and would suffuse her analysis with significant additional implications (not least for the question of authorship). If there is one topic that I would like to have seen furnish an additional early chapter, it is this. But I take seriously Lenz's perspective on the Old English poems' connection to the Latin ones, as it is based on extensive comparative study, and I hope she will publish a sequel to Ræd and Frofer, whether monograph or article, demonstrating that the compositional debt is greater than Mark Griffith's list of correspondences suggests (in his chapter on "The Composition of the Metres" in the introduction to the Godden and Irvine edition). If Lenz is right, it is a line of research well worth pursuing.



Copyright (c) 2015 Britt Mize



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