16.02.40, Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England

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Mark Amodio

The Medieval Review 16.02.40

Thornbury, Emily V. Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. pp. 322. ISBN: 9781107051980 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Mark Amodio
Vassar College
amodio@vassar.edu

In Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, Emily V. Thornbury works to collapse the distinction between the Anglo-Latin and vernacular traditions by arguing that poets, both those who composed in Latin and those who composed in the vernacular, engaged in similar processes, shared similar concerns and goals, and were subject to similar social and artistic influences. The model upon which this capacious and frequently enlightening study rests is that of a literate Anglo-Saxon who composes Latin verse. As Thornbury details, this figure is relatively well attested, especially in contrast to those of his brethren who composed in the vernacular and who remain extremely shadowy figures about whom much has been surmised but little established, including their names. The Anglo-Saxon poet of Thornbury's title is someone who, like his (or much less likely, her) modern descendants, is a highly conscious member of local and more global poetic communities who is, moreover, firmly situated within a richly and consciously intertextual environment and keenly aware of his audience's judgment. In Thornbury's view, being a poet in Anglo-Saxon England is to be part of conscious literary community, one with a shared aesthetic and one in which, as she demonstrates, lines of influence can be clearly and, in some cases, indisputably traced from poet to poet through the textual record, especially when the evidence of where and with whom many poets studied is taken into consideration.

Even those poets who are not directly situated within this community fall within the circle of its influence (and judgment) as they work in isolation, Thornbury argues, to teach themselves how to be a poet from the written exemplars to which they have access. Thornbury's account of the complex expressive economy within which Anglo-Saxon poets composed Latin poetry is nuanced, well supported, and compelling, and in calling attention to just how important this economy's equally complex social dimension was to its development, she adds significantly to our understanding of both it and the channels by which it was disseminated. When applied to the Anglo-Latin poets she examines, her approach works extremely well as her close, careful, well documented analysis sheds considerable light on the processes through which the Anglo-Latin tradition was formed, refined, and spread throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. When she turns to the vernacular tradition, however, she is on less firm ground because the interpretive model she develops for and very effectively applies to the Anglo-Latin tradition fits the Anglo-Saxon vernacular tradition neither quite so comfortably nor quite so well.

While the practices and concerns of some poets composing in the vernacular may align well with those of their counterparts composing in Latin (this is especially true of what she labels "late-Southern verse" [9]), the same cannot be said of all (perhaps many) of those who produced vernacular verse in the period, and, as a result, Thornbury's taking the practices and concerns of Anglo-Latin poets as foundational to all Anglo-Saxon poets makes this study less balanced than one wishes it were; whereas she anchors her arguments concerning the Anglo-Latin tradition by, for example, tracing Aldhelm's influence on those directly or indirectly within his ambit, her arguments about the practices and influences of poets working in the vernacular remain, as they must, highly speculative. Instead of relying so heavily on the one-size-fits-all approach she adopts, had she broadened her perspective by considering some of the other critical models that have been developed as ways of understanding the specialized, autochthonous poetics within which vernacular poetry was produced and received throughout the period, this study would have rested on an even sturdier foundation than it does.

After an introduction in which she deftly sketches the contours of the sociolinguistic approach she will employ and establishes the importance of communities to both the poetic process since "[v]erse is a continual negotiation between the individual and the group" (5) and in the formation of poets, who were "deeply concerned with anticipating and managing the reaction of hearers and readers" (6), Thornbury turns in her first chapter, "What was a poet?," to an examination of all the words for "poet" extant in Old English and Anglo-Latin, the most extensive such inquiry since Jeff Opland's of some thirty-five years ago. In addition to supplying useful lists of the Old English and Anglo-Latin words for poets along with their frequency of occurrence, she offers a welcome corrective to Opland's work for while Thornbury notes that Opland focused "purely on the oral poet" (20; her emphasis), her work more broadly seeks to uncover those "whom contemporaries or successors identified as poets; how (or whether) poets self-identified as such; and the general tenor of references to poets" (20). Since the term scop (pl. scopas) accounts for fully 115 of the 183 occurrences of the six Old English words for poet Thornbury identifies (Table 1.2, p. 21), and since this word "occurs in all forms of text" and generally refers to someone who composed verse, she argues that it "should be considered the 'normal' Old English term for a poet" (21) and no longer confined, as it has long been, to describe only Anglo-Saxon oral poets. Her discussion of the Anglo-Latin words for poets centers largely on the few poets in that tradition who self-identify as poets (the list of those who do not self-identify as poets includes Bede, Boniface, and Wulfstan Cantor [26]), chiefly Alcuin, who takes on a "Classical by-name" (27), a practice in which his associates and students also engaged (Alcuin's was "Flaccus"). But since she notes that it "was uncommon to speak of oneself as a poet at all, and even more uncommon to designate one's contemporaries as poets" (34), Thornbury argues that the category 'poet' thus did not figure among the "primary social signifiers for determining...status" (35), but was "something one could hope to be called after death" (35).

In her second chapter, "Who became poets?," Thornbury seeks to define the "specific cultural contexts" out of which poets emerged, and she identifies "four social roles commonly played by people who became poets:...teachers; scribes, musicians, and courtiers" (39). Thornbury argues further that the "surviving biographical information about those people who were known to have composed verse" (36) needs to be carefully considered because those who composed poetry "often did so as an integral part of their roles in the community" (37). The "three surviving metrical treatises from early Anglo-Saxon England" (40)--all of which are in Latin--occupy a central position in Thornbury's thinking both because they "became a template for future generations' work within England" (41) and because they "were predicated on the notion that becoming a Latin poet was something that happened only after absorbing the works of a great many other poets" (46). Thornbury offers a useful and detailed survey of "the works the Anglo-Saxon textbook writers helped their students read" (46), among which are what she labels the "core curriculum" (works by Sedulius, Prudentius, Aldhlem, Bede, Boethius, and others) as well as biblical epic and literary enigmata. She makes a convincing case for the literate processes through which Anglo-Saxon poets composing in Latin learned their craft from teachers utilizing texts, but, as she notes, "[w]e know much less about the place of poetry in the education of monoglot English speakers than we do about Latin" (61). In addition to teacher, scribe, musician, and courtier are the other social positions Thornbury argues poets occupied, and she asserts that in all of them becoming a poet was a path to advancement because being a poet "helped them to play their parts in the community more effectively" (94).

In her third chapter, "The poet in the community," Thornbury shifts her focus from the social positions of individual poets to the "reciprocal effects of individuals on (and in) groups" because having "a community to tell good poetry from bad" (95) is, in her view, an essential part of becoming a poet in Anglo-Saxon England. The judgment of these communities of "discerning readers and critics" is "perceptible to us in the imprint they have left upon the poems themselves, as poets anticipate and attempt to manage their audience's reactions" (100). Thornbury turns to Wulfstan Cantor and Æthilwulf to demonstrate that there were just such communities of readers and critics in the Anglo-Latin tradition, and she follows this with a series of sensitive and often insightful close readings of the dynamics of the poetic voice, culminating in her extended analysis of the Battle of Maldon, a poem whose "embedded expectations of its audience--and the means by which it seeks to anticipate and direct that audience's judgment" allows us, Thornbury argues, to "perceive some features of a late Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetic community" (110) as well as the degree to which that community's evaluation and judgment of poetry shapes the poetry itself. Thornbury traces a similar emphasis on evaluation and judgment in the works of Cynewulf, who not only is acutely aware of God's role as judge, but also "petitions his modig reader in the same terms that this reader is asked to petition the Creator for help on the Day of Judgment. The reader, in fact, is made a kind of co-creator" (125). In the chapter's final section, Thornbury turns from the "lost social groups" (135) she had postulated for the vernacular poems and poets she explores to the social network that has been reconstructed for Aldhelm of Malmesbury--whose influence on Anglo-Latin verse is both pervasive and well documented--because "Aldhelm's connections can help explain how his verse became paradigmatic for others so quickly and persistently" (135). The schools that were established in the late seventh century at places such as Malmesbury, Canterbury, and Wearmouth-Jarrow were especially important locales, not simply because students came under the tutelage of Aldhelm and other teachers, but because they served as "centres from which groups of people spread out, bearing their newly acquired information" (158). Aldhelm's network, Thornbury argues, allows us to "see in action some of the consequences of teachers becoming poets: epistolary verse, as well as gifts of his books to far-flung elite connections, helped him to maintain his ties to kinsfolk, fellow students, and former students across the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms" (159). While there is ample evidence to support this argument, the same cannot be said of the vernacular authors Thornbury would like to cast in the same light: she may be correct in thinking that Cynewulf was also a teacher and that Maldon may speak "directly to the members of one community" (160), but, as she notes, no concrete evidence has yet been uncovered to support these speculations.

In her fourth chapter, "The poet alone," Thornbury turns her attention to those poets who, she argues, learned their craft in isolation from the sorts of communities she explored in the preceding chapters. Despite lacking the "guidance of a community," these poets nonetheless strive as best they can to "infer from their reading what the rules ought to be" (162). Thornbury further argues that even isolated poets attempt, with varying degrees of success, to emulate the poetry they encountered only in writing for even without a community or teacher to correct them, "[a] reader who didn't know the rules, but who saw there were rules, would be forced to make deductions from the poetry he had" (174; her emphasis). In Christ and Satan, one of her case studies in this chapter, Thornbury finds evidence of two different poets at work, "one indistinguishable from poets working within a community" and another who "tiptoe[s] among rules he does not quite understand, clinging to the guideline of repeatable formulas" (182). Isolated from the community of poets and at times led "astray" by his sources, this latter poet, whom Thornbury dubs the "Renovator," nonetheless "was able to use pre-existing material to piece together a poem of respectable length" (182), albeit of very uneven quality. While her second case study in this chapter, the Venerable Bede, "must have been exceptionally well-connected" because he "had the temperament of an autodidact" and possessed a "radical scepticism about received opinion" (184), he nevertheless "often uses authoritative example as a doorway to deliberate originality" (187). Rather than being classified as a "poet alone," Bede might better be understood as a poet who chooses to go it alone; his departures, metrical and otherwise, are not the result of the sorts of misconstruals and misunderstandings under which Thornbury contends other isolated poets labor, but are, in her view, rather the products of conscious decisions that reveal his "passion for uniqueness" and witness his "profound reluctance to simply adopt the words or style of earlier poets" (193) as he formed and developed his "own ideas of poetry" (194). Bede's understanding of the Latin metrics with which he worked certainly outstrips that of the second of the two poets who Thornbury contends are responsible for Christ and Satan, her "Redactor," but it remains unclear why the latter's innovations and departures from what she believes to be well established group standards should be labeled failures and why his "passion for uniqueness" should earn him criticism rather than praise.

In chapter 5, "Spectral communities," Thornbury examines three types of "hybrid states: isolated communities, individuals within communities, and communities in the process of formation" as she extends her argument concerning the ways in which "poets' experience and practice could be affected by those around them" (199). The first of these communities is well represented by Boniface and his circle, and as Thornbury argues, "the peculiar Latinity developed by Boniface and his correspondents had many characteristics of an isolated dialect" (202). In her second case study, she argues that "Wulfstan Cantor's idiolect would have been recognizable as such to contemporaries" (216) who would "plausibly have found" his poetic voice to be "distinctive" (217). Thornbury's final case study focuses on what she labels "the Southern mode," one that diverges from "classical poetry" and that utilizes a variety of techniques (among them "end-stopping, new structural mechanisms, and the use of deliberately restricted vocabulary") that provided Anglo-Saxon vernacular poets with "a conspicuously non-nativizing medium for representing foreign texts" (224). Texts composed in this mode include, most notably, the so-called Meters of Boethius, the Menologium, and the first fifty psalms of the Paris Psalter. In explaining that the "Southern mode succeeded by not adapting Latin materials to earlier poetic conventions" as Anglo-Saxon vernacular poets did for hundreds of years, but rather because it "constructed an illusion of foreignness and, thus, authenticity" (225; her emphasis), Thornbury calls welcome attention to a segment of the vernacular poetic corpus that is frequently overlooked, but it remains to be seen whether her claim that the "Southern mode...represents the apotheosis of Old English verse, not its downfall" (224) will gain wide currency. For those who see, as Thornbury does, the vernacular tradition as being heavily indebted to the Anglo-Latin tradition, such a claim may well resonate positively, but for those who see the vernacular tradition rather as being autochthonous, Thornbury's claim may be somewhat puzzling. Some may even be moved to ask why, if the vernacular tradition's aim is to replicate Latin poetry, does it only truly begin to do so very late in a life-span of several centuries and why does it strive to distance itself from its own past practices and emulate poetry that is far removed, in terms of its poetics, stylistics, and metrics, from its own expressive economy?

The remarkably varied prose and poetic texts extant from the Anglo-Saxon period attest to the vitality of the period's literary tradition, or to be more precise, its traditions since alongside the important and vibrant vernacular tradition there existed an equally important and vibrant Anglo-Latin tradition. Thornbury's theoretical model may apply more fully and effectively to the Latin tradition than it does to the vernacular one, but readers of this book will come away with a greatly enhanced understanding of the literate culture that produced those Anglo-Saxon poets who wrote Anglo-Latin verse. Readers will also come away with a new set of questions to ask of the vernacular tradition. The Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition may not ultimately prove to be the sort of unified entity Thornbury postulates, but she makes a persuasive case regarding the place of the Anglo-Latin tradition within the broader contours of the verbal art produced in Anglo-Saxon England.

Two appendices, in which Thornbury very usefully compiles "A handlist of named authors of Old English or Latin verse in Anglo-Saxon England (Appendix I) and of "Skalds working in Anglo-Saxon England" (Appendix II) round out this engaging interrogation of Anglo-Saxon poets, figures who, despite producing copious amounts of vernacular and Latin verse, left scant traces of themselves.

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