17.03.01, Louviot, Direct Speech in Beowulf and Other Old English Narrative Poems

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Christina Heckman

The Medieval Review 17.03.01

Louviot, Elise. Direct Speech in Beowulf and Other Old English Narrative Poems. Woodbridge: D.S. Bewer, 2016. pp. vii, 285. ISBN: 978-1-84384-434-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Christina Heckman
Augusta University
checkman@augusta.edu

Louviot's study pursues a worthy goal, arguing that Direct Speech in Old English poetry must be understood on its own terms, i.e. within the context of Anglo-Saxon poetic conventions, insofar as we can understand them, rather than those of contemporary readers. Her monograph examines "preconceptions regarding the nature and function of Direct Speech" that "still [lurk] behind recent scholarship," "namely that it is intrinsically connected to characterisation and the expression of individualised points of view" (2). At multiple points, Louviot uncovers the tendency of critics to interpret Old English poetry through unacknowledged or perhaps unconscious expectations about setting and characters. It is tempting to view Beowulf's confrontation with Unferth or Juliana's conflict with the demon as dramatic narrative events, interpersonal conflicts occurring in specific narrative contexts. But as Louviot emphasizes early in her introduction, Direct Speech in Old English poetry is a literary construction rather than a reproduction of utterances in actual speech situations. She adopts an analytical view toward Direct Speech to examine its nuances as conventional speech, i.e. as a set of carefully organized constructed utterances, rather than as actual dialogue supporting the seemingly authentic representation of relationships between characters who are "developed" in the modern sense. Her study encourages readers to consider such Direct Speech in a new way and to examine their own preconceptions and preferences, which might prioritize the pleasures of modern reading--the drama of verbal battle, defiant confrontation, the depth and nuance of literary personae--over the conventions valued by Anglo-Saxon readers and writers. For that reason alone, the book makes a significant contribution to research on Old English poetry.

Louviot examines her material by testing a series of hypotheses relating to contemporary readers' assumptions about Old English poetry. After defining "Direct Speech" in the introduction, she assesses its dynamics in poetic context in chapter 2, "The Form of Direct Speech" and in chapter 3, "The Content and Context of Direct Speech." Chapters 4-5 articulate an approach to subjectivity, "Archetypal Subjectivity," which Louviot considers most appropriate for Old English poetry. Chapters 6-7 examine the contemporary tendency to prioritize narrative voice and point of view, proposing an understanding of these concepts more suitable to Anglo-Saxon poetic conventions. Finally, in chapter 7, Louviot critiques the tendency to view irony as central to such conventions, adopting a very specific definition to re-examine irony's supposed prominence in the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this study is in its foundations: Louviot's nuanced and thorough explanation of "Direct Speech" in relation to "Represented Speech" and "Reported Speech." These definitions respond to what Louviot describes as "the traditional view on Direct Speech" as discussed by W.M. Hart, Frederick Klaeber, and A.C. Bartlett. In the view of these critics, Louviot concludes, "Direct Speech probably should not be formal at all times and...it definitely should help to characterise and promote the action" (3). Louviot counters this notion with evidence from studies of Direct Speech, arguing that it should not be considered "the (written) reproduction of an initial (oral) speech" (8). She prefers "'Represented Speech'" to "'Reported Speech,'" since no actual reporting takes place in such utterances; all poetic speech is representation (10). Neither is Direct Speech identical to quotation. Louviot diverges from Plato's emphasis on imitative speech in favor of Aristotle's more nuanced acknowledgement of multiple forms of represented speech. She later turns to pragmatics and discourse theory to emphasize the conventional use of "deictic markers" (13) in poetic Direct Speech. Louviot here situates her claims among the expected critics and theorists: Walter Ong, Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, and Carol Braun Pasternack, as well as Bakhtin, Grice, and J.L. Austin in the later chapters. Ultimately, Louviot redefines Direct Speech as "the actualised representation of a speech within another discourse (for example a narrative), achieved through the use of certain enunciation markers...which promote the illusion that the situations of utterance of the represented speech and the representing discourse coincide" (14). This separation between speech and situation of utterance is interesting and crucial to Louviot's argument. What proceeds in subsequent chapters is a very intricate and nuanced examination of discourse markers and other conventions of Direct Speech in a carefully selected corpus of Old English poetry, leading to new interpretations of pivotal scenes in Beowulf and other poems, including Genesis, Christ and Satan, Juliana, Elene and The Battle of Maldon.

The radical separation between situation and speech, however, has its drawbacks. In Louviot's study, it leads to a rather significant dismissal of dialogue in Old English poems, which seems to diminish the impact of the very episodes Louviot discusses: the interchanges of Beowulf and Unferth, Beowulf and Hrothgar, Juliana and the demon, Elene and Judas Cyriacus. Louviot remarks on the "relative lack of interest in Old English poetry in dialogue," since "the speeches are not organised into a complex interactive and interconnected structure. The basic structural unit is not the exchange but the speech itself" (61). Louviot's claim that Anglo-Saxon poets wrote not dialogue, with its required "interaction" and "reciprocal action," but rather series of speeches (30) seems to overstate the point and to bring a contemporary critic's (Louviot's) expectations about dialogue to bear on pre-modern poetry that need not adhere to such modern views. Thus Louviot seems to enact the very tendency she critiques in the work of other interpreters. While at many points her argument is new and compelling, her perspective is sometimes not so different from that of other contemporary critics. In her introduction, she aims to "re-examine traditional views on Direct Speech so that we can better deconstruct them and leave them behind" (2). Frequently, however, they are not left behind, and traditional methods and perspectives are prominent throughout Louviot's analysis. Preferring Aristotle's view to Plato's, while compelling and useful in the context of this study, does not constitute a radical departure from "traditional views." Louviot's point that Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition is by nature "distorted," "multiple and partial" (22) is a good one. But the critical tradition suffers from its own distortions, and some are reproduced here.

Those distortions could be addressed through a more thorough engagement with recent scholarship, especially on rhetoric and poetry; a few gaps are noticeable in Louviot's approach and bibliography. It is puzzling that the practice of senna in Old Norse literature should be rather thoroughly examined here (31-34, 84), while the widely recognized Anglo-Saxon practice of flit, defined by Ælfric during the period and prominent in scholarship on Anglo-Saxon poetry, is omitted. Although Louviot discusses the problem of dating Old English poetry and mentions R.D. Fulk's work on the subject (15-16), Thomas Bredehoft's book on metrics and his poetic study are not included. Louviot also addresses the impact of rhetoric on Old English poetry, questioning its importance and claiming that "the impact of rhetorical treatises [including those of Plato] on Old English poetic practice has yet to be demonstrated" (5). The impact of such treatises on Old English prose, however, especially homiletics, has been quite thoroughly examined, with important implications for poetry as well. Given the rather direct connection between rhetorical theory and Direct Speech, one would expect a more thorough discussion of Helmut Gneuss's work on language as well as some reference to studies on rhetoric and homiletics by Gabriele Knappe, Samantha Zacher, and Donald Scragg, among others; these latter scholars do not appear in Louviot's bibliography. Recent influential studies on Anglo-Saxon poetry are missing as well: while the studies of Janie Steen and Britt Mize appear, Renee Trilling's does not, despite the latter's emphasis on the contemporary reading of Anglo-Saxon texts, a topic directly relevant to Louviot's project. In general, scholarship from the 1980s and 1990s is very strongly represented in Louviot's study, but the inclusion of more recent research is rather selective with some notable omissions.

Despite its few limitations, this book makes a thoughtful, detailed, and nuanced contribution to the examination of Direct Speech in Old English poetry. Work remains to be done, including a redefinition of dialogue in Anglo-Saxon poetics, since Louviot has questioned its importance here. The re-examination of irony that Louviot recommends in chapter 7 also provides a possible direction for subsequent studies of Beowulf and other poems. In this study, Louviot has produced very careful and stimulating scholarship that raises new questions for the field.

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