Old English studies of the past two decades has worked hard to dismantle the monolithic dichotomies that characterized its practice in the twentieth century. As a result, few scholars today view Old English verse through the traditional binaries of Christian/Germanic, religious/secular, oral/literate, and so on, but rather seek to tease out the tangled threads of cultural influence that each individual poem represents. This is the task that Heather Maring undertakes in Signs that Sing: Hybrid Poetics in Old English Verse. In this book, Maring suggests that the deployment of multiple modes of signification within Old English poetry, combining oral-traditional poetics, literate aesthetics, and liturgical experience, produce a rich and layered poetic experience for readers and auditors of these poems. Audiences could make verbal and symbolic connections across genres of experience: literate poems could evoke iconic tropes from the oral tradition, for example, and performances of written texts could echo ritual traditions familiar from years of Christian practice. Most importantly, Maring credits Anglo-Saxon audiences with the ability to consider multiple modes of signification simultaneously: they did not understand Dream of the Rood as either Christian or heroic, but as both at once. The Anglo-Saxon audience Maring imagines is thus made up of sophisticated readers and listeners who make meaning out of poetic texts across multiple registers.
Maring launches her exploration of this multimodal interpretive environment with a reexamination of the traditional dichotomies that separate Old English literature into old/new, oral/written, and heroic/religious discourses. She traces a critical history that finds structural resonances across these binaries, arguing that "the experiential knowledge of each individual audience makes possible the ongoing creation, maintenance, and occasional transformation of metonymic meaning in relationship to specific register(s) of communication" (19). This insight, drawn from traditional oral poetics, makes the metonym Maring's primary focus, as its operation explains how vastly different poetic and rhetorical devices can invoke one another, not just within oral traditions, but across hybrid oral/literate traditions and even into the realm of what Maring terms "ritual poetics."
After an introductory Chapter One sets up these parameters, Maring goes on to explore three idioms from oral tradition that, she argues, become metaphorized when they are deployed in literary contexts with different moral or ideological investments. In each instance, she offers an example of how the idiom can operate in a written context just as it would in an oral one, but then she shows how written texts can also uproot and invert the idiom by invoking it alongside literate practices of reflection and re-reading. Chapter Two explores the "devouring-the-dead" theme in such texts as Beowulf and the Soul and Body poems. In these texts, the lexemes gifre and graedig work metonymically to invoke the body's impermanence and its dissolution in death, though in distinct ideological contexts. Chapter Three introduces the "lord-retainer" theme as a typescene with common motifs, such as oaths of loyalty and generosity, which migrates from oral tradition to comfortably inhabit the literary realm. Poems like Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon help Maring to establish how these typescenes work; she then shifts to Genesis A/B to show how an inversion of the motif in an explicitly Christian context emphasizes the theological import of the Fall of the Angels.
In the next two chapters, Maring shows how these two oral-connected themes ("devouring-the-dead" and "lord-retainer") shift from the metonymic to the metaphoric register when they appear decontextualized from their heroic origins. The Advent Lyrics, for example, use the "lord-retainer" theme to "call attention to Christ's authority, power, heroism, and regal glory by linking him to human roles that most embody these qualities" (77). The Phoenix and Riddle 47, meanwhile, metaphorize the "devouring-the-dead" theme to turn a motif of disintegration into a promise of reintegration. Broadly speaking, Maring suggests that the shift from oral-traditional-Germanic to literate-religious-Christian contexts is accompanied by a shift from metonymy to metaphor, but that the traces of metonymic signification persist in and even underwrite the metaphoric meaning of the written text, remaining available to readers/auditors who know both traditions. Chapter Five introduces the "poet-patron" theme and traces it through the same process, outlining its traditional formulation in Widsith and Deor, and then showing how it is metaphorized in Christian contexts like The Advent Lyrics, The Gifts of Men, "Thureth," and "Alms-Giving."
Chapters Six and Seven shift from the outline of a methodology to its deployment for close readings of two separate poems: The Dream of the Rood and The Advent Lyrics. In Chapter Six, Maring reads Christ mounting the Cross in Dream of the Rood (lines 28-77) as a metaphorization of the sea-voyage typescene common in heroic poetry. The sea voyage typically signifies the achievement of glory in a dangerous land and the hero's return to rewards and fame. In Maring's reading, Christ becomes the treasure carried by the holmwudu (sea-wood, or ship) of the Cross from the perils of the temporal world to the reward of an eternal home in heaven. Careful verbal choices invoke these connections for the poem's audience, who are able to appreciate both the symbolic meaning of the traditional sea-voyage typescene and its metaphorical transformation in the context of salvation history at the same time. Chapter Seven performs a similar reading on The Advent Lyrics, showing both how the aural invocations of the Advent antiphons (through the repetition of eala! [O!]) connect the poem's audience to their liturgical experiences of the Advent and Christmas seasons, and how the poem's invocation of light and dark imagery recalls their participation in ritual celebrations that acknowledge the fall of darkness (at vespers) and look forward to the advent of the light (at sunrise services). Taken together, these two chapters demonstrate how Maring's attention to the interweaving of oral-derived figures, literary mechanisms, and ritual practices suggests a much deeper, richer context for Old English poetry than traditional literary studies of the twentieth century seemed to imagine possible.
The book's strengths lie in its careful attention to the language of these poems and how it functions to create meaning. The beauty of its prose is another distinctive quality; readers will not be surprised to learn that Maring is a published poet as well as a scholar, and her style makes reading the book an aesthetic as well as an intellectual pleasure. Readers who are less familiar with studies of oral tradition (like the present reviewer) might have appreciated more clearly-defined terminology; it is not always clear what is at stake in calling something a "theme" or a "motif" rather than a "topos" or a "typescene," for example. For anyone who is interested in aesthetics and poetic function, however, Signs that Sing offers a broad sampling of poetic delights, enabling the reader to marvel anew at the aesthetic complexity of some of Europe's oldest vernacular verse.