19.02.07 Donoghue, How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems

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Tiffany Beechy

The Medieval Review 19.02.07

Donoghue, Daniel. How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems. The Middle Ages Series. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. pp. 238. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4994-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Tiffany Beechy
University of Colorado Boulder
Tiffany.Beechy@colorado.edu

In this book, Daniel Donoghue reasserts the importance of verse syntax in Old English poetics (the topic of his first book, Style in Old English Poetry: The Text of the Auxiliary), this time as a function of reading. The book revisits the territory of Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's Visible Song, manuscripts and their punctuation in relation to the poetic tradition, focusing on what may be inferred about intended readers rather than on scribes as composers. Broadly speaking, Donoghue and O'Brien O'Keeffe are committed to the same vision in acknowledging that a living oral tradition is relevant at all to the written record, amid a field with stark differences of opinion on this issue. One of the most welcome contributions of Donoghue's book is the bold and consistent affirmation of "the pervasive presence of oral poetry among the general population" (6) throughout the early medieval period. For Donoghue, the oral tradition is like dark matter: although it cannot be measured directly, together with dark energy it constitutes most of the mass (as in, 95%) of the universe. This is a highly logical conclusion to draw from the fact that the Germanic alliterative poetries derive from a shared ancestor that was necessarily oral, together with the small percentage of the population that could have gotten its stories from books. There was an available oral tradition with no clear mechanism for its cessation, and verbal art of some kind is a human universal. Where Donoghue differs from O'Brien O'Keeffe is in the relationship between Anglo-Saxon orality and literacy. Donoghue assembles a mass of cross-disciplinary scholarship in addition to some of the scholarship (though not always the most relevant or recent) on orality to argue that the pointing of many poetic manuscripts shows an awareness of verse syntax that supports the continued currency of an orally-sustained "classical" meter into the eleventh century. Rather than an evolutionary model involving the gradual fading of either orality into literacy or "classical" into "late" verse, this study posits continuity and coexistence.

Donoghue starts out with a basic question: why are Old English poems presented so differently from either Latin verse or Old English prose? Latin verse in particular offered an extensive suite of strategies for presenting verse lines as well as syntactic divisions. The standard assumption is that Old English verse was so familiar that it was enough just to write it straight across the page; the units of half-lines joined by alliteration would present themselves to the eye or (more plausibly?) to the ear without further adornment. Donoghue notices a pattern, however, that obtains in some poems, some of the time: pointing serves to mark an upcoming clause-initial light verse (the A[3] variety, with unstressed particles instead of a stressed alliterating syllable in first position). His conclusion is that this graphic signaling of new clauses works together with the meter to help a reader to decipher the syntactic shape amid the verse structure.

While this is the basic argument, the book does not proceed in an expected way. For instance, Donoghue declines to lay out in any full way the punctuation practices used for Old English prose, notably prose prior to Ælfric's overtly imperialist, Latinizing program. He also pays little attention to the extensive recent arguments for new kinds of late verse (with distinct metrical and syntactic structures) and for the reassessment of assumptions about verse and prose in the corpus. In this way, the study reinscribes the traditional isolation of classical verse from the rest of the corpus, and I think undermines itself somewhat through circularity. It moves quickly to dismiss the recent work questioning the privileged status of "classical verse," only to make claims about the distinct practices evident in classical verse. One has to follow quite far on faith.

The first chapter moves from the across-the-page layout of the vernacular poetry to the more fundamental question of how the Anglo-Saxons read. This sets up the book's first debunking mission, which takes up the bulk of the chapter: dismantling the commonplace that ancient and medieval reading meant reading aloud. Augustine's anecdote about Ambrose of Milan in the Confessions is the centerpiece, but numerous examples are wrestled into service of the conclusion that reading silently and reading aloud were both practiced across the period. The long "excursus" (Donoghue justifies several in the course of the book) on this question is actually quite misleading, because one takes away the idea that silent reading will be important to the overall argument, but it isn't. The eloquent and important point that "all reading is oral" is the operative insight: "In the end there is no such thing as silent reading of continuous discourse: there are only different ways of reading aloud, some more audible than others" (42). This encourages us to pay heed to the living and "vocal" nature of all poetry, whether oral or written, which working modern poets also emphasize. It has implications for how we read medieval poems. But Donoghue does not emphasize these implications, exactly. He rather stresses the practice of silent reading per se (which is always vocal reading anyway), drawing in part on modern imaging studies to support the conclusion of silent reading's universality and ease. The strenuousness of the argumentation against the "canard" about oral reading has the effect of downplaying orality and playing up, misleadingly, a silent, visual reading model that is actually, as I have said, beside the point for the book's argument. Manuscript readers could have made use of punctuation alerting them to upcoming metrical-syntactic complexity while reading aloud just as well as they could while reading silently. I find the recourse to eye movement and other cognitive studies somewhat baffling in this book, and suspect that its motivation is the inconclusiveness of the primary evidence. This is not to detract from the book's learning. The manuscripts are palimpsestic in many ways and notoriously difficult to fit into absolute categories that will satisfy the positivism that lies at the flinty heart of the field. The Anglo-Saxons did not know that we were going to be requiring systematicity of them. We bring other disciplines to bear upon the evidence to try to triangulate some new perspective.

Having established that silent reading was common, Chapter 2, "From Orality to Punctuation," is devoted to debunking several more canards. The first two have to do with orality and literacy. Both the "great divide" model of mutual exclusiveness and the "continuum" model, which allows for in-betweenness, oppose a state of orality to a state of literacy. Donoghue relies heavily on Albert Lord, who modified his early views later in his career and came to soften the edges of his assertions about mutual exclusiveness. Donoghue cites at least three times the case of the South Slavic poet Andrija Kačić-Miošić (1704-1760), whose literate, written poems "'are indistinguishable from pure oral traditional songs'" (47). The problem is of course that such poems are only indistinguishable on paper, flattened out into the two dimensions of the page, a point that the work of the late John Miles Foley made clear. Foley's work is the most missed in Donoghue's discussion of orality (though he is well represented in the bibliography and cited briefly in two other chapters), as he insists upon the centrality of nonverbal and what linguists would call "pragmatic" features to the immanent art of oral poetry. Certainly, what we have in a written record is just words, or words as arranged and marked up by punctuation, and this happens to be Donoghue's focus. But Foley drew out the implications of gesture, delivery, intonation, audience feedback, setting, and time itself for a literature whose medium is not the page but live performance. There may not be a "great divide" of mutual exclusion, but there is more to a poem in an oral tradition than what may be recorded in writing--words are not the sole constituents of oral poems. This fact has potential ramifications for any analysis of a living tradition interacting with writing conventions. As it happens, Foley also provides a category for just the type of written poem that fascinates Donoghue, indistinguishable on the page from an oral poem that has also been written down: a "written oral poem." The "great divide" is less a canard than a red herring. The other myth about orality that comes in for debunking is the model of the continuum. Rather than a movement towards literacy implying a move away from orality, Donoghue suggests that the two modes may coexist and supplement one another. This is a point well taken, and another helpful step away from reductive characterizations and evolutionary-teleological models of medieval culture.

The rest of the chapter surveys the development of medieval punctuation. It previews the argument that the punctuation of Old English poetic texts shows a "grammar of legibility," according to which visual marks worked together with a reader's competence in the oral tradition. This survey is also, avowedly, another "excursus" meant to clear space through debunking. Donoghue lists all the canards he has debunked by the chapter's end:

1. the emergence of silent reading as a hallmark of modernity;

2. the cognitive burden imposed by unspaced text;

3. literacy as the privileged inverse of orality;

4. a primitive state of scribal conventions in the Middle Ages;

5. the visual display of verse charting an evolution toward textuality; and

6. systematic punctuation only after the advent of printing (83).

Chapter 3 returns to the question of the importance and role of verse syntax, and Donoghue is right that this aspect of Old English verse is often neglected. Mounting a defense of Kuhn's Law and providing a helpful review of recent critical revisions thereto, Donoghue argues that the robustness of verse syntax both made a fully elaborated system of punctuation for verse unnecessary and fundamentally shaped the limited system that did arise, which involved pointing before clause-initial dips (A[3]-type verses). He investigates excerpts from the Beowulfmanuscript, the Vercelli poems, and some Exeter Book poems in great depth, and makes subtle use of the evidence. Nevertheless, in the case of the Vercelli Book, for example, there would be an opportunity to compare the punctuation between verse and prose by a single scribe, and Donoghue neglects the homilies in that manuscript entirely. The impression is that the evidence has been carefully selected and that the conclusions are only partial (which Donoghue does not deny). Certain poems, furthermore, thwart Donoghue's attempt to find systematicity, as in the case of the Dream of the Rood, whose "overall punctuation...is erratic enough to demonstrate what might be expected if scribes punctuated in an ad hoc way, with little or no attention to verse syntax" (123). So, at best, the practices that Donoghue emphasizes were used only sometimes, in some parts of some poems. This spottiness would hardly seem to justify, then, the conclusion that "what distinguishes Old English poetry from Old English prose and Latin verse is the close coordination--really, the inseparability--of meter and word order in traditional verse syntax" (127). Donoghue's emphasis on meter and word order downplays, furthermore, the role of alliteration in parsing writing into verse units, as I will discuss below.

Chapter 4 moves from this uneven evidence of pointing itself to apply eye movement studies, a subset of cognitive studies, to the question of why pointing before light verses would be helpful to a reader. This chapter's discussion of specific passages in diplomatic transcription is worthwhile in its own right for the fresh kind of readerly position it facilitates. Donoghue's transcriptions allow the reader to try out reading the poetic text without the paleographic layer of difficulty--in a sense, we meet the medieval verse halfway. Informed by his earlier discussion of verse syntax, this is truly a helpful and illuminating experience. Still, the chapter never establishes why recourse to eye movement is necessary. Is it not sufficient to say that a point before a clause-initial light verse may be a signal to the reader not to expect a strong alliterator in the first strong position of the verse, and to prepare at the same time for a new clause? There seems little need to assert that "scribes...were grappling with some of the same issues that cognitive sciences are addressing" (129). Cognitive sciences may be converging upon issues with reading that are relevant to Old English texts as written texts, but again, I am not sure of the specific payoff here. The chapter concludes by musing on ways that medieval manuscripts may "speak back" to cognitive science, for example, the way that literary language (including oral-traditional language) troubles simplistic models of "lexical access"--the storing of words cued to meanings in a mental lexicon in the brain. While the point is a valid one, another area of cognitive studies, metaphor studies, has gone much further, concluding that metaphor is in fact primary to cognition, not a secondary complication; all meaning may be in an important sense "metaphorical." This conclusion and its implications for medieval studies have been explored in important recent work by Leslie Lockett and Cristina Maria Cervone.

The final chapter, "Less a Conclusion than an Opening up," has two parts. The first acknowledges the proliferation of verse forms in the late Anglo-Saxon period, involving changes in verse syntax and metrical rules that yield longer lines and more acceptable patterns, as well as influences from other traditions that give rise to non-traditional equivalence tokens such as rhyme. The second part argues compellingly for the ongoing viability of the oral tradition in the general population as well as the ongoing metrical legibility of the classical tradition. Here, Donoghue offers the second memorable analogy of the book. In the introduction, he likened the oral tradition to the dark matter that makes up the bulk of the universe. We cannot see it, but it has to be there. In the conclusion, he offers that the classical oral tradition was to eleventh-century Anglo-Saxons what Shakespeare is to us today: challenging, and a stretch, but rewarding of the effort. As it happens, the same might be said for this book, whose formidable learning and technical proficiency combine with lucid prose to open the mind in productive ways, to create a new perspective.

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