19.06.23 Jones, Fossil Poetry

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Eric Weiskott

The Medieval Review 19.06.23

Jones, Chris. Fossil Poetry: Anglo-Saxon and Linguistic Nativism in Nineteenth-Century Poetry. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press (OUP), 2018. pp. xiv, 312. ISBN: 978-0-19-882452-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Eric Weiskott
Boston College
eric.weiskott@bc.edu

In the nineteenth century, according to a passage in the first chapter of Fossil Poetry, "the poem most intimately associated with the Anglo-Saxons in the popular imagination was not Beowulf, but this one" (39). What follows is a battle "hymn" beginning "Whet the bright steel, / Sons of the White Dragon!" This poem is not to be found in any early English manuscript or anthology of Old English literature. It is declaimed by the Saxon prisoner Ulrica as she burns down her ancestral castle in Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe (1819).

This delightfully disorienting moment in Fossil Poetryindicates Chris Jones's scope and method. Jones explores the production as well as the consumption of Old English poetry in the nineteenth century. He beckons us back into an atmosphere in which antiquarians, scholars, and writers knew themselves to be engaged on the same historical problems. Drawing conceptual terminology from the emergent scientific fields of evolutionary biology and geology, which directly and indirectly inspired the new philology, Jones distinguishes between an early-century "roots" phase of literary "Saxonism" (chs. 1-2) and a mid- and late-century "fossil" phase (chs. 3-4). In the "roots" phase, Old English and its surrounding culture were seen as laying the foundation of the modern. In the "fossil" phase (Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Language is fossil poetry"), scholars and writers contemplated "the revivification of linguistic fossils" (147), part of a "fascination with the historical stratigraphy of the English language" (171). The turning point is c. 1830. Jones discusses two figures whose work bridges the transition: Scott (proleptically) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (analeptically). Right at the joining point of the narrative and at the center of the book comes Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" (first published 1855), which parodies the earnest idealism of the "roots" response to early English poetry.

The five chapters are arranged in chronological order and share foci in analytical and fictional forms of writing: Scott and Sharon Turner; the Conybeare brothers John Josias and William Daniel, Thomas Gray, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Scott; William Barnes, Emerson, William Morris, and Walt Whitman; Gerard Manley Hopkins and George Perkins Marsh; and John Mitchell Kemble and Tennyson. An "interchapter" on Carroll comes between chapters 2 and 3. Other persons of interest include Joseph Bosworth, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Chevenix Trench, and Thomas Warton. Some of these men studied early English literature and culture, professionally or independently; some brought a philologist's ear to new literary compositions; and more than a few did both. Jones shows that the curtain we imagine between creative and critical thought, and between the humanities and the sciences, is doomed to misrepresent the dynamics of nineteenth-century English literary culture. The brothers Conybeare make particularly good grist for Jones's mill. William Daniel was a paleontologist, John Josias an early medievalist. Their Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry(1826), written by John Josias but completed after his death by William Daniel, presented Old English poems as quasi-biological specimens of ancient English culture. Another good example is Barnes, who authored treatises on the purification of the English language and published "Saxonist"/regionalist poetry in Dorsetshire dialect. Jones urges that Barnes's spatial and temporal reformist commitments are interlinked.

Jones is preeminently concerned with Old English as a language understood to form part of the history of English, "the sedimentary deposition of Anglo-Saxon within English" (18). The longest and best readings in the book address written texts on the level of the word. With emphasis on poetry, Jones reveals a remarkable range of writers invested in building (ethno)nationalist and other nativist politico-literary movements out of the recovery of Old English texts. In this book, a word or verse can become "a trans-historical nub" (109). This approach is especially unexpected for reading Hopkins, whose wordplay is famous but whose medievalism is typically sought in details of metrical style (pp. 193-96).

Jones is clear that Fossil Poetryis not "a work of 'reception'" (30), a categorization that would imply a stable body of older texts extruded through a knowable historical moment. Instead, Jones strives for a methodological perspective that will allow Old and nineteenth-century English writing to "simultaneously write each other" (22). He prefers the metaphor of "refraction" (31). In this respect, Fossil Poetryis an enlightening account of disciplinary formation, reminding present-day researchers of the postmedieval historicity of our objects of study. Jones brings out beautifully "the inventedness of the past" (32). "Anglo-Saxon poetry happened in the nineteenth century" (272), a paradoxical sentence that becomes not paradoxical in this book. The dissonance between Beowulfand "Whet the bright steel" measures the drift inherent in disciplinary as well as literary and evolutionary history. Old English specialists will be interested to learn that the authentically Old English poem that looms largest in the book is the Battle of Brunanburh, a poem then better known to, and more praised by, educated readers than was Beowulf. "[T]he past's past is a foreign country" (35).

The other side of Fossil Poetryconsists in new readings of nineteenth-century poems. By juxtaposing poets and scholars, Jones (re)creates a context in which to blend the modes of reading we bring to such writers. Chapter 4, for example, reads Hopkins's poetry more or less as one would read Beowulf, that is, word by word, etymology by etymology, and line by line. Rather than the anachronism that this might appear to be to modernists, the mismatch is the point. Jones's claim here is that our tools for reading Beowulf grew up with the poetic culture for which Hopkins spoke. Specialists in nineteenth-century American and insular poetry will have their own research foci and their own usual emplacements of writers like Scott and Whitman; Jones courts their attentions but does not work his arguments into their categories. At times that dissonance was felt even by this medievalist reader. But nineteenth-century specialists will have to heed this book, because Jones knows things they do not know. On the basis of a reexamination of the poets' manuscript papers and educated guesses about the reference works they consulted, Jones reaches the significant conclusions that Hopkins knew Old English less well, and Tennyson much better, than Victorianists had believed.

The difference between the "roots" and "fossil" phases maps conceptually and historically onto the formation of properly wissenschaftlichstudy of early English poetry from out of Romantic antiquarianism. Jones allows for asynchronous dissemination of the new historical perspective unlocked by philological learning: Scott anticipates it in the 1820s, during its first flourishing in German and insular scholarship, while Tennyson has not fully reconciled himself to it in the middle of the century, by which time it was in full bloom. The contrast plays through notions of meter and genre. For example, as against "the 'balladization' of Anglo-Saxon" (124) early in the century, the philologists sought out period-appropriate genre categories for Old English poetry--a project of historical recovery still underway today.

Fossil Poetryis a prequel to Jones's first monograph, Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006). The conclusion to Fossil Poetrytakes the liberty of revising Strange Likeness(pp. 274-76). In the introduction to Fossil Poetry,Jones describes twentieth-century Old English poetics as a synthesis of the "roots" and "fossil" phases (p. 25). This schematization is clarifying, and it broaches a problem of historical perspective that Fossil Poetrydiagnoses but also embodies. What is the correct attitude to the past, domesticating ("roots") or exoticizing ("fossil")? O. B. Hardison, speaking of Tudor historicism (a reminder that this problem has a longer history), distinguishes between "exoteric" and "esoteric" modes. [1] Jones's words, drawn from biology, are "gradualist" (57) and "catastrophist" (58). Jones dives head first into the thought-worlds of nineteenth-century English early medievalisms, but it would be surprising if the author of Strange Likeness, who perceives that "Anglo-Saxon is English as a mirror held up to itself from a different world" (134),did not occasionally betray a sympathy for the "fossil" phase that inaugurated a scholarly and literary trajectory we are still, in some sense, on. To the extent that the "roots" phase was discontinuous with later attempts to comprehend early medieval England, it was continuous with the antiquarianism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a point that comes out in an excellent passage on Gray and George Hickes (pp. 63-7). Will the eighteenth century be the subject of Jones's next book?

One symptom of our estrangement from the "roots" phase of "Saxonism" merits special comment, because it is embedded in the book's scope. It is the first half of the nineteenth century for which the Old English/Middle English periodization, on which Fossil Poetry and Strange Likeness rely, is less appropriate. In the sixteenth through early nineteenth centuries, "Saxon" comprehended not only what we now term "Old English" but also some of what we now term "Middle English" (pp. 28-30 and 64-5 and p. 64 n. 128). The Old English/Middle English divide accompanied the new philology. This tectonic shift means that the topic of the book is one that only became self-evident in the decades covered by chapters 3-4. The discourse formation "Old English" (a.k.a. "Anglo-Saxon," on which see below) is itself one result of the literary history being traced here. Not only in chapters 1-2 but throughout the book, Jones must hive off authors' early and late English medievalisms, a procedure that feels notably artificial in some cases. Consider Scott, whose historical novels center on a period straddling "Old" and "Middle"; or Tennyson, who pursued "Saxonist" and Arthurian literary visions with equal aplomb; or Morris, the great visionary of Victorian Chauceriana. Scott's Saxons are "Sons of the White Dragon" because Geoffrey of Monmouth said they were in the twelfth century. The "Saxonist in Tennyson" (264) is as much a twenty-first-century as a nineteenth-century isolate. This does not detract from the welcome demonstration of Tennyson's "deep engagement with Anglo-Saxon" (269). A book must adopt some perspective. Fossil Poetrymakes visible the conundrum of where "new" English begins. It can't be coincidental that the hinge between "roots" and "fossil," the 1830s, is also the moment at which English professors began to periodize the college curriculum as we still do. [2]

Mirroring the usage of his nineteenth-century writers, Jones calls Old English "Anglo-Saxon" in the title and throughout, even in non-nineteenth-century contexts. Can this be justified as a historicist gesture, in view of the term's racist connotations inside and outside of nineteenth-century scholarship, and in public discourse in 2019? [3] I hesitate to bring this up, given Jones's extended discussion of the racial politics of the term in the introduction and conclusion (pp. 8-12 and 273-74), with references to the murderous 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA (p. 11; cp. p. vii) and an important 2017 essay by Mary Dockray-Miller (p. 12). Jones determines to reclaim "Anglo-Saxon": "Precisely because it has once more become a contested and controversial term, Fossil Poetryembraces 'Anglo-Saxon' and hopes, in part, to give historical context and nuance for that controversy" (12). There can be more than one opinion about the point at which an older term of art is overtaken by current events and the weight of its own extramural history, and Jones is admirably transparent about the problem. The events of 2017 and the contemporaneous discussion about the term "Anglo-Saxon" in medieval studies, documented by Jones in the introduction (presumably just as this 2018 book was going to press), may have outrun the terminology of Fossil Poetry in this one significant respect.

Jones's style of treating his materials is digressive and expansive. The longest chapters run to 52 pages (chapter 2) and 56 pages (chapter 3), too much (for me) to absorb at once. This reader would have appreciated section headings to mark the subcomponents of the argument and the different authors under discussion.

A minor point: Jones is too permissive in defining compound words. This slightly dilutes his discussion of Hopkins, because he lumps noun + participle constructions like forste gebunden "bound by frost" (p. 226) in with true compounds like "heavengravel" (228). But these are grammatically distinct constructions. In the first case, forstecarries an inflectional ending for declension into the dative case, governed by gebunden. In Modern English, prepositional phrases replace the inflections. I will concede that cases like "Cheer's death" (222 n. 124) are more difficult, since the first element of Old English compounds can inflect for the genitive.

Cædmon's Hymnline 5, He ærest sceop| eorðan bearnum, does not mean "he first created earth..." (180) but "he first created, for the sons of the Earth..." Some manuscripts read eorðan] ylda"of men."

Quibbles aside, Fossil Poetryis a reliable book that fills a gap and bridges medieval and nineteenth-century studies. Jones describes in detail some of the sedimentary layers of English literary culture and opens others to future inspection.

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Notes:

1. O. B. Hardison, "Tudor Humanism and Surrey’s Translation of the Aeneid," Studies in Philology83 (1986): 237-60, at p. 237.

2. See Ted Underwood, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), pp. 81-113.

3. See Mary Dockray-Miller, "Old English Has a Serious Image Problem," JSTOR Daily3 May 2017 https://daily.jstor.org/old-english-serious-image-problem, and Daniel C. Remein, "ISAS Should Probably Change its Name" (paper read at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, MI, May 2017). This issue came to a head in the lead-up to the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists 2017 conference in Honolulu. For background, see Adam Miyashiro, "Decolonizing Anglo-Saxon Studies: A Response to ISAS in Honolulu," In the Middle29 July 2017 http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2017/07/decolonizing-anglo-saxon-studies.html. See further Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski, "Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography," postmedieval8 (2017): 500-31.

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