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21.03.05 Dumitrescu/Weiskott (eds.), The Shapes of Early English Poetry

The Medieval Review

21.03.05 Dumitrescu/Weiskott (eds.), The Shapes of Early English Poetry


The Shapes of Early English Poetry: Style, Form, History commemorates Roberta Frank's years at Yale (2000-present). More than in many Festschrifts, the ten essays here reflect their honoree's influence on scholarship on Old and Middle English and Old Norse, especially her ability to use one surprising, overlooked detail as a lens through which to reorient scholarly perspectives about language, history, and culture. The collection sustains concerns about poetry and history--as Dumitrescu and Weiskott write in the introduction, "the impossibility of separating style, form, and history in the understanding of early English verse" (9). As they demonstrate how poetic form both shapes and is shaped by history, many of the essays advance scholarship within the framework of recent New Formalist developments. In Caroline Levine's terminology, they consider poetry's "affordances," "the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs" (Levine, 2015, 6). For the essays here, form in medieval English and Norse poetry "affords," among other things, ways to survive mortality, rewrite narratives of political triumphalism, and collapse gaps between objects and language. These essays offer thought-provoking, carefully contextualized, occasionally brilliant new readings of familiar texts.

The collection is organized achronologically in three parts. An essay about a 2013 translation of Beowulf appears in Part 1 alongside an essay about Beowulf itself;essays about Middle English appear in Parts 2 and 3; about Old Norse in Part 2; and about Old English throughout. Answering calls made by Seth Lerer (1997), Chris Canon (2004), Weiskott himself (2016), and others, this format allows readers to attend to thematic and linguistic relations across historical contexts.

In Part 1, "Seasons," three essays consider form and time in two Old English poems, The Wanderer and Beowulf. Revisiting The Wanderer's familiar theme, loss, Mary Kate Hurley argues that "the exile this poem treats so profoundly is not an exile from a specific homeland," as many critics have understood, but "an exile all humans are subject to: the linearity of time that exiles us from our past" (28). In contrast, according to Andrew James Johnston, Beowulf's imagery and narrative structures resuscitate the past, transplanting a ruined Roman world into an idealized Germanic present, thereby questioning Germanic triumphalism. However, in Johnston's post-colonial, world-literature reading, despite Beowulf's "anti-imperial" use of Classical forms, the poem "remains indebted to those very imperial traditions it sets out to reject" (51)--an ultimate failure. Finally, as Denis Ferhatović shows, form in Meghan Purvis's translation of Beowulf (which he calls Purviswulf) allows a postmodern feminist unburying of the epic's intimate, domestic texture. Throughout, the telling detail--The Wanderer's repeated "oft"; out-of-place arches in Beowulf; a torque seen through an eagle's eye in Purviswulf--enables readers to re-see how these familiar texts situate themselves and their readers in time.

Part 2, "Engines," reads poetry "from a functional perspective" (6). Here, as Emily Thornbury and Sarah Elliott Novacich describe, form produces its own meaning in Anglo-Saxon light verse and even generates new language in Cleanness, Patience, and Pearl. Form also opens new ways to understand the unfamiliar: Eric Weiskott's essay questions scholarly narratives of Old English poetry's decline, taking the Paris Psalter not as an example of the degradation of Old English forms (a frequent scholarly assessment) but rather as an entry to understanding the history of English poetry as a continuous arc. Christopher Abram's essay on kenning in Old Norse explores, alongside object-oriented ontology, how kennings "are new things that make things new" (172-173). Together, this section's essays demonstrate form's capacity to produce meaning and deepen our understanding of our world.

Part 3, "Discordances," purports to consider form's "unintended consequences" (8), although one could argue that, in Jordan Zweck's reading, sound in the Old English Exodus achieves very-much-intended results. Zweck's analysis of the diction with which Exodus describes the noises of trumpets and swords pushes back against scholarly attempts to categorize sounds. Instead, as Zweck's essay demonstrates, sound blurs boundaries between Egyptians and Israelites and between Israelites and Anglo-Saxon Christians. On the other hand, Andrew Kraebel's and Irina Dumitrescu's essays both fit well under the category "Discordances," as both discuss "unhappy" consequences of form (in J. L. Austin's sense). Kraebel takes a book-historical approach to elucidate how form in John Lydgate's Fifteen Joys and Sorrows enabled scribal error. Each of Lydgate's stanzas is a discrete unit, and their order represents incidents in the Virgin's life achronologically. These choices enhance each stanza's stand-alone position and Lydgate's purpose--that each becomes "a discrete object of meditative focus," "leading to the recitation of a full Lady Psalter" (202). This purpose, though, and the formal choices it prompts, result in the loss of part of the poem. Finally, Irina Dumitrescu analyzes how language meant to praise Christian victories actually casts Christianity as cannibalistic in Andreas and the Siege of Jerusalem. Both poems use violent imagery--taking spoils; consuming food--to argue that Christianity supersedes Judaism. Yet, in Dumitrescu's reading, this imagery turns back on itself, especially as imagery of cannibalism perpetrated by victims of violence unsettlingly echoes what Christians themselves do at the Eucharist (an argument that some readers will question, as Dumitrescu positions the Eucharist as a cannibalistic feast).

Despite the collection's useful categorization of the articles, they also speak across curatorial divides. As Dumitrescu and Weiskott write, the collection as a whole considers, first, "the passing of time" and how poetic style "measures time" as well as "recovers it, dwells in it, leaps over it" (2); and second, "the autonomous energy of form, the way style drives the creation of language" (2). Appropriately for a volume primarily on Old English, these themes interlace throughout. Temporality connects Hurley's, Johnston's, and Ferhatović's essays in Part 1 with Dumitrescu's essay in Part 3, as all four touch on transience. For The Wanderer, in Hurley's reading, transience is a matter for grief, whereas for Beowulf, Andreas, and the Siege of Jerusalem, transience permits writers to question the narratives of the past and how they inform the present. Similarly, in Ferhatović's analysis, the temporal gaps between a modern feminist Beowulf and its original demonstrate the shared experiences, both of oppression and of celebration, that connect readers today to audiences centuries ago.

Language's generative power, the second theme, appears most strikingly in Thornbury's, Novacich's, Abram's, and Zweck's essays (Parts 2 and 3). Poetic form may be a strict code, but its very strictness is the source of its generative power, so that, for instance, thanks to the unbreakable requirements of concatenation in Pearl, single words emerge as multifaceted, polyvalent, richly-hued gems (Novacich). Thornbury's essay argues for the validity of light verse as a category of Old English poetry and then uses that category not only to resolve scribal "errors" (a very Roberta Frank move) but also to demonstrate how the formal requirements of Old English verse actually produce meaning in humorous contexts (95). Slightly differently, Abram sees kennings as making "new things out of existing things" (183). Kennings do not make more language out of language (as form does for Thornbury and Novacich); rather, kennings are real objects that reveal new truths about the tangible world, that permit "us to creep up on 'nature' and catch unintended glimpses of what things are really like" (177). And for Zweck, sound in Old English Old Testament poetry generates not new language but new identities--new connections between those who might practice violence against one another. Together, these four essays powerfully explore poetry's productive affordances for Old and Middle English and Old Norse--its ability to build new words and identities, collapse binaries, and undermine assumptions.

To Weiskott's and Dumitrescu's two primary themes, I would add a third: violence. This topic connects Ferhatović's reading of translation as a kind of cannibalism, "honoring-through-devouring the source text" (60), with Dumitrescu's reading of actual cannibalism in Andreas and Siege of Jerusalem, where, rather than an eerie-but-productive act, cannibalism undercuts the poems' apparently victorious messages about Christian colonialism. Violence also appears, albeit only implicitly in Kraebel's argument, via the scribal error that reshapes Lydgate's poem.

Methodologically, three essays are particularly reminiscent to me of Frank's own work: Thornbury's, Weiskott's, and Kraebel's. Each takes a textual-historical gap--scribal errors; scholarly understandings of poetic history and transmission--and uses these gaps as opportunities. For example, Weiskott's describes one feature of the Paris Psalter, its unusual lack of traditional Old English poetic vocabulary, as intentional. (A deeper analysis of this feature and its "affordances" in the Psalter would be fascinating. However, Weiskott also goes so far as to argue that the Psalter is a kind of apotheosis of alliterative poetry--a claim that requires more support.) Whether discussing Old English light verse, the history of alliterative form, or the manuscript consequences of one stylistic choice, these authors help us understand anew how formal decisions shape the histories within which we read.

The collection's first pages include a bibliography of Roberta Frank's work from 1970 to the forthcoming, a useful tool for those whose curiosity has been whetted by this volume's methodologies and a reminder of how much scholarship on medieval texts owes to Frank herself.

Altogether, these essays skillfully interweave poetic, linguistic, and historical considerations. I found myself most drawn to the essays in Part 2, where form's possibilities were on display, but readers across the early English period and of Old Norse will find provocative material here. The volume fittingly commemorates Roberta Frank's abundant and far-reaching contributions to the study of medieval literature and history.