Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry

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Representations of the Natural World in Old English Poetry. By Jennifer Neville. (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 27) Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 1999. x + 224 pp. 40 [pounds sterling]; $64.95.

Jennifer Neville takes on a tough topic for, as she states at the end of her introductory chapter, `representation of "the natural world" is never an end in itself and is always ancillary to other issues' in Old English poetry (p. 18). In this wide-ranging first chapter she gives careful consideration both to the problems inherent in anachronistic categorization and to the definition of what she means by the natural world. She sets aside human elements and the supernatural. Thus there is no place for consideration of the harvest simile of The Phoenix, presumably because idealized depictions of the pastoral world involve the intervention of men in the creation of a crop-bearing landscape. Supernatural elements must however play a part: the Anglo-Saxons, after all, `did not conceive of an entity defined by the exclusion of the supernatural' (pp. 2-3). There is a place therefore for `things that modern critics would collectively call "the Other"' (p. 3) in the next three chapters.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 treat the separation of humanity from the natural world (a fallen world that is idel and unnyt), the separateness of society from external threats (landscapes are typically negative), and the identification of the individual (someone who triumphs over the natural world). Chapter 2 signals the lack of any philosophical debate about the nature of creation in the poetry. Neville notes also the lack of `the kind of detailed praise of birds and plants' found in early Irish poetry (p. 44), suggesting that Anglo-Saxon poets are intent on the powerlessness of humanity. Seas beat against cliffs, and the physical surroundings of Guthlac's hermitage lack specificity. Joy is associated with hall life, and, in Chapter 3, society is defined by what is outside, Grendel or a wolf stalking the boundaries. The ideal, to which Beowulf restores Heorot, is `a society at peace because strong enough to defend those within it'; Beowulf's own kingdom is overthrown `by destructive incursions from the outside' (p. 81), and the point of the setting in the Wife's Lament is to `recall a society that has been lost' (p. 87). Chapter 4, long and closely argued, shows that in this poetry, just as individual voices utter laments for the human condition, representative individuals prove themselves against the powers of the natural world. …