Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry

Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry

Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry

Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry


Strange Likeness provides the first full account of how Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) was rediscovered by twentieth-century poets, and the uses to which they put that discovery in their own writing. Chapters deal with Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Edwin Morgan, and Seamus Heaney. Stylistic debts to Old English are examined, along with the effects on these poets' work of specific ideas about Old English language and literature as taught while these poets were studying the subject at university. Issues such as linguistic primitivism, the supposed 'purity' of the English language, the politics and ethics of translation, and the construction of 'Englishness' within the literary canon are discussed in the light of these poets and their Old English encounters. Heaney's translation of Beowulf is fully contextualized within the body of the rest of his work for the first time.


'AND' is always the beginning; not just of an epic poem like Ezra Pound's Cantos, but of all narratives. Every start is contingent, provisional, and subject to revision. There is always something else which comes before the beginning. This is simply a condition of storytelling; arbitrary decisions about the frame of a narrative will necessarily mean that significant events are left out. There is nothing untoward about this state of affairs and no hand-wringing is required provided we accept that all narratives are fictitious, and constructed as much through exclusion as through inclusion. As long as we admit the necessary falsification and allow that others will wish to reposition the beginning in retelling a specific story, then we are beyond reproach.

With these caveats in mind then, what might we choose as the point of departure for the story of English poetry? For centuries of course the answer to this question was 'Dan Chaucer', Spenser's 'well of English vndefyled'. Although Chaucer was recognized by his own generation as a founding figure, his status as the father of English poetry was by no means guaranteed. In the fifteenth century, he often shared his laurels with Gower and Lydgate, but from around the end of the sixteenth century,

On the designation of a beginning as defining 'a later time, place or action' and being
'the first step in the intentional production of meaning, see Edward W. Said, Beginnings:
Intention and Method, 2nd edn. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 5.
Emphasis is Said's.

Book IV, Canto ii of The Faerie Queene, stanza 32, line 8, and stanza 34. Edmund
Spenser, The Faerie Queene, ed. A. C. Hamilton (London: Longman, 1977), 439. A similar
claim, that 'the pure well head of Poesie did dwell' in the 'gentle spright' of 'old Dan
Geffrey', is stated in Book VII, Canto vii, stanza 9, lines 3–4, Spenser, Faerie Queene, 725.

In 'The Life of Our Lady', John Lydgate praises Chaucer 'That made firste, to distille
and rayne | The golde dewe dropes of speche and eloquence | Into our tunge'. Cited in
Derek Brewer, ed., Chaucer: The Critical Heritage, 2 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1978), i. 46.

See Caroline Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 2nd
edn., 3 vols. (New York: Russell, 1960), i, pp. xviii–xix. Also Janette Dillon, Geoffrey
Chaucer (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1993), 142.

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