How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems

How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems

How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems

How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems

Synopsis

The scribes of early medieval England wrote out their vernacular poems using a format that looks primitive to our eyes because it lacks the familiar visual cues of verse lineation, marks of punctuation, and capital letters. The paradox is that scribes had those tools at their disposal, which they deployed in other kinds of writing, but when it came to their vernacular poems they turned to a sparser presentation. How could they afford to be so indifferent? The answer lies in the expertise that Anglo-Saxon readers brought to the task. From a lifelong immersion in a tradition of oral poetics they acquired a sophisticated yet intuitive understanding of verse conventions, such that when their eyes scanned the lines written out margin-to-margin, they could pinpoint with ease such features as alliteration, metrical units, and clause boundaries, because those features are interwoven in the poetic text itself. Such holistic reading practices find a surprising source of support in present-day eye-movement studies, which track the complex choreography between eye and brain and show, for example, how the minimal punctuation in manuscripts snaps into focus when viewed as part of a comprehensive system.

How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems uncovers a sophisticated collaboration between scribes and the earliest readers of poems like Beowulf, The Wanderer, and The Dream of the Rood. In addressing a basic question that no previous study has adequately answered, it pursues an ambitious synthesis of a number of fields usually kept separate: oral theory, paleography, syntax, and prosody. To these philological topics Daniel Donoghue adds insights from the growing field of cognitive psychology. According to Donoghue, the earliest readers of Old English poems deployed a unique set of skills that enabled them to navigate a daunting task with apparent ease. For them reading was both a matter of technical proficiency and a social practice.

Excerpt

The conventions governing the display of verse today are so well established that it takes some effort to recognize their utter arbitrariness. Flip through any classroom anthology or consult the latest New Yorker and you will find poems with a line break for each line of verse, usually flush left with a ragged right-hand margin, and conventional English punctuation. To be sure, the long persistence of counterexamples like George Herbert’s “Easter Wings,” Emily Dickinson’s eccentric dashes, e.e. cummings’s typography, or Jorie Graham’s blanks on the page reminds us that the manipulation of these conventions is nothing new, but their innovations would be pointless unless the conventions were well established in the first place. In this regard things have not changed much over the past seven centuries: most poems published today still bear a visible resemblance to medieval manuscript copies of, say, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Although it is less likely today than it was a century ago, for example, that a capital letter will begin each line of verse, the start of sentences and proper nouns will usually be capitalized in almost any poem. The basic format has been remarkably stable. While exceptions are not hard to find, even the most experimental layouts achieve their effects within the confines of the convention.

By contrast, few bodies of literature can defamiliarize the apparent naturalness of these conventions as can the earliest written poems in English, which to our eyes do not look like verse at all. A poem like The Wanderer, for example, is written out from margin to margin in the Exeter Book with scant punctuation, few capitals, and no use of space to separate verse lines or paragraphs. In a deft allusion to this practice, Seamus Heaney includes a poem called “The Wanderer” in his 1975 pamphlet Stations. In it a teacher congratulates the schoolboy Seamus, who has just won a scholarship, by awarding him a coin in front of his classmates. In drawing attention to the Old English Wanderer with the verbal echoes of “ring-giver” and “benches,” Heaney’s poem links the modest schoolroom ceremony to an ancient tradition . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.