Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry / the Textuality of Old English Poetry

By Hill, Joyce | Medium Aevum, July 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry / the Textuality of Old English Poetry


Hill, Joyce, Medium Aevum


Peter Clemoes, Interactions of Thought and Language in Old English Poetry, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 12 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). xvii + 523 pp. ISBN 0-521-30711-2. L45.00.

Carol Braun Pasternack, The Textuality of Old English Poetry, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 13 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) xii + 219 pp. ISBN 0-521-46549-4 L35.00.

The year 1995 was an exceptional one for Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England: five books were published, of which two were literary studies of Old English poetry. Peter Clemoes and Carol Braun Pasternack adopt radically different angles of approach, and yet, surprising as it may seem, they have the same goal: the identification of the informing tradition in a literature which is so culturally different from our own, and detailed analysis of how that tradition is given voice in poetry. The stimulation that each book provides is valuable in itself, but there is added excitement from their juxtaposition, precisely because the obvious differences of approach and the ostensible differences of subject converge on what is essentially the same teasing issue, the very nature of Old English poetic activity as generated and received.

Clemoes's massive study is the culmination of a lifetime's intense engagement with the literature of the Anglo-Saxons, a personal grappling with the way in which `language codified inheritance' (p. 124), whether within traditional verse narratives, such as Beowulf, or in vernacular Christian poems which, in giving voice to a new cultural heritage, realigned the resonating symbolic language to which the poets were heir. Put this way, it sounds as if it is yet another rehearsal of the Caedmon miracle, a retracing of the Germanicto-Christian trajectory of Old English poetry. But the often novel analysis of symbolic language, the working outwards from language to culture, and the penetration of the Anglo-Saxon mind-set takes us through familiar territory by unfamiliar paths.

The book is divided into two equal parts. Part 1, on the poetry of an aristocratic warrior society, explores the way in which symbolic language supported the well-being, standards and values of that society, the argument being that the poetic tradition of eliciting patterns `set events in an indefinite environment of all time and space' (p. 117), in which social generalization itself became implicitly symbolic. Within this frame of reference, conventional expressions (such as beahgifa), far from being mere formulas, `functioned as linguistic social symbols by transmitting nuclei of fundamental experience from generation to generation and recreating perception of them over and over again' (p. 126). The poet's creative act, therefore, is seen to be the manipulation of the structure of a verse `so as to institute meaningful relationships between symbolic expression and specific narrative' (p. 130), a balance through which the poetic mode was formally bonded into binary thought. …

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