- Eall-feala Ealde Sæge:Poetic Performance and "The Scop's Repertoire" in Old English Verse1
Scenes depicting the recitation of verse, particularly in Beowulf, are among the most memorable and closely studied passages in Old English poetry. Beowulf repeatedly depicts the making and performance of poetry (Hill 2002), and it is the swutol sang scopes ("the clear song of the scop," Bwf 90a) that first draws the monster Grendel's attention to Heorot and sets in motion the major events of the first part of the poem.2 In Beowulf, the creation of new stories is inextricably linked with the recitation of ones already known, so that the poem "aligns itself with a poetics where transmission and composition are co-dependent, indivisible aspects of the same act" (Jones 2009:486). A different but equally famous depiction of the scop emerges in the Venerable Bede's account of Caedmon, wherein divine inspiration supersedes tradition as the source of poetic creativity. Of course, these and similar accounts concerning the making and performance of Old English verse cannot be taken as straightforward portraits of the Anglo-Saxon "singer of tales": after all, Hrothgar's scop is Danish and Bede's Christian poet is entirely ignorant of traditional song. Moreover, since Beowulf and other narratives depicting vernacular poets—such as Widsith and Deor—are fictional accounts set int he Migration Age, some critics have gone so far as to deny that they can tell us anything at all about the Anglo-Saxon scop (Frank 1993).3 Yet in the words of John D. Niles, such a position seems "to represent a veritable ecstasy of skepticism" (2003:37).
Niles usefully characterizes oral poetry as both a living tradition in pre-Conquest England and also as a "cultural myth whose long process of construction was set in motion as soon as the first missionaries from Iona and Rome introduced the arts of writing to Britain in a systematic way" (38). Fictional portraits of the scop, then, combine elements of poetic practice with a deeply-felt nostalgia for an imagined ancestral past (see Trilling 2009). While not straightforwardly reflective of reality, neither are they completely divorced from it. Even fictional portraits of the making and performance of poetry can tell us much about Anglo-Saxon poetics. Several studies have shown that depictions of poetic performance throughout the corpus incorporate several recurrent thematic patterns supported by common lexemes; in turn, these patterns – traditional themes4—are the product of a tradition that has its roots in the oral recitation of verse. Among the Old English themes depicting the recitation of verse are "The Singer Looks at His Sources," (see Creed 1962; Renoir 1981); "Joy in the Hall," (see Opland 1976; Foley 1983) and the "Poet-patron" see Maring 2011). Like other commonplaces of "heroic" life5—such as feasting, fighting, and voyages by sea or land—in Old English poetry the performance of poetry is articulated through a nexus of conventional ideas, images, and verbal expressions.
In this essay we identify and discuss a previously unrecognized theme relating to poetic performance, which we will call "The Scop's Repertoire." This theme, which stages or describes the making of verse, associates that process with three motifs: copiousness; orality; and antiquity. Copiousness references the performer's knowledge of many poems or songs, and implicitly or explicitly links this vast repertoire with the ability to skillfully and quickly weave new texts. Orality means that these texts take the form of spoken, not written, words; they are variously described as spoken tales, as poems, and/or as songs accompanied by instruments. Finally, antiquity adumbrates the power of tradition, characterizing either the texts known to the poet and/or their subject matter as ancient and therefore venerable. As we shall see, "The Scop's Repertoire" takes two forms: in one all three motifs are explicitly present; in the other, the motif of antiquity is absent or displaced. These two variants of "The Scop's Repertoire" articulate different models for what it is that poets do: in the tradition model, they accumulate a store of ancient songs, and learning these endows poets with the...