Signs that Sing
Hybrid Poetics in Old English Verse
Publication Year: 2017
In Signs that Sing, Heather Maring argues that oral tradition, religious ritual, and literate Latin-based practices are dynamically interconnected in Old English poetry. Resisting the tendency to study these different forms of expression separately, Maring contends that poets combined them in hybrid techniques that were important to the early development of English literature.
Maring examines a variety of texts, including Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, The Dream of the Rood, and the Advent Lyrics, and shows how themes from oral tradition became metaphors for sacred concepts in the hands of Christian authors and how oral performance and religious liturgy influenced written poetry. The result, she demonstrates, is richly elaborate verse filled with shared symbols and themes that a wide range of audiences could understand and find meaningful.
Published by: University Press of Florida
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication
This book is an homage to the rhetorical sophistication of Old English
poetry. Because of their metrical and formulaic consistency, Old English
poems can be deceptively simple while doing something very complex:
mixing expressions and modes of signification from written, oral, and
ritual traditions. The synthesis of these traditions represents an extraordinary
I am deeply indebted to the late John Miles Foley for his guidance and wisdom. I am also indebted to Emily Thornbury...
Notes on Citations
Unless noted otherwise, all quotations of Old English verse follow George
Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie, eds., Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records,
vols. 1–3, New York: Columbia University Press and London: Routledge,
1931–36. The numeration of riddles also follows the ASPR.
Exceptions are the following:
Quotations of Beowulf come from R. D. Fulk, Robert E. Bjork, and John D. Niles, eds., Klaeber’s Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 4th ed., Toronto: University of Toronto...
In an allegory, J.R.R. Tolkien describes a tower’s beauty and integrity, overlooked by critics who lift away its every stone, searching for origins and what they expect (Monsters 7–8). Their methodology leads them to miss that the man who built the tower “had been able to look out upon the sea” (7). Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” presaged a broader movement in the humanities that privileged attention and empathy over judgment shaped by prior expectations. A methodology that vests objects of study with authority inspired such scholarly...
1. Hybrid Poetics in Old English Verse
How we imagine the poetics of the Old English literary tradition will either limit or expand the range of interpretive possibilities. In one imagined scenario the formulaic systems, themes, and typescenes of oral tradition persist in Old English poems because they suit nostalgic or antiquarian interests or because appreciation for homegrown traditions supports their ongoing use, even though they sometimes seem, to use Tolkien’s word, “incongruent.” In another scenario—the one that I explore in this book— authors writing in Old English create a rich interweaving...
2. Metonymy, Gifre, Grædig, and a Devouring-the-Dead Theme
Two arguments inform the organization of Signs That Sing. First, when employing a hybrid poetics, Old English poems draw upon a range of idioms from oral tradition, written tradition, and ritual, whose modes of signification influence what a poem says. This chapter examines one end of a spectrum of hybrid expressions: the written oral-connected idiom. Subsequent chapters address other points along the spectrum, such as heroic conventions with little to no formularity, recontextualized oral idioms that reflect a literate interest in complex analogies...
3. A Lord-Retainer Theme
The iconic image of a martial lord exchanging wealth for a retainer’s loyalty unto death has been canonized in scholarly companions to Old English literature, where it is treated as a common convention of heroic verse.1 It was already commonplace at the beginning of the twentieth century. For instance, R. K. Gordon writes, “No virtue is more insisted on in the [heroic] poems than the loyalty a warrior owes his liege lord,” and “the poems are full of praise for the lord who knows how to give freely” (vi). Fred C. Robinson observes that in The Fight at Finnsburg (and elsewhere) readers...
4. Refiguring Hybrid Oral-Literate Signs
As we saw previously, oral-connected idioms bear a metonymic referentiality grounded in a community’s ongoing usage of an oral-traditional register of speech. What may not be obvious is that oral-traditional phrases, themes, and typescenes arise in narratively consistent contexts. In book 3 of The Kalevala, a collection of oral songs that its author-compiler, Elias Lönnrot, stitched together to create the Finnish national epic, the narrator states, “Istuiksen ilokivelle, laulupaaelle paneikse” (3.471–72; He sits on the rock of joy / on the song boulder he settles).1 The same lines also...
5. Bright Voice of Praise: An Old English Poet-Patron Theme
Readers usually remember Widsith for its representation of the eponymous poet, who boastingly describes himself as a professional eulogizer of chieftains, kings, and queens. In his travels to famous courts (as well as to uncertain kingdoms and tribes), Widsith has apparently meandered inordinately through time and space. Some scholarship has explained the Old English poem Widsith, and to a lesser extent Deor, by invoking the conventions of the “begging poem,” the purpose of which is said to be opening the patron’s coffers to the poet. W. H. French, seconded by Norman...
6. A Sea Voyage in The Dream of the Rood
The proposition that a version of the sea-voyage typescene occurs in The Dream of the Rood seems unconventional at first. Where are the watery expanses and a curve-prowed ship speeding across the waves? Furthermore, how could previous scholars, cognizant of oral theory, have missed the presence of a common typescene? No one would expect an oral-connected typescene for a hero’s sea-crossing in a narrative lacking sea voyages. Yet, in The Dream of the Rood this typescene represents another example of Anglo-Saxon hybrid poetics, which manifests here in an oral-connected...
7. Signifying the Coming of Christ in The Advent Lyrics
We return now to the twelve poems of The Advent Lyrics to explore how they collectively merge art and prayer. The Advent Lyrics (also called Christ I) furnish us with the longest example of a poem that incorporates ritual signs in a sustained and meaningful way. The antiphons and prayers of Advent and Christmas seasons ring forth in this poem, metonymically bringing to bear their roles in the liturgy. The ritual signs of The Advent Lyrics represent the third kind of hybrid poetic signifier that I address....
Afterword: Signs That Sing
Poets writing in Old English created hybrid poetic expressions that reflected the range of their verbal resources. They interwove their compositions with written oral idioms, metaphorical versions of oral-connected themes and typescenes, and verbalized ritual signs. Poets employed hybrid poetics in a wide range of genres including heroic narrative, biblical verse translation, lyric, riddle, allegory, gnomic verse, and book inscription. With hybrid expressions, they wove complex layers of signification, no matter the source of their content—whether translating...
Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2017
OCLC Number: 986538413
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Signs that Sing