1. Hybrid Poetics in Old English Verse
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1 Hybrid Poetics in Old English Verse Beyond an Old/New Dichotomy How we imagine the poetics of the Old English literary tradition will eitherlimitorexpandtherangeofinterpretivepossibilities . In oneimagined 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 of oral, written, and ritual traditions, which showcases their skill and pleases and informs their audiences. A purposeful mingling of the signifying strategies of these traditions creates imaginatively complex works of verbal art. How we imagine the poets and audiences of the past can profoundly shape how we interpret their work. I thus want to resist a developmental model that ascribes “newness” to literacy and “oldness” to oral tradition. Anoraltradition’sexpressivefeaturesshouldnotbetreatedassignsoftransitional development toward a fully fledged written tradition, but rather as dynamiccomponentsofmultilayered,hybridpoems.Thecharacterization of orality as a definitively older (but ongoing) mode of composition can be traced to Francis P. Magoun Jr.’s case for the influence of oral tradition on Old English poetry, where he characterizes Christian stories as “novel,” o Hybrid Poetics in Old English Verse · 9 compound phrases for the Christian God as “young,” and the act of writing as something new and relatively tangential to oral composition in performance .1 To one degree or another, subsequent scholarship associated oral tradition with Germanic and heroic poetry in contrast to the written biblical and allegorical verse (which adapted oral-traditional formulas and themestoChristiansubjectmatter).Inthepastfewdecadesthebiasesthat generated these categories have been deconstructed, yet even a scholar as sensitive as Andy Orchard resurrects them (just as many others do).2 Orchard, who has written extensively on oral-formulaic and acoustic devices in Old English poetry, states in the collection Anglo-Saxon Styles that Cynewulf’s verse is a “combination of old and new,” the former being “the native, secular, vernacular, and ultimately oral tradition,” the latter being the “imported, Christian, Latinate” tradition (“Both Style” 271).3 He mentions the intersection of two cultures (Latinate and Germanic), two ideational systems (Christian and heroic), two poetic styles (for example, literate allusion within a textual community and oral-traditional phraseology ), and two time periods (new and old). The naturalization of these homologies within scholarly interpretation deserves interrogation. One danger in stressing a dichotomy between oral and literate traditions is that notions of “old” and “new” accrue to each tradition and, thereby, legitimate interpreting the presence of oral-traditional style as something that has been largely assimilated, perhaps nostalgically, to literacy as a practice and to written text as a product. Moregenerally,phrasessuchas“residualoralfeatures”and“transitional orality” suggest that instead of oral and written communication intersecting productively, the oral necessarily gives way to the written.4 Walter Ong uses “transitional orality” to describe an early phase of writing within a culture, where writing remains marginal and functions only to support oral-traditional practices (or “primary orality”).5 Although “transitional orality” aptly represents the role of writing in certain cultural contexts, it is easily overgeneralized. The terms “residual” and “transitional” also run the danger of depicting oral-traditional features as the dying embers of an outmoded cultural practice. “Transitional” writing indicates a developmental stage in a teleological progression toward writing that is less oral and more literate. Although, it has not always been used in this manner, “oral-derived” can signify a deracination of oral-traditional expressive features from the contexts in which they derive their meaning.6 Such terms 10 · Signs that Sing can obscure the likelihood that, for the Anglo-Saxons, the verbal arts of oral and written traditions were communicative resources on more or less equal footing. I take the position that oral traditions—in such forms as the narration of inherited and new stories, proverbs, lyric songs, medicinal and cooking recipes, healing incantations, riddles, and jokes—continued unabated, although continuously changing, until at least the mid-nineteenth century in all corners of the British Isles. (Jack Goody notes that “near-universal literacy was achieved in Europe during the last quarter of the nineteenth century”[Myth43].)Dependingontheperiod,thesetraditionsresounded in Irish, Welsh, Old Norse, Old English, Middle English, modern English, Scottish, Old French, Anglo-French, and probably Latin. Their audiences, tradition bearers, and genres varied across regions and time, and they were influenced by each other and by written traditions.7 Some scholars...