2. Metonymy, Gifre, Grædig, and a Devouring-the-Dead Theme
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2 Metonymy, Gifre, Grædig, and a Devouring-the-Dead Theme TwoargumentsinformtheorganizationofSignsThatSing.First,whenemploying 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 spectrumofhybridexpressions :thewrittenoral-connectedidiom.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, and lastly, ritual idioms. Here, in response to arguments that repetitions and patterns are simply stylistic features of Old English poetry, I set forth a justification for interpreting recurrent phraseology as an oral-connected strategy that bears a semantic weight specific to oral-traditional signification.1 The secondargumentmovingthroughSigns That Sing is thathybrid idioms have aesthetic and semantic associations that suit each poem’s genre and narrative flow or diegesis.2 A more author-centered way of saying this is that poets composing in Old English threaded their verbal art with idiomatic expressions that varied in their referentiality. They employed the metonymic referentiality of oral-traditional and liturgical registers and the metaphoricreferentialityofliterary,intertextual traditions in which Christian narratives and teachings reside. Section two of this chapter begins by exploring the recurring terms gifre and grædig (devouring, greedy), which o Metonymy, Gifre, Grædig, and a Devouring-the-Dead Theme · 35 appear in a range of recurrent phrases, from a formulaic half-line system to collocations across lines. These terms also arise in a theme that I introduce here: “devouring-the-dead,” which describes the postmortem destruction of the human body by hungry flames or worms. Collectively, these oral-connected expressions demonstrate that authors could use interconnected written-oral idioms that fulfilled functional and aesthetic roles. Each instantiation of these interrelated expressions bears examination because none is purely utilitarian. Rather, each phrase and theme brings meaningful and sometimes complex dimensions to the diegesis, whether a funeral pyre in Beowulf or an earthen grave in the Soul and Body poems. The Metonymy of Old English Oral-Connected Idioms GuidedbyAlbertLord’sgroundbreakinganalysisoforal-traditionalmultiformsinTheSingerofTales ,earlyoral-formulaicscholarshiponOldEnglish poetry focused on identifying specific structural units, such as formulaic systems—the recurrent half-lines that have word-placement restrictions (for example, “þæt wæs [x] cyning” where [x] is an adjective describing a king)—andcommonthemes,alongwiththeirconstituentmotifs (such as the common phrases and narrative features of the exile theme).3 Scholarship on the role of oral poetics in Old English verse has developed in several directions: for example, focusing on the role of an oral-traditional narrative or genre in specific Anglo-Saxon social contexts, on the relevance of memetics (the study of the reproduction of cultural knowledge) to oral-formulaic studies, or on the relationship between oral poetic features of written texts and broader aesthetic questions.4 Lord’s mentor Milman Parry theorized that recurrent oral-traditional expressions fulfill an entirely utilitarian rather than an aesthetic role, but Lord questioned this approach .5 Parry’sposition,perhapsinfluencedbyhisfocusonhowtradition bearers construct their stories, does not accord with the experiences of all traditional singers/speakers and their audiences. Indeed, highly patterned speech is not just memorable for verbal artists but also capable of eliciting pleasure and appreciation from audiences due to a song or speech’s skill andpresentation,whichcanappealtoaspecificrangeofexpectations. For example, some Tibetan audiences value the skill with which a Gesar singer can embellish characters’ speeches with lavish metaphors that fit a song’s metrical structure.6 In Navajo oral poetry, units of four—such as 36 · Signs that Sing directions, mountains, stages of life, or types of stone—resonate with the Navajo notion of hózhó, or beauty and wholeness.7 In traditional verbal art, metonymic idioms play both functional and aesthetic roles. Thus, when I investigate structural devices in the following pages, I intend to describe not only recurring patterns in Old English poetry but also how these patterns could be meaningful to poems, beyond being mute building blocks that merely construct a plot. This chapter addresses what constitutes the devouring-the-dead theme, as well as how this theme engages its immediate poetic contexts. As I explained in the first chapter, the figure ofmetonymyhelpfullydescribesthe relationshipbetween traditional structures and meaning. According to John Miles Foley, metonymy in oral poetics means that recurrent expressions refer to much more than the denotations of individual words; they refer pars pro toto (part for the whole) to a poetic tradition in which the expression has accrued a rich set of associations. The “whole” of...