- Old English Verse and Twentieth-Century Poets
The question is sometimes argued as to when the great tradition of English-language verse can rightly be said to have begun. "With Chaucer," say some. Others call attention to the fact that the earliest poetry recorded in precedes Chaucer by some seven centuries, a longer stretch English precedes Chaucer by some seven centuries, a longer stretch of time than from Chaucer to the present day, though continuities from poet to poet and from generation to generation are far easier to pin down during recent centuries than during the early medieval period. As for when the Grand Tradition died or was broken, some will say "with the death of Hardy and Yeats," though others are well aware that the tradition of English-language poetry has scarcely yet come to an end. It has only undergone radical change as regards its techniques and aesthetics, in a manner consistent with the modernist revolution in the arts in general, with its various forms of iconoclasm.
In Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry, Chris Jones examines the specific means by which four well-known poets of our era—Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, Edwin Morgan, and Seamus Heaney—set out to integrate the form and themes of Old English poetry into their own verse, each poet in an individual manner, whether as part of a deliberate effort to "break the pentameter" (as with Pound) or more generally in search of a poetic energy that could be released through a return to supposed origins. By doing so, these poets contributed to a modernist [End Page 293] aesthetic that is in some ways more sympathetically attuned to so-called primitive art, or to the verse of the early Middle Ages (which too is far from primitive), than to that of the Romantic or Victorian eras. Jones's leading phrase "strange likeness" refers to the double-mirror effect that is achieved when certain passages or works by these twentieth-century poets are set face-to-face with corresponding passages or works, dating from roughly a thousand years earlier, that served these authors as points of departure. The new verse resembles the old, and the old verse resembles the new, in ways that are often easy enough to discern but that also involve what Jones calls "the shock of the old" (6), given the chasms that separate these two worlds.
Jones is the right person to have taken on a groundbreaking study of this kind, for he not only writes about contemporary poetry with an insider's command of these poets'respective oeuvres.1 He is also well versed in Old English language and literature and thus is ideally situated to see how each of these authors adapts his Anglo Saxon sources through translation, imitation, and other forms of homage or appropriation. As for the choice of these particular poets to highlight, it is by no means an inevitable one, as Jones makes clear when noting what other authors he might well have discussed (for example, J. R. R. Tolkien, whose verse is probably read more widely today than that of any of these others). At the same time, the choice of these four poets is apt. Taken together, their works span the twentieth century. There is one expatriate American among them (Pound) and one representative each of England (Auden), Scotland (Morgan), and Ireland (Heaney). Moreover, each of these poets first came upon Old English poetry not by happenstance, as was the case with Gerard Manley Hopkins (another poet whose career was transformed by his encounter with early English alliterative verse), but rather as a result of formal training in a university setting. Jones's book thus calls attention, although only implicitly [End Page 294] for the most part, to the relationship between the fairly recent rise to prominence of university departments of English and the concurrent modernist ferment in the arts. In addition, his book raises the question of whether such experiments as these four...