- The Poetry of Praise
Over the course of his long and exceptionally productive career, J. A. Burrow has authored, amid other work, a series of valuable monographs on literary historical topics, ranging from the groundbreaking Ricardian Poetry (1971) to the recent Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative (2002). The present volume forms a worthy addition to this series. Although unlikely to be as influential as, say, Ricardian Poetry, the book nonetheless provides a useful critical corrective that should both encourage twenty-first century critics of premodern poetry to pay more attention to the poetry of praise and help them to take more care in their assumptions about such verse.
The argument of the book is straightforward and lucidly articulated in its preface and introduction: on the one hand, while praise was, in the premodern period, one of poetry’s most defining features and important functions, this aspect has suffered relative critical neglect because it does not translate well into modern culture; on the other hand, when critics do pay attention to praise, they often project onto it an irony that reflects more the predisposition of modernism than the discernable intent of the author. We have too often, Burrow contends, seen our own literary historical position and tastes in premodern poetry and have thus frequently misunderstood a fundamental aspect of it, failing thereby to recognize the extensive artistic achievements in this regard.
Burrow pursues this argument by means of a broad survey that stretches from Aristotle to Christopher Logue, although the heart of the book focuses on medieval English poetry, to which 121 of its 179 pages of text are devoted, [End Page 603] including 89 pages on Middle English poetry, Burrow’s specific area of expertise. (Readers of Comparative Literature Studies should be forewarned, therefore, that The Poetry of Praise is only minimally comparative in its coverage; although its argument no doubt holds for many literary traditions, the book is largely a study of medieval English poetry, bracketed by a brief examinations of what this poetry inherits from its classical past and what succeeds it in subsequent centuries.) Following the short introduction, the first chapter traces the development of the idea of praise in classical, medieval, and Renaissance rhetorical and literary theory and concludes with an illustrative consideration of a fourteenth-century commentary on Dante. The second chapter surveys epideixis (the activity of praise or blame) and auxesis (superlative or magnifying description) in Old English poetry, beginning with Caedmon’s Hymn (which forms an exemplary instance of both epideixis and auxesis), and concluding with a sustained examination of Beowulf, which has received ironic readings that Burrow seeks to counter. Chapter 3 surveys epideixis and auxesis in Middle English poetry (mostly) exclusive of Chaucer, devoting the bulk of its pages to three historical epics (La3amon’s Brut, the alliterative Morte Arthure, and The Wars of Alexander) and the heroic romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. As in his consideration of Beowulf, Burrow seeks to counter influential ironic readings where they exist, claiming, for example, that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight does not voice a critique of the Arthurian court (or of its Ricardian correspondent), though conceding that the poem’s ultimate attitude toward its hero is ambiguous and perhaps intentionally ambivalent. Chapter 4, on Chaucer, aptly focuses on this question of irony, since Chaucer has been, of course, so celebrated for his mastery of this literary device. Burrow’s aim in this chapter is not to diminish Chaucer’s accomplishment in this regard but to correct the tendency to see irony virtually everywhere in his poetry and to balance notice of this accomplishment with recognition of Chaucer’s pervasive practice of nonironic epideixis and auxesis. The fifth chapter charts the fortunes of praise poetry from the early modern period through the twentieth century, telling the story of its decline from its “greatest age” in the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods into irony, parody, and (near) irrelevance. Necessarily highly selective, this chapter organizes its rapid survey into the two generic categories of “Panegyric...