In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Old and Middle English, Poetry and Prose Anne Savage McMaster University This paper began in an MLA session organized by Larry Scanlon as a response to Seth Lerer’s introductory chapter to The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, edited by David Wallace, and finished in a session the following year organized by Allen J. Frantzen on new approaches to the discipline of Old English. I will be confronting the conceptual-critical gap between Old and Middle English, with respect to poetry in particular. Generally speaking, the period Lerer covers has long been treated as an absence of English poetry, characterized by a few scattered and ineffective attempts to continue a dead tradition from a defunct Anglo-Saxon culture. This phenomenon is strikingly similar to the earlier fate of the entire Middle Ages when left in the hands of Classicists and Renaissance scholars: the Dark Ages, a thousand years without a bath. While other areas of the Middle Ages have been illuminated , this period of English literature has met the same fate again and again. Lerer’s essay renders focal the issue of verse in the ‘‘afterlife of Old English’’ (p. 7): ‘‘This issue, central to the scholarly assessment of the nature of Old English poetry in general, takes on a new importance for the transitional period surveyed by this chapter. How verse appeared as verse becomes a process that involves scribal and editorial decisions that go to the heart of what will constitute the literary forms of Middle English’’ (p. 9). This is addressed through some verses in the 1087 entry of the Peterborough Chronicle on the death of William the Conqueror, the near-contemporary encomium urbis on Durham, the Tremulous Hand’s First Worcester Fragment, The Soul’s Address to the Body, The Grave, and the Brut (in passing). The approach is familiar, waving goodbye to a great but distant canon of poetry during a time of linguistic uncertainty 503 ................. 8972$$ CH19 11-01-10 12:22:50 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER compounded by social upheaval over a long period. ‘‘Vernacular selfconsciousness ’’ (p. 10) is manifested, in terms of poetry, as antiquarianism , ‘‘writing in a language and in literary forms that are no longer current.’’ I will turn at first to the implications of Lerer’s analyses of these poems as a way of characterizing an age of transition to Middle English poetry largely by dispensing with its Old English poetic forms and vocabulary. Lerer sees The Rime of King William and its surrounding prose annal in deep contrast: the annal is ‘‘a veritable chrestomathy of Old English discourses’’ (p. 12), while the poem is Continental and literary. While rhyme is unusual, the mastery of rhyme itself is apparent, as he concedes , in other Old English poems, especially The Rhyming Poem. If so, it is not so much the presence of rhyme but the lack of alliterative structure that characterizes the piece as ‘‘Continental’’ in style. And yet, there is alliteration, though more widely spaced than in earlier verse, and not always consistent with the half-lines, running over them, or making longer chiastic patterns. The poem can be written out so as to emphasize the rhyme, and we instinctively do this; and yet it can also be written out in long half-lines that do not lay such a heavy emphasis on the rhyme; and, of course, it can be written out in prose, as it is in the annal, which gives nothing away to our eyes about the reading technology necessary to deliver it aloud. Castelas he let wyrcean, 7 earme men swi1e swencean. Se cyng wæs swa swi1e stearc, 7 benam of his under3eoddan manig marc goldes 7 ma hundred pund seolfres. 2et he nam be wihte 7 micelan unrhyte of his landleode for littelre neode. He wæs on gitsunge befeallan, 7 grædignaesse he lufode mid ealle He sætte mycel deorfri1 7 lægde laga 3ærwi3 . . . He forbead 3a heortas, swylce eac 3a baras. Swa swi1e he lufode 3a headeor swycle he wære heora faeder. Eac he sætte be 3am haran 3et hi mosten freo faran . . . While the alliteration is not consonant with the norms...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 503-511
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.