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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Such minor flaws do not diminish the value of these essays, which at their best combine a wealth of historical and codicological detail with refreshingly imaginative and even adventurous ways of interpreting that evidence. STEPHEN PARTRIDGE University of British Columbia G. A. LESTER. The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry. The Language of Literature Series. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. Pp. viii, 182. $39.95. Perhaps the most pertinent observation I might make regarding this book is that it belongs to the "Language of Literature" series, under the general editorship ofN. F. Blake. Because this series also includes a vol­ ume on The Language ofChaucer (by David Burnley (1989}), the sections of Lester's book dealing with Middle English might be more accurately described as "the language of Middle English poetry exclusive of Chaucer." While the avoidance ofChaucer results in a greater number of Middle English examples from writers such as Gower, it also leads Lester to make comments such as the following, regarding the pronunciation ofinflectional -e: "Much ofwhat is true ofChaucer is also true ofhis con­ temporaries" (p. 168, n. 4). Such comments reveal how much of our knowledge of Middle English poetry stems from the study of Chaucer and expose the difficulty of writing usefully on the subject of language in Middle English poetry while avoiding consideration of Chaucer. With this said, I do want to note that the book manages this difficult task well; one feature obviously in its favor is its sensible and effective organization. Introductory chapters cover "The Social Context" and "The Literary and Linguistic Context." These are followed by paired chapters on "Poetic Diction" and "Structure and Organisation" for both Old and Middle English poetry. Finally, there is one chapter on "Language Varieties," and another in which detailed analyses are carried out on passages from Beowulfand Gawain. Throughout, Lester stresses continuities between these periods and literatures; his treatment cer­ tainly recommends that we appreciate how valuable a knowledge ofOld English poetic language can be for an understanding ofMiddle English 296 REVIEWS works, especially such important poems as La3amon's Brut and the poems of the Alliterative Revival. And though I occasionally disagree with a gloss or a construal, I think the book as a whole does an ad­ mirable job of presenting important information about medieval English poetic language in a clear and accessible manner. On the other hand, I also found many points in which I felt Lester's book underperformed or misrepresented the state of the field. Much of what Lester has to say about Old English, for example, has a distinctly archaic feel. Specifically, he refers to Old English poems by titles such as "The Arts of Men," "Deor's Lament," and "The Runic Poem," and while all of these titles have been used at one time or another, they are not the most current titles, nor (despite Lester's claim) the titles used in the ASPR. Likewise, Lester's comments on the relationship between Old English poetic diction and oral-formulaic theory are based solely on the important early articles by Magoun and Benson, though much more sophisticated treatments of the difficult dynamic of an originally oral tradition recorded only in writing can be found in recent works by John Miles Foley and Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe. This problem was greatly lessened in the book's Middle English portions, but I did still feel resonances of older perspectives occasionally, especially in the ma­ terial on Middle English poetic diction, which focused very heavily on the etymological origins of the poetic vocabulary. Except for Lester's discussion of Latinate "aureate" vocabulary in the fourteenth and fif­ teenth centuries (pp. 97-99), the etymological material may be ofmore interest to modern philologists than it was to Middle English speakers and poets. I also had a couple of bibliographic quibbles. At the beginning of chapter 8, Lester writes of "the variety classes distinguished by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum in A Grammar ofContemporary English" (p. 131). The material cited, however, appears to come from Quirk and Greenbaum's A Concise Grammar ofContemporary English (as, indeed, is listed in Lester's bibliography under...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 296-298
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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