- The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy by Stephen Blackwood
The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy
Oxford Early Christian Studies
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015
Pp. xxi + 338. $125.
For centuries readers have appreciated the solace offered by the Consolation of Philosophy, and students of the work have long attributed its effectiveness to the author’s ideas, images, and style read silently from the printed page. In this ambitious and perceptive study, Stephen Blackwood demonstrates that Boethius carefully designed the aural component of the Consolation, especially its poetry, to play a central role in the work’s avowed therapeutic purpose. Blackwood bases his arguments on several points, including the vision of music as therapy in Boethius’s De institutione musica, the professed aim in the Consolation of offering poetry as medicine for the soul, Boethius’s attention to meter and metrical repetition in the poems, and the overall importance of the oral/aural elements of ancient literature. Although Blackwood’s primary focus is on the therapeutic nature of Boethius’s poetry, he manages to link this topic to major questions regarding the Consolation, including the nature of Boethius’s Christianity and perceptions of the work as incomplete or ineffectual in its conclusion.
In his Introduction, Blackwood focuses on the oral/aural nature of ancient literature, which he contends the modern reader easily ignores. On the basis of theories linking music with harmony of the soul, mind, and body both before Boethius and in the De institutione musica, Blackwood argues that we should take seriously Lady Philosophy’s promise to bring healing to Boethius the prisoner through music. Blackwood further opines that poetic rhythm is “an essential means of the consolation the text is designed to achieve” (23). Although admitting that we cannot fully understand the oral/aural experience of Boethius’s original readers, he suggests that we should still try to recover the intended effects of the meters and other poetic features that Boethius employs. Following the Introduction is Part One of the book, in which Blackwood illustrates his method by closely [End Page 143] examining the meters and sounds of the poems in Book One of the Consolation. For example, in discussing poem 1.1, Blackwood explains why the elegiac meter is so appropriate to the prisoner’s perception of himself and his condition, and he focuses on aural effects of the poem, such as the abundance of plosive sounds indicating Boethius’s frustration. As Blackwood continues Part One, he shows how the rest of the poetry in Book One serves to express Boethius the prisoner’s mental and emotional condition and Philosophy’s attempt to use verse to heal him. Although some readers will feel that Blackwood overinterprets particular poetic elements, many of his interpretations seem convincing and encourage us to think of Boethius’s poetry in new ways.
In Part Two, Blackwood focuses on poems in which meter is repeated. In instances of metrical repetition, he claims that subsequent appearances of a meter evoke and answer previous uses. For example, Chapter Four examines the connections between the four poems in anapestic dimeter. With these and other poems where individual meters are repeated, Blackwood convincingly shows that Boethius the author alludes and responds to earlier poems in the same meter. Despite these metrical repetitions, as Blackwood acknowledges, the majority of the poems do not share the same meter. This raises the topic of Part Three, an examination of the repetition of line-length metrical rhythms or of smaller elements of four or more syllables in poems of different meters. Blackwood suggests that Boethius intentionally evokes earlier poems if, for instance, two poems both make use of dactylic hexameter lines or of smaller units, such as a dactyl joined to a spondee. Although Blackwood’s conclusions here are less convincing than those regarding poems in exactly the same meter, his arguments are worth consideration, since he rightly stresses that ancient readers possessed a remarkably developed memory and probably made connections that would escape the notice of modern readers.
Blackwood claims that Boethius’s strong focus on the importance of poetic recollection is intended to be seen as an answer...