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How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems

Daniel Donoghue

Mar 2018 | 280 pages | Cloth $69.95
Literature | Philology and Linguistics
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Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1. How to Read
Chapter 2. From Orality to Punctuation
Chapter 3. Verse Syntax
Chapter 4. Eye Movement
Less a Conclusion than an Opening Up

Notes
Bibliography
Index
Acknowledgments


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Introduction

The conventions governing the display of verse today are so well established that it takes some effort to recognize their utter arbitrariness. Flip through any classroom anthology or consult the latest New Yorker and you will find poems with a line break for each line of verse, usually flush left with a ragged right-hand margin, and conventional English punctuation. To be sure, the long persistence of counterexamples like George Herbert's "Easter Wings," Emily Dickinson's eccentric dashes, e.e. cummings's typography, or Jorie Graham's blanks on the page reminds us that the manipulation of these conventions is nothing new, but their innovations would be pointless unless the conventions were well established in the first place. In this regard things have not changed much over the past seven centuries: most poems published today still bear a visible resemblance to medieval manuscript copies of, say, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Although it is less likely today than it was a century ago, for example, that a capital letter will begin each line of verse, the start of sentences and proper nouns will usually be capitalized in almost any poem. The basic format has been remarkably stable. While exceptions are not hard to find, even the most experimental layouts achieve their effects within the confines of the convention.

By contrast, few bodies of literature can defamiliarize the apparent naturalness of these conventions as can the earliest written poems in English, which to our eyes do not look like verse at all. A poem like The Wanderer, for example, is written out from margin to margin in the Exeter Book with scant punctuation, few capitals, and no use of space to separate verse lines or paragraphs. In a deft allusion to this practice, Seamus Heaney includes a poem called "The Wanderer" in his 1975 pamphlet Stations. In it a teacher congratulates the schoolboy Seamus, who has just won a scholarship, by awarding him a coin in front of his classmates. In drawing attention to the Old English Wanderer with the verbal echoes of "ring-giver" and "benches," Heaney's poem links the modest schoolroom ceremony to an ancient tradition of gift-giving that permeates the Old English poem, in which the anhaga or "wanderer" keenly recalls the pleasures of the mead hall. Heaney reaches for a different kind of allusion in making his "Wanderer" a prose poem, with the lines written out from margin to margin, which mimics the appearance of The Wanderer in the Exeter Book. It is not a question of form imitating form because the Old English alliterative verse conventions are quite different, as Heaney well knew, but the margin-to-margin printing of "The Wanderer" is a poet's nod to the manuscript appearance of the medieval poem.

The long lines of Heaney's "Wanderer" effectively reverse the convention observed by editors of Old English poems, who confidently move from the spare manuscript presentation to produce editions with all the modern typographic conventions we associate with verse: lineation, paragraph indentation, punctuation, and capital letters for proper names and the opening of sentences. These edited texts are the versions that we have come to know of The Wanderer, Beowulf, and other poems. Even though every Anglo-Saxonist is aware of the underlying manuscript presentation, the transition to the modern format has drawn relatively little comment. We simply accept it, and in accepting it draw the silent conclusion that the two formats are somehow equivalent. Scholarly discussion of the manuscript layout rarely moves beyond description to ask why the poems should be displayed with such sparse visual cues in the first place, but it is worth considering how a medieval reader could recognize and read these lines as a poems. To say the Anglo-Saxons simply knew how to read their poems is merely to restate the question of "how" because it is not at all obvious what that knowledge consists of.

Yet somehow the manuscript presentation was adequate to the task for the first generations of readers. It is not as though Anglo-Saxon scribes were encumbered by primitive scribal practices at their disposal and could produce only a compromised text. On the contrary, they had equivalents to the same visible cues we associate with poetry today—verse lineation, capitals, a system of punctuation, and various uses of space—each of which found a use in other kinds of writing. Old English verse was different. A central concern of this book is the scribes' collective choice not to incorporate most of these available cues—when they clearly could have done so—as they transcribed many thousands of lines of their vernacular poems. Their practice presupposes a reader who brought a robust set of expectations to the task and who honed those expectations through a lifelong participation in traditional poetics. In asking how the Anglo-Saxons read their vernacular poems in manuscript, this study poses a question more complicated than it may first appear. The act of reading, then as now, has always been more than a slow crawl of the eyes across the line of writing; it is more than the mechanical process of picking out letters and words and stringing them together into half-lines that alliterate. A process like this certainly forms part of it, but it oversimplifies the complex mental activity that allows readers from any period to comprehend a written text, especially a work of verbal art.

In many ways this book's topic is old, at least as old as the editing and printing of Old English poems. To the first editors the manuscript's seemingly haphazard presentation could be rendered intelligible only through heroic effort—simpler in scale but not unlike deciphering Greek fragments on papyri or Assyrian cuneiform on clay tablets. The field's longstanding scholarly consensus has been that the earliest readers of these manuscripts knew the language and the poetic conventions with enough intimacy that they could construe the lines despite the sparse graphic conventions, even though it made the process of reading laborious. This extra effort, according to some, compelled readers to utter the words aloud. Moreover, leaving a blank, ragged right-hand margin would be a waste of precious vellum, especially for vernacular poems, which carried less prestige than the Latin literature whose codices filled medieval libraries. This consensus is largely correct as far as it goes, but it leaves too many questions unanswered. Take punctuation, for example. We know that some scribes who wrote out the poems might also transcribe Latin poems and Old English prose texts, both of which used punctuation with greater regularity. Why did the scribes refrain from introducing the same marks of punctuation to their vernacular poems? It would have taken little effort to do so and would have added little to the physical length of the text. The question deserves a fresh look.

In focusing on the oldest survivals of poetry in the English tradition, my approach is insistently historical, but in other respects it is synchronic or even transhistorical, because what is often taken to be historically contingent (such as silent versus oral reading) turns out to be fairly widespread across many centuries and many cultures. To broaden my theoretical approach, I have turned to the subfield of cognitive psychology known as eye-movement studies, which examines the complex choreography between the eyes and brain while we read. Although eye-movement research typically involves living languages and contemporary readers, a number of the basic principles of reading apply to earlier centuries and other cultures. The field has taken off in the last thirty years, but its discoveries are little known outside departments of psychology. Controlled experiments have shown, for example, that any reader will take in words as words (and not letter by letter or by syllables), that punctuation causes predictable changes to the movement of the eyes, that words run together without spaces can be easily construed by experienced readers, and that the brain has two pathways for processing compound words. Some of these findings have direct application to the reading of Old English poems in manuscript. Although the broader field of cognitive psychology has attracted the attention of literary scholars in certain areas (such as how metaphors work), this book is the first to apply eye-movement studies to the reading of noncontemporary literature. It addresses basic questions that precondition literary interpretation, and it finds applications to the manuscript copies of Old English poems in unexpected ways.

My turn to eye-movement studies is part of a larger strategy to pull together several fields usually pursued in isolation from one another. Since about 1985, the year Mitchell's Old English Syntax was published, traditional philological topics such as syntax, meter, manuscript study, the oral tradition, and the history of punctuation have benefited from specialized studies pursuing independent research agendas. This book puts them into conversation with one another to show their interdependence; for example, the purpose of manuscript pointing comes into sharper focus when viewed alongside a specific intersection of meter and syntax. In addition, my study's sustained attention to the material conditions of poetic manuscripts contributes more broadly to the history of the book and the history of reading. By the same token it finds a place in the recent critical turn to "surface reading" as elaborated by Best and Marcus. By contrast, this book's approach stands apart from a number of recent studies that focus on the lexicon of Old English poems, especially those that take advantage of the availability of machine-searchable texts to identify repeated words and phrases. Although lexical studies have been productive, for example, in shedding light on literate-formulaic composition and authorship, my approach is fundamentally different.

Besides its ambition to synthesize various approaches, another thing that distinguishes this book is its pragmatic focus on the reception of the text, rather than on the role of poets or scribes in its production. The difference is crucial: I am specifically interested in how scribes manipulated the conventions at their disposal for the benefit of the manuscript's readers. I assume that poems were transcribed not as memory prompts for readers who already knew them but as texts that spoke to new generations of readers. The formal features of Old English verse, which can be traced back to an early oral Germanic tradition, play a crucial role in a reader's capacity to navigate the sometimes complex syntax. In this regard it is quite different from later centuries of English verse. Those features include:


  1. poetic diction in single words (e.g., guma), in compounds (dom-georn), and in special kinds of compounds known as kennings (hilde-leoma)

  2. formulas based on the metrical half-line and sometimes the full line

  3. themes (or motifs) that shape a scene

  4. longer narrative units such as ring composition, verse paragraphs, or other kinds of divisions

  5. conventions that conditioned word order at the opening of clauses

  6. half-lines conforming to well-defined metrical patterns

  7. alliteration as a formal device joining two half-lines

These poetic features (or some subset) are often included in scholarly surveys, student textbooks, encyclopedia entries, and introductions to the field. Although usually discussed as features deployed by poets in the process of creating verse, they are also the conventions that scribes might recognize and manipulate as they transcribed vernacular poems. By the same token even a nonliterate audience internalized these conventions, not to the extent or in the same way that poets did but still to the point where they might recognize variants on a well-known formula, for example, or the features that make up a theme, or the metrical convention that the final stressed syllable of a line will not alliterate. Alliterative verse was virtually the only poetic convention available in the vernacular, and listening to poems remained one of the primary sources of entertainment throughout the Anglo-Saxon period.

From our thousand-year separation, we lack direct knowledge of what Anglo-Saxons brought to the task of listening to an Old English poem. Most medievalists today grant some kind of role for the oral circulation of poems, but when the discussion turns to the written record, mention of the oral context grows faint. In some ways this shift is hardly surprising because the live performance of poetry is necessarily ephemeral, and our best records of its existence in Anglo-Saxon England are oblique, to say the least. And yet, as this book argues, in order for the written record to make sense, the oral tradition had to remain vigorous in ways that escape our ability to observe. Here let me turn to an unlikely field for a parallel. For many decades astrophysicists have known that the physical properties of the universe cannot be accounted for by its observable mass and energy. To make up for this lack they hypothesize the existence of dark matter and dark energy, which together constitute 95 percent of all the mass-energy of the universe. Because they cannot be observed or measured, dark matter and dark energy can be known only indirectly, but their hypothetical existence is widely accepted in the scientific community for compelling reasons, even if it means that the known universe makes up only 5 percent of the total mass-energy. The analogous dark matter-energy in my reading of Anglo-Saxon England is the pervasive presence of oral poetry among the general population. We cannot directly observe it, but without it important features of the written record remain baffling. Even the 95 to 5 percent split is not far off because literacy (however we define it) was the province of an elite minority, most of whom were clerics. Although the evidence is necessarily indirect, reciting and listening to poems must have been a common activity throughout the lifetimes of individual Anglo-Saxons. The dark matter-energy of oral poetry included women and men from all walks of life, from peasants like Cædmon to scholars like Aldhelm. Individuals who entered religious orders did not forget their native poetry, even those who were destined to pursue a highly literate career. Poetry was not reserved for specialists. No doubt some individuals remembered more than others; some would have been better performers than others; and a talented few would make the leap to creating new poems. Every Anglo-Saxon participating in the oral exchange of poems would internalize the conventions through a lifetime of experience. "Competence" is a key term in my larger argument, which I use in a sense close to the "linguistic competence" that Chomsky has made familiar; it contrasts with "performance." Now a standard concept in linguistics, it refers to the complex command of language structure (syntactic, semantic, phonological, etc.) that fluent speakers of any language enjoy. In the context of this book "competence" refers to the deep knowledge of the oral tradition that Anglo-Saxons brought to the task of listening to or reading their alliterative poems. It is far from what is sometimes called passive knowledge because it was complex and operated on many levels, some more conscious than others: a person might recognize the precise wording of a formula or might sense something amiss after hearing an unstressed word in the wrong place—but be unable to specify just what was wrong. Shared among the members of a larger speech community, competence has only a tangential relation to the skill of individual poets. If by some miracle of time travel we were able to interview even the most experienced auditors in medieval England, they might not articulate their "infallible intuition" in a way that would make sense to us because we prefer the language of analytical categories. Yet their sophistication is no less real.

The first chapter does some ground-clearing by reexamining two famously seminal episodes, one concerning poetry and the other concerning the act of reading. The first revisits Bede's famous story of Cædmon in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and directs our attention away from the central characters to Cædmon's fellow farmhands. What kind of poems were they singing to each other when Cædmon backed out of the feast? What practical knowledge did they bring to the entertainment? The second part of the chapter explores the basic question of silent versus oral reading, beginning with the famous scene in the Confessions when young Augustine encounters Ambrose reading silently to himself. This scene is almost universally interpreted to say something about the extraordinary feat of silent reading at this time. Despite its prevalence this interpretation is certainly wrong, because a literal reading of Augustine's words reveals next to nothing about his response to silent reading. Both kinds of reading (silent and aloud) coexisted for centuries before and after Augustine, as a review of classical and medieval literature illustrates, including passages that point to the existence of silent reading among the Anglo-Saxons. The discussion draws from cognitive psychology to reject the idea that readers of scriptio continua (writing with no spaces between words) were compelled to read out loud because of the cognitive burden such reading entails. The discussion also turns to examples from various cultures, such as medieval Arabic, contemporary Thai, and the prose of James Joyce. Anglo-Saxon readers, like those from other cultures, could move with great facility between reading aloud and in silence. The phenomenon of "inner speech," both as it is commonly experienced and as tracked in eye-movement studies, throws into question whether silent reading can be truly silent since the inner voice never grows quiet. If this is the case then the only kind of reading is oral, as counterintuitive as it may seem, whether or not we utter words out loud.

There is no doubt that Old English poems emerged from a traditional oral poetics, which is the focus of the second chapter. The first part puts the interplay between orality and literacy on firmer footing by unpacking the metaphors that lie behind two familiar ways to distinguish them: the "great divide" and the "oral/literate continuum." Each metaphor puts the two modes in an unnecessary and historically doubtful antagonism, even in studies that aim to move away from such antagonism. At the end of his career Albert Lord, building on earlier field research in the former Yugoslavia, questioned the idea that traditional oral song can always be distinguished from nontraditional literate compositions, especially during transitional periods when traditional song persists. That collapsing of difference opens a new way of seeing the two modes in a complementary relation. One place to see that relation, in a discussion that negotiates between the history of punctuation and linguistic theory, is on the folios containing Old English poems, where the punctuation even at its most sparse reveals itself as part of a system.

One reason that even sparse punctuation can reveal itself as systematic is through its integration into verse syntax, which is the subject of the third chapter. Old English poems weave the word order into the metrical structure of half-lines so thoroughly that it is self-defeating to think of syntax apart from meter. In this regard Old English verse differs from the vernacular prose and from Latin verse—a difference that scribes recognized and exploited as they copied out Old English verse. Previous studies have discussed verse syntax through the perspective of the way poets created verse, but any Anglo-Saxon familiar with the conventions of the traditional oral poetics (which is to say virtually all Anglo-Saxons) could intuitively recognize the features of verse syntax. Some of these conventions are less obvious than others: the conjunction gif, for example, clearly signals the beginning of a clause, but a verb like mæg also signals a clause opening because of verse syntax, so an Anglo-Saxon hearing or reading a poem had more than one clue to use in navigating a clause. Recognizing the signals embedded in the language, including verse syntax, is a kind of competence that Anglo-Saxons had in abundance and informed their reading of poems in manuscript. If Beowulf seems sparsely punctuated to us, it is because we lack the insider's knowledge that Anglo-Saxons brought to their vernacular poems. Punctuation that is too regular, in this context, becomes a hindrance.

The third chapter calls attention to distinctive patterns of word order that follow a scribal mark of punctuation. Considering what comes after the punctuation runs counter to the way we normally think of it: a comma ends a phrase, a period ends a sentence, and so forth. We rarely consider what follows, except perhaps in the case of the colon, like the one in the previous sentence. The fourth chapter expands on this observation by turning again to eye-movement studies, which give empirical support to the idea that a mark of punctuation conditions how the eye and brain take in the text that precedes and follows that mark. It raises the intriguing possibility that if Anglo-Saxon scribes placed points immediately preceding certain kinds of clause openings, they may have intuited something essential about eye movements in reading. This is one example of how eye-movement studies can help make sense of the visual cues in manuscripts of Old English poems. The chapter opens with a summary of the basics of the complex interplay between the eyes and the brain in any act of reading, before it moves to specific applications involving Old English such as compound words, the tendency of the eye to skip over function words, and the pattern of eye movements before and after marks of punctuation. The analysis of specific passages of Old English poems in manuscript points to a close association between verse syntax, scribal conventions, and eye movement.

The decades immediately before and after the year 1000 have a special claim on this study because the four most significant volumes—the Vercelli Book, the Exeter Book, the Beowulf manuscript, and the Junius Book—were copied in this period and because of the emergence of a late form of verse that differed in certain formal features from earlier poems. As the final chapter argues, this variety suggests an environment in which early poems like Beowulf and Exodus continued in circulation at a time when the traditional verse was moving in new directions. Although the structural basics of the verse form remained constant, newer poems like The Seasons for Fasting employed a different vocabulary, favored end-stopped lines, and changed the metrical patterns. At least some of these shifts are a function of changes in the Old English language, and some are the result of a more deliberately literate style of verse composition. Rather than fitting the changes into a narrative of the "decline" of the older tradition, I ask what it means that readers contemporary to one style of verse apparently read and preserved the older verse. Recent discussions of the late style of verse presuppose a clerical, literate environment to such an extent that it neglects the overwhelming part of the population (the 95 percent dark matter-energy) that was neither clerical nor literate. It seems preposterous to imagine ordinary Anglo-Saxons living in a world without spoken poetry. How did the latter-day successors of Cædmon's fellow peasants entertain themselves? How much did their poems resemble the literate compositions cultivated by the clerical elite?

Scribes hold a crucial middle position. Obviously literate, most were nevertheless conversant with a tradition that had deep and continuing roots in an oral culture. It is helpful to see scribes as specialized readers whose training enabled them to use the conventions at their disposal, or ignore them, or innovate something new as they transcribed their vernacular poems. I am less interested in scribes as participants in the making of a poem, as cocreators at the textual level, than in how they prepared their manuscripts to be construed by readers who had never encountered the poems before. We may never know who these readers were, but we can learn some things about them by inspecting what scribes thought would suffice. The following chapters argue that the written presentation of the poems negotiates between scribal conventions and a robust sense of audience expectations. The conventions for copying out Old English poems are adequate to the task—and not the result of an impoverished supply of tools available to scribes and readers. In examining poetic manuscripts with Anglo-Saxon eyes, this book seeks a readerly poetics.