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Unlocking the word-hoard: a survey of the criticism of old English poetic diction and figuration with emphasis on Beowulf Gilbart, Marjorie Anne

Abstract

In this thesis I attempt to trace the development of the criticism of Old English poetic diction and figuration from the earliest general comments to the present detailed analyses. To do so, I have examined as many statements as possible on these two specific areas as well as many on Old English poetic style in general. Because diction and figuration were among the last aspects of Old English poetry to receive serious critical attention, it has not been easy to locate comments made prior to the mid-nineteenth century. Chapter I covers most of these earliest comments, none of which is particularly valuable today. The Anglo-Saxon period left a few vague hints; the Middle English period left virtually none; and although the Renaissance was responsible for the preservation of most of the Old English poetic manuscripts, it was more concerned with the religion and history of the period than with the literature. The late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century witnessed a flurry of important general scholarship, but the rest of the eighteenth century made little significant comment. Chapter II shows how the study of philology, engendered largely by Continental scholars, was the single most important development in nineteenth century Old English poetic criticism and was responsible for the first adequately edited texts. However, most nineteenth century critics either did not go beyond philology to poetic language or devoted their attention to the historical and mythological background of the poetry, trends which were in keeping with the neo-classical and historical criticism of the nineteenth century. Chapter III shows how the study of Old English poetic style gained momentum as soon as English-speaking scholars approached the subject and isolated it from the general study of Old Germanic literatures. However, it was hampered somewhat by the lack of consistent and effective critical terms and methods. Perhaps the most useful accomplishments of this period (1881-1921) are the source lists and catalogues, which supply solid background material, and the noticeable improvement in attitude toward the poetry. Chapter IV shows how the interest in poetic language after the first was eventually was felt in a number of important studies of Old English poetic diction during the 1920's. On the assumption that Old English poems were conscious literary creations, critics began to study them for their literay merits and to pass some sort of judgment on their artistic achievement. In addition, the work of J. R. R. Tolkien was largely responsible for redeeming the literary reputation of Beowulf, and, by extension, much other Old English poetry. Chapter V shows how much was learned during the 1950's about the nature of Old English poetic diction. The oral-formulaic theory, once it was modified, provided a reasonable explanation for the development of many identical and similar lines in Old English poetry. Other diction studies, especially that of Brodeur, showed that in spite of traditional language, originality was more than possible, as witnessed in the compounds and variations of Beowulf. Other studies showed that much of the poetic diction which was earlier called metaphorical is really either literal or, if figurative, metonymical. Yet other studies found in Beowulf the figuration and symbolism of religious poetry. Thus by the 1960's critics were able to approach Old English poetry almost as confidently as they would approach any other period of English poetry. The two appendices to the thesis concern the development of attitude and comment about two important Old English poetic devices: the kenning and variation. Appendix A shows the growth of precision in the application of Old Norse poetic appellations, and appendix B shows the importance of variation as a key to Old English poetic style. Both these appendices support the general conclusion that methods and information in Old English studies are adequate enough now that the job of full poetic criticism is possible.

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