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Old English elegy and critical tradition. Hibbert, Anne Lingard

Abstract

Critical comment on Old English elegiac poetry is discussed from the following three standpoints: definition of the genre 'elegy'; interpretations of representative elegiac poems; stylistic analysis. The theories of critics are evaluated, with the aim of establishing the features of elegiac poetry in Old English and assessing the adequacy of critical coverage of them to date. Not many critics have attempted to define the Old English, elegy as a genre, and their definitions tend to be either too vague or too restrictive, needing to be qualified in a number of ways. However, it appears that the elegy in Old English is an abstract kind of poetry. It presents a state of mind rather than a specific person or event. In addition, there are certain recurrent features by which the genre can be defined. The elegy presents the viewpoint of an individual, usually in monologue form. It often contains structural elements which are conventionale. The typical themes of elegy are separation from a loved one, exile, banishment, the contrast between present desolation and past or absent happiness. These themes are associated with conventional descriptions, the recurrent features of which extend to quite small particulars of wording and imagery. Interpretations of the following elegiac poems are discussed: The Seafarer, The Wanderer, The Ruin, The Wife's Lament, The Husband's Message, Wulf and Eadwacer. Critical theories regarding these poems show, by and large, a change from considering them primitive and pagan (sometimes with Christian interpolations) to stressing their sophistication, unity, and essential Christianity. It is, on the whole, a change for the better, but the sophistication and the Christian element now tend to be overemphasised, especially by those critics who interpret the poems as allegories. Present interpretations show two main trends: a tendency to relate the poems to Latin influence, often patristic, and a movement towards closer investigation of the poems by internal evidence alone, without regard to sources and analogues. Stylistic studies have mostly considered Old English poetry as a whole, rather than any particular branch of it, but although the elegies employ the same formal devices as the rest of the poetry, they tend to handle them in a freer and more personal way. Also, the tendency of Old English poetry to use external description with a symbolic purpose is particularly shown in the elegies, which make an extensive use of natural description as a vehicle of mood. There has been a change in stylstic analysis similar to that in interpretation. Instead of regarding Old English poetry as unsophisticated, as earlier scholars tended to do, modern critics stress its subtlety and skilful integration, both structurally and syntactically. This change of attitude has affected criticism of the elegies, although the focus has not usually been specifically on them. The stylistic investigations which have shed most light on the elegy as a type have been the formulaic analyses. Apart from the formulaic studies, there has been little direct stylistic examination of elegiac poetry, and it is here that most remains to be done, as regards both formal devices and the looser patterns of imagery and description.

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