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UBC Theses and Dissertations

esthetic perception in Beowulf : a study of the sensible, spatial, and temporal in the narrative art of the poem Hilmo, Magdalena Anna Maidie


This study deals with the treatment of the senses in the telling of the story of Beowulf. The purpose is to lay the groundwork for modern readers who wish to appreciate the poem's aesthetic qualities but cannot fully relate to the poet's method of description. It is necessary to have an overall view of the manner of description used to convey sensuous experiences. The poet employs one or more concrete details to delineate the most important characteristics of his subject, thereby penetrating its essential nature. The audience imaginatively completes the rest of the picture once it has been given the most pertinent and revealing clues, similar in manner to the impressionistic outline drawings of the period. Even speeches are grounded by some tangible reference to the speaker or his situation. To enrich a passage the poet piles up several synecdochical images in variations to achieve the same effect as that produced by a diamond slowly revolved so that the light illuminates various sparkling facets from different viewpoints. Included in the variations are always a few concrete details to permit tangible apprehension of the subject. The details function thematically as well as stylistically. A visual parallel to this method, showing a similarity in the mode of perception, is that of the interlace designs in which various strands are highlighted and then submerged, enabling comparison and contrast by the juxtaposition of various elements. It is a way of presenting multiple coordinate happenings instantly. The sort of concrete details given parallel the visual arts in the featuring of head and hands. Another thematic parallel is evident in the snake motif. Visually and symbolically, the poet brings together tangible images in the contrasting movements of light-dark and vertical-horizontal. The method of description in any era depends on the way in which the people are accustomed to perceiving the world around them. In Beowulf the most significant sense is the visual9 as indicated by the numerous words of sight. Everything seen is meant to be appreciated for its own visual properties and for its importance to the people concerned. Visual attention is paid to places, characters, and treasures, underlining the important thematic concerns. The only references to color in the stark bright and dark world of the poem are provided by hints of yellow and numerous references to blood. Unlike the rest of Old English poetry in which words of brightness are twice as numerous as words of darkness, they are almost equal in Beowulf* adding to the tragic gloom. Not only climate, but also geographical features determine the sensuous responses elicited. The poet also presents settings for all the events, although they are often merely suggested, as they are in the Bayeux Tapestry, by the briefest of indications. The descriptions of the three major settings, which are all designated as "halls," are examined. There is an emphasis on the human capacity for perceiving the essence of the sensible world, which is the sphere for life's actions. The limiting factor in man's perception of the world is the curtailment of time. Acute awareness of man's transitory stay sharpens the consciousness of sensuous things and places in the poem. A study of time serves to clarify the methods by which the poet presents the succession of events and also to show how the persons in the epic react to time passage. Time is measured by reference to regularly recurrent events. Successive stages are presented in a manner similar to that of the Bayeux Tapestry. Sequential actions are often slowed down, interrupted, and speeded up again. Occurring in a kind of absolute time, descriptions of treasures serve to give the impression of much time having passed when the narrative is resumed at a late stage. The allusions and digressions often serve to present the major stages in the existence of a subject simultaneously so that its total significance can be seen. Time rhythms are counterpointed by alternations of long durations with short ones, and by the awareness of the limited finite durations with the infinite duration of eternity. Death, as the characters are poignantly aware, ends sensuous perception of the world.

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