Monday, September 6

modern poets, and old english poetry

This post began as a warm-up exercise for studying, a reflection log of thoughts as I went over for a second read, but then as I got more interested in it I went ahead and added the format to it. The finished product is rather interesting, if you like modern epics or have read Tolkien.

Synecdoche and metonymy are common figures of speech as when keel is used for "ship" or iron, for "sword." A particularly striking effect is achieved by the kenning, a compound of two words in place of another as when sea becomes "whale-road" or body is called "life-house."

In the second sentence of Caedmon's Hymn, for example, God is referred to five times appositively as "he," "holy Creator," "mankind's guardian," "eternal Lord," and "Master Almighty." This use of parallel and appositive expressions, known as
variation, gives the verse a highly structured and musical quality. (Norton)

There is a contemporary writer, Calvin Miller, whose poetry reflects these literary figures in extreme. In his epic poem "The Singer", he retells Christian history with allegory. Snippet alert:

The River Singer finished and
they walked into the trees.

"Are you the Troubador, who
knows the Ancient Star-Song?"
the tradesman softly asked.

In the Bible, this passage is originally the beginning of the book of Mark. The River Singer is John the Baptist, the Troubador is the Christ, and the Ancient Star-Song is the Truth.

The overall effect of the language is to formalize and elevate speech. Instead of being straightforward, it moves at a slow and stately pace with steady indirection. A favorite mode of this indirection is irony. A grim irony pervades heroic poetry even at the level of diction where fighting is called "battle-play." A favorite device, known by the rhetorical term litotes, is ironic understatement. (Norton)

I'm having a bit more trouble discerning ironic understatement from the technique of foreshadowing; I'm supposing it comes from looking through too many books whose plot-twists I am familiar with . . . Actually quite funny:)

More than a figure of speech, irony is also a mode of perception in Old English poetry. In a famous passage, the Wanderer articulates the theme of Ubi sunt (where are they now): "Where had the horse gone? Where the young warrior? Where the giver of treasure? . . . " (Norton)

This one is interesting in relation to modern poets because nearly everybody has recently seen an example of this in a movie, which based on a book that was written by a man who also translated Beowulf. Allow me to present Tolkien with his absurd triad of initials and his remarkable story about a Ring. In one scene in the movie--more people will remember this than the book, I think--King Theoden of Rohan is being armed for battle and he recites an old poem exactly in this style and very similar to the one quoted:

"Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the hand on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
[full text located at the end of this page]

So alike, in fact, that somebody else noticed it too, which happily validates the point a little more.

?. "Old English Poetry." Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M.H. Abrams et al. 4th ed. vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. p 5-6.

Miller, Calvin. "The Singer". Inter Varsity Press: 1975. p 17.

Tolkien, J.R.R. "The Two Towers". Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992. p 530. Published online by at an unknown date; last visited 09.07.04.

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