The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 18 (2018)


Recent Scholarship

Maring, Heather. 2017. Signs that Sing: Hybrid Poetics in Old English Verse. Gainesville: University Press of Florida. xii + 222 pages. ISBN 9780813054469.

§1. In Signs that Sing Heather Maring argues that the features of oral tradition, literary practice, Christian hermeneutics, and church ritual are interwoven in the hybrid poetics of Old English verse. Maring writes against a simplistic view of oral-traditional characteristics as old, and sets out to demonstrate that elements such as themes, formulae, and typescenes, seen as derived from oral tradition, continued to inspire and be employed by Anglo-Saxon poets long past the coming of Christianity, and with it, literacy, to England. The book does not argue that the surviving corpus of Old English verse is the product of oral composition, but rather that oral-traditional features are retained in literary productions as "oral-connected" elements, due to the continuing presence of an oral-poetic tradition among Anglo-Saxons. For Maring, elements derived from this tradition would have provoked recognition in the poems' original audiences. Since these elements were recognizable, they could be used metonymically by poets, contributing to the rich metaphorical texture of Old English verse.

§2. In the opening chapters Maring deals with what scholars of oral tradition consider to be oral-traditional elements in Old English verse. This section of the book draws heavily on the work of John Miles Foley, and makes comparative reference to oral-poetic traditions from around the world. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction to Maring's concept of hybrid poetics, in which oral elements are not seen as antiquated or "other," but interact dynamically with literate hermeneutics and Christian ritual in Old English verse. Maring argues that the poetry does not preserve features because of traditional aesthetics alone, but that there must have been support from a living tradition existing in parallel with, and feeding into, literate literary practice in order for poets' manipulation of formulae, themes, and typescenes to have a productive effect on their audience's expectations.

§3. The five chapters that follow focus on specific features, which Maring identifies as oral-connected, and the ways in which they are employed and adapted in various Old English poems. Maring helpfully distinguishes between a typescene, in which events have a strict temporal chronology that shapes audience expectations, and the looser theme that also has expected elements, but for which no specific sequence is required. Chapter 2 analyses the theme of "devouring the dead" in Beowulf and Soul and Body I and II, arguing that recurrent phraseology associated with the image should be interpreted as "an oral-connected strategy that bears a semantic weight specific to oral-traditional signification" (34). In the third chapter Maring explores the theme of lord/retainer in The Battle of Maldon, Andreas and Genesis A. Chapter 4 draws on the two preceding chapters to examine the employment and reconfiguration of the "devouring the dead" and lord/retainer themes in The Advent Lyrics, The Phoenix, and the Exeter "Book Worm" riddle. Chapter 5 addresses the poet/patron theme in Widsith and The Advent Lyrics, as well as the oft-neglected Gifts of Men and Thureth, while the manipulation of what Maring sees as a sea-voyage typescene in the Dream of the Rood is the focus of Chapter 6. Reading rood-as-ship (retaining holmwudu in l. 91) reveals that the poet engages productively and playfully with the traditional sea-voyage "motif pattern" identified by Foley and the patristic image of the navis crucis, metaphorically adapting an oral-formulaic typescene to serve a Christian narrative.

§4. In the final chapter Maring turns once again to The Advent Lyrics, drawing on the work of Christine Bell and Roy Rappaport to consider the poems' utilization of ritual. Maring argues that in their use of liturgy, The Advent Lyrics are "oral-connected works of verbal art employing the metonymic referentiality of an Old English oral tradition" (131). Using Foley's theory of "immanent art," Maring examines how repeated lexis and echoes of Advent antiphons shape the audience's experience of the present moment by metonymically invoking ritual signs, highlighting Christ's presence. In returning to The Advent Lyrics, Signs that Sing at last expounds the tripartite hybridity outlined in the introduction, making an engaging argument for the The Advent Lyrics' construction of spiritual resonance through poetics. However, it does so without drawing together the threads of analysis devoted to The Advent Lyrics in the preceding chapters, and so leaves the reader wishing for a more thorough exploration of how the various kinds of metonymy Maring highlights might productively combine in a single work.

§5. The tight focus of Signs that Sing, and the limited range of texts examined, ensures the comparatively succinct chapters form a coherent and persuasive whole, but the book could have benefited from a somewhat more expansive approach: making more of the influence of ritual, addressing a greater range of texts, and placing its central argument in the context of Anglo-Saxon literary culture more broadly. Maring rarely mentions Old English prose, but contrasting (even if only passingly) prose texts such as Vercelli IV and the St Andrew Homily with poetic treatments of the same material would bolster arguments for the oral-poetic nature of the formulae and patterns discussed in Signs that Sing. Likewise, given the focus on a "hybrid poetics," it is a little surprising that the influence (or lack thereof) of oral-traditional features on Anglo-Latin verse is unmentioned, especially given the recurrence of themes such as "thought, word, deed" in both corpora, and the work of Michael Lapidge, Andy Orchard, Emily Thornbury and others on intersections between Latin and vernacular verse in this period. Some brief moments of analysis would benefit from greater precision; for example, referring to Genesis A/B and Guthlac A/B in discussions of lexis and formulae obscures the distinct nature of parts A and B, and problematically neglects to acknowledge that an Old Saxon source lies behind the example of a formula given from Genesis B (40).

§6. This book's insistent commitment to oral-formulaic approaches to Old English verse will not please everyone. Nevertheless, Maring's argument that a medieval hermeneutics attuned to figurative and typological reading shaped the metaphorical employment of traditional themes and ritual phraseology is persuasive, even to those who see echoes across the corpus as markers of literary influence rather than oral tradition. With its neat and sensitive exploration of how poets manipulate conventions, and a persuasive argument for the importance of metonymy, Signs that Sing has much to offer.

Helen AppletonMailto: Icon
Balliol College, Oxford

Published 19-Jun-2018