Monday, February 4, 2008

Aelfric vs. Wordsworth

Friday was a happy day: I received the latest issue of the Old English Newsletter in the mail. I'm always excited to get the OEN, which reaffirms my slight connection to the larger world of Anglo-Saxonists (and is usually an interesting read, to boot). I particularly enjoyed Mary Clayton's student edition of Aelfric's "Letter to Brother Edward," though a comment she made in the introduction did raise some interesting questions in my mind. In discussing Aelfric's style, she points out that scholars have long debated whether to characterize Aelfric's later works as prose or poetry and that the most recent pronouncement on the topic (by Thomas Bredehoft, in Anglo-Saxon England 33) declares Aelfric to have been, "Anglo-Saxon England's most prolific poet."

None of this was particularly new to me; all Anglo-Saxonists are aware of the blurred boundary between prose and poetry in (especially) the late A-S period. On this day, the idea particularly resonated with me, however, because I had just finished teaching Wordsworth's "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads, in which he argues for the removal of the barriers between prose and poetry. Actually, I made the connection between Wordsworth and Anglo-Saxon poetry in class (like all good medievalists, I find ways to bring the period into almost all discussions). I told my students that Wordsworth's complaint that the traditional language of poetry is markedly different (and less useful) than the language of prose could, in some ways, be traced back to the unique poetic vocabulary of Old English. My point was simply that the idea that poems should sound different from prose was not an 18th-century innovation, however much Wordsworth may have wanted to blame poets like Thomas Gray for it.

What didn't occur to me in class, what Clayton's introduction made me realize, was the strange relationship between Wordsworth's project and Aelfric's apparent decision to consciously blur the lines between prose and verse. The authors move in different directions across this line, of course--Aelfric is incorporating the rhythm and, to some degree, the vocabulary of poetry into essentially prose works, while Wordsworth is employing, again to some degree, the language of prose into self-consciously poetic works. And the rationales behind these moves are also very different. Wordsworth argues that elaborate poetic language unnecessarily distances poetry from "the language really spoken by men," by which I assume he means that it makes poetry essentially elitist. Wordsworth's interest in blurring the lines between poetry and prose, then, is just another part of his larger democratic project (like his insistence that poetry should deal with "low and rustic life"). For Wordsworth, the distinction between prose and poetry is related to class distinctions. Poetic language and elevated diction is an obstacle to understanding for "ordinary" people, Wordsworth seems to be saying.

I've never thought about the distinction between Old English poetry and prose in these terms, probably because literacy in Anglo-Saxon England was essentially an elitist phenomenon in the first place. If anything, I've always kind of assumed that poetry would have been more accessible to the lower classes (obviously a problematic term when applied to Anglo-Saxon England) simply because of the idea of oral delivery. If (a big if, I admit) Beowulf was ever performed orally, presumably illiterate people may have heard it, while a work like the OE Pastoral Care, for example, would have been known only to those who could read it.

Aelfric's works appear to complicate this neat distinction by virtue of being largely made up of sermons, which probably were delivered orally. What's interesting, though, is that the work of Aelfric's which makes the most use of poetic language and rhythm is his Lives of Saints, which was apparently intended more for private reading than oral delivery. Maybe it's possible to suggest that Aelfric used a more prosaic form when writing sermons to be delivered to the public and a more poetic form when composing works intended for the literate clergy. Frankly, I don't think we know enough about Aelfric's audience(s) to make such a claim with any certainty.

But I do think that the way we view Aelfric's works has a lot to do with the question of "status" if not class per se. The search by scholars for poetic elements in Aelfric's oeuvre has bordered on the obsessive at times, and a large part of the appeal of Aelfric seems to be the way he straddles the boundary between poetry and prose. Maybe we think that Aelfric is a great author because he was able to draw effectively upon both traditions in his writing. But I suspect that what we're really saying is that Aelfric is a great author because he writes prose that sounds like poetry. After all, it's no secret that scholars of Old English have been and continue to be much more interested in poetry than in prose. And of course, we continue to privilege poetic language over prose in general, as our terminology makes clear. Even I winced when I wrote in the previous paragraph that Aelfric used "prosaic" language.

So maybe Wordsworth is on to something. Maybe we do use some of the trappings of poetry as an exclusionary device. Certainly our students think so. They groan when I tell them that we're reading more poetry because, to them, poetry is purposefully obscure. Interestingly, though, they're not convinced that Wordsworth is really their champion. He says he's writing in the language of the "common man," but students usually find him especially difficult to understand. They have less trouble with Beowulf (in translation, of course) than with "Tintern Abbey." Maybe the implication here is that my students have more in common with a small segment of Anglo-Saxon society than with the "common man" of 1798 England.

Or maybe it's just because there are no monsters in "Tintern Abbey." Other than Wordsworth, of course.

1 comment:

Billie Elder said...

have you read 'an ode less traveled' by stephen fry?