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Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England

by emily thornbury

cambridge, 338 pages, $99

My years of mandatory Latin began when I was eleven. Almost immediately I hated the language more than the mandatory tie and jacket that made me an easy target for bullying on the six public buses I rode each day.

The first-year curriculum would have been recognizable to the school’s students of 1645: memorization of vocabulary, declensions, and conjugations—policed by weekly quizzes. In the second year we translated sentences from turn-of-the-century primers and spouted “correct” answers such as “Is it the case that a stylus has been given by me to you?”

I particularly hated the ablative case—the attachment of a prepositional meaning to a noun that ended with certain letters. Just when I thought I had mastered every category of the ablative, our “masters” (yes, that’s what they were called in those days) would demoralize me by revealing yet another category. I still have nightmares about phantoms such as “the ablative of indifference” and “the ablative of intermittent desperation.”

In my third year, our masters chose to kill off any lingering interest in the language by assigning tedious histories of military conflicts. I learned the various words for decapitating, but never learned what provoked the decapitating. They would occasionally spice up our reading with bits of Cicero, but, even as a future Commissioner of Social Security, I found De Senectute dull.

By word of mouth we discovered that the fun stuff was locked away in a glass cabinet in the classics department library. Even seniors were prohibited from borrowing the bowdlerized versions of Ovid, Catullus, Martial, Horace, and others. If we had broken into that cabinet, we would have seen that its collection of books reflected the judgment that virtually all Latin literature that mattered had been written by 100 a.d. and that “the Dark Ages” had denied a grim world centuries of worthwhile literature and art. What’s worse is that most university classics departments shared that assumption—and many still do today.

Decades later I learned that the truth is different. There are innumerable lessons if we study the long, slow collapse of the Roman Empire through Justinian’s conquest of Ravenna in 540. There are innumerable lessons if we study the rise of Islam and its complex influences on Western Europe. There are innumerable lessons in studying how Europe became Christian and how regions of Europe with a common linguistic and cultural heritage became distinct nations with their own languages.

This period, which scholars have cleverly rebranded as “Late ­Antiquity” since Peter Brown’s 1971 The World of Late Antiquity, has its literary pleasures as well. Claudian (ca. 370–404) wrote an unfinished epic about the queen of the underworld; it is marvelous poetry. The almost forgotten Maximianus (ca. 485–ca. 540) wrote sophisticated satires of Ovid’s love elegies from the perspective of a reminiscing old man. Boethius (ca. 480–524), despite a hardly saintly life, was canonized in 1883 almost entirely for the beauty, power, and influence of the book he wrote, The Consolation of Philosophy, while awaiting execution. Music fused with poetry again in early Christian hymns, many of which were quite beautiful and original.

To be fair, there were drearily didactic Christian poems in this period, such as the early fifth-century Commonitorium of Orientius, and many flawed attempts to use the Bible as the raw material for epic poetry. However, some of the poets who struggled to ­refashion the Roman poetic tradition, such as Prudentius (348–ca. 413) and Venantius Fortunatus (ca. 535–605), produced challenging and important Christian poetry. Britain’s St. Aldhelm (ca. 639–709) popularized, if not invented, modern Western poetry with his accentually stressed and regularly rhymed poem, Carmen rhythmicum.

A key turning point in English history and literature was Gregory the Great’s decision in the early seventh century to send distinguished church scholars to isolated Britain, where the scattered pockets of Christians who remained after the abrupt departure of the Romans in 411 tended to embrace heresies of the even more isolated Irish Church. This effort accelerated with the arrival in 669 of future saints Theodore of Tarsus and Hadrian, who brought with them the texts that stimulated the start of ­Anglo-Latin literature, a literature that thrived for centuries alongside the Old English verse of Cynewulf and the anonymous poets who wrote Beowulf, The Dream of the Rood, and other remarkable poetry.

Scholarship about Anglo-Saxon poetry began in earnest in the nineteenth century, but ­Sharon Turner and other scholars imported into their work a host of inaccurate preconceptions from the popular mythologies of their time. To oversimplify a complex topic, they saw their ancestors in much the same way that they saw themselves, and thus romanticized the Anglo-Saxons as more chivalrous, democratic, peaceful, and suspicious of the Church than the facts support.

The quality of Anglo-Saxon scholarship started to improve dramatically in 1979 with Michael Lapidge’s edition of the prose works of Aldhelm, a monk of noble Anglo-Saxon birth who became a bishop, an influential political advisor, and Britain’s first “man of letters.” Lapidge sorted through Aldhelm’s prose work in a far more thoughtful and disciplined way than had ever been the standard in Anglo-Saxon scholarship; he continues to this day to be a prolific and influential scholar. Several other formidable scholars have followed Lapidge’s lead and produced provocative reassessments of major texts in both Old English and Anglo-Latin. As monumental as their contributions have been, however, these pioneers in the field have been slow in recent years to reconsider some of their work based on developments in archeology, computer technology, and Irish literature.

A new generation of scholars is shaking up the work of the previous generation, and the best of them to date is Berkeley’s ­Emily Thornbury. After publishing a number of important articles, she began her first book, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, by asking questions that reflect her training in linguistics, such as “What was a poet?” and “Who was a poet?” Those questions may seem basic, but too often her predecessors have imported “romantic notions of Celtic bards or Norse skalds” into their analyses of Anglo-Saxon poets and their poetry.

Thornbury clears away much of this underbrush—what she calls the “hypothetical reconstructions of a prehistoric era”—with a meticulous reading of the extant poetry. She notes that an Anglo-Saxon poet was almost invariably reluctant to label himself a scop, and that the internal evidence of Beowulf suggests that one need not have been a professional poet to engage in the creation of poetry:

Beowulf imagines the unfortunate father composing poems on his son’s death; the king’s thegn seems to perform verse on the way back from Grendel’s mere; and Hrothgar himself may be making or reciting poems.

In other words, a poet tended to see his work as an adjunct to a ­broader mission, almost always the spreading and strengthening of his faith, rather than a mission in and of itself.

While it is harder for Thornbury to make broad statements about Anglo-Latin poetry because there are huge gaps in the databases of manuscripts upon which modern philology relies, she nonetheless makes a similar, and similarly persuasive, case for the role of the Anglo-Latin poeta, vates, or versificus. Almost the only Anglo-Latin poet who referred to himself (and occasionally herself) as a poet was Alcuin, and that deviation from the pattern seems to be an affectation from his time as part of a pretentious literary circle in Charlemagne’s court.

Contrary to the scholarly tradition that envisions wandering bards, Thornbury concludes that “there is no solid evidence that a professional class of poets existed in Anglo-Saxon England” and that “words meaning ‘poet’ functioned something like the modern category of ‘statesman.’” Her review of the available evidence suggests that people who wrote poetry tended to begin as teachers, courtiers, musicians, and scribes, and that their poetry—a respected art in their culture—often helped them rise in their professional ranks.

Thornbury documents how that sense of poetry as a civil act within a community made Anglo-Saxon literature a hotbed of innovation as small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms consolidated while Britain re-embraced Christianity and classical literature:

Old English formulas are extraordinarily malleable. Poets working within a formulaic system could innovate (generating, for instance, entirely novel compound words), and many poets demonstrably preferred more difficult diction.

She also shows that literary innovation was even more striking among the Anglo-Latin poets. Influenced by both the eccentric hyper-literary experiments of the culturally isolated Irish poets (who later fascinated James Joyce) and the octosyllabic accentual verse that Theodore of Tarsus introduced at Canterbury, Aldhelm began writing rhymed verse based on heard stresses instead of unrhymed verse based on classical rules of syllable length. He even imported Old English alliteration into his Latin verse in a way that continues to horrify classical purists. In addition, he transformed the obscure secular genre of riddles into a vehicle for lyrical intensity and Christian instruction; many late antique and early medieval poets imitated, sometimes slavishly, his Aenigmata. In a real sense, Aldhelm was not only the first British “man of letters”—he was the first modern European poet.

Thornbury also finds innovative tendencies in the Latin poetry of Bede (ca. 673–735), but she sees him as more of a literary outlier—someone outside of the communities that helped to define most of his peers. She notes that in Bede’s Versus de die ­iudicii (“Verses on the Judgment Day”), his self-examination as a prelude to self-judgment is a major theme, and concludes that Bede’s style is more a product of self-driven intensive reading than instruction.

Thornbury’s final chapter looks at schools and poets of later ­Anglo-Saxon poetry. She starts by looking at one of the low-water marks of this literary era: the community of monks who followed Boniface to Germany as they reinforced each other’s lowest-­common-denominator Latinity. She then looks past Lapidge’s sniffy dismissal of the Latin poetry of Wulfstan Cantor so that we can understand Wulfstan’s underappreciated metrical skill, wordplay, sophisticated rhyming, and complex aural devices. She concludes with a look at the cross­currents in the Old English verse of “the Southern mode” in the time of Alfred of Wessex, an era which produced the Old English Boethius but little extraordinary original poetry.

Thornbury’s main thesis is that the Anglo-Saxons had a conception of poets and ­poetry that we find hard to understand ­today:

The inefficacy of art—especially of poetry—is something of a trope in modern discourse, one that even many of poetry’s defenders have embraced. This notion would have puzzled Anglo-­Saxons, who became poets in order to do something: often, to be what they were, but better. While their unenchanted view of poets’ work is not conducive to grand historical paintings like John Martin’s The Bard, it opens up new ways of seeing how a great many different kinds of people went about the business of living in the world. Poetry, for the Anglo-­Saxons, was not something that separated them from others, but was a way of being in society, “a way of happening, a mouth.”

She is far too diplomatic to suggest directly that the poets of today would matter more if they left the suffocating cliques of the academy and “went about the business of living in the world,” but that observation is the implication of this thoughtful and well-written book.

A. M. Juster is a poet and critic. His most recent book is a translation of Tibullus’s Elegies.