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On the Aestheticsof Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

On the Aestheticsof Beowulf and Other Old English Poems

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    On the Aestheticsof Beowulf and Other Old English Poems
    Book Description:

    Posing questions of quality and beauty as discoverable in artefacts,On the Aesthetics ofBeowulfand Other Old English Poemssignificantly advances our understanding not only of aesthetics and Old English poetry, but also of Old English attitudes towards literature as an art form.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-9875-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. On Aesthetics and Quality: An Introduction
    (pp. 3-23)

    What is quality in art? And is ‘quality’ something objective or mainly a mix of subjective response and traditional values? Those are core questions any aesthetic has to confront if it is to mature beyond a weak aestheticism, say art for art’s sake, or beyond a naïve celebration of the superficially sensual aspects of art, even if such a celebration would combine the sensuous with open-ended cognition.¹ Indeed, such a confrontation is crucial if aesthetics hopes to gain some purchase on real beauty and truth. Quality, whether expressed as ‘value’ or otherwise, is something we can articulate in ways more...

  5. 1 Poetic Exuberance in the Old English Judith
    (pp. 24-42)

    Most recent criticism ofJudithconsiders the poem in terms of something else. Often it is the Vulgate story of Judith, or Ælfric’s homily upon it.¹ Or the poem can be mapped against Anglo-Saxon politics, thanks to a comment made by Ælfric in his Letter to Sigeweard that equates the Assyrians with the Danes.² If one takes the text as a fragment, which it certainly is, one can hypothesize about the lost whole or treat its fragmentation and the fragmentation of Holofernes as metaphorically interchangeable. Once a critic goes outside the poem and puts it into context with other materials,...

  6. 2 Bind and Loose: Aesthetics and the Word in Old English Law, Charm, and Riddle
    (pp. 43-63)

    My use of the wordaestheticis meant to invoke not a notion of transcendent ‘beauty’ with positive ontological status, but rather the twentieth-century renovation of the word to denote the cognitive and sensory effects of all kinds of stimuli, which necessarily constitute signs.¹ In treating aesthetic effect in language, linguistic analysis, that of Roman Jakobson in particular, provides key technical tools. One of Jakobson’s definitions of the ‘poetic function’ of language is that ‘the word [is] felt as a word,’ bearing what the Indo-Europeanist Calvert Watkins calls a ‘reflexive indexical function,’ pointing to itself rather than outside itself to...

  7. 3 Aesthetic Criteria in Old English Heroic Style
    (pp. 64-80)

    During the 1950s, Francis P. Magoun represented theBeowulfpoet as an oral improviser with limited aesthetic interests.¹ Arthur G. Brodeur promptly disagreed, arguing thatBeowulfpioneered a movement from short, orally composed lays to literate epics.² A decade later, Eric G. Stanley elaborated a position between the two extremes, judging that ‘this highly wrought poem is the product of a lettered poet, or at least of a slow, non-extemporizing poet.’³ Since Magoun, other researchers have made serious attempts to reconcile the poem’s quality with its debt to oral tradition, but there is still no agreement about howBeowulfwas...

  8. 4 Beowulf and the Strange Necessity of Beauty
    (pp. 81-100)

    Hans-Georg Gadamer has written, ‘of all the things that confront us in nature and history, it is the work of art that speaks to us most directly.’¹ WhileBeowulfis useful to historians and linguists of many stripes, it also presents itself as impressive and memorable artistry. It ‘greets us,’ as Elaine Scarry puts it, producing a particular kind of pleasure, one that we are eager to share, often as a judgment – ‘beautiful!’ – without our attempting to argue anyone into agreement. We offer such judgments and pay attention to the judgments of others in the hope that we ‘will be...

  9. 5 ‘Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness’: Latin Prayer and Old English Liturgical Poetry
    (pp. 101-113)

    When teaching poetry to first-year English students, instructors tell them that studying verse is like opening a special notebook, which records what the poets of that era or nation considered of aesthetic beauty and cultural importance. Poetry is the form that is used when something of significance needs to be created in a unique form that will endure; it tells us of the desires of the culture that produced it, and represents a snapshot of whatever was considered most aesthetically pleasing and intellectually satisfying. Thus we learn about any culture by reading its poetry mindfully, with an eye not only...

  10. 6 Survival of the Most Pleasing: A Meme-Based Approach to Aesthetic Selection
    (pp. 114-134)

    ‘TheGuthlacis perhaps the dullest of Old English poems, or at least of the longer ones, so that it cannot even sustain a comparison withJuliana. For this reason, one would be tempted to affirm that Cynewulf could have had nothing to do with it,’ wrote Albert S. Cook in the introduction to his opus,The Christ of Cynewulf.¹Precepts, wrote Daniel Calder over half a century later, ‘is an uninspired admonition’ in which ‘a father ten times delivers himself of platitudinous advice to his son.’² Such evaluative judgment of poems used to be common in Anglo-Saxon studies, although,...

  11. 7 Hunting the Anglo-Saxon Aesthetic in Large Forms: A Möbian Quest
    (pp. 135-160)

    I will begin with a bit of commentary on John Hill’s proposal to potential contributors to this volume, before coming round to joining the enterprise of understanding what makes the best of Old English poetry best. His lead line encouraged us to think about ‘the aesthetic and Old English literature’ and the ‘aesthetic principles or preoccupations’ the Anglo-Saxons may have had ‘in terms of which they might have judged one poem better than another (in something of the way, perhaps, that Aristotle picksOedipus Rexas the best realization of tragic form).’ The parenthesized comparison carries with it a model...

  12. 8 Structural and Affective Relations in The Dream of the Rood: Harmonic Proportion and a Fibonacci-Type Commodulation
    (pp. 161-175)

    Many have noticed literary and doctrinal coherence inThe Dream of the Rood. Yet, surprisingly, little has been said about its overall structure, something different from and deeper than a division by topics or by narrative and voiced sections and apart again from claims of a stylistic falling off after line 78. The Vercelli book, the poem’s only manuscript source, contains, among others, two poems deeply organized by geometric ratios in their section divisions and line counts, as Robert D. Stevick has shown.AndreasandElenehave ‘commodular’ underlying forms based on simple ratios: the golden ratio and the square...

  13. 9 Beowulf and Boethius on Beauty and Truth
    (pp. 176-208)

    The second refers to ‘artful patterns’ beautifying a sword, i.e., ‘engravings’ in metalwork, literally ‘writings’ in some sense (wræt[t]) ‘work of art,’ derived fromwritan‘engrave, write, draw a figure’). Much discussed, and much esteemed, these finely combined words celebrate the artistry of ancientoralpoets and the art of ancient Germanic (gold)smiths in a manner often described as ‘loving.’ This is artistry – as the poet has his first verse line tell us – that was valuedin geardagum‘in days of yore.’ And ifonlythat, then the familiar glossings of ‘wordfindingword,’ ‘word beingboundto word,’ ‘words...

  14. 10 The Subject of Language: A Psychoanalytic Approach to the Aesthetics of Old English Poetry
    (pp. 209-226)

    The basic principle of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory that ‘The unconscious is structured like a language’ indicates the relevance of psychoanalytic theory to literary analysis and to aesthetic evaluation and judgment. The unconscious, like literary language, is organized by the structures of rhetoric. The tropes of classical rhetoric operate on signifiers, that is, words, letters, and phonemes, give form to unconscious discourse: metaphor, or the substitution of signifiers; metonymy, or the contiguity of signifiers; and irony, or the compatibility of contradictory signifieds or meanings for a single signifier.¹ If the unconscious is structured like a discourse, then psychoanalytic practice, like literary...

  15. 11 The Aesthetics of Beowulf: Structure, Perception, and Desire
    (pp. 227-246)

    From the very beginning ofBeowulfscholarship there has been a perceived difficulty about the ordering of the text. Confronted with the disparate elements of the poem, many readers (and scholars) are initially overcome by a sense of disorder. As one critic put it, ‘It is probable that there are few readers of Beowulf who have not felt – and there are many who after repeated perusal continue to feel – that the general impression produced by it is that of a bewildering chaos.’¹ Early on F.J. Mone complained of the poem’s abruptSprünge(leaps),² and Walter A. Berendsohn called it a...

  16. 12 ‘The Fall of King Hæðcyn’: Or, Mimesis 4a, the Chapter Auerbach Never Wrote
    (pp. 247-266)

    In the spring of 1963 my university career reached a very low ebb. I was then a second-year undergraduate reading English at Cambridge. In the Easter vacation, for complex personal reasons, I found myself living in a boarding house in a small town in North Central Scotland, the other inhabitants of which were members of the Close Brethren, a religious sect forbidden to have social contact with non-members. I knew almost no one in the town, my board cost me five pounds a week, and I had no money other than my State Scholarship, which was supposed to support me...

  17. Contributors
    (pp. 267-268)
  18. Works Cited
    (pp. 269-290)
  19. Index
    (pp. 291-300)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-301)