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In the Foreground: Beowulf.

In the Foreground: Beowulf. By ERIC GERALD STANLEY. Cambridge: Brewer. 1994. xiv + 273 pp. 35 [pounds sterling]; $61.

No, this is not just 'yet another book' on Beowulf, seeking to provide ingenious new interpretations of that much studied Anglo-Saxon composition. Indeed, as its title indicates, Beowulf is only part of its subject-matter. It consists more of an examination of key aspects of literary criticism as applied to Old English literature, centred on Beowulf but also paying close attention to passages from a range of other works, in both verse and prose. Chapters 1 and 2 study Beowulf in 'Literary History', employing a mixture of approaches that usefully sets in perspective and illuminates both past and present-day assumptions about the poem. The sheer quantity of Beowulf scholarship produced over the last two centuries prevents Eric Stanley from providing more than brief summaries of theories and approaches. However, he skilfully mixes precis with commentary that ranges from the outwardly noncommittal to the openly sceptical, always reminding the reader of the need to distinguish between fact and conjecture. German Epos is not an exact equivalent of epic (p. 45). A paper on Anglo-Saxon harp accompaniment and 'the even less well attested early Irish recitation of poetry to the harp [...] ranks high in unspecificity' (p. 42). A recent attempt to identify the Geats with the Getae ('the latest to resurrect the Scythian myth') fails to discuss the quantity of the stem-vowel (p. 48). At all times Beowulf scholarship is seen as reflecting scholars' individual and collective 'preoccupations and predilections' and only too frequently depending on 'mere assertion of what [the critic] believes in, false or true'.

Subsequent chapters deal with 'Uncertainties of the Date and Transmission of Beowulf', 'Some Metrical Considerations, Poetic Diction and Ornamentation', and 'Prayers, Praise, and Thanksgiving in Old English Verse'. Each again has as a major purpose the separation of the demonstrably true from the possible or not so possible, the plausible from the unlikely, in generalizations about 'a dead language undescribed by its speakers' (p. 148). We are reminded, for instance, that 'etymology is often misleading in semantics', and that, unlike its German congener Held, 'hero', OE hoele should be translated as 'warrior' in a poem where they fight, or as 'man' in a poem where they do not (p. 165). In the area of metre there are only a few 'basic facts known securely' (p. 120): 'The rest is more speculative inference or pure theory' (p. 121). Throughout, Stanley seeks to make us as readers aware of our own 'preconceptions and predilections' and at the same time challenges us to define our own aims in reading Old English poetry in general:

In weighing the value of systems of scansion, the first question to ask is, what do we hope to gain from scanning Old English verse? Do we wish to develop a sensitive reading skill? Or do we intend to find out what the Anglo-Saxons themselves did when writing verse, in order that we, perhaps as editors of their verse and, especially, as emenders of extant manuscript readings, may have the assurance that we are creating nothing that goes against Old English metrical practice? (pp. 126-27)

Inevitably, the reader may have the occasional reservation and minor quibble (I, for one, shall be very reluctant to cease 'reading heroic connotations' into the central section of the Dream of the Rood as advised on pages 166-69), but it would be churlish to dwell on these or on the rare typographical error. This is an important book, which will be returned to time and again for its splendid wealth of bibliographical detail and which will surely be required reading for students for its highly judicious, clear, and concise surveys of topics such as metre and poetic diction in general (figurative devices including kennings and similes, personification and allegory, and so on), Germanic fatalism, and the Christian elements in Beowulf (though I look in vain for a reference to Bruce Mitchell on sopfoestra dom, probably because of the time gap between writing and publication). On page 68 Stanley quotes the late John Crow's dictum: 'You mustn't say what you want to say till you know what you ought to know.' In the Foreground: Beowulf reflects a scholarly lifetime of careful and critical reading and its publication is timely.

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Author:Bately, Janet
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:The Editing of Old English.
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