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The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry.

G.A. Lester. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. vii + 182 pp. $39.95. ISBN: 0-312-15869-6.

Like others in the series "The Language of Literature," this volume is intended for the use of "the general reader and beginning student" (3), and thus does not aim at scholarly treatment in regard to content or bibliographical information. Not surprisingly, then, the emphasis here is on syntax, semantics, and lexis rather than phonology and morphology. The introduction briefly sketches issues of textuality and manuscript culture that are prolegomena to reading medieval literature, and then follows with two chapters on cultural and linguistic backgrounds: the first, chapter 2, broadly sketches the political history of the period with a glance at cultural history, while chapter 3 provides a (mainly external) diachronic and diatopic overview of language development and a brief survey of medieval English literary works and genres.

The middle four chapters are the book's raison d'etre, analyzing poetic diction and structure for Old English and Middle English. The topic of chapter 4 is Old English poetic vocabulary and semantics, emphasizing the substantive use of adjectives, affixation, compounding, loanwords, kennings, metaphor, wordplay, and alliterative collocations. With the exception perhaps of wordplay there is nothing controversial about this list; more permissive is the range of rhetorical and structural patterns admitted to the canon in chapter 5, which covers variation, structural interlace, envelope patterns, formulism, enjambement, parataxis, parenthesis, catalogues, anaphora, antithesis, and litotes. This chapter exemplifies Lester's method, which is rigidly taxonomic with little attempt at synthesis. The categories naturally change as the topic turns to Middle English verse: the aspects of poetic diction discussed in chapter 6 are compounding, affixation, lexical conversion, blends, loans, aureation, and poetic vocabulary, while the formal features treated in chapter 7 are rhyme, alliteration, the metrical effects of some phonological and syntactic variables (e.g., final -e and types of the genitive), some syntactic options unavailable in Present-Day English (e.g., the use of the perfect in simple preterite contexts), parataxis, and formulaic diction. A separate chapter examines sociolinguistic issues. Here the emphasis naturally is on regional varieties, though there is also some attention to the linguistic consequences of class, register, and translation effects. The final chapter offers two samples of verse, the "last survivor" passage of Beowulf and the hero's approach to Hautdesert in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with analyses of textual problems, theme, meter, and such aspects of diction and form as are discussed in the middle chapters. The volume is rounded out by a short bibliography and a subject index.

Lester's treatment is admirably unpolemical, and only occasionally is it uninformed. Extensive passages of AElfric's rhythmical prose, for example, are said to be indistinguishable from verse; and the Anglo-Norman dialect is said to have resulted when "the sharp edge of distinction between French and English became blurred" (38). There are some puzzling formulations, such as the claim that Old English dialects were more distinct than present-day ones and that the rhythmical structure of a passage from The Battle of Maldon is like that of "Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater." But such eccentricities are relatively few. Still, it is difficult to imagine who might profitably use this book: it is not likely to interest any who are not already fully devoted to medieval studies, and for those who are already so devoted (such as graduate students) it is not appropriate; but it is an honest, workmanlike fulfillment of the improbable guidelines laid out for this series.

R.D. FULK Indiana University
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Author:Fulk, R.D.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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