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The Lyric Speakers of Old English Poetry.

This brief study examines five types of lyric speaker or voice in Old English poetry, drawing on Ong's theory of orality to explain why certain |impersonal' aspects of the Old English lyric voice remain under-appreciated today. Bragg's critique of current approaches to the lyric is welcome. Readings of the canonical lyrics have often depended on identifying a source genre (whether consolatio, planctus, encomium or Frauenlied), arriving at an inventory of themes and conventions, and placing the meaning of a poem within these generic constraints. Given the tiny corpus of elegies, for example, such an operation, however fruitful ultimately, is fraught with difficulty and excludes a number of interesting, unclassifiablc Iyrics from serious consideration.

Bragg insists that Old English lyrics break through such generic taxonomies, and instead elects to group poems according to five proposed types of lyric speaker, each showing a different relationship between the lyric's first person and its addressee: the inanimate speaker in riddles, metrical book-prefaces, and |The Husband's Message'; adoptable speakers (which project no specific voice and thus can be |adopted' by any reader) in prayers and charms; non-personal speakers (which avoid the first person, and yet project a point of view) in Cadmon's Hymn', |Durham', |The Ruin', the poems from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the father's lament for his hanged son in Beowulf; fictive speakers (which construct a particular, fictitious human speaker) in |The Seafarer', |'Deor', |The Wife's Lament', |Wulf and Eadwacer', and |The Rhyming Poem'; personal speakers (who show an uneasiness with authorship) in Cynewulf's epilogues. Bragg sees the genius of |The Dream of the Rood' and |The Wanderer' in the sophisticated way in which they combine several of these lyric voices.

Bragg's approach allows her to examine poems rarely discussed as lyrics and to bring them into fruitful connection with better-known poems. She resists the temptation to |solve' such enigmatic pieces as |Wulf and Eadwacer' or |Deor', and instead focuses profitably on the nature of their lyric voices.

Once beyond the theoretical introduction, the study often falls back on analytical techniques associated with New Criticism charting shifts in tone, tense, and pronoun reference - still sometimes useful techniques in Bragg's hands. The discussions of individual poems often seem brief and impressionistic, and in chapter iv Hrethel is mistakenly identified as Beowulf's uncle and Beowulf's mother as Hrethel's sister. Nevertheless, this book should be a welcome addition to work on Old English lyric, particularly for its appreciation of the anonymous quality of much oral-derived verse.
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Author:Hasenfratz, Robert
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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