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The Metrical Grammar of 'Beowulf.'

Metrical grammar is syntax (including word-order), metre and alliteration. It is the author's contention that the Sievers five types focus attention too narrowly on metre, and lead to the assumption that the verse formulas of Beowulf are interchangeable in all positions. Adding the dimension of syntax, specifically by appending to the Sievers letter classification a number that defines the position of a verse within a clause, or its structure, gives a more accurate account, and shows that the verse-types (thus more narrowly defined) are not interchangeable and that there are constraints on the on- and off-verses beyond the obvious one of patterns of alliteration. The book examines each of the verse-types in detail, and concludes with a comprehensive scansion of the poem.

The study reveals much about the potential and the limits of the language of poetry, and it is sensitive in its examination of the interrelationship of the rules of lyntax and metre. It also throws up occasional aberrant forms which prompt rethinking of the text as traditionally, edited or which add to suspicion of scribal corruption. For example, there are useful suggestions for repunctuating Klaeber (P- 40); there is statistical support for Rieger's emendation which has the hero taking Grendel's mother by the hair (feaxe for eaxle, p. 78); and a good case is made for the removal of a definite article when it forms part of |a prosaic construction' (p. 140). But the author is more committed to his own rules than many of his readers will be. They may find strained some of the explanations for |exceptional' forms, such as |the Beowulf-poet deliberately broke the "rules" (p. 106, and cf. pp. 139-40) and |a b-verse ... has strayed into an a-verse' (p. 114). They may also find it hard to accept the necessity to see variable stress in the prefix un- and in man- as the first element of a compound (pp. 191ff.) in order to avoid creating anomalies to the rules, when it may be the rules themselves that need modification.

There are now two volumes in the Cambridge series specifically concerned with Old English poetry, and both are to be welcomed. Katherine O'Keeffe's highly original Visible Song has already brought about a transformation of critical studies similar to that wrought by Caedmon on that poetry. Kendall's The Metrical Grammar, while being a meticulous and thoughtful study and a creditable addition to the series, is one of a feast of books on Old English metre in recent years, all of which, to continue the Caedmon parallel, we need to ruminate upon. The one that is missing from his Bibliography is Wolfgang Obst, Der Rhythmus des Beowulf. Eine Akzentund Takttheorie (Heidelberg, 1987).
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Author:Scragg, D.G.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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