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The Foundations and Changes of Modern Poesy

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LadySofia
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since 05-16-2000
Posts 240
FL., USA


0 posted 03-20-2006 05:25 AM       View Profile for LadySofia   Email LadySofia   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit LadySofia's Home Page   View IP for LadySofia

I love philosophy and I'm glad to see a forum at Passions dedicated solely to the subject. Probably the first place to begin to analyze the philosophy of poetry is with Aristotle's Poetics, which laid the foundations for our modern forms as they are found today. Want to read it?

Aristotle's Poetic's, a translation


However, did you know that JRR Tolkien changed the way we read poems in the classroom during a lecture he held at Oxford University, UK, concerning a poem called Beowulfiana?

Here is my very first undergrad honors western humanities: renaissance research paper on the subject. This paper has been published on Turnitin.com, a forewarning for those thinking of "borrowing" this material for school- cite it properly as thou wilt!

Tolkien's Beowulf: Observations on An Enlightening Criticism and It's Contemporary Critiques
Amanda Piatt
(1306 words)
Professor: Dr Barbara Bird
Course: IDS 1102H



Topic sentence:  Criticisms of this poem would differ as greatly as the name over time; however, one man would approximate these critics and their critiques by changing the focal point of the criticism itself.

I   Criticism of Beowulf preceding 1936
   1. W. P. Ker's criticism
   2. Archibald Strong's criticism

II  Criticism of Beowulf during 1936
   1. Tolkien's lecture
   2. Shifts in scholarly focus  

III Criticism of Beowulf after 1936
   1. David Daiches' criticism
   2. Criticism found in the forward to E. Talbot Donaldson's translation of Beowulf in The Norton Anthology



It has held many names throughout the centuries. Thorkelin called it De Danorum Rebus Gesfis. Wanley Poesis called it Poeseos Anglo'Saxonicae egregium exemplum. J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us of a title lost to modernity, Beowulfiana. Tolkien and many that followed would also call it The Beowulf. Over time, criticisms of this poem would differ as greatly as the name; however, one man would approximate these critics and there critiques by changing the focal point of the criticism itself.

Longstanding notions, though varied in content, comprehended closely in summarization and focus on Beowulfiana before the overall conviction was shifted. “The fault of Beowulf is that there is nothing much in the story ... in construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous ... ”1 (W. P. Ker; Tolkien, 1936) “In 1925 Professor Archibald Strong translated Beowulf into verse:2 but in 1921 he had declared: “Beowulf is the picture of a whole civilization, of the Germania which Tacitus describes. The main interest which the poem has for us is thus not a purely literary interest. Beowulf is an important historical document.”3 (Archibald Strong, 1925; Tolkien, 1936) Poesy is marginalized in the majority of Beowulfiana critiques, and diachronic value is overly-emphasized. At Oxford University, a professor of Anglo-Saxon named J. R. R. Tolkien reviewed a great majority of the Beowulfiana criticism of his day. Little did this professor understand how influential his marginalized lecture based on his research would become during the years that followed.

Holding a lecture on November 25th, 1936 entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien addresses not only this relatively uniform notion of value in Beowulfiana, but adds a revived focus to the mixture, in itself not an actual critique but a shifting of attention. In this lecture he underlines his argument by denying the grounds referring to the poem and undermining the sparse literature he has reviewed concerning the poem, however, still maintaining the diachronic importance of the poem: “It is poor criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem ... there is an historical explanation of the state of Beowulfiana that I have referred to ...[and] that explanation is important, if one would venture to criticize the critics ... why should we approach this, or indeed any other poem, mainly as an historical document[?]... Beowulf is ... so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent of ... important facts.” (Tolkien, 1936 Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics) His statement is so simple that the weight of it can be overlooked: do not focus upon Beowulfiana as merely historical in nature and nothing more. Do not forget that Beowulfiana is also a poem in itself, and thus deserves attention as such, but does not outweigh its diachronic value. As an example of the scholarly shift in focus on Beowulfiana, Burton Raffel writes: “... Beowulf's position as a great poem must remain primary; the other purposes it serves are important but peripheral to this central fact of sheer literary merit”4  By shifting the overall scholarly focus upon the merits of “the poem as a poem”, Tolkien gave greater weight to the poem's credibility in it's entirety, rather than the separate parts of the whole. Not many put this fact so bluntly as Ian Hissop and E. Christian Kopff, both contemporaries of more modern times, long proceeding Tolkien's lecture. Hissop writes: “[Tolkien's] criticism then and now seems like a breath of fresh air, removing the dusty pedantry that covers this Anglo-Saxon poem. He pours witty scorn on the literary archaeologists, men who dig ... anything but read the poem as a whole. How the modern critics must hate this essay.” Kopff writes: “It is scarcely too much to say that this one essay changed forever the study of a major work in the canon of English literature, that it established Beowulf as a major literary work ... in 1936 Tolkien found that “Beowulf has been used as a quarry of fact[s] ... more assiduously than it has been studied as a work of art.”5 Both of these contemporaries see the considerable weight of not only Tolkien's lecture, but of Beowulfiana as a whole, whether as a poem or a singular aesthetic piece. But many will revert or counter Tolkien's shift in focus and new ideals concerning the poem.

As criticism is frequently based on past criticism, not lending a fresh perspective but a review of past speculation, often old viewpoints are dredged from the dusty past that skew Tolkien's argument for the poem. Daiches echoes past critical views of the poem by stating thus: “...[Beowulf is] structurally weak and providing insufficient unity of tone or organization to hold together effectively the two ... episodes ... the ultimate origin of the story is folklore ... working, as folklore does, on history.”6 (Daiches, 1970) Tolkien states the following, which undermines the arguments of even his future critics: “Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on The Beowulf has been due ... to ... belief that [Beowulf] was something that it was not ... primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappoint at the discovery that it was itself and not something the scholar would have liked better ... a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.” (Tolkien, 1936) Nearly all contemporary critics stress one or more of the items Tolkien did not find in the poem, and this fact is grounded in the forward to the poem in the modern college literature anthology The Norton Anthology: “...the most vivid account left to us of the social world and life experiences of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples; ...[the author of Beowulf] is both careful to preserve ... distinction between his Christian present and his pagan past.” But in the first few lines of this foreword to the poem, preceding the above can be found: “[Beowulf] is ... a heroic poem of dark magnificence...”7

From another perspective, one could not imagine why both views would not hold equal esteem and why there would be an argument at all as to whether Beowulfiana's diachronic or poesy outweighed one or the other in worth. Critics before Tolkien's time, those he argued against, would state that the diachronic was more valuable due to flaws in the focus, structure and content of the poem. Although Tolkien succeeded in bringing the literary value and poesy of the poem to the forefront, he did mention it overshadowing the diachronic in an independent way. Tolkien's “criticism of the critics” as he so mildly puts it, has played such a heavy role in how a modern critic views Beowulfiana, not in diachronic value but mainly poesy, that the role of diachronic is shadowed just as Tolkien stated, poesy above diachronic value, rather than stabilizing or unifying the importance of both. This was probably not Tolkien's intention when he originally lectured on the poem as he stressed the independent value of both its parts and its whole. It will be healthy to see a digression from both the weightiness lent to either side and a more uniform approach to the merits of both poesy and diachronic in not only Beowulfiana but in literate ventures in general.

Citations


1 Tolkien, J. R. R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Oxford University, 1936; originally found by Tolkien in English Literature, Medieval, pp. 29-34;

2 Tolkien, J. R. R.  Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Oxford University, 1936; originally found by Tolkien in Beowulf: An Introduction, chapter 8. Questions of Literary History, Date, and Authorship; Beowulf in the Light of History, Archaeology, Heroic Legend, Mythology, and Folklore-in his notes, Tolkien points out that there is no Poetry section.

3 Tolkien, J. R. R.  Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, Oxford University, 1936; originally found by Tolkien in Constable, Beowulf translated into modern English rhyming verse, 1925

4 Ramey, Bill, The Unity of Beowulf: Tolkien and the Critics, 2004 http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/billramey/beowulf.html  ; originally found by Ramey in: Raffel, Burton, trans.
Introduction, Beowulf. New American Library New York 1963
  
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thompson Gale, 1997

Daiches, David Critical History of English Literature, vol. 1, pp. 9, Ronald Press Company, New York, 1970

Maynard, Mack, et al. The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces: The Western Tradition, seventh ed, vol. 1, W. W Norton & Company, New York 1984


**NOT in standard MLA format- elements of APA do appear here in the spirit of the memory of Tolkien's contributions, and to aid others in further research. This is my first research paper.

I also held a speech concerning this paper. Here are some notes from it:

Speech Notes


“...Vanda skna termaruva Elenna-nóreo alcar enyalien, ar Elendil Vorondo voronwe. Nai tiruvantes i hirar mahalmassen mi Nsmen, ar i Eru i or ilye mahalmar ea tenn'oio...” (mythological linguistic format, The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien, 1916) [NOTE-yes, I can actually speak a little Elvish, I admit it. It's a scholarly thing, I promise   ]

As Jessica Yates put it in 1984, J. R. R. Tolkien “began to write The Book of Lost Tales in 1916 and 17 as his first attempt on a mythology for England. He felt that the English people, as opposed to the Greeks or the Celts, had no body of connected legend of their own. All we had was Beowulf and our own native fairy stories.”

As a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, however, just referring to Beowulf as historical in nature would be at the very least an understatement to the professor as to the import that Beowulf held to him. Tolkien, during his lecture in 1936 entitled Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, argued against such labeling of the poem, which had been commonplace prior to his lecture. In it he writes: “It is poor criticism, criticism that is directed to the understanding of a poem as a poem ... there is an historical explanation of the state of Beowulfiana that I have referred to ...[and] that explanation is important, if one would venture to criticize the critics ... why should we approach this, or indeed any other poem, mainly as an historical document[?]... Beowulf is ... so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content, and is largely independent of ... important facts.” (Tolkien, 1936 Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics) His statement is so simple that the weight of it can be overlooked: do not focus upon Beowulfiana as merely historical in nature and nothing more. Do not forget that Beowulfiana is also a poem in itself, and thus deserves attention as such, but does outweigh its diachronic value.

Voices that preceded him rose in uniform voice to critique the poem: “The fault of Beowulf is that there is nothing much in the story ... in construction it is curiously weak, in a sense preposterous ... ”1 (W. P. Ker; Tolkien, 1936) “In 1925 Professor Archibald Strong translated Beowulf into verse:2 but in 1921 he had declared: “Beowulf is the picture of a whole civilization, of the Germania which Tacitus describes. The main interest which the poem has for us is thus not a purely literary interest. Beowulf is an important historical document.”3 (Archibald Strong, 1925; Tolkien, 1936) Poesy is marginalized in the majority of Beowulfiana critiques, and diachronic value is overly-emphasized. As criticism is frequently based on past criticism, often not giving a fresh perspective but a review of past speculation, often old viewpoints are dredged from the dusty past that skew Tolkien's argument for the poem. Daiches echoes past critical views of the poem by stating thus: “...[Beowulf is] structurally weak and providing insufficient unity of tone or organization to hold together effectively the two ... episodes ... the ultimate origin of the story is folklore ... working, as folklore does, on history.”6 (Daiches, 1970) Tolkien states the following, which undermines the arguments of even his future critics: “Nearly all the censure, and most of the praise, that has been bestowed on The Beowulf has been due ... to ... belief that [Beowulf] was something that it was not ... primitive, pagan, Teutonic, an allegory (political or mythical), or most often, an epic; or to disappoint at the discovery that it was itself and not something the scholar would have liked better ... a heathen heroic lay, a history of Sweden, a manual of Germanic antiquities, or a Nordic Summa Theologica.” (Tolkien, 1936) Nearly all contemporary critics stress one or more of the items Tolkien did not find in the poem, and this fact is grounded in the forward to the poem in the modern college literature anthology The Norton Anthology: “...the most vivid account left to us of the social world and life experiences of the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples; ...[the author of Beowulf] is both careful to preserve ... distinction between his Christian present and his pagan past.” But in the first few lines of this foreword to the poem, preceding the above can be found: “[Beowulf] is ... a heroic poem of dark magnificence...”7

From another perspective, one could not imagine why both views would not hold equal esteem and why there would be an argument at all as to whether Beowulfiana's diachronic or poesy outweighed one or the other in worth. Critics before Tolkien's time, those he argued against, would state that the diachronic was more valuable due to flaws in the focus, structure and content of the poem. Although Tolkien succeeded in bringing the literary value and poesy of the poem to the forefront, he did mention it overshadowing the diachronic in an independent way.

Tolkien's “criticism of the critics” as he so mildly puts it, has played such a heavy role in how a modern critic views Beowulfiana, not in diachronic value but mainly poesy, that the role of diachronic is shadowed just as Tolkien stated, poesy above diachronic value, rather than stabilizing or unifying the importance of both. This was probably not Tolkien's intention when he originally lectured on the poem as he stressed the independent value of both its parts and its whole.

It will be healthy to see a digression from both the weightiness lent to either side and a more uniform approach to the merits of both poesy and diachronic in not only Beowulfiana but in literate ventures in general.


[This message has been edited by LadySofia (03-20-2006 06:15 AM).]

Brad
Member Ascendant
since 08-20-99
Posts 5896
Jejudo, South Korea


1 posted 03-20-2006 05:07 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

This is interesting.

I didn't know that Tolkien had had such impact on Beowulf studies. This shift from the diachronic to the synchronic is, for the most part, across the board. Fish writes about it concerning Milton studies and you can see it in the Structuralism of Roman Jakobson in Europe and the New Criticism in America.

You might want to clean up your writing a little bit. As a once reader of undergraduate papers, it takes you far too long to get to your main point.

Remember this:

1. Say what you're going to say.
2. Say it.
3. Say what you said.

LadySofia
Member
since 05-16-2000
Posts 240
FL., USA


2 posted 03-20-2006 05:53 PM       View Profile for LadySofia   Email LadySofia   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit LadySofia's Home Page   View IP for LadySofia

I actually received a 90 on this in an honors undergrad class, so I'm not sure what you mean. Lost some points on my speech from jingling about $5 in change in my pants. My professors, two of which hold PhD's in their respective fields, Philosophy and English, found these to be my key works, my defining moments in the series of courses. And, as opposed to most of my peers, I think I do a relatively excellent job in my grammatical editation and in the construction of my papers. There are a few tense errors but seeing as this was one of my final drafts and not my final paper, I'm certain the spirit of the paper came through.

My fellow classmates gave me a resounding cheer after this. It was good.
Brad
Member Ascendant
since 08-20-99
Posts 5896
Jejudo, South Korea


3 posted 03-20-2006 06:07 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

Why not ask your professors?

I probably would have given your paper an A as well, but that doesn't mean you can't make it better.
LadySofia
Member
since 05-16-2000
Posts 240
FL., USA


4 posted 06-06-2006 06:19 AM       View Profile for LadySofia   Email LadySofia   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit LadySofia's Home Page   View IP for LadySofia

You are right Brad, I do take too long to get to the point. I am and always have been one of too many words (pleonastic would have summed all the aforementioned quite nicely...LOL).

I tend to get afraid during editation for I always have been my own worst critic- I either take away too much or add more than is necessary. I have yet to find that balance between the two. ^^;
Brad
Member Ascendant
since 08-20-99
Posts 5896
Jejudo, South Korea


5 posted 06-10-2006 09:50 PM       View Profile for Brad   Email Brad   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Brad

quote:
I have yet to find that balance between the two.


Ah, we are all always in search of that holy grail.

icebox
Member Elite
since 05-03-2003
Posts 4246
in the shadows


6 posted 06-19-2006 10:29 PM       View Profile for icebox   Email icebox   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for icebox

Wow!  Big words.  Cool!
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