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1 - Beowulf and the Art of Invention

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

The creativity of the Beowulf-poet is a byword, and it is easy to be so dazzled by the poet's artistic excellence that the mechanics of his craft are obscured. Yet the Toronto Dictionary of Old English, especially under the energetic editorship of Toni Healey, has made available precisely the tools to examine in meticulous detail what makes the Beowulf-poet's technique tick, both through the Corpus and the Dictionary itself. Complementing the DOE, another more recent project, A Consolidated Library of Anglo-Saxon, will offer a combined corpus of Old English and Anglo-Latin poetry, with complete texts and translations, and a series of interlinked databases mapping (for example) rhythm and metre; alliteration; rhyme and assonance; poetic vocabulary; hapax legomena and compounds; syntax and structure; formulas and formulaic systems; themes; parallels and echowords; direct sources; emendations and scribal corrections; and editorial variants. This essay makes extensive use of both DOE and CLASP, especially the latter's database of compounds, to demonstrate how both projects can be employed in tandem.

The poet's skill is evident throughout Beowulf, but in this context it seems particularly pertinent to consider the four main descriptions of poetic performance and associated verses, spread out over more than 2,000 lines, and increasing in length (Beowulf [hereafter Beo] 89b–91, 867b– 74, 1063–70, and 2105–14). In each case, rather ominously occurring before the advent of monstrosity (the kin of Cain, Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon respectively), these descriptions are tightly intertwined by verbal echoes and other parallels. The first and briefest occurs early in the poem, describing the celebration that followed the building of Heorot, a paean performed by one of Hrothgar's poets (Beo 89b–91: here and below, parallels between relevant passages are indicated in bold italics):

Þǣr wæs hearpan swēġ ,

swutol sang sċopes. Sæġde sē þe cūþe

frum-sċeaft fīra feorran reċċan[…]

There was the harmony of the harp, / the clear song of the poet. He spoke, who could / recount from far back the beginnings of men […]

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Old English Lexicology and Lexicography
Essays in Honor of Antonette diPaolo Healey
, pp. 19 - 36
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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