Daniel C. Remein
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‘Real cliffs’
Variation and lexical kinetics
in The heat of Beowulf
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This chapter reexamines the middle and later twentieth-century critical interest in the aesthetics of variation in light of the ways that variation in Old English poetry shaped Jack Spicer’s early and later poetics. While an anxiety about the possibility of synonymy and lexical redundancy in variation led most critical discourses away from considering its stylistic functions, Spicer’s response to a similar anxiety in literary modernism catalyzes an alternative account of a permutational lexical kinetics. As a comparative frame for revisiting variation in Beowulf, the chapter considers Spicer’s theorization of redundancy and poetic diction. The chapter thus turns to Spicer’s poem ‘A portrait of the artist as a young landscape’ and his explicit writing on poetic diction and translation in After Lorca and A textbook of poetry, exploring Spicer’s play with the redundancy of variation as a way of re-aestheticizing the referential functions of the poem’s diction and rendering the poem radically porous to realities of littoral geography and oceanography. Following Spicer’s lead, the chapter then considers instances of variation in Beowulf across the passages that narrate the sea-crossings of Beowulf and his warriors. The sea-crossings are often read as set-piece descriptions that merely facilitate the human action of the poem. However, the play of redundancy, compound diction, and variation in these passages interacts with the prosodical patterns of Old English verse to disrupt this overt representational logic, reactivating the referential function of variation as an ecopoetical stylization that renders the poem more porous to the non-human world of ‘real’ sea-cliffs.

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