Literature and Theatre
In light of Brodeur’s assignment instructing students to read the Finn episode of Beowulf ‘as a modern poem’, this chapter traces the multiple critical and poetics genealogies by which this assignment would have been legible to Brodeur on the one hand, and to Blaser and Spicer on the other. The chapter chronicles the processes by which Brodeur’s effort to frame Beowulf as worthy of aesthetic study became possible by an admixture of the New Criticism and an investment in authorial individuality. Beowulf became an object of aesthetic inquiry as a transcendent, yet original, organic unity. Meanwhile, although medievalism was crucial to Poundian modernism and its effort to construct an ecologically and aesthetically charged non-representational poetics, Ezra Pound’s investments in a poetics of masculinist and eventually fascist ‘potency at rest’ led to his dismissal of Beowulf from the avant-garde’s canon of medieval poetry. The chapter argues that amidst the pre-Stonewall queer culture of the Berkeley Renaissance, Blaser’s and Spicer’s encounter with Beowulf unfolds in the wake of, but simultaneously contests, the aesthetics of both Pound’s medievalism and Brodeur’s fragile framework for aesthetic analysis of Old English poetry. Finally, the chapter sketches the intellectual conditions that eclipsed Brodeur’s approach to Beowulf’s aesthetics and makes the case that, within the context of the debates around the advent of oral-formulaic theory to Old English studies, his project harbored an impulse to ensure that the aesthetics of Beowulf were included in contemporary literary discourse.
The afterword begins by summarizing how the book formulates the ‘heat’ of Beowulf, cataloging its operation on the level of diction, variation, and narrative, characterizing it in ecopoetical, sensological, and phenomenological terms. After reflecting on the medievalness of Blaser’s and Spicer’s modern poetics, the Afterword then points to larger implications of the book and areas for further study. First, the Afterword notes the book’s attention to the convergence of sensology, phenomenology, and ecopoetics, suggesting possible comparisons between twentieth-century poetry by John Ashbery and Bernadette Mayer with early medieval texts and monastic orthopraxis. This is followed by pointing to potential future considerations of historical discourses and experiences of sensory impairment in relationship to the possibility of non-representational, sensological ecopoetics, noting especially the importance of early medieval medical and legal texts. Finally, the Afterword explores how Blaser’s and Spicer’s revision of Ezra Pound’s medievalism invites a new consideration of the non-representational functions of ornament in early medieval poetics. This last possibility is briefly explored in a reading of Exeter Book Riddle 31.
This chapter asks what precisely Blaser meant in referring to the ‘heat’ of Beowulf, and what this comprehends about early medieval aesthetics. Contextualizing heat within Blaser’s poetics, heat emerges as a term of a phenomenologically translative poetics that phrases the aesthetic as ‘perception’, and frames poesis as a primarily perceptual, corporeal process. Calibrating this critical lexicon to early medieval concepts of aesthetics, the chapter constellates Blaser’s engagement with the Old English poem The dream of the rood with the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, critical sensology, early medieval discourses of the senses, and Mary Carruthers’ analysis of rhetoric and multisensory complexion in medieval aesthetics. The chapter also introduces the concept of ‘ductus’, or the paths that lead a reader through the experience of the text, and nuances all these discourses with perspectives from medieval disability studies and a critique of the assumed dominance of the visual in early medieval aesthetics, especially in the sensology of the Fuller Brooch. Phrased as a question about perception, Blaser’s ‘heat’ gestures to the ecopoetical functions of aesthetics and the ways that sensory impairments—especially visual impairments in early medieval England—might shape how we understand aesthetics within western medieval hierarchies of the senses. The chapter concludes by turning this analysis on a reading of multisensoriality in Beowulf, arguing that the poem represents a world whose multisensoriality and synesthesia would require the kind of phenomenological translation performed by Blaser’s ‘heat’ to render it sensible for the vulnerable corporeality of the human sensorium.
The heat of Beowulf investigates twentieth-century poets Jack Spicer’s and Robin Blaser’s encounter with Beowulf in order to contextualize their poetics as a comparative horizon by which to understand the aesthetics of the Old English poem anew. The book examines Blaser’s and Spicer’s translations and study of the poem under philologist Arthur G. Brodeur within the context of their avant-garde literary world to generate a series of comparative critical frames for describing the non-representational functions of the aesthetics of Beowulf. After tracing the genealogies of mid-century critical practice and literary modernism that intersect in Blaser’s and Spicer’s engagement with Beowulf, the book examines Robin Blaser’s account of the ‘heat’ of Beowulf in Brodeur’s classroom as a formative moment within his poetics and articulates an approach to non-representational early medieval aesthetics that draws variously on the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Mary Carruthers’ accounts of medieval rhetoric, medieval sensology, disability studies, and translation theory. The book then argues that the multisensory and even synesthetic world of Beowulf requires a process of ecopoetical, phenomenological translation to become intelligible to vulnerable human corporeality. From here, the book reboots Brodeur’s interest in Beowulf’s aesthetics in a series of chapters on compound diction, variation, and narrative structure. Each of these chapters explores the capacity of the poem’s perceptual process to assist and to impair the human sensorium, offering an account of the activity of the poem as a multisensory phenomenological aesthetics—not conceived of as figure, but as non-representational activity and process.
This chapter revisits the debates about Old English poetic diction that formed the bedrock of the mid-century interest in Beowulf’s aesthetics, rewound through Blaser’s and Spicer’s responses to Arthur G. Brodeur’s instruction. For Brodeur and his followers, the aesthetics of Old English poetic diction were legible to the extent that they participated in the organic unity of the poem and exhibited the individuality of poet. Brodeur was interested in the ‘inner workings’ of compound poetic diction in order to measure its originality. Blaser’s and Spicer’s attention to Brodeur’s interests, as evidenced in their coordinated experiments translating the compound words of the poem, indirectly point towards a fundamental instability within compound words stemming from the ease of their capacity for rephrasing, or what the chapter calls ‘translatability’. The chapter theorizes translatability by way of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of basic concepts of translation theory, including the phenomenological valences of its vocabulary and Roman Jakobson’s concept of ‘interlingual translation’. Attending to the translatability of compound diction as the locus of a corporeal experience, the chapter then performs a close reading of Beowulf at Hrothgar’s verbal map to the so-called ‘Grendel-mere’. By ‘opening up’ the kineticism that inheres in the emphatic rephrasability of compound poetic diction, the chapter describes a deforming lexical ‘movement’ that constitutes the rhetorical ductus (path) through passage. The resulting earmsceapen (ill-shaped) style resonates with the cardiocentric hydraulic model of cognitive-affective vernacular psychology in Old English verse and indexes an ecopoetical process by which the poem deforms the human sensorium.
This introduction constructs a disciplinary context in which to ask how Robin Blaser’s and Jack Spicer’s encounter with Beowulf might furnish a series of critical frames for reading the Old English poem anew. Introducing the reader to Blaser’s and Spicer’s poetics and their general medievalism in the context of the mid-century ‘Berkeley Renaissance’, the Introduction surveys their study of Beowulf under Arthur G. Brodeur and Blaser’s description of his encounter with the ‘heat’ of that poem. Blaser’s and Spicer’s study of Beowulf are positioned with respect to Brodeur’s classroom, their contemporaneous study under historian Ernst Kantorowicz, and their later avant-garde poetics. The Introduction then turns to consider a broader disciplinary context for the project of reading Blaser’s and Spicer’s avant-garde poetics comparatively with Beowulf, asking how to stage an encounter of Old English studies and twentieth-century and contemporary poetics. An examination of critical conversations about translations of Beowulf alongside the translation theory of Brazilian modernist Haroldo de Campos and an analysis of the ‘hypercanonicity’ of Beowulf points to the need to attend more fastidiously to the inherently translative functions of Beowulf criticism and their implicit relationship to what Charles Bernstein calls ‘official verse culture’. The Introduction calls for a concept of translative comparative poetics, arguing that to allow modern and contemporary poetics to shape how we attempt to comprehend Beowulf, we need to accord just as much historicity to ‘modern and contemporary’ poetics as a medievalist would demand for the past.
Unlike mid-century approaches to the aesthetics of diction and variation, the influence of mid-century accounts of the narrative aesthetics of Beowulf have had a long reach in accounts of the poem’s aesthetic unity, balance, stability, and stasis. Against the backdrop of mid-century structuralist narratology, Blaser’s and Spicer’s approach to what they called the ‘serial poem’ provides a point of departure for a reevaluation of the interruptive and incomplete aesthetics of the ‘episodes and digressions’ that obsessed Beowulf’s mid-century critics. Rather than relitigate the episodes and digressions directly, the chapter first turns to lyrical interruptions of the poem’s narrative and, paying attention to the poem’s lexicon of fire, traces a fragmentary narrative about the aesthetics of fire and flame, touching on the burning of Heorot, the poem’s cremations, and the dragon. The aesthetics of these instances of flame-eaten lyricism mark an attempt to render sensible the resistance of sensoriality to narrativity. The chapter then turns to the ‘Finnsburg episode’, which Brodeur asked Blaser and Spicer to read as a discrete modern poem just as they were formulating their early serial poetics. Examining the narrative, formal, stylistic, and ‘fitt-division’ boundaries at either end of the episode, the chapter traces a latent seriality conditioned by a layering of pure spacing and the intrusion of non-narrative compositions whose edges mark a besieging of the poem’s narrativity by sensoriality. The chapter concludes by articulating how the heat of Beowulf operates differently—perhaps less humanly—on the scale of narrative than on that of diction.
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.
Old English medical texts such as the Herbarium frequently direct practitioners to find healing herbs, such as leon-fot above, ‘in fields’ [‘on feldon’]. Though feld has since come to refer to cultivated land ‘devoted to a particular crop’, the Old English word had a sense of wildness about it: ‘open country’, ‘land unencumbered by obstruction’. It was in such open, untamed fields that hybridity could best abound and new healing resources be discovered. And in turn it is in correspondingly open academic fields where the complex texts from early medieval England can be most fully understood. As a conclusion to this book’s eclectic approach, this final chapter first looks closely at a single brief remedy, the seemingly unassuming entry for Lion’s Foot in the Old English Herbarium, through the lens of each previous chapter’s approach in turn. Following this up-close strategy, the chapter then pans back out to examine how the analyses in the preceding chapters intersect with and inform one another.
Chapter 7 returns to the missing healers referenced in the Exeter Book riddle discussed in the Introduction, known as Riddle 5 or Anhaga. Where previous chapters explored medicinal texts and remedies, this last seeks to demonstrate ways that knowledge of Old English healing can inform interpretations of Old English poetry more widely. As ubiquitous as the medieval healer has become in modern film and media, herbal healing and healers are virtually non-existent in Old English heroic verse, and so we can be left with the (false) impression that healing charms and remedies constituted a distinct position in early medieval thought, separate from narrative genres. Outside of the medical texts, one of the only references left to us in surviving poetry laments a lack of healers. Yet this complaint buried within the highly formulaic language of exile and warfare in the Exeter Book’s Anhaga riddle can nonetheless provide an enormously productive key to interpreting the riddle’s warrior persona within a complex network of material objects that have previously been proposed as possible solutions. This chapter explores insights that this seemingly simple riddle can offer into herbal remedies, into material culture, and – most of all – into the playful, probing modes of thinking that subtly but powerfully link concepts of deadly warfare and herbal healing in Old English poetry and culture.