Lists, stars

I've been reading the evolving debate on narrativity here with great interest: Kate Lingley's recent post on the value (perhaps necessity) of a diachronic way of organizing the meanings with which art is invested particularly resonated, since this is a significant problem in Anglo-Saxon literature. There's no stable, mutually-agreed chronology for Old English poetry in particular, and our perennial arguments about absolute and relative dates for these poems stems, in part, from the desire for at least the possibility of the kind of literary-historical narrative we find in accounts of other literature. (Nineteenth-century surveys of Old English frequently decided on the dates of poems according to their perceived place in the traditional 'Golden Age' narrative: the greatest poems must be earliest; with proximity to the reader comes decadence and decline.)

Aside from the desire for a narrative about Old English verse, there is a strong preference for narrative in Old English verse: I think you could probably graph "narrative component" against "critical attention" and end up with a very elegant curve.* This is a problem, because quite a number of Old English poems are neither narrative nor lyric. The genre that seems most difficult to place is one that has been (ironically, perhaps) perennially popular since Antiquity: the list.

There's been a considerable amount of critical attention to the list as a mode of organizing information and as an internet thing, but information-organizing doesn't really seem to be the critical issue with literary, and especially poetic, catalogues. That is, you could approach the Iliad's 'Catalogue of Ships' like a ten-best-movies list** and no doubt some audiences have and did; but this seems to be missing a major aesthetic component.

Here's an Old English example, from the catalogue poem The Gifts of Men:

Sumum her ofer eorþan æhta onlihð,
woruldgestreona. Sum bið wonspedig,
heardsælig hæle, biþ hwæþre gleaw
modes cræfta. Sum mægenstrengo
furþor onfehð. Sum freolic bið
wlitig on wæstmum. Sum biþ woðbora,
giedda giffæst. Sum biþ gearuwyrdig.
Sum bið on huntoþe hreðeadigra
deora dræfend. Sum dyre bið
woruldricum men. Sum bið wiges heard,
beadocræftig beorn, þær bord stunað. (30-40)

[To some here upon earth {God} lends possessions, worldly wealth. One is without wealth, a man of hard luck, but yet is skilled in the mind’s trades. One receives strength to a great degree. One is charming, beautiful in form. One is a man of eloquence, endowed with poems. One is ready in speech. One is a slayer of fierce beasts in the hunt. One is favored by powerful men. One is stern in war, a warrior skilled in the arts of battle where shields crash.]

Now the context here is that God distributes gifts to all men, and no one has the full complement of all talents. Even within this, though, it's not clear whether the inventory items are mutually exclusive, or the degree to which sequence forms a commentary: is beauty incompatible with strength? Wisdom with wealth? Does the fact that the hunter comes before the warrior make him more or less important in the grand scheme of things?

I don't really know the answer to those questions, and I think that they might not be the right questions at all, but rather an attempt to impose narrative on a genre that is fundamentally nonlinear. Anglo-Saxon audiences presumably had their own methods for understanding catalogue poems, but there are no contemporary accounts of how people received or interpreted them. As for us, I think possibly a more fruitful method is one that Renée Trilling recently used to interpret The Ruin and Deor: Benjamin's idea of the constellation. Deor is also a kind of a catalogue poem, which makes the approach particularly promising as a way of understanding difficult non-narrative texts like Gifts of Men, Fates of Men, and the Maxims poems. Perhaps we need to see what shape a catalogue forms before we can hope to understand the idea behind its individual parts. Doing so, though, often seems to mean unlearning the instincts of a lifetime.

* Not that I've done this. I'm not sure what the SI unit for narrative is.

** In my unscientific but surprisingly time-consuming survey of internet commentary on lists, there are two parameters for judging lists: a) inclusivity and b) order. Viz. a list that a) includes things it ought not (and thus excludes things it ought not); or b) puts things in an incorrect order, sucks.(1)

1) The internet, passim.

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