On Pomposity
December 8, 2010

Hagiography is a lot easier when the saint has had the sense to shut up. William of Malmesbury’s book on the life and miracles of St Aldhelm was held back by two things: not enough written about the saint, and too much written by him. William’s problem wasn’t the quantity of Aldhelm’s writings so much as their style, although he made a valiant attempt to defend it:

Sermones eius minus infundunt hilaritatis quam uellent hi qui rerum incuriosi uerba trutinant: iudices inportuni, qui nescient quod secundum mores gentium uarientur modi dictaminum. 6. Denique Greci inuolute, Romani splendide, Angli pompatice dictare solent. Id in omnibus antiquis cartis est animaduertere, quantum quibusdam uerbis abstrusis et ex Greco petites delectentur. Moderatius tamen se agit Aldelmus, nec nisi perraro et necessario uerba ponit exotica. Allegat catholicos sensus sermo facundus, et uiolentissimas assertiones exornat color rethoricus. Quem si perfecte legeris, et ex acumine Grecum putabis, et ex nitore Romanum iurabis, et ex pompa Anglum intelleges. (Gesta Pontificum V.196.5–6, pp. 518–20)
[His discourses give less amusement than might be wished by those who, careless of content, judge only the words: and they are very unqualified judges who do not know that modes of discourse vary according to national traits. 6. In brief: the accustomed style in which the Greeks write is complicated, the Romans splendid, and the English, ostentatious. In all their ancient charters, it is remarkable how much they delight in abstruse and Greek-derived words. But Aldhelm conducts himself with restraint, and only uses exotic words very rarely and when necessary. He conjoins eloquent discourse to orthodox meanings, and rhetorical color adorns his most startling assertions. If you read him in the right way, from his cleverness you will think him a Greek, and from his polish you will judge him a Roman, and from his splendor you will recognize him as an Englishman.]

Although developed in an unusual way, the literary-historical consciousness shown in William’s theory of national styles is of its time. In the twelfth century, writers were increasingly acute at detecting the ways in which style could signal the time and place of a work’s composition (and this helped produce some very convincing forgeries). What I’m interested in, though, is this adverb he used to describe the English style: pompatice. The word itself, ‘pompously’, is a pretty common reaction to Aldhelm’s prose style, which (despite William’s protestations) does ‘delight in abstruse and Greek-derived words’, and if his version is ‘restrained’, then I can only say that it would have been truly terrifying if he’d let himself go. Here’s an extreme example:

Primitus pantorum procerum praetorumque pio potissimum paternoque praesertim privilegio panagericum poemataque passim prosatori sub polo promulgantes stridula vocum simphonia et melodiae cantilenaeque carmine modulaturi ymnizemus...
[Principally, with particularly pious and paternal privilege, publically proffering beneath the pole panegyric and poems promiscuously to the Procreator of all princes and praetors, let us raise a hymn in measured rhythms with a loud blending of voices and with song of melodious music...] Epistola VI. Ad Heahfrith. The translation is by Michael Herren, from Lapidge and Herren, Aldhelm: the Prose Works. (I would never have had the patience to hunt up so many alliterative synonyms.)

This seems to me a classic instance of what we think of as pomposity: the self-aggrandizing use of style to coerce and overawe, to establish and enforce a hierarchy between speaker and recipient. In this instance, Aldhelm is writing to a student to persuade him not to study in Ireland, and his tool of persuasion is a Latinity which he claims can be better acquired in England, at the archbishop’s school in Canterbury. The message is, These Irish teachers of yours—you think they can do this?

But, curiously, William seems to be using pompatice in a positive sense. His argument against the Aldhelm-haters is rather submerged, but it appears to me to consist in this:

1. Aldhelm’s subject matter more than justifies his style.

2. Styles vary according to the author’s national origin, and this must be taken into account.

3. Actually, Aldhelm’s style isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s the best of all worlds!

There’s more than a whiff of ambivalence here. But whether or not he succeeded in doing so, William has at least been trying to persuade himself that he likes Aldhelm’s style. Pompa, as it’s used here, seems to mean ‘splendor’ or ‘grandeur’: which is to say, display without the negative qualities of coercion or condescension implied by ‘pomposity’. Used moderatius ‘moderately’ and necessario ‘when necessary’, Aldhelm’s pompa seems to be an outgrowth of his subject-matter, rather than an assertion of self.

What I find interesting about William’s analysis here is that it springs from an assumption of good faith on Aldhelm’s part, an assumption forced upon him by the fact that Aldhelm was patron saint of William’s abbey. Left to himself, I think William would have found the earlier writer’s style repulsive. But because he had to believe that Aldhelm himself was kindly disposed toward his disciples, William had to find a way of justifying his style, and this led him to a theory of aesthetic relativism.

Sympathy with individual people often leads historians to a more sympathetic account of otherwise repellent historical practices. At its worst, this can lead to attempts to justify the unjustifiable (my fifth-grade teacher called this the “ugly puppy effect”, and was why she wouldn’t let us write papers on Hitler). But at its best it can lead to a truer knowledge of the foreign as well as the familiar aspects of the past. It seems to me that in this case, this sympathy led William of Malmesbury to a better understanding of literary history. But he may have also had a better understanding of Aldhelm than he wished to admit. The problem of literary pomposity and what to do with it is one I mean to take up in a later post.

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