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This review is taken from PN Review 63, Volume 15 Number 1, September - October 1988.

COURTS AND CLOISTERS Derek Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry, Routledge History of English Poetry, Vol. 1 (RKP), £7.95 pb.

The Old English poems still loom out of the past as suddenly and as dauntingly as Grendel's dam, without either rationale or context. We find their anonymity disturbing. And we are apt still to read in their apparently haphazard survivals and in a few related themes - loss, solitude, abandonment and ruin - a society either primitively unresolved or else apocalypytically interrupted.

Our Anglo-Saxons are The Seafarer and The Wanderer, not Beowulf, their 'typical' setting not the mead-hall but 'The Ruin'. We pay lip-service only to the modern commonplace of a Christian, Europeanised Old English culture, preferring an image of something altogether more peripheral and sui generis.

Old English studies took root in an intellectual loam compounded of pan-Germanism and scientific philology, but we seem to have gone back to a hunter-gatherer phase and to some remarkable prejudices about our past, akin to the well-intentioned belief of large banks and Scout troops that our contemporary culture can be read in small from a time-capsule comprising today's Times, a can of Diet Coke, a video of Dallas and a copy of Smiley's People. The cadences of Old English poetry continue to take their quiet revenge on contemporary verse. Their strength and consistency bespeak a more settled culture and one with more staying power than we liked to think. We find after all that we do not need an apocalyptic theory of Why the Dinosaurs Died Out. Though rare as coelecanths, they did not; to understand the ...


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