Bard, Beowulf and smart-arses

May 26, 2000

As a first-year Oxford undergraduate (admittedly a student of Valentine Cunningham), I am part of the last generation for whom Anglo-Saxon will be a compulsory part of the English course.

What is so wrong with Anglo-Saxon is the critical approach its students are required to apply to it. Having escaped from the stranglehold of A-level critical orthodoxy we revel in the freedom to construct original interpretations of the more modern texts. But when applying this same interpretative freedom to an Anglo-Saxon text, we are reprimanded, encouraged to take an objective historical approach, not a subjective one, that an essay should be a collation of other scholars' critical practices, not an exposition of our own.

The Anglo-Saxon essay must comprise a summary of the likely historical circumstances surrounding the text's creation; a condensed collation of previous scholarly critiques; a token "original" comment of our own just to show that we have actually read the damn thing; and a conclusion. This highly unoriginal, formulaic critical approach would be exalted and alpha-graded by tutors of Anglo-Saxon.

But only up to a point, and that is the irony. As undergraduate students of Old English, we must submit to "those who know better", to the scholarly weight of ages, but as graduates this lack of confidence in our own ability and right to criticise will clearly not get us very far. It is only then that we will find ourselves encouraged to abruptly resurrect the interpretative freedom that had earlier been stifled. But this is not what had been associated with the formerly dry and "objective" study of Old English, and just as many undergraduates initially balk at the subject, so too do many graduates on the revelation of what the study really entails. If only the university had decided to allow its English undergraduates the same interpretative rights in this area as in the rest of the course, this major disillusionment could have been prevented.

Yes, Anglo-Saxon study consumes too large a portion of the undergraduates' working week, and it detracts from the primary concern of most English students. Yes, Anglo-Saxon study itself is even detrimental to that primary concern, in that it places an artificial and temporary Berlin Wall in one's personal critical approach. But the backlash is perhaps going too far by removing Anglo-Saxon from the syllabus altogether. I would not have been able to derive the same intellectual enjoyment from writers such as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Ted Hughes without a sound knowledge of how Anglo-Saxon etymology or poetic conventions influenced their approaches. It is pitiful that the enmity between some modern English and Old English scholars is so vitriolic that no reconciliation can be reached, that no modernisation of the Old English course can be contemplated to bring it into sympathy rather than antipathy with the primary study of modern English texts.

Rachel Hewitt Corpus Christi, Oxford

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