8. Rebuttal*

Oralitas, sicut Gallia, est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt philosophi, aliam qui recitatores spectant, sicut scripsit Juvenalis in satira prima, tertiam philologi, qui textūs spectant et explicant.
In the years since The Singer of Tales there have been some criticisms of the "oral theory" to which I have not responded. I have come to feel that I would be shirking my responsibilities in not commenting as fully as I ought on such criticisms. I want here to respond in particular to a Speculum article by D. H. Green, Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. [1] Green's article, which was originally a plenary lecture delivered at the Medieval Academy meetings in Madison, Wisconsin, in April 1989, is a significant contribution to the study of reading in the Middle Ages. He has also read widely on orality in general and on the "oral theory," and I appreciate his assembling in a few pages the most common reservations scholars have had on this discipline, some of which have arisen from misunderstandings. [2]
I am reminded of the three divisions mentioned in the epigraph (with apologies to Julius Caesar); for Green's first three paragraphs on the "oral theory" correspond roughly to the three schools of which I speak. One group of these critics, the "Belgians," the dwellers in the first of the three {187|188} parts of the epigraph, constitutes what I have termed the "philosophical" school. I recall that, fittingly enough, the Belgians were the most remote from the Province. The members of this school write about orality and literacy from a philosophical, psychological, or sociologic point of view. Their primary concerns are the illiterate and the preliterate, or nonliterate, and literate societies, and the "oral mind." Although they often give some attention to "literature," they are not primarily concerned with the more limited problems of composition and transmission—or, as I think I prefer, learning and performing—which are the focus of what I think of as the first stage, as it were, of the "oral theory." Inasmuch as some of them are interested in the "oral mind" and the social status of the poet, they do involve themselves with the quality and aesthetics of the poetries with which they deal. The best-known scholars in this group are Marshall McLuhan, Eric A. Havelock, Franz Bäuml, Walter J. Ong, Jack Goody, and Brian Stock. [3]
In the second part dwell the "Aquitanians," those who use the adjective "oral" in its literal sense of nonwritten. Oral poetry is any poetry that is heard, that is spoken or sung, no matter how it was composed. [4] The reciter of any poetry is an oral poet. To the dwellers in Aquitaine, oral composition and oral performance are two separate entities. If, as sometimes happens in some traditions in Africa, one composes a poem in one's head and teaches it to someone else, who memorizes it and recites, or "performs" it, both the composer and the reciter are oral poets and the poem is literally an oral poem. A person reciting Virgil's Aeneid, or even reading it aloud, is an oral poet. This view can lead to absurdities. I am reminded of Martial's thirty-eighth epigram:
Quem recitas meus est, o Fidentine, libellus:
sed male cum recitas, incipit esse tuus. [5] {188|189}

The little book that you are reciting, o Fidentinus, is mine,
but when you recite it badly, it begins to be yours.
Any poetry with which writing is not involved at the time of its performance is literally oral poetry to the Aquitanians. In this school I believe that Ruth Finnegan is the most serious critic because she does treat matters of oral poetry extensively. In spite of some excesses, this school has legitimately pointed out that all oral poetic traditions are not the same in their methods of composition and transmission. I see that Finnegan is not offended by the term oral literature. She grants, if I read her correctly, that unlettered people can have a literature. [6]
Caesar's third region was inhabited by a people who call themselves Celts in their own language but whom the Romans called Gauls. In our domain the dwellers in this region are those who concentrate on the texts of the poetry or, more properly, on words and groups of words and on the many ways, often very subtle, in which they are put together to express the thoughts and feelings of the oral traditional poets and of their traditional societies. These scholars constitute, I suggest, the "philologists," who belong perhaps to a separate branch of philology concerned with a kind of oral poetry characterized by a special technique of composition, a technique peculiar to a significant group of traditional oral poetries. It is with that kind of oral traditional poetry that Milman Parry, as a classical philologist, was engaged. The members of this third school give a specialized meaning to the adjective "oral," indicating a specific technique of composing, performing, and transmitting a traditional literary composition. Although these scholars are all intent on the text, most of them are also, however, deeply concerned with poetics and poetic structure—in short, with "quality"—as well as with understanding the traditional meaning conveyed by that particular kind of text.
In the medieval field, I find that the kind of criticism of Parry's work that looks to the Anglo-Saxon text, to speak only of Old English, can in some ways be quite productive because it is backed up by the texts themselves. These "Gauls" or philologists include, for example, Robert Creed, Donald K. Fry, and John M. Foley and such works as Daniel Donoghue's Style in Old English Poetry, an admirable study of the auxiliary in Old English, and Alain Renoir's book A Key to Old Poems, Fred Robinson's Beowulf and the Appositive Style, and Geoffrey Russom's Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory, to {189|190} name only a few. [7] In the Germanic field, Stephen A. Mitchell's Heroic Sagas and Ballads should be mentioned. [8]
Green initiates discussion of the "oral theory" with arguments drawn directly from Havelock's Preface to Plato:
In the first place, in applying their findings in Yugoslavia to the Homeric epic Parry and Lord were basing their argument, not on proof, but on an analogy whose validity has been called into question, since it lumps together two different poetic situations, one where the oral technique of a Balkan peasantry was no longer central to the culture in which they lived and one where the poetry of a Homeric governing class represented the main vehicle of significant communication in its society. [9]
I am not sure I follow Havelock's and Green's logic here. Surely it is perfectly legitimate to compare the compositional technique of one poetry with that of another. One should note first of all Havelock's and Green's unconscious (I assume) class consciousness in contrasting the "oral technique of a Balkan peasantry" and "the poetry of a Homeric governing class." I trust that Havelock in referring to "a Homeric governing class" was speaking of the audience, not the poet, because there is little, if any, evidence that Homer belonged to the "governing class," although he may have sung for them.
In his research Parry was not comparing a "peasantry" with a "governing class" but the techniques of oral narrative verse making of two separate language cultures, one ancient and the other modern. He had reason to believe that the techniques were the same, or similar, and the comparison demonstrated by means of textual experiments that both cultures exhibited the same stylistic traits that Parry believed arose from the necessity of composition in performance.
I do not know what kind of "proof" Havelock and Green were looking for. That they were really concerned with the sociologic differences of classes in the English sense is clear when later both scholars seem perfectly willing to accept the same sort of analogy from some other cultures, such as some from Africa or the Pacific Islands, where there are chieftains and kings and no mention is made of "peasants." [10] {190|191}
They forgot that the ruling class in what was Yugoslavia consisted for some five hundred years of viziers and pashas, whose courts inherited the brilliance of Byzantium. These rulers had been preceded by Serbian kings and emperors and were eventually followed by more Slavic kings and princes. The Moslem epic in South Serbia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina was, up until the end of World War I, the poetry of the governing class. The Serbian Christian poetry also was that of the governing class, first in the Middle Ages—for example, in the time of Emperor Dušan in the fourteenth century, although we have no texts from that period—and again from the nineteenth century to 1945, and perhaps to the present day, as parts of Serbia began to be liberated from the Ottomans; the Christian poetry was that of the emerging or reemerging kings and princes, who were not ousted until World War II. Both the Moslem and the Christian poetry expressed the ideals of the governing class even when out of power. Havelock and Green have been too cavalier with the facts of Balkan history and social structure.
I choose not to use the word peasant pejoratively. Avdo Međedović, an outstanding case in point, although living in humble circumstances, was a tradesman and had been a sergeant in the Turkish army, seeing service in many parts of the Balkans. He was a man of great dignity and integrity and was highly gifted with poetic sensitivity. [11]
Perhaps most important to realize is that the phrase "oral theory" with regard to the investigations into South Slavic oral epic by Parry and me is a misnomer. These findings do not constitute a "theory"; rather, they provide demonstrated facts concerning oral traditional poetry. The particular singers whom Parry described as unlettered were designated as such after careful inquiry and not by guess or hearsay. Southern Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro were chosen as places for conducting Parry's experiments because a living tradition of epic singing was still practiced there, and these regions were accessible, albeit with special effort. Where else but to a tradition continuing into modern times could a scholar go to look for clues to the nature of epics such as the Homeric poems and Beowulf, the method of whose composition is not documented and is subject to controversy?
Parry went into the field to study epics with a clear plan of operation in mind. His recording equipment was the best available and specially made for him. With two turntables, it could record the singers without losing a word {191|192} from one record to another. Besides the songs themselves, invaluable conversations with the singers were recorded, revealing the singers' own thoughts about their poems, from whom they had learned, and explanations of difficult words that appeared in their songs. Epics from the same singer were taken down first in close proximity of time and then, in my later visits, after many years had elapsed. Such experiments were important in determining the role of memory and answering questions concerning composition in performance. Sometimes it was possible to record a song as it was sung by the singer and also by the one from whom he had learned it. [12]
Substantial portions of the epics recorded by Parry have been transcribed, with meticulous attention to every syllable. Many of the epics have been published, with every possible attempt to achieve accuracy and fidelity of transmission, and they have been made available also through English translation. For scholars who are debating whether a poem from antiquity or from the Middle Ages is "oral" or "written" to disdain Parry's investigations into South Slavic epic is to reflect a narrow elitism and is nothing short of perversity. Information about the poetics of unlettered singers, the range of their ability, the structure of their lines, the themes of their songs, and the cadences of their expression, all this is surely useful and valid for comparative study.
Green continues with two questions: "Is it, with Curschmann, 'legitimate at all to apply a theory developed pragmatically in the field of a living tradition to a medieval literary production'; [13] is it justified to base a general definition of oral poetry on one tradition alone and then to force this definition on all oral poetry, no matter of what tradition?" [14] In regard to Curschman's question, I fail to see anything methodologically unsound in the proposition that the compositional style of one poetry may be compared with that of another. Is it proper to dismiss out of hand the possibility that any medieval literary work might contain traits of a style that is known to be that of an oral poetry? The answer to the second question is, of course, in the negative, but I might point out that the definition was developed in a different climate at a different time and that at that time, Parry was thinking primarily of Homer and South Slavic, although his horizons had been widening for some years before 1935. As his assistant, I used to reserve books for him in Widener, and they included W. Radloff and his central Asiatic {192|193} scholarship insofar as it was known in those days and the Finnish Kalevala, with especially the important work of Domenico Comparetti. [15]
For his second question, Green refers in his note 24 to the following passage from Jeff Opland:
One of the criticisms levelled at the comparative work of Parry and Lord, especially as applied to Anglo-Saxon studies was that … a study of contemporary Southslavic oral poetry could be of but little relevance to the study of Anglo-Saxon poetry. This attitude is partly unjustified and partly justified. It is correct that Lord erred in seeking a general definition of oral poetry based on the Yugoslavian experience. Magoun and his followers claimed to adopt from Parry a definition of an oral poet which apparently held good for all oral poets and hence for Anglo-Saxon poets, and forced this definition onto the facts of Anglo-Saxon tradition. (See, for example, Creed: 1958 and 1959; Magoun: 1955[b]; cf. Watts [1969], 195.) [16]
Thus Opland explained why he thought that the criticism was justified. Green should have included in his reference, however, the next page of Opland's book, on which Opland goes on to say:
These objections are valid up to a point, but the guslar can serve as a model for useful comparison with the Anglo-Saxon poet if the proper methodology is observed. If we are aware that what we are studying in the two cultures is an analogous phenomenon, then it is not necessary that the cultures be either similar or contemporaneous … A study of the craft of the guslar …, of his method of poetic composition and other elements of significance in his tradition, should produce a set of observations that might or might not be helpful in understanding other oral poets. The student of any one living tradition ought to find relevance in the study of any other living tradition; he will probably find some points of agreement and other points on which the two traditions differ; the earlier definition might well help him to arrive at a coherent definition of the phenomena he is observing. The student of a dead oral tradition can similarly find relevance in the study of living oral traditions. Some observations on the contemporary traditions will fit the extant facts of his dead tradition, others will not; he must pick and choose what seem to him to be illuminating points of comparison. He must never assume a one-to-one correspondence between any two traditions, an assumption that would lead him to force the facts of a living tradition onto those of a dead one. (7) {193|194}
I apologize for the long excerpts, but Opland's words here make sense, it seems to me, and I want to place his criticisms in proper perspective. [17]
Let me return to Green's article and to the second point in his reservations about the "oral theory." He wrote, "Secondly, one may question whether the oral-formulaic practice described by Parry and Lord (the poet composes his work orally, by means of formulas, in the act of performing) may be equated with oral practice at large." [18] Green then turns to "Ruth Finnegan's critique":
She reminds us that composition-in-performance is not the only kind of oral composition, that there are recorded cases where the process of composition, while still oral, can precede and be separate from the act of performance … (Finnegan, Oral Poetry, page 18) On the other hand, there is the situation, common in the Middle Ages, where a work may be composed in writing but delivered orally, so that by the criterion of performance such an example must be termed oral. [19]
The first quotation from Green found us in oralitate prima with Havelock, the second quotation brings us to oralitatem secundam, that of "literal orality," with Finnegan. Oral composition before performance is common, it would seem, in Somaliland and on some of the islands in the Pacific. [20] One should note that the examples from Somali poetry which Finnegan adduces in Oral Poetry are not epic but short occasional songs, which one could easily "make up in the head and memorize." They are not narrative and infrequently go beyond fifty lines. When speaking of memory, one should not lump together epics of thousands of lines and short songs of less than a hundred.
In her book Literacy and Orality, Finnegan cites the examples of some of the Pacific oral poetries in which composition takes place before performance {194|195} and there are fixed texts that are memorized. [21] I have looked into some of Finnegan's sources on Pacific poetry, and the adventure has been very rewarding. I have learned of some fine peoples, of talented poets, and of dedicated, courageous, and amazing collectors. There was Sir Arthur Francis Grimble, for example, who spent years in the Gilbert Islands, learned the languages needed, and collected traditions and poetry. [22] And there was also Buell Quain from Bismarck, North Dakota, who collected epic songs ("true stories") on the Fiji Islands and who learned Fiji and at the ages of twenty-three and twenty-four, wrote down and published songs and tales, [23] then died at the age of twenty-seven. He reminded me of Parry, who was killed at the age of thirty-two. And then there was Richard C. Thurnwald, who made a large collection in the Solomon Islands, which was published in Berlin in 1912. [24]
It seemed to me at first that these poems differed from written literature only in their literal orality. Thus they would fall into the second category, that of oralitatis recitatorum. I should like, however, to know much more of the details of composition, whether, for example, the phrases used are traditional. One can learn this only from a study of the texts themselves. Let me turn, for example, to Grimble, speaking of the islander's ritual preparatory to composition of a poem:
He removes himself to some lonely spot, there to avoid all contact with man or woman. He eats nothing but the flesh of coconuts, and drinks nothing but water.
For three days he thus purges his body of its vicious humours. On the fourth morning he marks out a twelve-foot square on the ground, in some place where he can get a good view of the rising sun. This is his "house of song," wherein he will sit in travail with the poem that is as yet unborn. All the next night he squats there, bolt upright, facing east, while the song quickens within him.
Dawn breaks. As the edge of the sun's disc appears over the eastern sea, the poet lifts his hands at arm's-length before him, with palms turned outwards to the rising flame:
He intones an incantation to the sun.
This incantation (age-old inheritance from his magic-loving ancestors) he repeats three times, then rinses his mouth with salt water, thereby making his {195|196} tongue "pure for song." Immediately after this ritual, he goes to his village to seek five friends. When he has found them he brings them back to his "house of song." … They make a small, acridly smoking fire in the middle of the "house." The poet sits, in such a position that the smoke may be blown upon him by the breeze, and his five friends face him in a semicircle on the other side of the fire.
Without further preamble, he begins to recite the "rough draft" of his poem, which he has ruminated over night. It is the business of his friends to interrupt, criticise, interject suggestions, applaud, or howl down, according to their taste. Very often they do howl him down, too, for they are themselves poets … They will remain without food or drink under the pitiless sun until night falls, searching for the right word, the balance, the music that will convert it into a finished work of art.
When all their wit and wisdom has been poured out upon him, they depart. He remains alone again—probably for several days—to reflect upon their advice, accept, reject, accommodate, improve, as his genius dictates. The responsibility for the completed song will be entirely his. [25]
Two comments come immediately to mind. First, although I have no quarrel with Grimble's veracity, I note a certain romantic concept of the poet and some probable exaggeration. Second, as was the case in the Somali tradition, the songs created by the poet are short. We are not speaking of models for the creating of epic songs. Third, and most important, I long to know the details of composition, the relationship of one song to another of the same genre, how much the diction is used in more than one song, and whether the style is traditional or individual. [26]
In the foregoing discussions the word tradition has occurred very seldom, except in my replies to criticism, when I have adduced occasionally the compound term oral traditional. It is at this juncture, as we consider the Pacific traditions, especially the Gilbertese songs, that the element of the "tradition" begins to loom as significant. It is important to understand that Parry's studies of Homer when he was at Berkeley and in Paris were on the traditional character of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Years ago Nagy reminded me of the significance of the diachronic element in archaic Greek poetry; he {196|197} was speaking of Hesiod particularly. [27] In some ways, the traditionality of the poetry is more pertinent than its orality, but both aspects must be understood. The point is to emphasize the diachronic character of the oral poetries concerned.
Parry's first tenet in regard to the traditionality of Homeric style was, I believe, that such a complex style could not have been invented by a single person but must have been created by a number of poets over several generations. I think this is true, for the epic at least, about the medieval vernacular poetries. It is also true, I suggest, that the poetics of that style antedated writing. Finally—and this seems to me to be the most important—the values inherent in oral traditional narratives, their "mythic" patterns, are very old, although they may have undergone changes and reinterpretations as there were changes in religion or social structure. Here I find myself in agreement with Havelocks' concept of the function, or functions, of oral traditional literature when he wrote, "Literate societies [conserve their mores] by documentation; pre-literate ones achieve the same result by the composition of poetic narratives which serve also as encyclopedias of conduct … and as continually recited constitute a report—a reaffirmation—of the communal ethos and also a recommendation to abide by it." [28]
Finally, Green continues to his third and last point: [29]
This brings me, thirdly, to the theory's rejection of memorizing as the basis of performance (as opposed to extemporizing composition-in-performance). This is at variance with isolated references to a memorial tradition in Germanic sources [30] and Alan Jabbour's suggestion that ballad tradition in northern Europe might be more relevant than Yugoslav practice, [31] but more particularly with evidence from further afield, showing poetry composed before performance in a fixed, memorized form. [32] Confronted by this evidence, Lord said that such examples "may not be oral composition, but rather written composition without writing"—in this phrasing we may detect, I think, a desperate attempt to save the appearances of the theory by dismissing what does not conform to it. That the awkward evidence, coming from the Pacific islands, is not so remote as to be irrelevant is suggested by a case from medieval Europe, for whereas Cædmon constituted Magoun's case for oral-formulaic composition, {197|198} Donald K. Fry has used the same example to suggest prior composition and memorization as an alternative to improvisation. [33]
Perhaps this was intended to be the coup de grace, but I am sorry to disappoint D. H. Green. I do not feel at all desperate about the "oral theory" and never have. Occasionally I have felt a bit exasperated that my attempts to elucidate it have not been understood.
With regard to Finnegan's statements, supported as we have seen by Grimble, [34] concerning prior composition and memorized performance of poetry in the Pacific Islands, I do not deny the evidence. In my paradoxical description of such poetry as "written composition without writing," I was attempting to emphasize that the prolonged and to a very high degree premeditated nature of such composition and the strenuous efforts to transmit it to others by rote memorization resemble more closely a written than an oral mentality. To my mind, such poetry would appear to be "oral" mainly in its performance.
The "isolated references to memorial tradition in Germanic sources," namely, papers by Lars Lönnroth and by Joseph Harris on Eddic poetry and Alan Jabbour's 1969 article on memorial transmission in Old English poetry are to be reckoned with. Jabbour begins with a useful summary of the "oral theory" and the attitudes toward composition engendered by it. He focuses on the distinction between "primarily improvisational" and "primarily memorial" transmission, concluding that the South Slavic belongs in the first category and Old English, together with the English ballads, in the second. I have responded at some length to Jabbour's arguments in the previous chapter. [35] {198|199}
Let me turn finally to Green's last instance. Cædmon's Hymn is demonstrably formulaic. He was inspired to compose it after he excused himself from the postprandial group entertainment. He had his vision after he went out to the barn and fell asleep. That he kept it in memory is clear from Bede's account, because the next day the steward brought him to Abbess Hild, to whom he recited the nine verses. [36] It is credible that short songs can be composed in the formulaic style and memorized. After all, even I can remember nine lines.
It was not the formulaic style, however, that was noteworthy in Cædmon's Hymn but the new subject matter. [37] The legend about his inspiration is a version of the same kind of legend found in the Near East—in Turkey, for instance—and on the Pacific Islands, as we have just seen. The legends in those cases also had to do with the contents of poems.
A similar phenomenon occurs in the case of several of the songs composed in the traditional formulaic style by two of Karadžić's singers, Tešan Podrugović and Filip Višnjić. Under the influence of the monastery at Sišatovac they were told about some of the church legends and made songs of them, songs that were a new kind of creation: the formulaic style was the same, but the subjects were not the traditional ones. Thus, alongside Podrugović's traditional songs such as "Marko Kraljević and Musa Arbanasa" and "Marko Kraljević and Ðemo Brđanin," we find a religious legend, Nahod Simeun, "The Foundling Simeun." Filip Višnjić gave Karadžić two religious songs, such as Sveti Sava, "Saint Sava," and a version of Smrt Marka Kraljevića, "The Death of Marko Kraljević," which contained clear reference to church legend. In the last, for instance, the dead Marko is found by Vaso, a monk from the Serbian monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos, which was given by the Byzantine emperor in 1189 to Simeon and Sava Nemanja, the founders of the illustrious Nemanjić dynasty. Vaso and his deacon take Marko's body to Hilandar, where it is entombed. This element is found only in the version by Višnjić and those texts derived from it. Interestingly enough, other versions, including one in the Parry collection, tell of a monk discovering the body of Marko; the monk is not from Mount Athos, however, but from the church at Samodreže, an establishment found only in the traditional poetry, which scholars have not been able to locate either historically or geographically.
The parallel between the phenomenon of these two singers, Tesan Podrugović {199|200} and especially Filip Višnjić, and that of Cædmon is striking. The Serbian Orthodox Church was having a revival in the late eighteenth century and during the nineteenth. A significant sociologic change was taking place in the nineteenth century, and the old traditional Serbian epic was being adapted to the new circumstances. In Cædmon's time, a great religious change was taking place and the traditional songs were being adapted to the new religion. In both cases, traditional poets were using the oral traditional formulaic style in which they were already expert.
Presumably both Podrugović and Višnjić were dictating line by line to Karadžić, or possibly to the archimandrite Mušicki. Their performances were those of dictating—a kind of performance, by the way, of which not nearly enough has been written in detail. They may have, and probably did, think about the songs beforehand, just as extempore speakers usually think of what they are going to say before they rise to their feet, although they may not have put it into fixed words until the moment of performance, as it were. I suspect that we shall never know whether Cædmon fixed his nine lines in his mind—in other words, memorized them—before he performed them for his fellows, or expressed his well-thought-out ideas in the traditional style when at last his turn came to sing. In the first case, he was a memorizer of nine lines of oral traditional formulaic poetry; in the second, he was composing in performance.
Clearly the question of memorizing belongs as much in the land of the Aquitanians, because it is part and parcel of the separation of composition and performance, as in that of the philologists.
Let me begin a kind of summation with some considerations not raised by Green but often brought up. Early on, the tests for orality—(1) by formula density, (2) by thematic composition, and (3) by the presence of unperiodic enjambment—caused difficulty and misunderstanding. A fourth idea that belongs perhaps in the same category is that of thrift. This concept stems from Parry's Homeric studies and has been recently questioned by David Shive. [38]
The definitions of formula and theme have been much debated, and still are. Parry's definition of the formula was general enough that it could be easily adapted to the metrical requirements of any given cultural tradition. Fry's adaptations of the definitions of both it and the theme furnish a fine, if somewhat cumbersome, example. It is necessary to differentiate between a repetition and the formula: all formulas are repetitions by definition, that is, they are "regularly used"; but not all repetitions are formulas. This differentiation {200|201} is often neglected. Larry Benson questioned the test of formula density in respect to Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry. I have only recently come to realize, after comparing the style of the Russian byliny with that of Beowulf they both use tonic rather than syllabic metrics—that, because of the alliterative technique, we cannot expect an accurate assessment of formulas without a larger body of poetry available than there is in Anglo-Saxon. [39]
I consider the theme as a repeated passagenot a repeated subject—within the songs or poetry of a given individual, thus constraining it not only to a single poet but also to a more or less stable set of words. It is demonstrable that it exists as an entity that can be employed in the poetry whenever its subject is pertinent to the song at hand.
Something more has been made of unperiodic enjambment than it really deserves, I fear, but it is true that there is a decided tendency in the oral traditional poetic narratives with which I am acquainted to enclose an idea of sentence length—if that is the way to put it—within a line and not to run it over to the next. It is a tendency more noticeable in some traditions than in others. The Homeric poems contain run-on lines, but the unperiodic relationship between the first and the second lines of the Iliad is what Parry had in mind. The South Slavic poetry follows this concept fairly well, but Anglo-Saxon poetry, with its frequent cases of a sentence beginning in the b-verse, does not. The presence or absence of unperiodic enjambment is more a rule of thumb than a conclusive test.
A word on thrift: It is certainly a Homeric phenomenon but I am not sure that it has been properly investigated in medieval epic. One has to confine the test to songs or poems by a single person in order to arrive at reliable results, and such material is not readily available in medieval literature.
It seems to me that those difficulties came to be ignored by scholars, either because they were understood and taken for granted or, more likely, because they were not considered significant. In their place, as it were, the concept of composition in performance became most troublesome to both classicists and medievalists, because it was equated with extempore improvisation, which I have discussed above.
My insistence in The Singer of Tales that there is no such thing as a transitional text presented a difficulty for the medievalist. Associated with the idea of the transitional text is the dictum that a singer who learns to read or write loses the ability to compose orally. In Chapter 4, [40] I have addressed this matter, and to it I return again in Chapter 10. {201|202}
Let me end this chapter not with criticism but with a positive statement, a creed, as it were. Literature, in the sense of the artistic use of words, began without writing and was already highly developed when writing was invented or introduced into a given society. The style created by many practitioners over several generations persisted long after writing came in. Only gradually, and under influences outside the traditional milieu and people, was the oral traditional style modified by conscious breaking with tradition and movement in the direction of conscious originality and nontraditional choice of words and constructions. It was easier to change subject matter than to change style, to adapt old words to new contexts, as did Cædmon in Old English, moving from pagan to Christian themes but preserving the old style.
The subject matter of the narrative poetry, its stories, originated, in the case of the epic, in myth, whence came its aura of the numinous, its atmosphere of the sacred in the broadest sense of the term. It is the nature of traditional literature to conserve old meanings even under heavy disguise placed on them through intermittent reinterpretation. It is, in my view, essential to know the relationship of any given text to the tradition so that one may be justified in discovering in it the latent traditional meanings, their vestiges or echoes, and thus rightly to read it with full understanding. Moreover, on the level of aesthetics, one needs to know whether a text is oral traditional or not in order correctly to apply the criteria of referentiality. [41] There is a difference between oral traditional poetics and written poetics, and one must know with what kind of poetry one is dealing in order correctly to appreciate its aesthetics and to describe and edit its texts.


[ back ] * This chapter, with certain alterations, was originally presented as a lecture before the Medieval Seminar at Harvard's Humanities Center in the fall of 1990.
[ back ] 1. Green, 1990.
[ back ] 2. After introducing the subject of "orality," Green made some very generous remarks on my contribution to the field: "If we now talk of the interplay between oral and written at all this is only because Lord first systematically drew our attention to an oral dimension which a discipline based on written texts was prone to forget. The debt must be borne in mind if I now mention some reservations about the theory and its applicability and question whether its concentration on orality alone does justice to the symbiosis of oral and written in medieval society" (ibid., 270). I am truly grateful for his courtesy.
[ back ] 3. McLuhan, 1962; Havelock, 1963, 1978, and 1986; Bäuml and Spielmann, 1975; Ong, 1982; Goody and Watt, 1963; Goody, 1977; Stock, 1983 and 1989.
[ back ] 4. The passage from Juvenal's first Satire referred to in the epigraph is Satire 1.1-14: [ back ] Semper ego auditor tantum? numquamne reponam [ back ] vexatus totiens rauci Theseide Cordi? … [ back ] Frontonis platani conuolsaque marmora clamant [ back ] semper et adsiduo ruptae lectore columnae [ back ] expectes eadem a summo minimoque poeta. [ back ] "What? Am I to be a listener only all my days? Am I never to get my word in—I that have been so often bored by the Theseid of the ranting Cordus? … these are the themes with which Fronto's plane trees and marble halls are forever ringing until the pillars quiver and quake under the continual recitations; such is the kind of stuff you may look for from every poet, greatest or least." (Text from Clausen, 1959; translation by Ramsay, 1924.)
[ back ] 5. For Latin text, see Lindsay, 1929, 1.38.
[ back ] 6. Finnegan, 1970, 1976, 1977, and 1988.
[ back ] 7. E.g., Creed, 1959 and 1962; Fry, 1967a, 1967b, 1968a, 1968b, and 1975; Foley, 1976, 1985, and 1990; Donoghue, 1987; Renoir, 1988; Robinson, 1985; and Russom 1978 and 1987a.
[ back ] 8. Mitchell, 1991.
[ back ] 9. Green, 1990, 270 = Havelock, 1963, 93-94.
[ back ] 10. See Havelock, 1978: "The analogues [to Homer] would lie if anywhere in the epics recoverable from African or Polynesian societies if uncontaminated by documentation. Yet the analogues are necessarily imperfect; the societies which have yielded such pure specimens of orality appear to be relatively simple in structure compared with the Greek" (10). See also Green, 1990, 271.
[ back ] 11. See "Avdo Međedović, Guslar," in A. Lord, 1991, 57-71.
[ back ] 12. For my account of the Parry collection and Parry's methods of field collecting, see Parry, 1954, "General Introduction," 3-20.
[ back ] 13. Curschmann, 1977, esp. 64.
[ back ] 14. Green, 1990, 270.
[ back ] 15. Radloff, 1885; Comparetti, 1898.
[ back ] 16. Opland, 1980, 6.
[ back ] 17. The reference to the opinion of Opland on the subject of the definition of oral poetry, while quite correct, is not without a touch of irony. At one time, Opland was worried because he thought that Parry's definition of oral poetry did not fit the praise songs in South Africa, and he was afraid that they might be excluded. He did not then believe that they were "improvised." Later he discovered that some of them were "improvised," rather than memorized, and that he did not have to worry on that score.
[ back ] 18. I have omitted the following sentence: "I leave on one side the logical error, sufficiently stressed by others, of suggesting that because all oral poetry is formulaic, therefore all formulaic poetry is oral (Claes Schaar, "On a New Theory of Old English Poetic Diction," Neuphilologus 40, 1956, 301-5) and turn instead to Ruth Finnegan's critique."
[ back ] 19. Green, 1990, 270-71.
[ back ] 20. Beyond the remarks of Finnegan one can learn much about the Somali songs from Andrzejewski and Lewis, 1964. One should also see the volumes by Enrico Cerulli, 1957-64, devoted to the Somalis.
[ back ] 21. Finnegan, 1988.
[ back ] 22. Grimble, 1957.
[ back ] 23. Quain, 1942.
[ back ] 24. Thurnwald, 1912; see also 1936.
[ back ] 25. Grimble, 1957, 204-5.
[ back ] 26. [Stephen A. Mitchell has observed that Grimble's description of poetic composition in the Gilberts is remarkably similar to the Germanic situation, especially to the detailed description we have of a poet at work, namely, of Egill Skallagrímsson visiting the court of Eiríkr Blood-Axe in York in the tenth century. The similarity is in respect to the notion of composition and apparent memorization before the declamation and to the fact that, in both cases, relatively short, nonnarrative genres are involved. For a discussion of Cædmon's Hymn in this context, see below, after n. 35.]
[ back ] 27. Nagy, 1982.
[ back ] 28. Havelock, 1978, 4.
[ back ] 29. Green, 1990, 271
[ back ] 30. Lönnroth, 1971; Harris, 1983.
[ back ] 31. Jabbour, 1969.
[ back ] 32. Finnegan, 1988, 86-109.
[ back ] 33. Fry, 1975.
[ back ] 34. To the passage from Grimble, 1957, quoted by Finnegan, 1988, 96-97, I add the following: "The islander is a consummate poet. His songs … are clear-cut gems of diction, polished and repolished with loving care, according to the canons of a technique as exacting as it is beautiful … This island poet thrilled as subtly as our own to the exquisite value of words, labouring as patiently after the perfect epithet. As a result his songs are literature, though they remained from the beginning unwritten" (Grimble, 1957, 200).
[ back ] 35. For my discussion of Jabbour, see Chap. 7, at n. 13. [In his lecture on which the present chapter is based, Lord did not respond to Green's reference to Lönnroth and Harris. Concerning Lönnroth, Stephen A. Mitchell kindly informs me that it should be noted that his early views, as expressed in his 1971 article—in which, incidentally, he already acknowledged the importance of "the oral-formulaic theory" for explaining "certain features of Eddic composition" (3)—seasoned considerably as he came increasingly to appreciate the theoretical ramifications of Parry's and Lord's findings for the Old Norse situation. In particular, his publications of 1976, 1979, and 1981 make clear that whatever his early reservations, Lönnroth found that a full understanding of the Icelandic materials without reference to their oral nature was an impossibility. See also Mitchell, 1987. With regard to Harris's work on Eddic literature, it is helpful to consider the survey in Mitchell, 1991, 92-103, of the Old Norse prosimetrical fornaldarsogur in particular, and other sagas in general. He discusses what is, for Norse culture, the transitional thirteenth century, when a true court culture and attendant written literature develop. But, he states, they do so in addition to, rather than as a replacement for, traditional oral narration.
[ back ] 36. [The mention of these last details is owed to the kindness of Daniel Donoghue.]
[ back ] 37. [A. Lord, 1993. For a well-rounded article on Cædmon's Hymn, see Morland, 1992.]
[ back ] 38. Shive, 1987. [See, however, Martin, 1989, 2, and n. 3; also Riggsby, 1992.]
[ back ] 39. [Lord, 1992.]
[ back ] 40. See Chapter 4 after n. 19.
[ back ] 41. For an example of unwarranted and excessive editing of oral texts according to "literary" standards, see the discussion in Chapter 1, after n. 21, of the changes made by Marjanović in texts that he had collected.