The Singer Resumes the Tale

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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.

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 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.

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.

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?

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.

For his second question, Green refers in his note 24 to the following passage from Jeff Opland:

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. [

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.

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. [

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.


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.

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.


[ 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.