The Singer Resumes the Tale

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Lord Resumes Frontispiece This is Albert B. Lord’s book. It is not quite the same book that would have resulted had he lived to crown it with his finishing touches, but it comes as close to that book as I could help to make it. He had completed almost all the chapters, to which I have added two, “Beowulf and Oral Epic Tradition” and “Rebuttal,” which consist of unpublished lectures that he had recently delivered. It is appropriate, I believe, to incorporate into his book these lectures, and parts of lectures, as in “The Formula in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” “The Ballad: Textual Stability, Variation, and Memorization” and “The Transitional Text”; for he considered them as preparation for the work that he long intended as a sequel to The Singer of Tales. What little is mine in The Singer Resumes the Tale is easily distinguished by being set off by square brackets. The sections with the label “Editor’s Addendum” are an attempt to fill in what my husband would have treated much more gracefully and perceptively had he been able to do so. Notes pertaining to publications dating after his death in 1991 have also been placed in brackets.

The Singer Resumes the Tale, as will be readily apparent, includes many citations from the various kinds of poetry discussed throughout the volume. It had to be thus; for Albert Lord believed firmly in literary criticism based closely upon the text. He was wary of theories and analyses that hover high in the stratosphere without ever descending to the terra firma of the poet’s own words. He also was skeptical of abstruse, verbose, and unnecessarily complex critical terminology. The more direct the definition, the better.

Portions of this book will sound familiar, as they continue arguments begun in The Singer of Tales, in subsequent articles, and in Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. If they seem in any way repetitious, they illustrate my husband’s {xi|xii} belief that repetition in oral tradition is always significant! Such repetition reveals an underlying and vital message that is further developed here. The present volume advances and redefines two important topics broached in The Singer of Tales, namely, “the theme” and “the transitional text.” The phenomenon of “blocks of lines,” intermediate between the formula and the theme, also receives attention and ample illustration. The theme is examined in Homer, in Beowulf, and in Russian byliny and Latvian dainas as well as in the South Slavic heroic epic of Avdo Međedović and in the “Women’s Songs.” New to this book are the chapters on traditional lyrical poetry and on the ballad. The “transitional text” is the subject of the last chapter, but, as the concluding paragraphs indicate, the term, transitional does not describe the poetry, epic and lyric, that forms the basis of the book.

Many years ago a reader of one of the first articles submitted by my husband for publication recommended that it contain “more Parry and less thrust!” Throughout his career Albert Lord adhered to that advice all too steadfastly, even when friends strongly urged that he respond to his critics. For the most part, instead of answering attacks on the Parry-Lord approach to oral poetics, he resolutely proceeded to “cultivate his garden.” Recently, however, he ventured a few “thrusts.” By allowing them a place in this book, I hope that I am being faithful to the memory both of Milman Parry and of Albert Lord.

My husband deliberately emphasized the present tense “resumes” for the title of this book. No matter how many texts he collected, transcribed, translated, and studied, the “song” is far from having run its course. Its words and rhythms must ever be made to reverberate by friends of oral traditional poetry, both by those known and revered by Albert Lord and by those many scholars unknown to him but nonetheless to be esteemed for their contributions to this discipline.

The Singer Resumes the Tale would never have seen the light of day without the enthusiastic help of Gregory Nagy, who has given this book a place in his series, “Myth and Poetics,” and who has constantly provided encouragement and advice. My profound thanks for his guidance and friendship. I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Harvard Department of the Classics, through the kindness of Richard J. Tarrant and Zeph Stewart, in providing a subsidy from the Loeb Publication Fund for the preparation of the manuscript. The keyboarding of the book has been in the capable hands of Pamela Marshall.

I owe a very special debt to many of Albert’s colleagues for supplying information on substantive matters occasioned by the several languages involved in the book. David E. Bynumhas been a constant and ever-ready {xii|xiii} resource for the South Slavic texts and has checked them with a discerning eye. From his abundant knowledge of this poetry, he has contributed greatly to the present volume. Thomas J. Butler also has been an invaluable help in this regard and has generously assisted in the solution of a number of problems. Horace Lunt’s advice on several linguistic matters is much appreciated.

I am most grateful to Daniel Donoghue, who faithfully read through and improved the portions dealing with Anglo-Saxon poetry. John M. Foley has also provided helpful advice on the chapters dealing with Old English. Vladimir Alexandrov has kindly aided with the passages in Russian, and Kristine Konrad and Morris Halle have assisted with the Latvian dainas. I am greatly indebted to Stephen A. Mitchell for his interest in this book and for his many fine suggestions with regard to Germanic poetry. Richard Janko and Jan Ziolkowski deserve especially warm mention for reading and commenting on several parts of the book.

Marshall Poe, teaching fellow in the Department of History at Harvard, and Claire Waters, an advanced undergraduate student, have been intrepid scouts, combing the stacks and scanning the catalogs of Widener Library. Matthew Kay and Russell Martin have also been loyally at hand. My heartfelt thanks to one and all for their devotion to the memory of Albert Lord and to the principles that guided his research.

Cornell University Press and especially Bernhard Kendler have been wonderfully responsive and friendly in their reception of this book. Elizabeth Hohnes and Janet Mais have resourcefully coped with the abundant problems occasioned by citations in several languages, some of them not normally encountered in everyday American usage. No detail has been too slight for their careful attention. I thank them for their patience and their steady guidance.

In the Editor’s Preface to Volume 1 of Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs, Albert Lord dedicated the books in the series to the living voices of Milman Parry, the scholar and collector, to his assistant, Nikola Vujnović, and to the South Slavic singers themselves. In carrying forward their work, Albert Lord’s voice is also still living and keeps the song resounding.

Mary Louise Lord
Cambridge, Massachusetts

For Nathan and Mark


[ back ] * Avdo Međedović, the singer, and Albert Lord at Avdo’s house at Obrov, 1951. Photo by Mary Louise Lord.