BMCR 1996.01.09

1996.1.9, Lord, The Singer Resumes the Tale

, , The singer resumes the tale. Myth and poetics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995. xiii, 258 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780801431036. $39.95 (pb).

Lord was not like other scholars. By the time of his death in July 1991, he had attracted to himself almost a cult of devotees. I recently attended the 4th annual Albert Bates Lord Conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, whose participants were mostly scholars who had known Albert Lord in the flesh, and his presence dominated the conference. Most were Slavicists, unknown to classicists, but whose research was guided by what we might call the teachings of Parry/Lord. But the mystery of the greatness of A. B. Lord will always be bound with the mystery of the poet Homer, whose very old stories of war and home have fascinated the whole world. More than any other, except for his master Milman Parry, A. B. Lord elucidated just how such poems came into being. A. B. Lord’s The Singer of Tales (1960) presented an epoch-making model for Homeric composition based on the greatest collection of oral songs ever made in the field. I should think that The Singer of Tales is the most influential book published in Classics in this century. L.’s model has endured sustained and sometimes angry attack, but remains today intact.

L.’s posthumous The Singer Resumes the Tale, written in precise and admirable prose, was intended to be a sequel to The Singer of Tales, but contains additional material based on his papers. The whole is expertly and lovingly edited by his wife Mary Louise Lord and handsomely published in Gregory Nagy’s Myth and Poetics Series from Cornell. The two principal topics are “the theme,” a technique of composition and one of the proofs that Homer composed orally; and “the transitional text,” a bugbear in oral studies. For the first time, L. also discusses lyric poetry and the ballad.

Chapter 1, “The Nature and Kinds of Oral Literature,” begins with definitions. Before writing, there is “oral literature”; generic distinctions appear only after writing. “Oral literature” appears to be a contradiction in terms, but by “literature” we mean words crafted artfully. We have, then, singers and listeners, but nothing in writing. “Oral performance” takes place in a “traditional” context, where the singer knows his listeners and they know him. Some are themselves singers and they have heard him before. According to L.’s South-Slavic experience, performance may take place in a house in a village where neighbors gather. Feasts and weddings also offer opportunities for oral song, as do coffee shops. But always singer and listeners share a tight communal life: such is “traditional performance,” so that “oral” and “traditional” are not interchangeable terms, the origin of a good deal of confusion in the literature. We classicists will envision parallel conditions, mutatis mutandis, for the Greek Iron Age, and in fact Homer’s own descriptions place oral performance in similar contexts.

When applied to song, “tradition” means all the performances of all the songs the singer ever sang or the listener ever heard. It is wrong to say that Homer “made use of his tradition,” because he was in the tradition, a part of it. Though traditions of song begin who knows when, and go on forever so long are there as singers and listeners, they change constantly. Singers (not scribes) and their listeners preserve the tradition.

“Traditionality” consists of several elements: (1) the place in a social order for story telling; (2) the art of composing songs in a special language with “formulas”; (3) traditional content, story patterns and the like; here L. also includes such nonnarrative genres as lyric (but is this content?); (4) specific songs, such as Marko Kraljevic and Musa the Highwayman, which have no original version but consist of the sum of all their variants; (5) oral poetics, standards for judging achievement, for not all songs are equally complex or skillful.

L.’s category (2), the art of composing, which includes formulas and themes, has been the subject of enormous work in oral studies. L. emphasizes that formulas and themes exist as aids to composition in performance; that is why they are there. “Formulas do not exist to make memorization easier, but rather they make memorization unnecessary” (11).

If a song has no fixed text, what, then, does the singer remember? He remembers the story, what happened next. The common pattern (a) absence, (b) devastation, (c) arrival or return, (d) restoration of order can be found in many oral tales, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, but for the singer, unlike ourselves, such patterns are never separable from the story itself. Such patterns may depend on mythic prototypes and in any event arouse deep-seated human sympathies.

Thus traditional epic entertains through appeal to the serious concerns of the listeners (even as today, I think, powerful cinema affirms deep moral preoccupations). For L., myth comes first, patterns of death and rebirth, and history comes second, an Achaean expedition against Troy. Myth is the subject, really, and history is the background, a distinction that many students of Homer seem unable to learn. There are secular patterns too, for example, the feud in medieval Irish legend.

Lyric and ritual songs offer other “subject matter” for oral nonepic song: when a lover asks a series of riddles, or lovers bewail the coming of day.

L.’s category (5), the poetics of oral literature, presupposes that oral literature not only changes, but evolves. Once songs were simple, then they became complex through the achievement of singers of distinction over the generations. Much of what we admire in Homer will depend on this evolution: his elaborate descriptions of objects and scenes, organization through ring composition and chiasmus, and such rhetorical tropes as anaphora. Homer’s predecessors have invented these devices, not Homer, and they have been passed on and elaborated still further because they enhanced the power of performance. All such traditional devices were passed on to written literature eventually, but they did not originate there.

But the poetics of oral and written literature soon diverge; written literature, for example, eschews close verbal repetition as inelegant, while oral poetics enjoys repetition. Such differences have suggested to scholars that the artistry of oral literature is less than that of written literature, but such prejudgments cannot withstand scrutiny (what literate poet ever surpassed Homer?). An important issue (rarely taken into account by Homerists) is the editorial reshaping of an oral text once it is written down to make it look more like a written text. A good example is found in the collection of Luka Marjanovich in the 19th century, who in editing written versions of oral South Slavic texts omitted lines or blocks of lines, adjusted the meter, removed repetitions and combined two lines into one. Homer’s texts must have undergone just such editing, placing us in an awkward position when evaluating his poetics on the basis of the Alexandrian vulgate.

Chapter 2, “Oral Traditional Lyric Poetry,” turns to the composition and transmission of oral traditional nonnarrative songs. Here, if anywhere, we should find evidence that verbatim repetition of oral songs actually does take place, for lyric poems are short enough to be remembered verbatim and the ritual context in which often they are performed might encourage such repetition. For a case study, L. turns to the Latvian dainas, quatrains sung during work and festival, to show how, though very short, there are nonetheless innumerable multiforms of any one song. Serbo-Croatian lyric women’s songs in the Milman Parry Collection at Harvard offer similar patterns of variability. Parry’s collection is superior not only in quantity and breadth, but because he and L. took down the same song several times from the same singer. Here L. examines in detail riddling and boasting songs to show how the singer works with blocks of lines intermediate between the formula and the theme. He shows how there is a stable but not fixed core of lines to which additions can be made. The concept of a memorized text simply cannot explain such multiforms, which appear to issue from the same technique of composition-in-performance that produces oral epic verse.

In an addendum, Mary Louise Lord gathers remarks by Parry and others about ancient Greek lyric and epic which support the thesis that Greek lyric and elegy were created in the same way as Latvian dainas and Serbo-Croatian women’s songs—that is, as multiforms without the aid of writing (but at some point, of course, were written down). I only wish she had faced the problem that Greek lyric and elegy are by Alcaeus, Sappho, and Solon, while the songs L. studies are anonymous and never written down by those who sang them. Did Alcaeus write down his own songs? If so, why? Did Solon compose in writing, or orally to dictation, or compose orally then write down his own words? Or did different poets behave in different ways? In my own mind, such questions remain.

In Chapter 3 “Homer and the Muses: Oral Traditional Poetics, a Mythic Episode, and Arming Scenes in the Iliad,” L. faces the criticism, once much heard, that Homer’s oral style precludes an appreciation of aesthetics in his poems. L.’s kicking-boy is Paolo Vivante, who seems to have thought that Homer was Wallace Stevens and in The Epithets of Homer (1982) applied to Homer a myopic vision of the nature of poetry. Vivante is something of a straw-horse, for his book was never taken seriously, but his sentimental attitudes are an extreme form of an initial response to Parry: that formulas are cogs and machines are not beautiful (and build themselves, no doubt). Vivante even denied mythical patterns to the Iliad, and L. wonders what about the war of the gods, then, well known from Mesopotamian myth, and what about the mythic almost-death of the hero, a pattern in South Slavic oral song too.

As for language, Homer’s was like what we speak, though metrical; yet who would deny verbal creativity to a speaker of English, just because he must observe rules of grammar and employ a common vocabulary? The modern poet, by contrast, attempts to create an individualistic language, seeking new ways of thinking and new ways of saying things. Such forms of poetic communication were unknown in Homer’s day (and depend on writing), and to ignore this fact is to remain muddled about Homer’s poetic achievement.

L. presents a close reading of the four arming scenes in the Iliad to show how Homer has skillfully altered a type-scene to enhance the present drama. His discussion, which contains some earlier published material, is a locus for understanding the flexibility of the oral style and the creativity of a traditional poet working with traditional material. Through such comparison we can understand the aesthetics of Homeric composition.

L. was not a classicist, but a comparatist, and his scholarship was built on mastery of unrelated but parallel traditions. In Chapter 4 “Beowulf and Oral Tradition,” L. describes how in the Old English tradition meter was tonic, not syllabic like the Greek, employed alliteration and formulas, and used blocks of lines and repeated themes to build the narrative: such blocks and themes were not “memorized,” but “remembered.” Presumably, L. argues, such texts were dictated (as were the Homeric poems), and he criticizes sharply scholars who have misunderstood what L. and Parry meant by “improvisation,” that is, composition in performance. There’s déjà vu here, but medievalists naturally think in terms of texts composed in writing, as well they might, and L.’s discussion illuminates how Parry’s theories apply to an oral tradition different in its mechanics from the Greek.

So how did Beowulf come into existence? L. flirts with the notion that the Beowulf poet, under the influence of reading Virgilian epic in a monastic environment, might himself have recorded the poem; the thesis would satisfy those medievalists who admire the poem’s artistry, on the assumption that oral poems are artless. The issue touches on the hard fought question of the “transitional text,” to which L. will later return. In any event, Beowulf is built on an ancient and powerful mythic pattern, the monster-slayer, according to our expectation that oral compositions not only entertain, but inculcate deeply held values and concerns. L. shows how this primordial pattern incorporated parallel Judeo-Christian traditions about the creation and threats to It, for oral poetics loves repetition as a way of driving home a point. In a fine editor’s addendum, MLL rejects attempts to prove or disprove the oral origin of medieval English poetry through examination of the orthography of early manuscripts, when poems known to be oral and those know to be written share the same conventions. Stylistic analysis remains our best guide to deciding on a poem’s orality.

Chapter 5, “The Formula in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” explores features of oral-traditional style in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poetry. L. enters the controversy about formula-density in such poetry, which leads to the controversy about the nature of “formula,” “formulaic expressions,” and “systems” of formulas. L. defends Parry’s words, “an expression regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express an essential idea,” and shows how this definition of formula works for Anglo-Saxon poetry. So much blood has been spilled, but L.’s chapter reminds me of the critical importance of establishing clear definitions as a first step in drawing historical conclusions. We are arguing over definitions—what is oral poetry? what is a formula?—because we classicists want to know what kind of poet Homer really was.

Chapter 6, “The Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” turns now to the theme, for important scholars have denied that the theme, “a repeated passage with a fair amount of verbal repetition,” exists in Anglo-Saxon poetry. L. agrees that such repetition does not work in the way it does in Homeric poetry, but that it does occur, identifiable through elements of single words or lexical units.

Oral theory has concentrated on epic, but what about the shorter forms, ballad and lyric? L. already considered lyric (Chapter 2), but examines ballad in Chapter 7, “The Ballad: Textual Stability, Variation, and Memorization.” Placing side by side different versions of “Barbara Allen,” L. shows how the unit of composition is the couplet, which comes and goes and shifts around very much as do Homeric formulas. L. considers South Slavic examples, too, and concludes that there is no fixed text of a ballad even for a single singer. While singers recognize that a song has a recognizable “text,” so that when you say “Please sing ‘Barbara Allen,'” that means something (L. calls this a “sense of texuality”), still there is no fixed text and, contra the influential views of some English scholars, no rote memorization.

Chapter 8, “Rebuttal,” addresses specific complaints and misunderstandings. To straighten the muddle, L. distinguishes three “schools” of approach to oral theory. The first is the “philosophical,” concerned with illiterate and preliterate societies and the “oral mind” (e.g., E. Havelock, J. Goody). The second school means by “oral” nonwritten, so that if someone memorizes Vergil (or a written copy of Homer), he is an “oral poet” (e.g., Ruth Finnegan). The third school consists of those who examine with great care the words and groups of words, the actual texts, of oral poems, to see how they were put together. These are the philologists, like Parry and L. himself, intensely concerned with poetic quality and the understanding of traditional meaning. Such distinctions need always to be kept in mind in discussing “oral theory,” a phrase which L. thinks a misnomer. Parry’s descriptions do not constitute a theory as such, but are conclusions based on fact and not on supposition or plausibility.

With such distinction in mind, L. places various critics in this or that camp and shows how their views and misunderstanding derive from unspoken points of view. Of great interest is L.’s demonstration that rhyme does not assist memorization, but actually interferes with it.

In Chapter 9, “Two Versions of the Theme of the Overnight Visit in The Wedding of Smailagic Meho,” L. set out to show the range of variation in the presentation of a single theme within a single work, how the oral singer can produce long or short versions of song as the narrative commands.

Chapter 10, “The Transitional Text,” faces one of the thorniest problems in oral studies. We must always deal with written texts in attempting to understand the past, but how can we tell which were composed in writing and which were composed orally? In earlier writings, especially The Singer of Tales, L. denied the transitional text: the poem is sung and taken down by dictation, or it is composed in writing from the start, one or the other. On the one hand you have a fluid tradition; on the other you have a fixed text and the concept of the fixed text. But here L. retreats from his earlier position and admits that we can speak meaningfully of transitional texts.

We must deal, first, with the problem of editorial adaptation of oral material, for example Italo Calvino’s retelling of Italian folktales, sometimes called a “transitional text,” but of course without verse or formulas. Calvino translated these stories into standard Italian from dialectal versions taken from story-tellers. We might, then, expect a “transitional text” to be a doctored text, whose style and expression has been altered according to a literate editor’s fancies about what is crude or appropriate. Oral poetics are different from written (surely it is depressing to read in very modern commentaries how this or that line of Homer is “inelegant,” “crudely constructed,” or “unworthy of the poet”). The Grimms, whose Hausmärchen might also be called “transitional,” altered the original style still more than Calvino did and created the genre of the literary “folktale.” In a similar way, in Old English poems translated from the Latin, poetics derived from oral English epic shape the expression. Still, when you subject such poems to rigorous examination, the evidently oral style begins to look mechanical, as if composed by an amateur in the art of oral verse making.

In coming to grips with the issue of the transitional text, you must distinguish between two classes, insiders and outsiders. The first are the traditional group, including the oral poets; the second class falls into three subcategories: (a) collector/editors, (b) retellers, (c) and imitators. To (a) first belong Calvino and Parry. Retellers and imitators, if they use traditional material may, however, create poems that closely resemble oral poems, and can be hard to distinguish from them. L. gives three examples from the South Slavic tradition, whose poems would appear to be truly “transitional.” In one example, the poet began as an oral traditional singer, became literate and wrote songs imitating oral style, then wrote fully literate works with nontraditional subjects and motifs.

Such examples, however, L. is careful to observe, cannot inform us about the Homeric poems, which were certainly not transitional texts. Homer’s world was utterly different from that of medieval or early modern society, where written Latin and its ancient traditions were always nearby.

Only as comparatists will we unravel the mysteries of the Homeric poems; taken by themselves, they remain a puzzle. L. was a comparatist above all. His method is to state a problem, cite scholars whose views have defined the problem’s terms, then turn to original texts to show how the problem can be solved. The book is a remarkable defense of theses first advanced in The Singer of Tales and a natural companion to that seminal work. Not only every Homerist, but every scholar wishing to understand the roots of culture will read it eagerly. It is a deep well, and a heady draft.