BMCR 2016.01.20

The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy. Oxford Early Christian Studies

, The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. xxi, 338. ISBN 9780198718314. $125.00.


The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy by Stephen Blackwood is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship on the pivotal figure of Boethius, gatekeeper between the classical and medieval worlds. Blackwood draws upon a rich array of materials to present a compelling vision of the role played by metrics in the Consolatio in healing Boethius’ spiritual sickness. In doing so, Blackwood builds upon previous scholarship concerning the therapeutic nature of the Consolatio, but locates this therapy more richly within the late-antique aural reading culture and Boethius’ own philosophical trajectory.

The volume is particularly significant in being the first recent work to approach the Boethian corpus as an integrated whole. Crafting his case for the central function of meters in the text, Blackwood draws upon not only the Consolatio, but the breadth of Boethius’ musical, educational, philosophical and theological writings. As such, different portions of the volume would be valuable not only to the student of Boethius himself, but also to historians of music, those interested in aurality, orality, developments of literacy, the senses and memory, Neoplatonism, epistemology, and the intersection of philosophy and literature, to name only a few areas.

Although the Consolatio is of the most famous literary works to mix prose and poetry, it is the prose sections that have hitherto formed the primary foundation for scholarly study. Indeed, Blackwood shrewdly observes that the significance of the meters used in the Consolation of Philosophy has been assumed rather than demonstrated. Persistently, after a token nod in their direction, criticism has hitherto failed to demonstrate how or why the meters contribute to the work as a whole, and has traditionally concentrated primarily upon the prose arguments. The result is that all too often the metrical passages become relegated to the role of mere ornamentation or poetic restatement of the prose. Blackwood, however, takes up the gauntlet on behalf of the meters to show that they are integral to Boethius’ healing and our interpretation of the Consolatio.

Yet Blackwood is aware that the study of metrics is abstruse and takes great pains to render the volume readable to those who might become quickly bogged down by the technical side. He thus furnishes full information for both the amateur and the expert. For the amateur there are six packed pages of preface explaining the most important elements of metrics, including the differences between English stress poetry and Latin length and how to scan a line, walking the reader through accessible examples of each. For the expert, seventy pages of appendices illustrate the nitty gritty of the Consolatio ’s metrics and how stress, scansion, repetition and patterning come together across the prosimetra. In addition to describing these technical aspects, Blackwood outlines the aural reading culture of Boethius’ world, before moving to the core of his four-part argument. In this, Blackwood explores the function of the various metrical patterns, both in individual poems and the culminating effect of their repetitions over the course of the Consolatio.

Part I traces the meters of Book I, showing how Philosophy responds to Boethius’ initial self-indulgent, unstable poetry. The great philosopher laments the injustice that King Theodoric has inflicted upon him in elegiac couplets (alternating hexameters and pentameters): “a good vehicle for sad subjects: it is a rhythm that never really gets moving, but is always stopped short, then begins again, only to meet the same premature end” (35). Philosophy responds both by meeting him where he is at and yet moving him acoustically and spiritually in a healthier direction. Building on Part I, Part II takes six meters as a case study, showing the significance of their sounds’ metric recurrence. Blackwood demonstrates how Boethius’ progression in knowing depends upon epistemological hierarchies or ‘patterns’ in which both the higher (or later) and the lower (or earlier) modes of knowing are present. Through the humble medium of physical sound, these patterns are instrumental in ordering the higher and lower portions of Boethius’ soul, and helping him reconcile his experiences of apparent injustice with his philosophical commitments. Not content to make assertions, Blackwood incorporates the phenomenology of his own personal experiences in Part III. There, the role of repetition and memory in our perception of patterns are explored, and the power of recollection to shape the soul (any one of us can attest to the power of music, such as a favorite song from our youth, to transport us across temporal, spatial and even spiritual boundaries). Blackwood connects this human experience to the ethical dimension of Boethius’ acoustics and the Neoplatonic tradition.

Part IV shows how recollection—ours, as well as Boethius’—is essential for interpreting the Consolatio as a whole, and this is perhaps of most interest to general readers of Boethius. It is here that the threads of the argument come together to underscore the ascent required by the Consolation of Philosophy. Blackwood insightfully describes how the whole of the Consolatio can only be understood fully from the perspective of Book 5, in which Boethius (and the reader with him, deo volente) have ascended high enough to perceive the patterns and rhythms—the ordo —within the experiences which have gone before. Blackwood gestures toward philosophical precedents for Boethius’ portrayal of time and eternity, particularly the Platonic and Augustinian traditions, as well as the way in which liturgical experiences, such as cycles of the Psalter, draw on of rhythm and repetition to participate in divine eternity.

In some ways, the volume’s Conclusion forms the weakest part of this innovative book, insofar as it reaches toward more ambitious conclusions than the evidence presented in the core can quite sustain. Blackwood has powerfully demonstrated that “through the metrical patterns of her poetry Philosophy brings the prisoner, by repetition and recollection, to this self-knowledge in relation to the divine activity; she reveals, through patterned sound, the divine pattern within his soul” (237). This pattern of repetition is what the title of the volume describes as “poetic liturgy”, and in the conclusion, Blackwood attempts to fuse this poetic liturgy with the liturgical forms of historical Christianity.

Liturgical practice may indeed be a promising angle from which to reconsider the vexed question of Christianity (or the apparent lack thereof) in the Consolatio; however, more sustained analysis would be necessary to support the parallels claimed. It would require a second volume to bridge Blackwood’s treatment of Boethius’ poetry—persistently treated as primarily reflexive, internal and therapeutic—with the external, objective, sacrificial function of the Mass or Divine Office in late antiquity and the Middle Ages. The volume’s title thus risks misleading any liturgists or medieval theologians who may turn to it in hopes of finding such material. Blackwood, however, has gestured toward possible connections upon which it is to be hoped others will build.

What readers will find in this volume, however, is a methodology and emphasis that correct two long-standing imbalances in Boethian scholarship. First, Blackwood stands alone in his ability to draw upon and integrate references to the entire body of Boethius’ writing. He draws not only upon the Consolatio and De institutione musica, but De topicis differentiis, the theological Tractates and more. Secondly, the volume reverses the tendency of Boethian studies to rush to philosophical or literary abstractions. Here at last one will find a thoughtful, embodied reading of the Consolatio that takes seriously not only the text’s materiality, but that of the author and audience as well. In doing so, The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy illuminates the perennial popularity of the Consolatio as a text that physically acts upon its readers and has the power to transform ear, mind and soul together.