God's Exiles and English Verse
On The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry
This monograph is a critical study of the medieval manuscript held in Exeter Cathedral Library, popularly known as ‘The Exeter Book’. Recent scholarship, including the standard edition of the text, published by UEP in 2000 (2 ed’n 2006), has re-named the manuscript ‘The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry’. The book gives us intelligent, sensitive literary criticism, profound readings of all of the poems of the Anthology.
God’s Exiles and English Verse is the first integrative, historically grounded book to be written about the Exeter Book of Old English poetry. By approaching the Exeter codex as a whole, the book seeks to establish a sound footing for the understanding of any and all of its parts, seen as devout yet cosmopolitan expressions of late Anglo-Saxon literary culture.
The poems of the Exeter Book have not before been approached primarily from a codicological perspective. They have not before been read as an integrated expression of a monastic poetic: that is to say, as a refashioning of the medium of Old English verse so as to serve as an emotionally powerful, intellectually challenging vehicle for Christian doctrine and moral instruction.
Part One, consisting of three chapters, introduces certain of the book’s main themes, addresses matters of date, authorship, audience, and the like, and evaluates hypotheses that have been put forth concerning the origins of the Exeter Anthology in the south of England during the period of the Benedictine Reform.
Part Two, the main body of the book, begins with a long chapter, divided into seven sections, that introduces the contents of the Exeter Anthology poem by poem in a more systematic fashion than before, with attention to the overall organization of the Anthology and certain factors in it that have a unifying function. The five shorter chapters that follow are devoted to topics of special interest, including the volume’s possible use as a guide to vernacular poetic techniques, its underlying worldview, its reliance on certain thematically significant keywords, and its intertextual versus intratextual relations. The riddles, especially those of a sexual content, receive attention in a chapter of their own.
In addition, there is a translation of the popular poem The Wanderer into modern English prose, a folio-by-folio listing of the contents of the Exeter Anthology, and a listing of a number of the poems of the Anthology with notes on their genre, according to Latin generic terms familiar to educated Anglo-Saxons.
This book is the first of its kind - an integrative, book-length critical study of the Exeter Anthology.
Part One: Reading the Anthology in its Historical Context
Monastic Poetics Scribes, Authors, Compilers, and Readers
Exeter, Glastonbury, and the Benedictine Reform
Part Two: Reading the Anthology as a Codicological Whole
An Overview of the Book’s Contents
Principles of order
The book’s opening parts, Advent Lyrics to Juliana
Voices of wisdom: The Wanderer and related poems
The voice of the sage: A Father’s Precepts and related poems
Voices from the Germanic past: Widsith and related poems
Diversity within unity: the role of simulated speech
The book’s closing parts, The Panther to the end
Teaching the Tools of the Poet’s Trade
The Enigmas — a Special Problem? Poetry and Worldview Keywords
Summary and Conclusions
Appendix 1: A translation of The Wanderer
Appendix 2: Folio-by-folio contents of the Exeter Anthology
Appendix 3: Latin genre terms and the poems of the Exeter Anthology
Niles’s call for a more contextualized reading of the Exeter Book poems is a much-needed corrective to current literary critical methods, which too often ignore the religious and manuscript context of the Exeter Book poems... Niles’s attentiveness to the whole of the collection enriches his approach to individual poems.- Peter Ramey, Journal of English and Germanic Philology
Often reading individual poems within such a rigid frame work will lead to flat analyses... Niles carefully and successfully avoids this problem. His readings of the Exeter Anthology poems feel fresh, even when they adhere to traditional frameworks of analysis... It is likely that future work on Exeter Anthology poems will have to contend with Niles’s thesis.- Michael Matto, Anglia
Readers of this volume will come away from it with a much better understanding of this fascinating Anthology and the place it occupies in the history of English literature. Emulating the dedicated compilers’ tour de force and Bishop Leofric’s donation of the volume to Exeter Cathedral, Niles has provided us with a generous scholarly legacy that will no doubt be regarded as a landmark in the field of Anglo-Saxon studies.- Mercedes Salvador-Bello, Universidad de Sevilla, Review of English Studies
… an extremely useful resource for any investigation into the Exeter Book of Old English poetry.- Tiffany Beechy, Modern Philology
An excellent work by a very good scholar and should be well received.- Prof Bernard J Muir, University of Melbourne
His book is premised on one of those simple, but foundational ideas that one can hardly believe has not been attempted before, so fundamentally important is the Exeter Book to our understanding of pre-Conquest English poetry. What has been previously lacking for many of its poems is intelligent, sensitive literary criticism: profound readings of the poems as poems. Niles’s book (which itself rests on deep philological understanding) will fill this void more than admirably; it is a carefully thought-out, elegantly written and critically incisive book that will be a landmark study for at least a generation of scholars and students of early English poetry (and probably for more than one generation).
Finally, I would like to say that while one hopes to read learned monographs from scholars of Anglo-Saxon, this reader has learned not necessarily to expect prose that is also pleasurable to read. Niles’s is exactly that. I enjoyed this typescript so much, and was sent back to the poems themselves so often, that even where I found myself disagreeing over minor points of interpretation I took pleasure in that disputatio also.- Chris Jones, Senior Lecturer in English, University of St Andrews
It is high time that the Exeter Book received a sustained study. John Niles is the scholar to do this, principally because of his track-record of quality scholarship and because of his remarkable poetic sensitivity. This book, God’s Exiles and English Verse, contains much that is of great value. It’s an enjoyable, well-written account of the manuscript and its many contents, containing as it does detailed, insightful, and occasionally beautiful readings of the poems themselves. It would be useful in teaching, and for scholars at all levels.- Elaine Treharne, Roberta Bowman Denning Professor of Humanities, Stanford University
John D. Niles is Frederic G. Cassidy Professor of Humanities (Emeritus), University of Wisconsin – Madison AND Professor of English (Emeritus), University of California, Berkeley.
He is a member of the Modern Language Association of America, Medieval Academy of America, International Society of Anglo-Saxonists and the American Folklore Society.
God's Exiles and English Verse - On The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry - Hardback cover