This book may not be as good as my enjoyment level would imply it is; but it is fascinating and very sad, in a way that I want to call charming. Both...moreThis book may not be as good as my enjoyment level would imply it is; but it is fascinating and very sad, in a way that I want to call charming. Both Hillyer's conception of a what constituted poetry, and the very world that made such poetry possible, had been gone for two decades when he wrote this book, and Hillyer's rear-guard action, although he doesn't know it is one, was doomed from the start.
One anecdote Hillyer tells is illustrative: someone is holding Robert Frost up as an example of a "rootless" poet who is not inspired by the classics. "By good fortune, a professor of Greek who formerly had taught Mr. Frost was present, and summoned us to his study. He produced his old records, opened to Frosts's name, and there across the page, recitation after recitation, test after test, was an unbroken series of A grades."
This anecdote strikes me as unlikely, although I guess stranger things have happened, but more importantly it is absurd. The fact that Frost got good grades in Greek is a non sequitur. That this was not apparent to Hillyer, and that it could not help but be apparent to any poet a couple of decades later, is what gives the book its pathos.
Watching Hillyer take a poem and write next to each line "good," fair," or "bad," satisfied and sure of every esthetic judgment, is marvelous. Such a performance will never come again, and if it looks like kitsch, that's partially our jealously. Also, partially it's kitsch.
There's some pretty good advice about poetic diction, but it comes from a worldview that was narrow for 1938 and has now narrowed so much further that it has closed, like a summer passage between icebergs. There's no way through it any more.
Of course, I agree with him about 80% of the time. (less)
The self-righteous, condescending, long-winded, overcautious "Mystery of Marie Roget" is Poe at his worst. This book, about the real murder and its se...moreThe self-righteous, condescending, long-winded, overcautious "Mystery of Marie Roget" is Poe at his worst. This book, about the real murder and its sensational coverage, is better. It's thorough, and it does a good job explaining why Poe's story is as bad as it is; but ultimately the curious circumstances are not that curious, so as a result Mary Rogers' nonmurder is not much more interesting that Dupin being smug and wrong is. (less)
The problem with this book is that the author tried to emulate the breathless style of Cracked.com, but was too intelligent to let himself actually do...moreThe problem with this book is that the author tried to emulate the breathless style of Cracked.com, but was too intelligent to let himself actually do it. The result is half-baked: flip without being amusing, glib without being interesting. All he manages to emulate is a propensity for oversimplification, moronic generalizations, and a constant self-advertisement that wants to assure you that gee whiz! every sentence is going to blow your mind. “Any chapter of this book is enough to show that [Shakespeare] was one of the most powerful figures in world history.” Really? Even the chapter on Starlings? Constantly floored by minor coincidences, constantly titillated by his own ability to relate to “normal people (as opposed to professional scholars)” (his words; ugh) Marche manages to prove that Shakespeare made up the name Jessica and wrote some famous plays. Maybe a less ridiculous title would have produced a better book; Marche clearly loves the material, it’s just unpleasant to have an author constantly selling it to you, with a wink and a snicker.(less)
Although sometimes the arguments smack of special pleading (Yrsa would hold a drinking horn; Wealtheow holds a cup; therefore the Beowulf poet intenti...moreAlthough sometimes the arguments smack of special pleading (Yrsa would hold a drinking horn; Wealtheow holds a cup; therefore the Beowulf poet intentionally suppressed the horn in order to obscure their relationship?), overall this book offers some fairly persuasive arguments. There sure are a lot of parallels between Yrsa and Wealtheow, e.g. and perhaps too many for it to be coincidence. Perhaps in some sense Wealtheow IS Yrsa.
What I found disappointing about the book, though, was that I'm not sure what the IS means. Inspired by? Cognate with?
When Viktor Rydberg says that Volund IS Thjasse, he means that both are names for a character that pagans would have recognized as being identical, as synonymous as Aphrodite and Cytherea. When he says that Fridvelus IS Njord, he means that Saxo misunderstood or misappropriated Njord's myth and applied its events under a new (non-divine) name, but that we can use the deeds of Fridvelus to understand better the deeds, character, attributes, and mythology of Njord. Damico means that Wealtheow IS Yrsa in the latter sense, but she is unable or unwilling to make the extra leap that would let us learn about Yrsa (or Svava, or even Hrolf Kraki or Helgi) from Wealtheow. Everything different from what we'd expect about Wealtheow is apparently just a nonce fabrication of the Beowulf poet. So in the end I don't really know what to do with the information even if I were convinced of it.
Such a proposed identity is like saying that Orlando from As You Like It IS Rosader from Rosalynde. It's uncontroversial, but unhelpful. No one's reading of Shakespeare, or Lodge, has ever been enriched by this clear connection.
Strange to say, I probably would have enjoyed the book more if it had been crazier.(less)
The arguments in this book are not always persuasive, in a finalizing way; there're too many could bes, and not enough analyses and rejections of cont...moreThe arguments in this book are not always persuasive, in a finalizing way; there're too many could bes, and not enough analyses and rejections of contradictory theses -- in a word not enough control groups or rigor -- for me to feel like Newton has closed the book on the subject. But what's fascinating is the book that Newton has opened instead. (Not the definite conclusion but) the plausible possibility that a character from Beowulf could have sailed out of the poem and into the real world on an adventure that culminates in the composition of the poem itself is exciting on several levels: it's an answer to a critical riddle, a great heroic dynasty-founding narrative, and a Borgesian short story in outline, all at once.(less)