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Title: A count of days : the life course in Old English poetry
Author: Soper, Harriet Clementine
ISNI:       0000 0004 7231 2388
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2018
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This thesis investigates the representation of the human life course in Old English poetry. It attends to constructions of the lifespan as a durational unit, as well as the ‘stages’ or discrete age-related experiences which together form patterns for life development, shared across a diverse range of texts. Throughout this study, the importance of close-reading is emphasised; the bulk of the analysis is concerned with issues of style, lexis and narrative. By these means, it becomes possible to perceive how concepts of the human life course shade into other networks of meaning: these include ideas of ensoulment and embodiment, life experiences of non-human entities, wider narrative patterns which impact representations of life progression, mechanisms and hierarchies of social role and communal existence, and systems of memory collection and the nurturing of ‘wisdom’. The introductory chapter addresses various possible modes of ‘life course’ structuring, in both Anglo-Saxon writings and modern scholarly traditions. Latin and Old English vocabularies of ageing are summarised and an overview is given of previous scholarship attendant on the Anglo-Saxon material. The following three chapters of the thesis then assess representations of different parts of the life course in different groups of texts. The second chapter is concerned with depictions of early life in the Exeter Book Riddles; it contends that these texts have been unduly passed over in discussions of ageing in Old English, seemingly due to their (mostly) non-human subjects. The third chapter addresses the treatment of early and late adulthood in the verse holy lives Andreas, Guthlac A, Juliana and Judith: it is in this chapter that concepts of the life course most clearly intersect with issues of social organisation. The fourth chapter is concerned with the characterisation of old age in Beowulf and Cynewulf’s epilogue to Elene, alongside other texts; the concept of ‘wisdom’ acquired through experience is closely scrutinised, and the verbal and poetic elements of good judgment are elucidated. This thesis concludes that Old English poetry presents human ageing in a manner which encompasses a diverse range of experiences and interrelates with a multitude of wider conceptual frameworks. As such, the texts do not subscribe neatly to an ‘ages of man’ idea. Nonetheless, attention paid to the patterns of human ageing which do emerge from the poems can facilitate more sensitive and productive readings of the texts themselves. The thesis closes with some examples of passages which may be newly interpreted and appreciated in the light of how the life course is conceived across the Old English poetic corpus.
Supervisor: Dance, Richard Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Old English Literature ; Anglo-Saxon England ; Literary Criticism ; Old English Poetry ; Life Writing ; Life Cycles ; Life Courses