Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Saenger, Michael. "'Ah ain't heard whut de tex' wuz': The (Il)legitimate Textuality of Old English and Black English." Oral Tradition 14:2 (1999), 304-320.
Saenger considers whether there are significant similarities, particularly in the transcription and legitimization of authors, between Anglo-Saxon monastic compositions and those from "the rurall Black South" (Saenger 1999, 304). The works he compares are written works which present the oral work of Christian preachers.
Bede's story of Caedmon serves as the Anglo-Saxon material .Caedmon was a common English shepherd who eventually had a call to sing songs of devotion to God. He subsequently spent his life as a monk, singing songs to God (Saenger 1999, 305). The hymn of Caedmon is presented by Bede in Latin, though there is a later gloss which translates it back into Old English (Saenger 1999, 306). Over time, Bede's words were also translated into Old English. Saenger takes this to indicate that Old English was gaining legitimacy as a language.
From the American South, Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine describes the "illegitimate son of a white plantation owner" (Saenger 1999, 306). The man, after a series of troubles, finds he has a calling as a preacher. The novel transcribs an actual sermon from a church service (Saenger 1999, 307).
Saenger observes that the Black Christianity of the South in this period was syncretistic in nature, with many elements of natural religion present in Christian worship. Saenger sees this as a colonizing effect used by Christian leaders (Saenger 1999, 308). The elements of pagan poetry in the preaching of Hurston's preacher, John, hearken back to primitive roots.
Saenger describes both oral poets as associating with beasts of one kind or another "in their pre-enlightened state" (Saenger 1999, 309). The people they interact with are animalistic and they themselves bear the same tendencies.
The poet Caedmon takes on a civilized nature, while the preacher John remains wild by nature (Saenger 1999, 310). They are both, however, seen largely as domesticated animals. Yet they are depicted as having an abundant flow of poetry coming from the m in ways hardly imaginable in the common person (Saenger 1999, 311).
It is valid to ask whether the oral material recorded is a transcription or some sort of translation (Saenger 1999, 313). Caedomon is certainly a matter of translation, since he is said to sing in Anglo-Saxon but the song is presented in Latin. John's sermon is a transcription of a sermon by C.C. Lovelace (Saenger 1999, 313). The issue of legitimacy is also important to Saenger. Caedmon's move serves to legitimize himself, while John's move delegitimizes him. The poems serve to illustrate this process. Caedmon's does so in an apolitical manner, but John's is very politicized (Saenger 1999, 314). Both works show considerable intelligence and cretativey, as well as an attempt at distance form pagan sources. Neither makes that leap enirely (Saenger 1999, 317).
Saenger concludes that in both works there is an effort to legitimize its oral genre through liteary means. In neither is it entirely successful.