David Callander introduces Dissonant Neighbours: Narrative Progress in Early Welsh and English Poetry.
Scholars in recent years have shown an increased and more explicit interest in medieval multilingualism. The study of codices and texts in multiple languages, quite a norm for much of the medieval period, has led to exciting new work and opened up fresh avenues for investigation. Such cross-linguistic inquiry can indicate that literary traditions are shaped by geographical proximity, as well as language. The case of early Welsh and English poetry poses interesting and challenging questions for this model. Despite being directly next to one another on the map, early Welsh and English poetry are infinitely different, and nowhere is this clearer than in their use of narrative. This particular phenomenon is the subject of Dissonant Neighbours.
Early Welsh verse has traditionally been thought to contain no narrative at all, but I highlight how narrative is indeed to be found in these poems – although it is perhaps not the sort of narrative we might expect to find or where we would expect to find it. Old English verse, in contrast, bursts with narrative, and the same is true of early Middle English, although its narrative impulse is a little less ubiquitous. Yet there is no uniformity in this English poetic narrative, with Old English poems producing narratives set in the future that are rather different to those set in the past. Indeed, one interesting aspect that this book attempts to demonstrate is the narrative variety within each literature, depending on the subject. Both medieval Welsh and English poets create verse that is very different (though often not closer to one another) stylistically whether they are describing an earthly battle or the end of the world. The comparative approach, rather than attempting to combine the two traditions, allows us to see the idiosyncracies of each more clearly.
David Callander is a Junior Research Fellow at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.