John's Prayer: an edition, literary analysis and commentary

Rambaran-Olm, Mary Rosanna (2012) John's Prayer: an edition, literary analysis and commentary. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The starting point for this dissertation was the fact that the Old English poem The Descent into Hell had received so little critical attention and was generally omitted from anthologies of Old English poetry. From close examination of the poem it became evident that the central focus was not the apocryphal story of Christ’s Descent, but on John the Baptist and Baptism. This thesis offers a reinterpretation of the poem’s central theme and emphasizes its poetic and stylistic qualities. In order to do that, a new edition of the poem was required. Also addressed in this thesis is an examination of the vexing question concerning the various lacunae that were the result of damage to the manuscript. This thesis focuses on re-interpretation, and the established text and translation included is the base for the subsequent literary analysis. The core of this thesis is a critical edition of the poem; the editorial methods used are described in detail on pages 11-20.
Central to the main argument is that the poem’s current title, assigned by ASPR in 1936, misrepresents the theme of the poem, causing the reader to expect a work on the Descent, and thus being confused as a result. I argue rather that the poem illuminates the central Christian sacrament of Baptism. This study addresses the questions: What is the main theme? What is the poem’s didactic function? What literary approaches help convey the central message? What evidence suggests that a name change is justified? and What benefits can result from a name change?
The first chapter highlights various linguistic features relevant for the editing of the poem and provides a summary of the main codicological characteristics of the manuscript in which the poem is preserved. Chapter II provides an examination of the theme of the descensus, and assesses its historiographical prominence in religious thought leading up to and including the Anglo-Saxon period. My argument disproves the current interpretation of the poem as a descensus narrative, although the image of the Descent still plays a symbolic role. Chapter III provides a literary analysis of the poem. The purpose of this chapter is to enrich modern scholarly perceptions of the Exeter Book poem, offer a more suitable title and contribute to continued scholarly discussion and analysis of the Exeter Book and its compilation. Chapter IV assesses the poem within a relevant comparative context, whilst further reinforcing its central theme and function.
With respect to editing the text, effort has been made to retain the manuscript reading except where there are obvious errors, lacunae or strong evidence necessitating change. As this is a critical edition, the Anglo-Saxon poem has been presented here using modern conventions of capitalization, punctuation, caesuras and line divisions. However, since the manuscript that contains the poem is damaged, I have not included conjectures in instances where little or no evidence would justify emendations. In instances where there are identifiable alterations to the original text then such emendations have been noted in the Apparatus and Commentary. The translation offers a clear and idiomatic rendition of the poem which endeavours to convey the meaning of the text rather than sacrifice meaning for stylistic reasons. This dissertation also provides a diplomatic transcription and presents digital reconstructions of the manuscript, offering a variety of interpretations of the poem.
The guiding principles for this dissertation have been to create an edition that reveals the poem’s main theme of Baptism and to demonstrate that the liturgical structure, aided by allusions and dramatic effects functions didactically. Undoubtedly because of the lacunae and contextual problems, The Descent into Hell has become a somewhat marginalized poem in the study of Anglo-Saxon verse; however, the textual analysis in this dissertation provides a guide towards understanding the poem’s main theme and offers fresh insight into its place and significance within the corpus of Old English poetry.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information:
Monograph published by Boydell and Brewer 2014, 9781843843665

Two sections of the thesis have been published in academic journals. The first section is a short piece called "Two Remarks Concerning Folio 121 of the Exeter Book," in Notes and Queries. Vol. 54.3 (Sept. 2007): 1-2.

The second article is entitled: "Is the Title of the Old English Poem 'The Descent into Hell' Suitable?" in SELIM: Journal of the Spanish Society for Mediaeval English Language and Literature. No. 13 (2007): 73:86.
Keywords: Old English, Old English poetry, Anglo-Saxon poetry, Exeter Book, Descent into Hell, Harrowing of Hell, John's Prayer, Critical Edition, Baptism, liturgy, John the Baptist, Manuscript Studies, Manuscript Restoration, Manuscript Damage, Digital Humanities, Apocrypha, Gospel of Nicodemus, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Saxon England, Religious Studies, Medieval, Early Medieval poetry, Middle Ages, Early Middle Ages, Drama, Medieval Drama
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PE English
D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D111 Medieval History
P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Language and Linguistics
Supervisor's Name: Caie, Prof. G.D.
Date of Award: 2012
Embargo Date: 14 March 2027
Depositing User: Dr Mary Rosanna Rambaran-Olm
Unique ID: glathesis:2012-3457
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 10 Jul 2012
Last Modified: 31 May 2017 12:32
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