Perception and anxiety in Old English poetry
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“Perception and Anxiety in Old English Poetry” identifies sensory anxiety— recognition that the bodily senses are literal and figurative conduits of sin—as a major trope in Old English poetry. Modern critics have essentially dismissed the influence of sensory anxiety, however, primarily because the texts in which it most frequently and openly appears—liturgies of penance and confession, and also private devotional works—have only just begun to be regarded as valuable sources for studying Anglo-Saxon culture. By considering the phenomenon of sensory anxiety in all its textual manifestations, however insignificant they may seem, new readings of poems such as Beowulf, Genesis B, The Wanderer, and the Exeter Book Riddles emerge. After defining Anglo-Saxon sensory anxiety and locating its precedents in a Christian Latin culture in Chapter One, the dissertation explores the role played by the senses in articulating three related somatic anxieties, about the failure of experiential knowledge, sex, and the physical vulnerability of the human body. v Chapter Two shows how changes registered in Eve’s senses in Genesis B call into question the reliability of human perception. The Tempter promises Eve not the metaphorical “opening of the eyes” offered her in the Bible, but rather an elaborate and covert system of literal sensory modifications. The influence of her altered perception prompts Eve to convince Adam to eat as well, which seals the couples’ fate. Chapter Three identifies a conventional language of sexual expression in the erotic riddles of the Exeter Book, a small group of poems that, unlike the rest of the verse corpus, openly invoke sexual acts and themes, and traces that language in a variety of other genres, including Old English penitentials and confessionals. It then demonstrates how other poems, notably Beowulf, employ this same mode of sexual expression to emphasize anxious moments in their narratives. Chapter Four examines a connection between the senses and the human body’s physical vulnerability. Specifically, it investigates the unprecedented violence of Soul and Body I, in which the sensory organs become literal breaches through which natural decay and an army of worms enter to defile a corpse.