2016.06.10 | Stephen Blackwood. The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: OUP, 2015. Pp. xxi + 338. Soft-cover.
Review by Samuel Pomeroy, KU Leuven.
Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a review copy.
According to Boethius, you are what you hear. If memory is integral to ethics (164–5), and hearing is integral to memory (169–71), then properly ordered poetry has the capacity to harmonize the dialectical nature of the intellect within the epistemological framework of creation (cf. 238). As the ars memorativa of the Trivium are the means by which sense and intellect are united (186), so too the complex metrical structure of Boethius’s Consolation is an invitation to perceive the particulars of cosmic harmony held together by divine providence (234). But it is not an invitation to silent, private reading towards esotericism. For Boethius the poet, the dialogical phonic dexterity of his Consolation’s meter is itself the gateway towards recollection. Because humans are wont to neglect or ignore their created epistemological limits, the Consolation offers a language of prayer by which the desire for unity is carefully addressed according to the forms of memory and insight it is able to receive, eventually reoriented with awareness of its created design (211-3).
Like Boethius himself, Stephen Blackwood’s monograph is a pedagogical ascent that begins with the reader. Blackwood’s reminder of the Consolation’s aural character is prescient. It is obvious that one might emphasize the point in a work concerning 39 Latin poems. But more importantly, Boethius wrote within a milieu in which “all texts of its period” were encountered through embodied reading, often bordering on the musical, and thus were designed to stimulate the memory through the actual speaking and hearing of words (14-5). This point is seminal for the monograph. Blackwood hereby reads Boethius through Augustinian eyes, arguing that the internationalization of rhythm that both invokes prior meter and anticipates the poem’s destination is an imitation of “God’s eternal present” (234–5). How did he get here?
While Augustine moves from his own memories (Conf. I-IX) to a reflection on memory itself (Conf. X), Blackwood points out that Boethius’s method is the opposite: any reader is the “primary interlocutor” from the first word of the Consolation because it is a “temporally self-contained dialogue” (191). Parts I-III are devoted to substantiating this point on metrical grounds. In Part I, Blackwood demonstrates a systematic connection between the poetic meter and the prisoner’s psychological state. For instance, the final poem of Cons. I is laced with an adonic rhythm. Accenting the first and fourth syllables of each line with down beats, the poet thus creates momentum through lines of woe:
— 1, VII, 1-4
[Stárs that lie hídden
Báck of the black clouds
Cánnot provide us
Líght we can sée by;
— trans. Blackwood, 75]
The prisoner’s “emotional cloudiness” (74) depicted here is dispelled by the anticipation and delivery of her gentler, consolatory medicines 15 lines later (76) in the same adonic. One is reminded of the anticipatory effects of a four-on-the-floor in jazz music.
This is a simulacrum of what Blackwood’s larger synthesis accomplishes. Boethius’s use of meter goes beyond a means to “address and improve” (80) the psychological state of the prisoner. As Blackwood makes his way through Part II, he draws attention to the affective quality of “cognitional exegesis” (138), the capacity of the poems to explain the very sounds they bring forth. Boethius’s use of glyconic lyrical meter illustrates the point. As the most repeated meter in the Consolation, glyconic functions in four pivotal locations (I, VI; 2, VIII; 3, XII; 5, IV). Blackwood charts the progression of Philosophy’s message between these points: calming the prisoner’s tumult as he reflects upon the injustice done to him; awakening his sense of cosmic harmony; arousing awareness of the ease by which he can lose this perception; and the power of the mind to call upon its images to draw it to true forms.
This is the liturgical character of the Consolation for which Blackwood passionately argues. Ascending through “levels of knowing in the [human] personality” (139), “The rhythmic system thus enables the dialectic of recollection, through which the ordo is discovered in the sensible, temporal world” (235). Lest there is any doubt that Boethius designed this ordo internal to the poem, Blackwood shows that the final poem, 5, V, contains “at least one significant metric element of every line of every preceding poem” (155). Thus the perceptions of the past are held in a cumulative synthesis as the prisoner’s intellect is finally united with not only his senses, but also with the causes of divine providence in history. Here Blackwood lucidly demonstrates his argument, illuminating the coherence between rhythm, meter, and poetic theme that runs through the course of the Consolation. This dénouement to his metrical analysis (Part III), which defies summary, leaves the reader breathless. Known prominently for his influence on Thomas Aquinas and thus Medieval philosophy, Boethius is here among the company of Homer, Ovid, and Dante.
What enables Blackwood’s “literary archaeology” (156) is Joachim Gruber’s prodigious structuring of the Consolation’s poems according to meter (254). Blackwood builds on this indispensable tool, poignantly illustrating the way in which good scholarship relies on the work of previous authors.
That said, Blackwood is right to insist in the introduction that his text is best read with a copy of the Consolation at hand. For careful attention to the language and thus fuller appreciation of Blackwood’s arguments, this reviewer recommends the Loeb, even though modern translations (e.g. Relihan 2001) strive to maintain a better sense of the meter. This way, one can also take Blackwood’s suggestion seriously and try reading the poems aloud, guided if necessary by the accessible metric denotations found throughout Part I of Poetic Liturgy. Those unfamiliar with the Consolation are highly recommended to read it prior to digesting this beautiful monograph; those familiar with it will be compelled to return to it with fresh eyes.
If Boethius is correct to uphold the Platonic claim that hearing has the power to shape the soul (De inst. Mus. I, 1; Blackwood 165–7; cf. 10–15), then Blackwood has shown us that academic writing has the power to bring about a genuine encounter with the complexity of a historical masterpiece of Latin literature. Blackwood’s prose is inspiring. His own mastery of the craft is evident, but never pedantic. Rather than a revised dissertation, it is clear that this text is the product of decades of rumination. Only one minor typographical error marks the pages (155 n.22 contains a superfluous ‘that’). This monograph will be a major milestone of reference for scholars of Boethius, the development of Latin poetry, and historians of philosophy. The greatest impact is in the field of Boethius studies. In Blackwood’s Poetic Liturgy, we have a substantial step towards a systematic demonstration that the Consolation contains an internally constructed logic, down to the rhythm of individual lines. In addition to the content, the persistent and almost urgent scholarly care of this monograph will be indispensable for future scholars.
samuel.pomeroy [ at ] kuleuven.be