A Digital Medieval Modernism?

The influence of medieval literature and thought on Anglophone High Modernism is well known: the Aquinian strain in James Joyce’s novels; the influence of Troubadour lyric on the poetics of HD and Ezra Pound; and Dante’s long shadow cast over the entire movement, to name just three examples. Looking beyond these august examples, there remains a surprisingly rich network of medeival influences upon the modernist literary scene yet to be fully explored. One such example is the role of early medieval philosophy and theology on the poetics of Ezra Pound, not least the work of the Irish Carolingian thinker, John Scottus Eriugena, and his late classical (Martianus Capella, Boethius) and Eastern Christian (Pseudo-Dionysius, Gregory of Nyssa) sources. Pound absorbed much of this recondite knowledge intuitively, without consulting many of the source texts, a good number of which were simply not available to him during the height of his interests in the 1930s and early 1940s. In reading whatever was available to him, Pound also absorbed several facets of early medieval textual culture, and these are clearly visible in his poetry and prose. Eriugena developed the discipline of the line-by-line glossatory schema, and the production of florilegia and annotative systems flourished within his intellectual circles in the Carolingian Palatine and Cathedral Schools. Pound adapted his interests in classical textual forms and their modern legacies – the papyrus fragment, classical texts with precarious stemmatic histories (Stesichorus, Apollonius of Tyana) – to this changing textual world in Western Europe during the eighth and ninth centuries. The text of The Cantos is significantly altered in its physical layout during this period of intensive reading and research in early medieval textuality. Pound even produces cantos on unrelated historical subjects – the life of John Adams, the dynastic history of China – that mimic and emulate these earlier transformations in textual culture, and perform these textual histories on the text’s surface.

This relation between the medieval manuscript and the modernist codex (printed, bound and published by another set of technologies and conventions altogether) provides a fruitful challenge when contemplating the notion of digital representation of Pound’s texts and their own sources. My recent work on Pound’s manuscript notes on Eriugena resulted in a print edition of these notes, extensively annotated and accompanied by critical commentary. Such material could plausibly be digitised, and this may be a desirable notion for conventional reasons: to provide clarity to deeply enmeshed texts and their sources; to trace out links from heavily fragmented and abbreviated notes to significant and extensive source material; and to accept the opportunity to compare the author’s notes with the actaul sources available to him, as well as to updated and/or more accurate editions of medieval texts. But what might such a digital edition tell us about the intellectual relations between modernist authorship and early medieval scribal cultures? How might digital forms of these modernist frays into the medieval take advantage of the well-known sympathies between medieval and digital textual cultures, and what differences might be wrought in having modernist textual intermediaries?


About msbyron27

Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary British and American Literature, Department of English, University of Sydney
This entry was posted in Abstracts – Presentations (2014). Bookmark the permalink.

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