Patterns of the Fall: Adam and Eve in the Old English Genesis A
By Larry N. McKill
Florilegium, Vol. 14 (1995-6)
Introduction: No serious scholar would argue that an Old English poem deserves critical attention simply because it constitutes such a large percentage of the surviving corpus of OE poetry. Nonetheless, I find it curious, at least, that Genesis A should receive such scant critical attention at a time in which OE scholarship on many minor works has flourished. The reason for this neglect cannot be attributed to its fragmented state, moreover, for such is the condition of many OE poems. Nor can its religious subject-matter, out of fashion for many readers, be singled out, for most OE poetry has a distinctly Christian outlook and is similarly didactic. And studies — largely unpublished dissertations — have indisputably shown that Junius’s appellation Paraphrasis does not adequately describe the poem. Furthermore, because of its length and less immediate appeal than Genesis B (which continues to receive regular scholarly attention), Genesis A is seldom taught to undergraduates and rarely to graduate students, further reducing its exposure to critical analysis.
Because of this neglect, a review of the scholarship on Genesis A is not an arduous task. In the only published extended study of the earlier Genesis, B.F. Hupp´e argues for the poem’s underlying symbolic intent: “The theme of Genesis A is developed in an unusual manner, a manner which cannot be understood without references to the principles of Christian literature that were enunciated in the De Doctrina”. He reiterates this position in his more recent The Hero in the Earthly City. Nina Boyd challenges his exegetical approach in “Doctrine and Criticism: A Revaluation of Genesis A,” and I have shown elsewhere how his exegetical imposition leads to distortions of the poem’s very explicit themes (McKill, “Critical Study” and “Offering”). Like Huppe, R.P. Creed explains the poem’s ending with the offering of Isaac as symbolically fit for a poem which, as Laurence Michel had suggested earlier, opens with clear echoes of the Preface to the Mass. John Gardner outlines the poem’s rhetorical design and in The Construction of Christian Poetry in Old English lists line numbers for some recurring words, but he provides no close analysis of the text. Similarly, Constance B. Hieatt looks especially at verbs of dividing in her essay “Divisions: Theme and Structure of Genesis A,” but her focus upon these words, though instructive, necessarily limits her analysis, for the poem exhibits many patterns of recurring diction, as Gardner aptly points out.
This essay will argue that Genesis A has been carefully structured by no mere paraphraser or mechanical versifier, for a close reading and comparison with his biblical source reveals a skillful artist.