Walter Ong, Rhetoric, and Alliterative Verse

The opening frame for a paper I presented in the session “Technologies of Writing: After Ong”, at the 2012 meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, held at St. Louis University. The paper was an exposition of the Latin grammatical and rhetorical terminology that Gerald of Wales and Óláfr Þórðarson used when they described
alliterative verse’s alliteration. It was titled “Classical Rhetoric and the Perception of Alliterative Verse”.

“Until the modern technological age … Western culture in its intellectual and academic manifestations can be meaningfully described as rhetorical culture.” Thus runs the opening sentence of Walter Ong’s Rhetoric, Romance and Technology. In Ong’s account, rhetoric was absolutely formative of European literary and intellectual history, from ancient Greece to the eighteenth century. Queen Rhetoric’s long reign was attributable to her ambivalent relation to the great technological changes which transformed European linguistic practice over this immense duration. On the one hand, rhetorical teaching grasped language-use as essentially public, formal, and oral. On the other, it set about codifying this oral practice, providing it with rules and collecting these rules into treatises. Rhetoric assumed a mediate position relative to the great binary of “orality and literacy”.

However, in his most widely read book, Ong provides an important modification to this account. Rhetoric is still recognized as a vector of oral language-use within deeply literate societies. However, Ong now emphasizes aspects of orality which managed to escape the notice or interest of Greco-Roman rhetorical teaching. Modern sciences, Ong reports, have discovered new features of premodern language-use. For Ong, the signal “modern discovery” was that of oral-formulaic composition. The result is that Ong’s Orality and Literacy identifies a certain limit to rhetoric’s explanatory power. Despite rhetoric’s intimate ties to premodernity, there are significant tranches of premodern culture which rhetorical teaching can only misunderstand. My intention here is to fill out this contradiction. I will do so by examining some early commentary on medieval alliterative verse.

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