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Interpreting Lyric Meaning in Irish Tradition: Love and Death in the Shadow of Tralee

Thomas A. DuBois

In the study of oral poetics, progressively greater attention and accord have been paid to the capacities of the traditional audience, that group of knowledgeable individuals for whom or before whom a poem or song was originally performed. Past research on oral or oral-derived works, conditioned by certain fundamental assumptions regarding texts and authors, focused on the text itself or on the skills or identity of a reconstructed author/performer. The audience involved—not seldom long lost in the past—was often simply assumed, its interpretative arsenal and methods subsumed under tabulations of information with which audience members were said to have been familiar: “folklore,” “native lays and traditions,” “analogues,” “traditional matter,” “vernacular learning.” In his seminal 1936 essay on Beowulf, J. R. R. Tolkien used just these terms to describe a set of information shared between author and audience that he found implied by the rich fabric of allusions and contrasts of imagery inherent in the Old English poem. In describing these, he was able to conclude that “the whole must have succeeded admirably in creating in the minds of the poet’s contemporaries the illusion of surveying a past, pagan but noble and fraught with deep significance . . .” (107). Dorothy Whitelock’s The Audience of Beowulf (1951) took these assumptions regarding the “minds of the poet’s contemporaries” further by trying to establish what backgrounds, gender, and livelihoods the “alert and intelligent” audience of the work was likely to have had in the first place. But as scholarship revealed ever-greater complexities in both the composition and performance of oral works, some scholars refused to accord an equal sophistication to their audiences: Paull F. Baum (1960), for instance, roundly rejected Whitelock’s assumptions, preferring instead to see Beowulf as the product of a genius poet writing largely only for himself and probably comprehensible to barely a handful of highly gifted readers. And although modern reception theory has rekindled scholarly interest in the audience as a significant part of the performance of verbal art (Jauss 1974, Iser 1989), it remains true that relatively little ethnographic work has aimed at elucidating the role(s) of competent audience members in the act of interpreting a given performance.

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