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The Social and Dramatic Functions of Oral Recitation and Composition in Beowulf

John M. Hill 

Rightly, we usually think of harp-playing, singing, and recitation—that is, orally performed song or story generally—as an inherent part of life and celebration in the hall. When life and joy die, so does the clear sound of the harp. This elegiac point, to which we will eventually return, is prominent in the final third of the poem. But for now, and throughout this overview of occasions for song, harp-playing, and oral performance among the Danes, we should note the formal, social, and dramatic perspectives afforded by the Beowulf poet’s use of harp-accompanied song in the hall. We are always in complex, emotionally fraught, and even sometimes ominously suggestive circumstances—no more so than in the very first mention of hall-songs, of repeated joy that aurally and mentally pains a creature of darkness.

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