Stephen Blackwood’s The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy (2015)

The following has been accepted for publication and will appear in a revised form in Classical Review, published by Cambridge University Press, © Cambridge University Press.

Blackwood (S.) The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy. Pp. xxii + 338, figs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Cased, £75, US$125. ISBN: 978-0-19-871831-4.

Writing to the learned polymath Boethius on behalf of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic early in the sixth century, Cassiodorus requested him to choose a player of a stringed instrument that was going to be sent to a Germanic king, someone who would be able to tame the fierce hearts of gentes with his sweet sound. [Variae 2.40.17] The power of poetry to move human hearts as it is heard is the subject of this fascinating new study of Boethius’ most famous book. The Consolation of Philosophy has not lacked for scholarly discussion across the centuries, but Stephen Blackwood steers in a new direction. Building on an insight that has inspired more than one recent scholar, that people in the ancient and early medieval periods tended to read out loud, and the implication that authors kept in mind the way their works would sound as they were writing, his point of entry into the Consolation is the metres of the 39 poems which it contains. He is not the first to pay attention to these, for Joachim Gruber has analysed them in his great Kommentar and Joel Relihan has imitated the metres of the Latin in his translation into English and used marks to denote where the accents fall, but in this difficult and thoroughly bracing study Blackwood breaks new ground as he subjects the poems to close reading, not merely word for word but syllable by syllable.

He begins with the seven poems of Book One. In the first of these, in which the prisoner bewails his situation, hexameters alternate with pentameters. Its lines are scanned, and the meters shown to interact with such things as alliteration, the sounds of consonants, and the sense of the words, allowing a strong case to be made for the appropriateness of the poetry to the content of the words. Each of the lines in the second poem, spoken by Philosophy, is in two meters, a hemiepes followed by an idonic, a combination that is shown to be rhythmically disjunctive but one that fits the content of the poem. Much exegetical work has been done across the centuries on the subject matter of Boethius’ poems, but Blackwood is able to relate this to the metres, which he shows to fit the content in that they either reflect or aim to improve the physical or psychological state of the prisoner. Proceeding to the 32 poems in the following four books of the Consolation, all but one sung by Philosophy, Blackwood points out that six of the metres occur more than once, and argues that such repetition, made up of internal echoes that build on what has been previously declared, is part of the therapy in which Philosophy is engaged. That poetry has such power would surprise no reader of the Consolation, for it is implicit in the subject matter of one of the best known poems, which describes the singing of Orpheus moving the powers of the underworld (3.12, a poem beautifully analysed by Blackwood, which he sees as ‘not only a poem about musical power, but a metered song that pulsates with that power.’) Nor is there any reason to doubt that the repetition of meters was deliberate, for it occurs largely symmetrically around a central poem, 3.5. And it turns out that metrical repetition does not only operate at the level of poems, for given that some poems are in different metres it also occurs at the level of lines, and indeed fragments of lines. Recollection and memory were more important in the ancient world than they are now, and the repetitions of meters in the Consolation were intended to bring about recollection of previous occurrences, not merely by the prisoner who hears Philosophy utter them but by readers of the text who hear them as they read them out loud. The Consolation thus emerges as a reverberating, echoing whole, which culminates in a final poem (5.5) that is a virtual anthology of the metres of the preceding poems.

Such conclusions are themselves significant. But Blackwood goes further. Given that the metres on which his argument is based are largely symmetrical it is fitting that, just as his book begins with a detailed analysis of Book One, it closes with a meditation on the concluding Book Five. Many readers of the Consolation have been dissatisfied with the way it ends, for not only are the discussions of providence and freewill quite demanding but they seem tangential to what has gone before. But Blackwood is able to demonstrate the fittingness of the termination of the Consolation. Early in the last book, Philosophy sings in Greek what purports to be a line from Homer, in which Phoebus is described as one who sees and hears all things. Yet she points out that this characterization is false, for the sun’s gaze cannot penetrate to the depths of the earth and the ocean, unlike that of the maker of the universe, who is also alone in being able to see the present, the past and the future. Her words alarm the prisoner, who exclaims that such a doctrine would mean that there was no reason for hope or prayer. But Philosophy explains that God’s foreknowledge does not detract from human freedom, for being eternal he is able to experience things that for humans take place in the past, present or future as being eternally present. Seen in this light, divine foreknowledge does not impose upon human affairs a necessity such as would exclude prayer. In Boethius’ time the views of Augustine on such matters were continuing to be debated (his correspondent Ennodius was not impressed by what he thought of the poisons of the African pestilence), and Blackwood suggests where the doctrine which Boethius adumbrates can be placed within the spectrum of views then current. And the basic thrust of his argument allows him to respond to the old question of why the Consolation is not more explicitly Christian, for he holds that the poetry itself has a theological status, each poem, in that it collapses temporally subsequent moments into a kind of simultaneous present, operating in a liturgical fashion, while the manifold repetitions of meter in the final poem re-enact in time God’s eternal present. The validity of Philosophy’s consolation comes to depend on the possibility of prayer. When she concludes by urging the prisoner to persist in hopes and prayers she is not ending the discussion on a note of insipid piety, nor is she merely recalling the categories of hope and prayer that the prisoner had feared were pointless, but is inviting him to undertake the same kind of liturgy.

The prose in which this book is written is both precise and poetic, as befits a subject matter both technical and personal, that in turn takes us more deeply into the meters of classical poetry than most of us have ever ventured and draws on memories of family holidays when discussing the nature of recollection. It leaves us in no doubt that Boethius’ message is wrapped up in his medium, and its implicit message is that the therapy Philosophy offers is available to anyone who reads or listens to the text. I suspect that many will wish to avail themselves of it.


School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry

University of Queensland


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