Oral-formulaic composition  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The theory of Oral-Formulaic Composition seeks to explain two related issues: (1) the mechanism whereby some oral poets are able to improvise poetry and (2) why orally improvised poetry has the characteristics it does. The key idea of the theory is poets have a store of formulas (a formula being 'an expression which is regularly used, under the same metrical conditions, to express a particular essential idea') and that by linking these in conventionalised ways, they can rapidly compose verse.

Thus, in Homeric verse, a phrase like eos rhododaktylos ("rosy fingered dawn") or oinops pontos ("winedark sea") occupies a certain metrical pattern that fits, in modular fashion, into the six-colon Greek hexameter, and aids the aioidos or bard in extempore composition. Moreover, phrases of this type would be subject to internal substitutions and adaptations, permitting flexibility in response to narrative and grammatical needs: podas okus axilleus ("swift footed Achilles") is metrically equivalent to koruthaiolos ektor ("glancing-helmed Hektor"). Formulae could also be combined into type-scenes, longer, conventionalised depictions of generic actions in epic, such as the steps taken to arm oneself or to prepare a ship for sea.

As this example suggests, oral-formulaic theory was originally developed, principally by Milman Parry in the 1920s, to explain how the Homeric epics could have been passed down through many generations purely through word of mouth, and why formulas appeared in it in the way that they did. His work was influential (see Homeric_scholarship#Oral_Theory and Homeric Question). The locus classicus for oral-formulaic poetry, however, was established by the work of Parry and his student Albert Lord on the Serbian oral epic poetry of what was at the time part of Yugoslavia, where oral-formulaic composition could be observed and recorded ethnographically. Formulaic variation is apparent, for example, in the lines

a besjedi od Orasca Tale ("But spoke of Orashatz Tale")
a besjedi Mujagin Halile ("But spoke Mujo's Halil").

Lord, and more prominently Francis Peabody Magoun, also applied the theory to Old English poetry (principally Beowulf), where formulaic variation such as the following is prominent:

Hrothgar mathelode helm Scildinga ("Hrothgar spoke, protector of the Scildings")
Beowulf mathelode bearn Ecgtheowes ("Beowulf spoke, son of Ecgtheow")

Magoun thought that formulaic poetry was necessarily oral in origin. This sparked a major and ongoing debate over the extent to which Old English Poetry--which survives only in written form--should be seen as, in some sense, oral poetry.

Parry and Lord's work transformed the study of ancient and medieval poetry, and oral poetry. The main exponent and developer of their approaches today is John Miles Foley.

See also

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