Ancient Tongues: Radical Encounters with the Early Medieval in Late Modernist and Experimental Poetry

Rowan Evans

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This practice-based thesis explores how late modernist and contemporary experimental poetry enacts encounters with the early medieval languages, literature and history of the north Atlantic, via a multiplicity of written, sounded and performed strategies that move beyond the traditional boundaries of translation. It asks what the artistic and political value might be of inviting early medieval ‘tongues’ – in the form of poems, charms, narratives, prose texts, marginal fragments – to speak turbulently through the now, bringing with them a plurality of meanings, contested histories and hybrid utterances. With a specific focus on late modernist and experimental writing, it discusses poetry from the late 1970s to the present by Caroline Bergvall (b. 1962), Bill Griffiths (d. 2007), Maggie O’Sullivan (b. 1951), Barry MacSweeney (d. 2000), Linus Slug (aka Mendoza, b. 1980s) and Anthony Vahni Capildeo (b. 1973), writers whose encounters are both formally radical in their embracing of innovative poetics, and politically so. Each one uses Old English, Old Norse, or other early medieval materials to take an altered approach to their own contemporary circumstances, in addressing state politics and social ethics; protest, strikes and activism; performance and ritual practice; ecology and the climate crisis; working class and regional history; gender, sexuality and queerness; nationalism, fascism and racism. Drawing primarily on poetry, sagas and prose texts written in Old English, Old Norse and Old Irish, my poetic and performance practice responds to and extends these concerns, exploring animism and ecology; women’s poetry and mythology; charms, incantations and runic inscriptions; transhistoricity and lyric re-voicing; nationalism and literary geography. At a time when modern and medieval studies are only beginning to enter into sustained comparative dialogue with one another – but as the orientation of contemporary culture toward the early medieval past becomes more urgently relevant – this thesis makes a critical case for reclaiming these materials as the basis for pluralistic, radical and collaborative art-making.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Olsen, Redell, Supervisor
  • Neville, Jennifer, Supervisor
  • Montgomery, Will, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Jun 2023
Publication statusUnpublished - 2023


  • Poetry
  • Poetic Practice
  • Medievalism
  • Medieval Studies
  • Modernism
  • Old English
  • Old Norse
  • Experimental Poetry
  • Feminism
  • Nationalism
  • Anti-fascism
  • Eco-criticism
  • Queerness
  • Performance
  • Sound Art

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