phantom syllables

My article, “Phantom Syllables in the English Alliterative Tradition,” appears in Modern Philology. This article lays the groundwork for my first book by comparing and connecting phenomena in Old English meter and Middle English alliterative meter. Less obviously, the article is a first attempt to generalize and operationalize the key concept of ‘metrical phonology,’ i.e., the stylized linguistic forms that inhabit meter. Here’s a representative paragraph, followed by the concluding paragraph:

Carried out with the help of electronic concordances and graphing software, these often perspicacious metrical analyses tend toward notational abstraction. But medievalists interested in the entwined fates of poetry and language ignore meter at their peril. Tucked away in R. D. Fulk’s compendious History of Old English Meter (1992), implicit in the conclusions drawn therein, is the premise that poetic meter is a reliable criterion for establishing absolute chronologies, that developments in verse form follow straightforwardly from developments in the spoken language. A metrical history of comparable scope and polemical density has yet to be written for the Middle English poems, but the seeds have been sown or, rather, the lines of battle have been drawn. It is a battle that must be fought on metrical grounds, for whatever one might like to say about the revivals, survivals, or deaths of poetic traditions, one must in any case confront a burgeoning cache of hard data excavated from the very stuff of metrical language and therefore not directly beholden to the standard accounts of linguistic change or dialectal variation.


The story of alliterative poetry is neither one of decay and neglect nor of the inevitable triumph of a language or a culture. At each moment, poets must have had access to an array of metrical attitudes ranging from the avant-garde to the nostalgic, full of sounds newfangled, familiar, outdated, and all but forgotten. Future scholarship on alliterative verse would do well to attend to the poetry’s motley meter, built of past language states but not reducible to any one of them; in constant development but never caught up with the times; forever at play with invisible friends, old sounds that had disappeared without going obsolete.

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