Three-position verses in Beowulf

My scholarly note, “Three-Position Verses in Beowulf,” appears in Notes & Queries. This note proposes that some metrical patterns with three positions are rare but authentic in the meter of Beowulf. More generally, the note seeks to draw a theoretical distinction between systematic metrical patterns (those that adhere to the metrical system obtaining at a given point in verse history) and asystematic patterns (those that do not adhere to the synchronic metrical system for historical reasons). Here’s the opening frame of the note:

The most recent theory of Old English meter is that of Nicolay Yakovlev. Like many of his predecessors, Yakovlev finds that the Old English half-line is composed of four metrical positions. However, he countenances two five-position patterns, known in Sieversian notation as A* and D*. He goes on to discuss the theoretical implications of their existence:

[A] traditional metre is hardly ever given opportunity [sic] to become completely cohesive. The average time span between major prosodic upheavals appears to be less than that required to eliminate any remains of the previous restructuring. It means, inter alia, that the number of asystemic patterns, i.e. patterns that are not produced by general metrical rules and should therefore be specified individually, may be greater or smaller at any given point in poetic history, but it will hardly ever be zero. Given the rare opportunity to observe a cross-section in the history of a poetic tradition, we always see ‘a work in progress’; the picture observed will always be inherently dynamic, similarly to a proper synchronic description of a language. Old English patterns D* and A* seem to be examples of such a historical residue.

Yakovlev provides a brilliant explanation for the occurrence of five-position verses. In a ‘traditional metre’, i.e., one with a continuous historical development, marginal patterns could coexist with normative ones for a certain length of time before being normalized or reinterpreted as a new norm. Yakovlev does not identify any other ‘asystemic patterns’, but nothing in his account of Old English meter precludes the possibility.

Although they are always explained differently or emended, verses of the form SxS occur in Beowulf. […]


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