Meter across discipline

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I presented on a roundtable entitled “Form across Discipline.” Thanks to Shannon Gayk and Former: The Working Group on Form and Poetics for including me. My contribution, “Alliterative Meter across Discipline,” was as follows:

In my published writings I introduce the methodological concept of ‘verse history,’ or literary history articulated through the history of poetic form. Conceived as a medievalist contribution to the emergent field of ‘historical poetics,’ this research aims to coordinate formalism and historicism in the study of medieval English poetry. Verse history represents a method for historicizing meters and poetic style while measuring received conceptions of literary history against the development of literary forms. The specific focus of my work is alliterative poetry, from Old to Middle English. In this report from the field, I survey the transdisciplinary evidence from which I have sought to build a new history of alliterative verse.

Verse history is the history of a tradition of composing poems in a certain meter. As such, my research into the alliterative tradition is grounded in the field of metrics. It is an exciting time to be studying the alliterative meter. In the coming years, as specialist scholarship in this area reaches a wider audience, literary historians’ understanding of the norms governing this meter will radically change. For Old English, Thomas Cable argues convincingly that the principle of four metrical ‘positions,’ i.e., syllables or syllable-equivalents, is more fundamentally important than a count of strong stresses. The textbook definition of Old English meter needs to be revised. For Middle English, metrical specialists have now defined a restrictive set of accentual patterns for the ‘b-verse’ or second half of the alliterative long line. Middle English alliterative meter is not nearly as unregulated as 150 years of scholarship made it out to be. Finally, in a fundamentally important but still unpublished doctoral thesis, Nicolay Yakovlev synthesizes the study of Old English meter and the study of Middle English alliterative meter in a single theoretical framework. With a rare combination of conceptual clarity and philological precision, Yakovlev traces a continuous history of composition in the English alliterative meter, stretching from Beowulf through Lawman’s Brut through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on into the sixteenth century. Though Yakovlev does not develop the literary-historical implications of his metrical history, his study invokes a much more historically durable object of inquiry than scholars have meant of late by the term ‘alliterative tradition.’

A second source of evidence about metrical traditions comes from medieval writers themselves, in the form of testimonia. Surviving medieval comments on vernacular verse forms must, however, be treated with extreme caution. For its entire 900-year history, the alliterative meter constituted an untheorized cultural practice. This meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms in the middle of the sixteenth century, but the professional study of alliterative verse did not commence until the eighteenth century. When medieval writers seem to be mentioning or noticing the alliterative meter, it is almost always because they are mentioning or noticing something else. To take the most famous example, Chaucer’s Parson’s allusion to “rum, ram, ruf by lettre” is not primarily intended to denigrate alliterative verse but to characterize the Parson as one totally lacking in poetic skill. The difficulty of mapping medieval testimonia about poetic form onto modern analytical categories illustrates the extent to which such testimonia emerge under pressure from other kinds of historical discourse.

Textual criticism, by reconstructing historical forms of a poetic text, furnishes a third kind of evidence about metrical traditions. It often happens that the most historically significant aspects of a poetic text are also the most susceptible to scribal variation. This is true, for example, of Lawman’s Brut, whose conservative poetic lexicon gets a thoroughgoing makeover in one of its two surviving manuscript witnesses. There is still fundamental textual work to be done for alliterative verse. For the past two years I have been engaged in producing the first critical editions of two late fifteenth-century alliterative verse prophecies. Here is a teaser: one of the prophecies ends with a cryptogram spelling out ‘IRLAND’; the other is structured as an interview between one Sir William Banastre and God.

Scholars interested in the cultural history of meters might also examine the scribal texts of multiply-attested poems. Metrics and textual criticism have a long history of interdependence in English studies, in which one is most often subordinated to the other. Yet to reduce meter to its expression in a scribal text on the one hand or a reconstructed archetypal text on the other is to ignore a potentially significant layer of historical mediation. Nevertheless, it is possible to supplement verse history with documentary evidence precisely by recognizing the metrical competence implicit in scribal variants. In my first book, for example, I discuss the two extant manuscripts of Lawman’s Brut as evidence of metrical sensibilities, not in Lawman’s late twelfth-century Worcestershire but in the scribes’ own late thirteenth-century milieu.

A different kind of evidence comes from the field of codicology. Compilation and mise-en-page can indirectly reveal medieval preconceptions about literary form. For example, rhyming alliterating meters as in the Awntyrs off Arthure have usually been considered identical with the unrhymed alliterative meter. However, codicological evidence suggests that medieval compilers recognized a formal difference between (unrhymed) alliterative poems and alliterating stanzaic poems and acted on that recognition in the process of compilatio. For example: among the 392 poems in the massive Vernon MS, the two alliterative poems, Piers Plowman and Joseph of Arimathie, appear consecutively, while two poems in the rhyming thirteen-line stanza, the Disputation between Mary and the Cross (non-alliterating) and the Pistill of Swete Susan (alliterating), appear in sequence elsewhere in the manuscript.

Alliterative poems very often survive as fragments, so that they have been preserved in spite of, not because of, their literary form. This is the case with the Conflict of Wit and Will (late thirteenth/mid fourteenth c.), fragments of which were used to repair some margins in a 1507 printing of the York Missal. Why was this poem available as repair material in sixteenth-century Yorkshire? What, if anything, did the mender think about the poem? Little has been written on such book-historical questions, but they are crucially important if we are to catch these hints at the breadth and depth of the alliterative tradition as it existed for medieval practitioners.

And now for something completely different. My research into English alliterative meter has convinced me that the English language has no monopoly on this verse form. I believe I have identified a Middle English alliterative poem in Latin. The poem in question is Henry of Huntingdon’s twelfth-century translation of the Old English Battle of Brunanburh. To understand how Henry translated metrical principles from English to Latin, one needs not only a practical understanding of Early Middle English alliterative meter but also an ear for the nuances of the Latin language. For example, I posit that Henry makes use of both English-style metrical resolution, in which a quantitatively short stressed syllable plus the following syllable equals a long stressed syllable, and Latin-style synaeresis, in which adjacent vowels within a word coalesce into a single metrical position. Henry’s translation has usually been dismissed as a literary failure, but it can now be appreciated (I argue) as a specimen of twelfth-century English alliterative metrical practice.

In this paper I hope to have indicated the breadth of evidence and the diversity of theoretical approaches available to literary scholars interested in poetic traditions. I would like to close by observing that the methodology of verse history allows poetic traditions to emerge as important historical and cultural processes in their own right. The supposedly antagonistic relationship between form and history in English studies has always been more of a product of conflicting ideological commitments than an adequate description of critical practice. By synthesizing several forms of evidence across discipline, verse history reveals the value of taking a historical perspective onto literary form and a formal perspective onto literary history.


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