This past week, I visited Stanford University as a Text Technologies Fellow. While at Stanford I also spoke to the Workshop in Poetics, recorded a video interview for a developing digital resource for the study of prosody, and guest-lectured on early English alliterative meter in English 301B, Love and Loss in Early English, 900-1300. My gratitude to Elaine Treharne, Armen Davoudian, Roland Greene, Nick Jenkins, and Mary Kim for these invitations and to Armen, Mary, and Daeyeong (Dan) Kim for making local arrangements. Here is a summary of my visit on Stanford’s website.
As a Text Technologies Fellow, I gave a lecture to the Stanford CMEMS Workshop entitled “The Old English Exeter Book and the Idea of a Poem.” This lecture represents new thinking at the nexus of poetic meter, manuscript form, and the history of ideas. My thanks to the attendees for helpful questions and criticisms. Here’s a modified version of the opening frame of the talk:
How do you know a poem when you see one? Consider the opening of the Battle of Maldon from the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, the definitive modern edition of Old English poetry. We can tell this is a poem because it has a title, it is lineated, and it is thoroughly punctuated. We can tell it is a critical edition because the textual variants are listed on the bottom of the page.
Early medieval readers did not rely on any of these modern features of textualization when encountering English poetry on the page. Consider the opening of the Old English poem we call the Wanderer. No title, no lineation, almost no punctuation; certainly no textual variants.
In this paper, I ask how Old English poets and their audiences conceptualized poems as poems. I approach this question from a codicological perspective and from a metrical perspective. I propose to explore how these different categories, material and formal, acted in tandem or in tension in delineating the idea of a poem in early medieval England. Throughout, I focus on the Exeter Book, a large tenth-century anthology of English poetry. In particular, I consider three poetic sequences in this manuscript whose form challenges modern conceptions of ‘poem’ as a unit of composition.
As a visitor to the Workshop in Poetics, I presented a work in progress entitled “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory.” This essay relates the conclusions of my first book to the emergent research paradigm known as ‘historical poetics.’ My thanks to the members of the Workshop for incisive questions and comments. Here’s an abstract:
Scholars of Victorian poetry have called for a ‘historical poetics’ that would reevaluate the received narrative of English literary history by recovering alternate ways of theorizing and experiencing poetic form. This essay takes a longer view onto the histories of English poetry from the perspective of Old English and Middle English verse. The primary purpose of the essay is to offer medieval English poetry as a case in point for historical poetics, thereby bringing a different literary archive to bear on critical conversations about the theory and practice of English versification. The contribution of this essay to the field of historical poetics will be to indicate a constitutive gap between the practice and theory of verse. Through three case studies drawn from ongoing research on the alliterative tradition, I seek to demonstrate what is distinctive about the cultural work of early English poetics. Recognition of the ways in which modern questions fail to illuminate medieval meters is the first step toward a more capacious historical poetics.
As a contributor to a developing digital resource for the study of prosody, I discussed alliteration as a poetic device and an ornament in alliterative meter; the alliterative tradition, Old to Middle English; and the state of the field of alliterative metrics.
As a guest lecturer in English 301B, I taught a class of undergraduates and graduate students about the history of the alliterative metrical system c. 900-1200, with examples drawn from the Battle of Brunanburh (c. 937), Durham (1104-1109), and Lawman’s Brut (c. 1200). We asked how this metrical system stood around 900, how it changed between then and 1200, and how modern scholars have conceptualized these metrical principles and transformations. It was exciting to be able to help the students connect meter with the primary concerns of the seminar: linguistic form, literary style, periodization, and manuscript context.