Phonology and literary history

This past weekend, I presented a paper at the Medieval Academy of America Annual Meeting in Boston. My paper, “Metrical Phonology and Literary History in the Age of Chaucer,” introduces three English metrical traditions–alliterative meter, tetrameter, pentameter–and points to some phonological evidence for cross-pollination between them in the fourteenth century. Here’s the opening frame:

At the end of Book V of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer apostrophizes the poem:

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.

(1793-96)

This passage has attracted significant attention as a testament to linguistic, metrical, and textual variation in medieval England. The apostrophe appears to substantiate conclusions that medievalists are ready to accept anyway: that Chaucer’s language, meter, and texts were in flux around him, and that Chaucer was exquisitely aware of this situation. In the standard interpretation, the speaker of the passage is a lot like a modern editor, worried about language change, metrical decay, and scribal error.

In this paper I’d like to suggest a different cultural context for Chaucer’s hand-wringing: the mediated interaction between language and meter in fourteenth-century English verse. ‘Metrical phonology’ is my term for the linguistic forms that meter encodes. Think, for example, of the variation between monosyllabic and disyllabic scansions of the word heaven in Elizabethan poetry. I will argue that metrical phonology should be understood in terms of the larger historical formation in which it is embedded: the poetic tradition. In the fourteenth century, there were three major metrical options for poets working in English: the alliterative meter, the tetrameter, and the pentameter. The alliterative meter had been in continuous use since at least the eighth century. The tetrameter entered the English literary field in the mid thirteenth century. Chaucer invented the pentameter on the basis of French and Italian models in the 1380s: Troilus and Criseyde is his first substantial work in this new verse form. The three major Middle English meters thus had different histories. Yet these histories also inflected one another. Study of metrical phonology calls for triangulation between historical and comparative analysis. That’s what I’ll try to provide.

By mapping Middle English metrical phonologies, it becomes possible to attain some critical distance from the Troilus and Criseyde passage. Through apostrophe, Chaucer hints at the complexity of fourteenth-century vernacular poetics. However, writing before English became an academic subject, Chaucer necessarily expresses his position in literary culture symptomatically rather than analytically. Attention to the historicity of metrical phonology helps us understand what Chaucer meant by the neologism ‘mismeter’ but also how meter could appear to Chaucer as a poetic problem in the first place.

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