Meter as a way of thinking

Yesterday, I gave an invited talk for the MIT Ancient & Medieval Studies Colloquium Series. My gratitude to Arthur Bahr for the invitation. My talk was entitled “Early English Meter as a Way of Thinking.” Here’s the opening frame of the talk:

This paper is about structures of thought that happen to take the form of poetry. So stated, my object of inquiry would seem to be intellectual history, to which poetics is subordinated. However, I will strive to demonstrate that verse form is never incidental to the thinking it performs. Apprehending meter as a way of thinking necessarily involves reimagining thinking itself.

My title echoes Simon Jarvis, who recommends approaching “prosody as cognition.” Jarvis had Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth in mind when he coined that phrase. I seek to test Jarvis’s concept against a different literary archive, exploring the particular kinds of thinking done by and through early English meter. I’ll focus on the second half of the fourteenth century, a stretch of decades that saw a large uptick in the production of literature in English. As we will see, in medieval England meter was a way of thinking about form and balance, translation and vernacularity, and the historicity of literary practice. I’ll present three case studies introducing three kinds of metrical practice: the half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter, the interplay between Latin and English in Piers Plowman, and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter.

The protagonists of the three case studies are the three biggest names in Middle English literature: the Gawain poet, William Langland, and Geoffrey Chaucer. The first of these is no name at all but a cypher: the Gawain poet, thought to have composed the four poems in British Library Cotton Nero MS A.X. For this poet, no external evidence for authorship or biography has been identified. William Langland is little more than a floating name in literary history: mentioned in a few contemporary documents, Langland probably belonged to the well-to-do Rokele family. The name ‘Langland’ itself may be a pseudonym. Chaucer, of course, is the Grand Poobah of medieval English literature. Like Gilbert and Sullivan’s character, Chaucer was chronically overemployed; at one time or another he was a clerk, controller of customs, diplomat, esquire, forester, page, and soldier. These three poets have garnered the lion’s share of scholarly attention, and this paper follows suit by placing them at the center of an essay in historical poetics. But I’ll continually emphasize how the metrical practice of a range of contemporary and prior poets shaped the structures of thought informing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and the Canterbury Tales.

My broadest aim this afternoon is to convince you that intellectual history and poetics can inform one another. Indeed, where poetry is concerned, the procedures of the two fields ought to coincide. Medievalists have made significant contributions toward understanding poetry as cognition: I’m thinking especially of the work of Ruth Evans, Alastair Minnis, Fiona Somerset, Nicholas Watson, and others under the banner of what Minnis calls “medieval literary theory.” This research program compares the explicit theories of authority and textuality propounded in Latin by medieval scholars with the often implicit theorization of literature performed by vernacular texts themselves. To date, few medievalists have considered the intellectual significance of English meter, though I am indebted to the work of Thomas Cable, a metrist who has always insisted that the study of meter is about “mental structures.” From the perspective of intellectual history, I propose to enrich the study of medieval literary theory by disaggregating the English literary field by metrical tradition. Alliterative meter does not think the same way pentameter thinks; the difference should matter in any account of medieval literary theory. From the perspective of poetics, I propose to redirect the philological procedures of the highly traditionalist field of metrics toward a phenomenological poetics. If meter lives in the mind, then it is part of the job of a metrist to discover what it is doing up there.

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