Meter as a literary practice

At the New Chaucer Society 20th Biennial Congress in London this past week, I participated in a roundtable entitled “Literary Value in 2016.” Thanks to Bobby Meyer-Lee for including me. Here is my contribution, entitled “Meter as a Specifically Literary Practice in the Age of Chaucer,” in full:

What makes poetry poetry? The free verse revolution of the twentieth century has made this question difficult to answer. In the fourteenth century, it was not a troublesome question. Poetry, unlike all other forms of writing, was metered. It can be challenging for modern scholars to transport ourselves back to a time when metrical verse occupied the entire space of ‘poetry,’ but the trip is worth making. By recognizing meter as a specifically literary practice, it becomes possible to appreciate its cultural significance in the Age of Chaucer.

A second impediment to our understanding of medieval meter as a dynamic cultural category is the asymmetry between the practice and the theory of meter. The question, What makes poetry poetry? was not troublesome in the fourteenth century; but it was also not asked in the fourteenth century. Medieval England produced and consumed many metrical treatises, but all of them concerned the Latin language and most of them were also written in that language. Vernacular poetics would not become an academic subject or a sustained cultural discourse until the closing decades of the sixteenth century. For Chaucer and his contemporaries, English meter was a practice but not a theory. In what follows I discuss two kinds of metrical practice: the half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter.

‘English alliterative verse’ refers to the unrhymed meter used in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and some 300 other medieval English poems. The most fundamental feature of alliterative verse is division of the metrical line into two half-lines, known as the ‘a-verse’ and ‘b-verse.’ The metrical-syntactical break between them is known as the ‘caesura.’ In the late fourteenth century, the caesura assumed particular importance as a flexion point between two mutually exclusive metrical arenas. The Middle English alliterative b-verse housed a small set of highly conspicuous metrical patterns, while the a-verse housed a gigantic array of highly indeterminate metrical patterns. This asymmetry between a-verse and b-verse causes every Middle English alliterative line to assume the following form: ‘not X or Y’ | ‘X or Y’, where ‘X’ and ‘Y’ represent two major variations on a theme. Consider a passage from Gawain:

Ande quen þis Bretayn watz bigged     bi þis burn rych
Bolde bredden þerinne,     baret þat lofden,
In mony turned tyme,     tene þat wroʒten.
Mo ferlyes on þis folde     han fallen here oft
Þen in any oþer þat I wot,     syn þat ilk tyme. (20-24)

The poet segregates major ideas in the half-lines, one idea per half-line: Britain, Brutus; bold men, battle; time, harm; wonders, often; elsewhere, back then. In the first three lines, the caesura divides the prosaic word order of the a-verse from the habitually contorted syntax of the b-verse: ‘by this man noble’ for ‘by this noble man,’ etc. Alternation between less and more artificial syntax within each line is one of the strangest and most telling features of the alliterative tradition in general and Gawain in particular. Cumulatively across the poem, metrical asymmetry enables what is precisely the Gawain poet’s major intellectual achievement: the construction of a visceral ancient world of chivalric romance that pointedly comments on its own constructedness.

The previous example focused on alliterative meter. With Chaucer, the focus shifts to the two other major Middle English meters, tetrameter and pentameter. Chaucer used the former extensively, and he invented the latter.

The English tetrameter was invented in the middle of the thirteenth century under influence from French and Latin octosyllabic verse. By the time Chaucer set out to write the Book of the Duchess, the tetrameter was the readiest alternative to the alliterative meter. The metrical phonology of tetrameter, i.e., the linguistic forms that fill out meter, reflects its medium-length history. While conservative, thirteenth-century word forms appeared in fourteenth-century tetrameter, they coexisted with contemporary spoken forms (‘S’=strong position, ‘x’=weak position):

x       S   x    S          x   S   x  S   x
Yif he had eyen hir to beholde (Book of the Duchess 970) (elision –en hir)

 x       S   x   S               S   x    x   S  x
And to beholde the alderfayreste. (1050) (elision the ald-; stress shift –fayreste)

In the first line, the infinitive beholde counts a phantom inflectional –e. (We know this because beholde rhymes with wolde, whose –e is also historically justified.) In the second line, the –e in beholde is discounted in scansion.

In the 1380s, Chaucer did something extraordinary: he invented a meter and inaugurated a metrical tradition that would go on to dominate the English literary field. When composing pentameter, Chaucer used a variable metrical phonology:

x          S           x    S      x     S   x     S   x     S  x
Hym thoughte that his herte wolde breke (Canterbury Tales I 954)

x  S      x      S            x      S      x    S  x   S
Into myn herte, that wol my bane be. (I 1097)

In the first line, herte counts a phantom historical –e, while in the second line, the –e in herte is discounted in scansion. If metrical phonology is an expression of metrical history, then a newly created meter ought to employ contemporary phonology. Where did Chaucer get those phantom –e’s? I suggest that the answer lies not in his wide reading in French, Italian, and Latin but in his prior metrical practice in English. Chaucer effectively transposed the metrical phonology of the English tetrameter to the newer meter. In this way, the pentameter inherited some of the historical baggage of its key English precursor, the tetrameter.

Chaucer’s phantom –e’s are not often understood as a problem. Instead, they are mined as primary evidence for Chaucer’s spoken language. The usual explanation for the variation evident in the metrical minimal pairs with beholde and herte is that Chaucer’s London English had two different available forms, one conservative and one innovative. Yet northern alliterative verse, written in less conservative dialects than the Canterbury Tales, actually employs far more phantom syllables. So metrical phonology and linguistic phonology do not necessarily track together, and Chaucer’s phantom –e’s require a historical explanation. I believe his familiarity with tetrameter provides that explanation.

The half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter are, above all, practices. They are two actions that fourteenth-century poets took in order to turn language into literature. The lack of a metadiscourse of English prosody in the fourteenth century meant that metrical actions were relatively unselfconscious actions. As such, they may be best conceptualized in the terms of Bourdieusian cultural studies. Metrical practices are a kind of habitus. Like the cultural habits analyzed by Bourdieu, fourteenth-century metrical practices were ingrained, serial, and socially situated acts.

Having categorized meter as habitus, I’d now like to return to the word ‘literary’ in the title of this session and propose that meter was the most centrally important habitus in the production, consumption, and historical development of medieval English poetry. This proposition obviously prioritizes meter over other features of poetry that get more airtime in current criticism, and in that sense it’s a deliberate provocation. But I’d like to stress that the proposition also has the effect of levelling the poetic playing field. Once we reject the modern distinction between poetry and verse, a more capacious medieval English literary field comes into focus. Meter connects the Book of the Duchess to the Prick of Conscience and Piers Plowman to the Destruction of Troy. For all their differences, these canonical and non-canonical poems each enter the literary field through meter.

I began by identifying two impediments to historicizing meter: our modern experience of free verse and of the technical field of English prosody, neither of which existed in the fourteenth century. These impediments, however, are also opportunities for reconciliation in disciplinary history. The supposed pendulum swings between form and history in Anglophone scholarship since the 1980s have left the earlier rejection of the field of metrics largely intact. This is, let me be the first to say, partly the fault of metrists, who can’t seem to agree on anything. But fourteenth-century English poetry shows with particular clarity why we can’t do without metrics. The binary choice between a notion of the literary and the affirmation of various theoretical, ideological, and historical critiques of literary studies is a false one. Scholars should seek to understand literary form precisely as the way in which literary texts, as literary texts, record historical experience. In conclusion, another provocation: A formalist historicism may be our field’s best chance to articulate the value of literary studies within the twenty-first-century university.

[In the subsequent discussion, Jessica Brantley rightly remarked that some contributors, including me, had left prose out of the account. Meter is specifically literary practice, but it is not the only one. Fourteenth-century English meter occupied the whole space of ‘poetry,’ but poetry did not occupy the whole space of ‘literature.’ My department at Boston College divides the undergraduate English major intro courses into poetry and prose, and meter is the major feature that reinforces this distinction. However, there are of course many other ways of slicing up the literary field.]


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