enigmatic literary history

Most Old English poetry survives in four manuscript books copied in the tenth or eleventh centuries. A handful of poems, beginning with Cædmon’s Hymn, are certainly earlier than that. But the great mass of Old English poetry can’t be placed before c. 900 without hedging and qualifications. It’s a sore point in the field. Imagine not knowing whether Shakespeare wrote before or after Austen. That’s the situation.

There was for a long time a standard model of Old English literary history; the standard model was comprehensively challenged in the 1980s; and the same model is now being reasserted, with updated evidence, by a vocal cadre of philologists. According to the standard model, Beowulf, Widsith, and other secular poems, plus Genesis A, predate other poems and testify to the lost splendor of eighth-century Northumbrian culture.

The most prominent category of evidence supporting the standard model is metrical form, which is how I came to enter the fray. I find metrical methods of dating Old English poetry to be self-defeatingly circular, because meter is a more historically responsive medium than these dating methods must assume. I said more or less all I want to say on the topic in chapter 1 of my first book. There’s a backstory to my position in the debate that involves various overlapping academic feuds dating back to the 1960s, but, like the Beowulf poet, I won’t say much about that.

Beyond the academic culture-war angle (“a struggle between historicists and humanists, Wissenschaft and Bildung, scholarship and life”*), there is a philosophical significance to the disagreement about poetic chronology. It’s a disagreement about whether it is legitimate to say, “We don’t know.” One side of the debate is much more comfortable saying that than the other side. I sense a discomfort with not knowing in certain scholars’ frustrated responses to the agnosticism that is now the default position in the field. It’s understandable. The protocols of positivism make it difficult to allow for inconclusions, phenomena scientists would describe as “not well understood.” But that understandable discomfort sometimes spills over into misrepresentation of opposing views. It’s easier to make out interlocutors to be misinformed “late daters” than to face the implications of the agnostic position. For a certain temperament, agnosticism just does not compute.

The reward for accepting the standard model is attractive: a literary and cultural history for pre-Conquest poetry in English, bringing Old English up to date with later periods of study, in which historical context is fundamental to interpretation. The historicists/philologists, again understandably, would like to reap this reward by bringing the newly defended historical contexts back to the interpretation of the poems that generated them. But many Old English scholars now do not believe there is sufficient evidence to accept a speculative reconstruction of the past. There are too many variables, and there is too much destructive history behind the desire to see poems about pagan warriors as predating poems about Christ. On the other hand, no alternative model of Old English literary history has emerged, either. The subject remains, for most of us, enigmatic.

I think there is value in exploring the discomfort of not knowing. Agnosticism is a legitimate response to the state of study, and it can’t be undermined by forcing a decision within preset parameters (“either it’s early or it’s late”). Our reading of Old English poetry can’t help but be guided by, either, the hard-won knowledge of when and where it was composed, or an overarching determination that this cannot be known at the present time. The dialectical play between speculation and deconstruction, assertion and negation, has led to some truly nasty moments in the recent history of the field, but that play is in principle a good way to refine and retest what we thought we knew. For now, agnostics must accept that new evidence, or newly compelling arguments, should impel them into the old consensus, or help forge a new one; “early daters” must accept that they have not convinced their colleagues.


*Sheldon Pollock, “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 931-61, at p. 932.

St. Erkenwald (again)

Chapter 5 of my first book is a close reading and contextualization of an alliterative romance from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. St. Erkenwald narrates the discovery beneath St. Paul’s cathedral of the miraculously preserved corpse of a pagan British judge, who discourses with Erkenwald, seventh-century bishop of London, about his life and times. Erkenwald sheds a tear that accidentally baptizes the judge, whose body disintegrates as his soul rockets heavenward.

My chapter title, “The Erkenwald Poet’s Sense of History,” refers to my PhD adviser Roberta Frank’s “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History,” itself modeled on her PhD adviser Morton W. Bloomfield’s “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” The three essays all take a polemical stance against the familiar claim that medieval writers lacked a sense of history. Chaucer’s poetry, Beowulf, and St. Erkenwald, in different ways, belie the still-current narrative of a “birth of the past” (Schiffman: a 2011 book) in early modern Europe.

However, its placement in English Alliterative Verse meant that my chapter could not fully develop this theme with reference to St. Erkenwald. The purpose of the chapter was to illustrate the historical arguments advanced in more schematic form in the rest of the book–arguments about alliterative meter, medieval English literary and cultural history, and Old English/Middle English periodization. Now I have a new book forthcoming on medieval/modern periodization in English literature, and while it doesn’t feature St. Erkenwald, I’d like to revisit the poem’s historicism. St. Erkenwald provides a potent refutation of the ideology of ‘the’ ‘Renaissance,’ insofar as that ideology is expressed as a claim about a swerve in historical perspective. At the same time, the poem is blatantly anachronistic: the judge is dressed like a fourteenth-century judge, for example.

In the book, I described the Erkenwald poet’s sense of history this way:

For a late medieval composition, St. Erkenwald is “full of oddly advanced notions” [Frank 57, of Beowulf]. Its achievement is not to redeem the past, but to traverse a longue durée so broad that it connects Christianity with what Christianity would repudiate. In the course of events every possible response to this conjunction is mooted, but none is endorsed. Like the squabbling clans of Beowulf in the wake of the hero’s death, the Londoners of St. Erkenwald seem doomed to squander the legacy of the past. Construction grinds to a halt; the hoi polloi just gawk. After a week of research and prayer, the tomb is as inscrutable as ever. The tearful baptism is inadvertent and of debatable sacramental efficacy. An attentive late medieval reader would have wondered why God preserved the corpse in the first place, whether He therefore preserved others, what the inscription meant, how old the judge was, what sort of England he lived in, and whether pagan souls could, or should, be saved by baptism. Six hundred years have not made any of these questions easier to answer. The bishop’s confrontation with the unknown is all the more striking for being unexpected. No one in St. Erkenwald goes in search of a tomb, or a judge, or a pagan past. Tomb, judge, and past simply materialize.

I would now emphasize the paradox enclosed in the second sentence. Chakrabarty writes–in a book that welcomes the European Middle Ages into ‘modernity’–“It is because we already have experience of that which makes the present noncontemporaneous with itself that we can actually historicize” (112). This is an idea that the author of St. Erkenwald intuited and expressed at the level of narrative form. The poem, a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century depiction of seventh-century London, literally represents a present “noncontemporaneous with itself.” That distant present has its own past, to which it bears a relation that is, fictionally at least, not reducible to late medieval historicism. The distant past and the proximate past of St. Erkenwald are scenes of which the poem’s readers “already have experience,” through the genres of historiography and hagiography.

In St. Erkenwald, the paradoxical desire for and horror of the past takes on a specifically Christian flavor. A supercessionist religion, Christianity must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Judaism. Analogously, within Christianity and its history, Protestantism must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Catholicism.

Chakrabarty’s work in the philosophy of history suggests that anachronism and historicism describe a fully dialectical relationship. If so, no temporal or spatial boundary-line drawn around human experiences of history can be valid. St. Erkenwald reaches the same conclusion. The past in the poem is unlike the present, but it is nevertheless contained within the present: the past is right here, lurking underneath your cathedral. The Erkenwald poet’s sense of history is archaeological (Otter).

St. Erkenwald shows attunement to the possibilities of historical difference; but it balances that attunement against a sense of anachronism. The past did not have to be born, because it has always been present.

further reading

Bloomfield, Morton W. “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 51 (1952): 301-13.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; repr. 2007.

Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 53-65.

Otter, Monika. “‘New Werke’: St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and the Medieval Sense of the Past.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24 (1994): 387-414.

Schiffman, Zachary Sayre. The Birth of the Past. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

elements of a good book review


I’ve been publishing academic book reviews since 2015. Among genres of scholarly writing, I find this one requires special care. Unless you have permission from the journal to write a review essay, in which case the essay will likely be subject to peer review, you don’t have room to expand on your points. Reviews in my field run from 750 to 2000 words, depending on the venue. You must also consider the readership of the journal, which might range from nonspecialists interested in the topic of the book, who need a general orientation, all the way to experts in the subfield, for whom even a minor error in your review could seem glaring. Finally, while accurately summarizing another scholar’s views goes into the larger academic genres, in a book review it is the whole game. If you don’t do that well, it won’t be a helpful review.

Why publish reviews? If your own book is receiving reviews–and if you are fortunate enough to be paid a salary to do this work–it is fair to give back. It’s a public form of peer review. Plus, the book and the journal can signal your established expertise on a topic, or your intention to move into a new subfield. It’s characteristic of book reviews that the “questions left unanswered” or “areas for further nuance” in the eyes of a reviewer tend to be ones that the reviewer her/himself is actively pursuing. And taking on a review can be the push you need to read an academic book cover-to-cover, an experience I have always found edifying.

While journals usually commission reviews, a process that can entrench institutional and social hierarchies, you may put yourself forward as a reviewer. Many journals consider unsolicited book reviews, and many will publish reviews by PhD candidates. Simply explain who you are and what qualifies you to review the book.

Successful book reviews share certain features, typically in this order:

  1. Introduction. This places the book in some larger context, one more immediately recognizable to the journal’s readers. Common contexts are a problem, a text, a field, and the author’s career.
  2. Description. It’s amazing to me how many book reviews skip this part. In order to appreciate all the other elements of the review, the reader needs to know the book’s structure, the titles of the chapters, and a summary of the book’s argument. The goal is to state the author’s ideas in terms the author would approve. This is a good place to include quotations from the book that, in your estimation, epitomize the author’s approach.
  3. Synthesis. It is understood that there is too much in an academic monograph or, especially, an edited collection for a review to transmit every analytical move. You must choose a path through the material. You are obliged to mention any idea important enough to be the focus of a chapter or perhaps a long section of a chapter, but anything below that level is up to you. At this point in the review, you may be making connections between the author’s ideas that the author does not explicitly make. (If so, be clear about that.)
  4. Evaluation. You have been asked to write this review because you have expertise relevant to evaluating the book’s arguments. Do they hold water? What are their implications for study of this text or period or problem? What is their institutional or intellectual context? How does the book stack up against previous books on similar topics? This is the part of the review that will command readers’ attention, since it will be most different from other reviews of the same book. Resist the twin temptations of a book review, which are not to evaluate at all (often we have a weakness for neutrality early in our careers, for pragmatic reasons), or else to be thoroughly negative (generally senior-scholar behavior). Throughout elements 2-4, the reader should be able to reconstruct from your prose what the author was aiming at, and why, even if you feel the author has not achieved it. Because the review is so much shorter than the book, it must be representative: avoid nitpicking.
  5. Conclusion. Regardless of any criticisms you have leveled at the book, end with some praise or, if you cannot muster praise (!), a prediction that the book’s impact on the field will be positive.

Piers Plowman / social upheaval

William Langland’s Piers Plowman (composed 1370s-1380s) is a poem of social upheaval. It grapples with new social realities in the wake of the plague, which devastated England in 1348; its title character became a codename in an uprising of peasants, laborers, and artisans in 1381; fictionally, it depicts a society on the brink of implosion.

The 1381 connection has, rightly, attracted a lot of attention from Langland’s modern readers (Justice). During the uprising, rebels beheaded government officials, burned legal documents, and exchanged letters calling on Piers the Plowman to “go to his work.” To adapt a phrase that Ben Lerner uses to characterize the ideology of the avant-garde, Piers Plowman was “an imaginary bomb with real shrapnel” (39). There are not many poems that come with a death toll–and none that I can think of that are such good poetry.

Piers Plowman is a poem of social upheaval in another sense, and here I’m moving from critical commonplaces to a new argument that I make in a forthcoming article. Langland’s poem takes the form of a search for truth and justice in this world, including social justice, but a search that is known ahead of time to be an abject failure. Why? Here Langland would spread his hands theatrically wide. The wretchedness of the world was, for him, self-evident. A truth that Piers Plowman repeatedly discovers is this: perversely, describing a better world drives home how awful this one, the actual one, is. Langland expresses this truth by obsessively hitting the poetic reset button that was available to him in the dream vision form (first-person dreamer falls asleep in springtime, has a disorienting allegorical vision of dubious significance, etc.). Other medieval dream visions are one long dream; the dreamer of Piers Plowman is always falling back asleep.

In the article, I write:

Piers Plowman deepens or intensifies but does not progress. It is a tensile poem, responsive to the world, but it does not move, really. Running in parallel with the successive invocation and dismissal of [literary] genres, Piers Plowman proposes extrainstitutional principles for the refoundation of Christian society, all of which fail in precisely the same way, by generating the unacceptable present reality. This is Langland’s “negative utopianism,” as identified by Karma Lochrie [164]. […] The whole poem expands and expounds the opening dream of a society gripped by debilitating hypocrisy.

(In making this argument I join one strand of modern commentary on Piers Plowman, which sees its structure as basically recursive, like a Möbius strip [Middleton]. There is another strand that views its structure as basically progressive, like a pilgrimage. This scholarly schism is fascinating in its own right and tells you a lot about the poem.)

My article defines Piers Plowman‘s recursive form and proposes a new analog for it, the tradition of political prophecy (think Merlin). But there is maybe more to say about the political implications of literary recursivity and failure. Lerner again: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a kind of value no particular poem can realize: the value of persons, the value of a human activity beyond the labor/leisure divide, a value before or beyond price” (53). Langland felt that. Piers Plowman is a massive failure, and knows it. It is a theological failure; it is a political failure; it is a social failure; and it is therefore a poetic failure. It has to be: it is a “particular poem,” not a sublime abstraction. Piers Plowman includes asides in which the narrator/poet Will is berated by a range of allegorical figures–Reason; Conscience; even imagination, who might be expected to be a fan–for wasting time writing all that dumb poetry.

Piers Plowman‘s circuit of frustration and failure conforms to some modern political and social problems. The sterile debate about whether everything or nothing in society nowadays is neoliberal, and, interlocking that debate, the sniping at and among the various strands of socialism share a structure that will be familiar to a reader of Langland. The problem of a term meant to encompass an entire mode of social organization, like feudal or neoliberal, might be that it is being pressed to do too much conceptual work; or it might be that it is too apt, that a mode of social organization is at that moment oppressively total (Song).* Correspondingly, the problem with political labels/ideologies like socialism–but equally small-l liberalism, and fascism–might be that their political content is inimical to a given person’s disposition, experience, and social placement; or it might be that the distance between the world as it is and the ideal state of affairs that those terms differently demand is insufferable. We are all familiar with how fruitless it is to argue against one of the isms armed only with an actual example. It is always possible, and in practice easy, to exclude the example from the ideal. Socialists, liberals, and fascists all do this: actually existing inequity can only ever be blamed on someone else’s abstraction. To an extent, this is understandable. One’s political ideals are ideals precisely insofar as they’ve never been put into practice. Nothing will wreck the beautiful poem in your head faster than trying to write it down.

This two-sided discursive problem–a political description that seems uselessly repetitious with the totality of lived experience, and one that seems uselessly abstract and unattainable–maps onto what I see as the major poles of Langland’s vacillating thought throughout the poem. It’s not as if there is for Langland a middle ground, where terms are just useful enough. It’s failure all the way down: either a failure to imagine anything different, or else a failure to imagine anything achievable. Piers Plowman expresses its optimism that things could change for the better in a fashion that would seem strangely pessimistic if it were not also the signature move of academic ideology critique: to demolish, one by one, ideas that won’t work.

But social upheaval does occur. We know this. Langland knew this, too. Piers Plowman alludes more than once to the time “before the plague,” a period represented in the poem as obviously better than the present but sealed off from it by the cataclysm of 1348. The political and social realities which vexed Langland in the 1370s, in turn, gave way to something else. And our unacceptable present reality, whether neoliberal is a perfect or an inane descriptor for it, will end, too. Song on 2010s neoliberalism could be Langland on a post-Edenic world and post-plague England: “a kind of postlapsarian moment that exists ever in the shadow of a time before” (283). Langland did not expect or want his poem to inspire a rebellion, but it did anyway. There seems to be an inevitable asymmetry, a slippage, between the experience of one political/social moment and the remediation of texts and ideas from that moment. Maybe we can just call this slippage (literary) history. It’s something that will continue to fascinate me; and it holds out hope for achieving some measure of justice in a world that is often intolerable. At the same time, it suggests that Langland was right to sense that a poem, no matter how brilliant, would not cut it. “A kind of value no particular poem can realize. . .” A devastating critique of the status quo does not normally change things. It can only be a starting point.


*Hugo Raine has a splendid essay for Verso’s blog on “Marxism and the Middle Ages,” in which he argues that a fundamental error of some Marxist medieval historians is to assume, with Marx, that the totalizing structure of modern capitalism implies prior totalizing modes of economic/social organization. (Hence feudalism.) What if there weren’t any? What if capitalism is in this respect unique? It’s a very smart thought, and I think that in general I agree with it. But Langland does seem to represent the economic/social system of fourteenth-century England as totalized, as implicated in every sector of human existence, even if feudal isn’t the right word for it.

further reading

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2016.

Lochrie, Karma. Nowhere in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Middleton, Anne. “Narration and the Invention of Experience: Episodic Form in Piers Plowman.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Mortwon W. Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 91-122.

Song, Min Hyoung. “An Ethics of Generosity.” In Flashpoints for Asian American Studies, ed. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), pp. 281-98.

Weiskott, Eric. “Political Prophecy and the Form of Piers Plowman.” Viator (forthcoming).

in defense of metrics

In my forthcoming book Meter and Modernity in English Verse, I begin by defending metrics, the study of poetic meter, a.k.a. prosody. As you probably know if you read this blog, meter is my thing. Metrics needs defending not just because it is a contentious and technical subject, but because it has come in for wounding criticism lately.

I’ll ventriloquize the case against metrics, to avoid naming names. (I do name names in the book.) Metrics, say its critics, is a faux science. It is fruitlessly technical. What do metrists have to show for all those graphs, statistics, symbols, and Greek terms? A relic of Victorian philology, metrics can’t create the knowledge about poetry that it claims to create. It is of historical interest, like alchemy, but it is not worth the paper it is printed on. A sure sign that metrics is a bunch of hot air is the fact that metrists can’t even agree on the basics, such as the nature of stress, the proper placement of accents in a line of poetry, and where poetic forms come from. Each generation’s terminology becomes unintelligible to the next.

This critique sometimes extends to a second target. Meter, the object that metrics purports to disclose, can’t matter in literary studies nowadays. It is a fantasy. The historical stability and formal knowability of meter, implied by techniques of metrical analysis, are illusory. Worse, meter is an illusion that distracts us from what really matters: the political and social meaning of poetry.

I had to respond to these criticisms, because the goal of my book was to build metrical history into a new account of English literary history. If meter had no value, my book had no value!

My basic response is to point out a self-contradiction. The anti-metrists must posit a type of impossible, transcendental knowledge, in order to criticize metrics for not creating it. They choose to judge metrical scholarship against a standard that does not apply to other methodologies, as if metrics, to be legitimate, had to be an infallible truth discovery mechanism, instead of, say, an informed approximation of what poets do. In the book, I write:

To reject metrics as a fantasy of absolute, dehistoricized knowledge is to accede, per negativum, to that fantasy. Metrics is indeed historically contingent, inherently political, and prone to self-confirmation. In this, metrics resembles all other approaches to the study of literature. The choice between affirmation of metrics and acceptance of the limits of historical interpretation is a false one. Metrical form is indeed a literary correlate of politics and ideology. Precisely because it lives in history, however, it refracts as much as it reflects. Poets never make metrical choices in a vacuum. Metrical histories pressurize individual moments of creation and reception, just as political histories pressurize individual moments of action and affiliation. Ideally, metrics accomplishes the very dialectical movement between general and particular, form and history, literary practice and social stratification, that its critics accuse it of short-circuiting.

Criticism of metrics can be so pointed only because few scholars “do” metrics anymore. It’s easy to dismiss a type of knowledge you don’t seek. Plus, meter is still regularly taught to undergraduates, yet the metrical theory in use in the classroom is a century out of date. The lag between textbooks and scholarship leaves the subject all the more vulnerable to criticism.

Lest this sound like the usual complaint that everyone should devote themselves to my hobbyhorse topic, I’ll say (and I say in the book) that metrists are equally to blame. The critics have a point. Metrists bandy about terms that are opaque to other literary scholars; they sometimes appear to promise scientific knowledge about literature; and they often do not explore meter’s intersections with political and social history. In rehabilitating metrics for literary history, my book strives to do better in each respect. The result is, I hope, a metrically inflected literary history that both metrists and anti-metrists can understand, and accept.