alliterative verse: a bibliography

My bibliography “Alliterative Verse” appears in the digital Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature, edited by Andrew Hadfield. These bibliographies consist of citations of key scholarly works, accompanied by annotations and related to one another by commentary paragraphs. Here’s the introductory paragraph of my bibliography:

Alliterative verse refers to a corpus of approximately three hundred unrhymed English poems, spanning the period c. 650–1550 CE. Before the 12th century, there was only one way to write poetry in English. This verse form, known to modern scholars as alliterative Meter, stood in contrast to English prose, on the one hand, and syllabic Latin meters, on the other. From the late 12th century onward, French- and Latin-inspired syllabic English meters were introduced, throwing alliterative meter into relief in a new way. From the 14th century onward, poets also wrote poems combining alliterative metrical structures with stanzaic rhyme patterning, and these poems are traditionally grouped together with the unrhymed corpus. Sometime in the middle of the 16th Century, alliterative verse ceased to function as a metrical option in English literary culture. Whether found in large poetic anthologies or scattered among other kinds of writing, most alliterative poems exist in only one or two Manuscripts. The alliterative corpus comprehends an array of Genres, from brief monologues and riddles to lengthy narratives. Four long poems—BeowulfLawman’s BrutPiers Plowman (see also the Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature entry titled “Piers Plowman”), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [see also the Oxford Bibliographies in British and Irish Literature entry titled “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”)—have attracted the most critical attention since the rediscovery of alliterative verse in the 17th Century and the 18th Century. Since the 19th Century, study of this poetic tradition has been subdivided along political-historical lines, with the surviving corpus segmented into Old English poetry and Middle English alliterative poetry to reflect the importance of the Norman Conquest of England (1066). Yet, scholars on both sides of the Old/Middle divide have pursued similar research questions in areas such as metrics and poetics, manuscript studies, and genre studies. Modern poets, especially in the 20th Century, have turned to alliterative verse for formal and thematic inspiration.

metrical cultures before 1800

I’ve organized a panel for MLA 2016 (Austin), entitled “English Metrical Cultures before 1800.” The panel has now been selected for inclusion in the conference. The panel will feature papers from Ian Cornelius, Megan Cook, and Joshua Swidzinski. Here I reproduce the opening and closing of the rationale for the session:

Yopie Prins, Meredith Martin, and other scholars 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. In her award-winning Rise and Fall of Meter, Martin argues that meter mattered in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English culture, and in ways that were strategically obscured by later polemicists and practitioners. The emergent field of historical poetics, conceptualized as the study of the reciprocal relationship between meters and cultures, represents an exciting new way of synthesizing formalism and historicism in the study of English literature.

Thus far, historical poetics has been most strongly associated with the study of nineteenth-century British poetry. This panel proposes to take a longer view onto the histories of English poetry, in order to explore continuities and change in English metrical cultures over time. The panel features one paper from each of the periods of English literary history before 1800: medieval, early modern, and the eighteenth century. While the panel has a wide chronological range (c. 1000-1800), the three papers cohere in their close focus on specific feedback loops between English meters and English cultures. Even more specifically, each of the essays situates ‘English’ ‘metrical’ cultures in a reciprocal relationship with non-English and/or non-metrical cultural forms. Each of the papers articulates a historically specific answer to the chiastic question: How do meters form cultures, and how do cultures form meters? Through its large chronological sweep and narrow thematic focus, this panel promises to bring together attendees addressing similar research questions in disparate periods of literary history.


Together, these three papers will expand the chronological frame of historical poetics and demonstrate the dynamism of meter as a culturally significant practice in English literary history. In particular, they will present three historical case studies of the way in which English metrical cultures emerge from cultural formations not traditionally associated with English meter as such. Austin, Texas, would be a particularly appropriate venue for this panel, since the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin currently employs or has employed several distinguished specialists in pre-1800 English prosody and poetics (Mary Blockley, Thomas Cable, Winfred Lehmann, and Lisa Moore).

paradigms of literary history

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I presented a paper in the panel entitled “Old English Language and Literature,” held in honor of Antonette diPaolo Healey. Thanks to Maren Clegg-Hyer, Haruko Momma, and Samantha Zacher for including me. Here I reproduce the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my contribution, “Paradigms of Literary History in Old English Metrics”:

In 2008 Nicolay Yakovlev submitted a doctoral thesis at Oxford entitled “The Development of Alliterative Metre from Old to Middle English.” Little known outside the field of metrics, and still unpublished, this thesis has already been felt to mark a significant juncture in the history of the study of alliterative meter (Cable, “Progress in Middle English Alliterative Metrics”; Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics”). With a rare combination of conceptual clarity and philological precision, Yakovlev traces a continuous history of composition in the English alliterative meter, stretching from Beowulf through Lawman’s Brut through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on into the sixteenth century.

In excavating this metrical longue durée, Yakovlev synthesizes prior work in alliterative metrics but also challenges it in two major ways. First, he articulates a new theoretical paradigm for Old English meter. Where most previous commentators described Old English meter as accentual, Yakovlev describes it as morphological. The second salient innovation in Yakovlev’s thesis is his threefold focus on Old English, Early Middle English, and Middle English verse. By applying a consistent terminology to all three phases of the alliterative tradition, Yakovlev is able to sketch a series of transformations directly connecting these three phases in one centuries-long catena of metrical practice. The result is a more dynamic model of the alliterative tradition as a whole, and a more contextualized view of individual developmental moments within that tradition.

While Yakovlev’s principal subject is metrical evolution, his work should also be understood as an important contribution to the study of English literary history. Although in theory Yakovlev accepts the traditional periodized terms ‘Old English,’ ‘Early Middle English,’ and ‘Middle English,’ in practice his thesis blurs the boundaries between these three segments of continuous metrical and linguistic history. Yakovlev’s contribution to the study of medieval English literary history is most evident in his third chapter, where he rehabilitates Lawman as a card-carrying member of the alliterative tradition. Considered irregular or defective by nearly all prior researchers, the meter of Lawman’s Brut serves Yakovlev as the fulcrum of a lengthy metrical history. Yakovlev’s thesis takes its place among other recent studies in metrics and literary history that have begun to conceptualize forms of continuity across the Old English/Middle English divide (Minkova, “Diagnostics of Metricality in Middle English Alliterative Verse” and “On the Meter of Middle English Alliterative Verse”; Russom, “The Evolution of Middle English Alliterative Meter”; Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England; Treharne, Living Through Conquest; Weiskott, “Lawman, the Last Old English Poet and the First Middle English Poet” and “Phantom Syllables in the English Alliterative Tradition“; Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen).

Renewed interest in the metrical and literary longue durée suggests the value of retracing the historical affiliations of two fields of inquiry often pursued in isolation from one another. In this essay in the history of ideas, I show how models of metrical history have had correlates in the realm of literary history and vice versa. The conjunction of literary history and metrical history remains implicit in much scholarship on alliterative verse from the eighteenth century onward, but I will argue that the two fields have often been regarded as congruent. In offering this disciplinary history in parvo, I mean to contextualize Yakovlev’s accomplishment by revisiting the sequence of earlier research activity that his thesis simultaneously crystallizes and exceeds. More generally, I seek to explore the way that metaphors and periodization structure critical inquiry.


By the end of the nineteenth century, then, the consensus view of metrical history had been thoroughly integrated into the study of literary history. Scholars of this period further developed organicist and naturalistic metaphors for literary and metrical history. In 1895 Jean Jules Jusserand connected the difficulties of dating Old English poems to an anecdote from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars: “Anglo-Saxon poetry is like the river Saone; one doubts which way it flows.” For William John Courthope, writing in the same year, Old English meter was a species that went “extinct” after the Conquest, “instinctively” giving way in the face of isosyllabic and rhyming verse forms. In 1898 George Saintsbury referred to the apparent reemergence of the alliterative meter in the fourteenth century as a “resurrection” and a “revolt”: meter as revenant and meter as armed resistance. Particularly noteworthy is Gummere’s description of the Piers Plowman meter as “a sort of Indian Summer for the old Germanic metre.” Gummere’s metaphor implies a decisive break in continuity followed by a rare and inevitably short-lived return to prior conditions. In the following century, metaphors of revival and reflorescence would become the most prominent way in which alliterative meter and literary history intersected in critical discourse.

This paper has traced the emergence and consolidation of teleological models of Old English metrical and literary history. My largest aim in narrating this disciplinary history was to show why literary history should continue to be a central focus of literary studies. In the late twentieth century, discourses of organicism became unsavory to literary scholars and provided the impetus to divorce the study of literary history from metrics in particular and philology in general. Yakovlev’s thesis, however, holds out the possibility of rapprochement. After Yakovlev, it should be possible to write a literary history for alliterative verse without decay, without progress, with no resurrections and no Indian summers—indeed, a literary history without events.

MLA 2016 cfp: English Metrical Cultures

A call for papers for a Special Session at the 2016 MLA Convention in Austin (January 7-10). Send 250-word abstracts to by March 13, 2015.

English Metrical Cultures

How have English meters shaped and been shaped by larger cultural formations? How do meters form cultures, and how do cultures form meters? All historical specialties welcome.