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.]

a poetic compound

My article, “Grass-Bed: A Poetic Compound in the Alliterative Tradition,” appears in Anglia. This article synthesizes the study of meter and the study of poetic vocabulary through a case study of one rare poetic word closely affiliated with the alliterative tradition from Old to Middle English. Here’s the abstract:

The compound word grass-bed occurs four times in Old and Middle English texts. In each case, grass-bed occurs in an alliterative poem; in each case, the word is used as a kenning for a site of bodily death (a battlefield or a grave). The chronologically and metrically uneven distribution of poetic words like grass-bed in the corpus of medieval English texts raises questions about the reliability of the extant written record, the historical resources of individual writers, and the cultural meanings of poetic traditions. Meanwhile, research in alliterative metrics has begun to suggest that the division of medieval English literary history into Old and Middle subperiods masks fundamental continuities between pre- and post-Conquest alliterative verse. Progress in alliterative metrics refocuses the historical problems attendant upon rare poetic words like grass-bed. Conversely, against the backdrop of technical argumentation in the field of metrics, the study of words offers a second way of understanding the continuity of the alliterative tradition. This article explores connections between metrical history and lexical history via a case study of one especially long-lived and metrically marked poetic word.

a missing term in metrics

My article, “Systematicity, a Missing Term in Historical Metrics,” appears in Language and Literature. This article introduces a new technical term in historical metrics in order to address and connect two of the most persistent problems encountered by modern metrical specialists. The title of the article pays homage to a seminal essay in evolutionary biology, Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba’s “Exaptation—A Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Here’s the abstract:

This essay identifies two persistent problems in the historical study of meter—nonconformant metrical patterns and metrical change—and offers a new term as a conceptual tool for understanding their interdependence. The term ‘systematic’ denotes metrical patterns that conform to synchronically operant metrical principles. The corresponding term ‘asystematic’ denotes the minority of actually occurring metrical patterns that fall outside the metrical system as such for historical reasons. All systematic patterns are necessarily metrical, but not all metrical patterns are systematic. It is argued that the systematicity/metricality distinction in historical metrics is analogous to the regularity/grammaticality distinction in historical linguistics and similarly fundamental to historical analysis. By introducing a new technical term, this essay seeks to shift the metrist’s object of study from the metrical system qua system to meter as a complex historical experience. The value of the concept of systematicity is illustrated through three case studies in asystematic metrical patterns from early English poetic traditions: verses with three metrical positions in Beowulf, lines with masculine ending in Middle English alliterative verse, and the infamous ‘broken-backed lines’ in the pentameter of John Lydgate. In each case, it is argued that the contrast between systematic and asystematic metrical patterns illuminates the diverse historical and perceptual negotiations that inevitably lie behind metered texts.

new alliterative poetry

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I presented a paper in a panel entitled “Middle English Political Poetry.” Thanks to Nancy Warren for including me. Especially since the session took place at 8:30am on the last day of the conference, I’ve decided to post my paper, “New Alliterative Poetry in Middle English Prophecy Books,” in full here:

Political prophecy is one genre within the larger field of medieval English political writing. The history of the genre begins with the Prophecies of Merlin embedded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain (published c. 1138 CE). This text predicts the future of British national politics through coded symbolism in which nations are dragons, kings are boars, and rivers turn to blood. The Prophecies of Merlin and their later vernacular iterations were wildly popular in early Britain, to a greater extent than most medievalists recognize. Political prophecy was a major locus of literary activity well into the seventeenth century in Latin and the British vernaculars. Prophecies influenced the decisions of kings, shaped public perception of national politics, and landed people in prison (or worse). The conventions of political prophecy informed texts as different as the Middle English prose Brut, Piers Plowman, and Henry IV (Part One).

Political prophecy consistently gained prominence within the English literary field after 1400. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, English manuscript production turned increasingly to the genre. Large compilations like British Library MS Sloane 2578 and National Library of Wales MS Peniarth 26 offer an abundance of prophetic texts in verse and prose in English, Latin, and Welsh. Prophecy books, in which older and newer texts freely intermingle with few or no structures of textual layout to divide one from the next, are hard on bibliographers. Often it is not immediately obvious whether a given prophecy is a copy of an earlier text, a new composition, or some mixture of the two. As a result, texts in prophecy books are mostly unedited and often ignored.

After about 1450, political prophecy in English came to be associated with the alliterative meter. Fully six of the eight unrhymed alliterative poems datable to after 1450 are political prophecies. Four of them survive because of their inclusion in the printed Whole Prophesie of Scotland, &c. (1603), issued to celebrate the accession of a Scottish king to the English throne, a key prediction of medieval English political prophecies. The other two datably late alliterative prophecies, the Ireland Prophecy and the Vision of William Banastre, appear in large fifteenth- and sixteenth-century prophecy books. More on these poems shortly. Late copies of alliterative verse prophecies express a post-1450 prosodic typecasting that thrust alliterative poetry and political prophecy toward the same literary-cultural margins.

So far, I’ve introduced an understudied literary genre and indicated its special affiliation with the English alliterative tradition. In the course of writing a monograph on alliterative verse, I was enticed to hunt for new texts of alliterative poems in Middle English prophecy books. In what follows, I provide an overview of what I found. I list my discoveries not as a boast but to exhort you to join me in the trenches. There is so much to discover in these prophecy books!


My first exhibit, like some of the others, was discovered by chance. The Marvels of Merlin is a cross-rhymed alliterating Middle English political prophecy in twelve quatrains, beginning “Of al þe merveilis of Merlyn how he makes his mone.” As you can already tell from the first line, this prophecy falls squarely within the symbological tradition inaugurated by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Sharon Jansen, who gave the poem its title, notes twelve texts of the Marvels in six manuscripts. The earliest of these, British Library MS Harley 2382, dates to the late fifteenth century. The composition of the poem likely predates the copying of Harley 2382 by a few decades at most. Jansen interprets certain symbols in the Marvels as allusions to political events of the early 1460s. For example, the first quatrain mentions a lion, a rose, and a ragged staff, elements in the coat of arms of Henry VI and the heraldic badges of Edward IV and the earl of Warwick. Although the symbology of late medieval English political prophecy is obscure and polysemous by design, Jansen’s identifications are consistent with established conventions of this literary genre, in which heraldic devices come to life as avatars of their real-world owners. As its relatively large manuscript circulation attests, the Marvels of Merlin was a popular poem. Jansen finds the poem in anthologies of prophecies, in the state papers of Henry VIII, and even in the mouth of a servingman named Richard Swann at his 1538 trial in Kent for spreading the prophecy.

While transcribing a text of the Ireland Prophecy in British Library MS Additional 24663, a late sixteenth-century prophecy book, I came across a new text of the Marvels. This text does not appear in the New Index of Middle English Verse. It is laid out in prose paragraphs, like many previous and subsequent English prose and verse texts in this manuscript. Only the penultimate quatrain is lineated as verse. Lines 20 and 21 of the text are interrupted by a long section of prosified verse laid out as prose, beginning “Then in the land shal be greatt warres. . .” and ending “. . .and be the cheeff makere of peace and vnytie.” This material comes from an originally distinct verse prophecy. The final quatrain of the Marvels, thoroughly reworded as prose, appears after “ffinis” but before the next item. In short, this text is a mess, though the ways in which it is a mess are typical of sixteenth-century prophecy books.


My next two exhibits are alliterative poems that I have edited for the first time. The Ireland Prophecy and the Vision of William Banastre (as I call them) are late fifteenth-century political prophecies containing coded references to the Wars of the Roses. The Ireland Prophecy transmutes the Wars of the Roses into a Merlinic vision of a final showdown between the Britons and the Saxons. The poem ends with an acrostic spelling out ‘Ireland.’ In one manuscript the acrostic is ciphered in early Arabic numerals, where A=1, B=2, and so on. The allusion is likely to Richard, duke of York, who was appointed Lieutenant of Ireland by Henry VI and spent some time there just before he became involved in civil war in 1450. One allusion to contemporary politics may help date the poem. The poet refers to “[t]he rooke and þe ragged tre | þe rede baner vnder” (40). The “rooke” is probably John Trevelyan (1415-1475), whose badge featured a Cornish chough. The “ragged tre” is Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, whose badge featured a ragged staff. Finally, the “rede baner” evidently refers to the Red Rose of the House of Lancaster, whose claim to the throne Warwick initially defended in arms against the Yorkists in 1452. A tentative terminus post quem for the composition of the Ireland Prophecy can therefore be fixed at 1452, when the earl of Warwick became visible as a military supporter of the Lancastrian cause.

The Vision of William Banastre takes the form of an interview between a historical Member of Parliament and God. The poem begins in William Banastre’s voice: “Lord, sey me for þe mayden love | that thou þi modir calles/ What shall worthe of our kyng | lord, yf it be þi wyll?” God answers with specifics, mapping the Wars of the Roses back onto the Wars of Scottish Independence through allusions to key places and dates. The poem offers at least one first-rate literary effect, an extended simile comparing a hopeless siege to sailing upwind with no rudder. At one point, God foretells an important battle that will take place “by þe Mawdeleyn day” (July 22) (l. 58). This recalls the Battle of Falkirk, fought on July 22, 1298, in which the English under Edward I defeated the Scots under William Wallace. The prediction may refer more proximally to the Battle of Edgecote Moor, July 26, 1469, the first military expression of the rebellion of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick, against Edward IV. A tentative terminus post quem for the composition of the poem can therefore be fixed at summer 1469. Before this time, reference to “þe Mawdeleyn day” would have had no definite connection with contemporary dynastic conflicts.

The New Index of Middle English Verse lists three texts of the Ireland Prophecy and one of the Vision of William Banastre. I had initially produced article-length editions of the two poems based on these four texts. However, I subsequently learned of three other texts of the Ireland Prophecy and one other text of the Vision of William Banastre. These new texts, like the poems themselves, have received no substantive critical comment. The new texts of the Ireland Prophecy are all contained in manuscripts housed in Aberystwyth at the National Library of Wales: MSS 441C, Peniarth 26, and Peniarth 94. The Peniarth texts do appear in the New Index of Middle English Verse, but under a separate heading. The incipit in the Peniarth manuscripts differs just enough from that in the other manuscripts to allow for such multiplication of entities. William Marx brought the text in 441C to light in the course of preparing a fascicle of the Index of Middle English Prose, but because Marx mistook the fifth line of the poem for the incipit, he was unable to refer the text to either entry in the New Index of Middle English Verse. The new text of the Vision of William Banastre appears in Bodleian Library MS Rawlinson C.813, in a mid sixteenth-century prophecy book. This text was hiding in a cryptically brief entry in the Bodleian manuscript catalogue. I recognized the poem by its title, rendered in Latin in this manuscript rather than in English as in the other text of this poem.

These four new texts augment the documentary evidence on which my editions are based. I already knew that the Ireland Prophecy circulated in a short version and a long version. The two Peniarth manuscripts revealed a third version of middling length, presumably representing an intermediate stage of textual accretion. So the discovery of new manuscript sources clarified the textual history of the poem. All four new texts made modest but significant contributions to the recovery of original readings in my editions. Though six copies and two copies might sound like a small textual tradition, in the world of alliterative verse this counts as a cornucopia. By my count, only nine of the 45 extant (unrhymed) Middle English alliterative poems appear in more than two manuscripts or early printings. By adding three known manuscripts of the Ireland Prophecy to three misfiled copies, it becomes possible to recognize how popular this poem must have been. To judge from manuscript attestation, the Ireland Prophecy is the fifth most popular long Middle English alliterative poem, after Piers Plowman, the First and Second Scottish Prophecy, and the Siege of Jerusalem. The first of these, Piers Plowman, forms the subject of my final exhibit.


Piers Plowman is an expansive and brilliant poem attributed to one William Langland. The poem stages an allegorical/apocalyptic/philosophical inquiry into ethics and biblical history. Three or four times throughout the poem, a mysterious plowman named Piers emerges to galvanize the narrator Will, other people, and the reader in their metaphorical quest for truth. Piers Plowman culminates in a vision of the Passion of Jesus Christ, in which Jesus is simultaneously a persecuted god-man and a chivalric knight with a coat of arms and an entourage of biblical prophets and personifications of Christian virtues. It is a famously difficult poem, and it was immensely popular from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. It is known in over fifty substantial manuscript texts, more than three times as many as the next-best attested Middle English alliterative poem.

While hunting down the second text of the Vision of William Banastre in Rawlinson C.813, I noticed two previously unrecognized excerpts, each combining the same two passages from Piers Plowman. Here’s the beginning of the first passage, just as a taste:  “Ac I warne yow werkmen, | wynneþ whil ye mowe/ For hunger hiderward | hasteþ hym faste./ He shal awake [þoruʒ] water | wastours to chaste;/ Er fyue [yer] be fulfilled | swich famyn shal aryse./ Thoruʒ flo[od] and foule wedres | fruytes shul faille,/ And so sei[þ] Saturne | and sente yow to warne.” In Piers Plowman, these lines are not attributed to any character or personification: they stand at the end of a passus in the poem’s habitual disembodied thinking voice.

The Rawlinson excerpts join a variety of other textual evidence suggesting the extent to which the expectations of political prophecy shaped the reception of Piers Plowman in the sixteenth century. Early in the century, for example, Piers Plowman appeared in Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.31 as “The Prophecies of Piers Plowman,” complete with glosses and table of contents. Bryan Davis (“The Prophecies of Piers Plowman in Cambridge University Library MS Gg.4.31″) has highlighted the synergy between literary genre and textual ordinatio in this manuscript. Sloane 2578 contains a combined freestanding excerpt of both of the same two passages as Rawlinson C.813; this excerpt was first brought to light by Jansen (“Politics, Protest, and a New Piers Plowman Fragment”). British Library MS Additional 60577 contains a freestanding excerpt of one of these same passages in an early sixteenth-century hand, followed by the tag “Quod piers plowman.” This excerpt was brought to light by Lawrence Warner (“An Overlooked Piers Plowman Excerpt and the Oral Circulation of Non-Reformist Prophecy, c. 1520-55″). These are three examples of sixteenth-century readers identifying Piers Plowman as prophecy: there are dozens of others. These manuscripts illustrate how genre expectations could detach prophetic set-pieces from larger literary contexts and reinscribe them in other contexts. In the sixteenth century, Piers the Plowman entered the pantheon of prophets, and Piers Plowman became the repository or vehicle of his prophetic visions.


In conclusion, I’d like to identify some broader ramifications of these minor bibliographical discoveries. Most immediately, these new texts of alliterative poems illuminate the last phase in the history of a metrical tradition. Questions about the development of the alliterative tradition gave the initial impetus to my searches in late prophecy books. New texts of the Marvels of Merlin, the Ireland Prophecy, the Vision of William Banastre, and Piers Plowman indicate that alliterative verse became typecast as prophetic after 1450. Such typecasting was both a cause and an effect of the marginalization of alliterative verse in metrical culture following the promotion of new English meters, first in the thirteenth century and increasingly through the fourteenth.

The propheticization of alliterative verse also adumbrates the sources and tastes of compilers of late prophecy books. Prophecy was all the rage in late fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Britain, and readers and writers poured massive energy into preserving, producing, and consuming it. In this period, historiography, political discourse, and ethical dialogue could all take the form of prophecy.

Literary activities of the early sixteenth century escape our notice for a quite specific professional reason. Such activities do not fall directly under the purview either of medievalists or of early modernists. Consequently, sixteenth-century texts of Middle English poems currently live in bibliographical limbo. There is, I am quite sure, a forest of new texts out there, waiting to be surveyed. In this way, the tradition of British political prophecy poses a particularly acute challenge to the modern disciplinary distinction between medieval and modern. It also poses a challenge to our habitual distinction between literature and history. Prophecy doesn’t respect these boundaries— and neither should we.

counting and scanning

This weekend, I presented a paper at Digital Britain: New Approaches to the Early Middle Ages in Cambridge, MA. My gratitude to Sam Berstler, Joey McMullen, and Erica Weaver for the invitation, and for organizing the conference. My paper, “Counting and Scanning: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to Early English Meter,” is an essay in the philosophy of science, focusing on the use of quantitative reasoning in a specialized field of literary study. Here’s the opening frame:

This is a paper in defense of counting in literary studies. It’s also a paper about why counting needs defending in literary studies in 2016. First, I’d like to connect these topics to the conference theme.

The so-called digital turn in academic knowledge production poses a material challenge to the methodological status quo of the humanities. Digital technology makes a bold promise: the quantification of human experience. For constituents of the status quo, the promise of digital technology seems more like a threat. Many humanists worry about what is lost when the richness of culture and the arts is reduced to data. For others, digital tech enables the humanities to live up to their potential. To take an egregious example, Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ does not merely claim to be a good method of reading literature; it claims to be the best method. In promoting statistical approaches to literary history, Moretti taps into philosophical attitudes that predate the digital. His aggressive empiricism is at once the attraction and the scandal of distant reading.

Thus the digital turn irritates a long-standing tension in humanistic study between qualitative and quantitative methods. I propose to explore this tension by focusing on a field of inquiry that bears an unusual relationship to it. Metrics, depending on your perspective, is either the field entrusted with explaining what makes poetry poetry, or the field charged with inferring an organizational system from linguistic patterning. Metrical scholarship combines qualitative and quantitative reasoning in a way that has become uncomfortable in literary studies.

Discomfort with the modus operandi of metrics is acute in the case of early medieval literature, whose systems of formal organization lie at a great cultural remove from those of modern literature. In reconstructing early medieval meters, the value of modern experiences of poetics, and hence the network of assumptions underlying data collection, is always open to question. About the meter of Beowulf, for example, it is currently possible to hold any one of a number of mutually contradictory theoretical views. Moreover, Old English metrical theories cluster in two incommensurable research paradigms, one continuously elaborated since the nineteenth century, the other disclosed for the first time in 2008 (see Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics”). Metrists disagree, and they disagree about why they disagree. For many literary scholars, meanwhile, metrics is a field that deploys the rhetoric of accumulation to make exaggerated claims on historical truth.

counting and scanning header

In light of these problems, what I’d like to do this morning is to sketch the function of counting in metrics, with reference to my research on English alliterative verse. I have two goals: to affirm the role of quantitative reasoning in literary study, and then to set a certain limit on that role. In what follows, I identify and address two philosophical challenges to counting as a critical method. One challenge comes from the right, framed in the language of neopositivism; the other comes from the left, framed in the language of poststructuralism. I contend that the neopositivist and poststructuralist positions both miss the full significance of counting as a way of getting at “the heart of a poem,” in the words of Simon Jarvis. Ultimately, I’ll argue that metrical study explodes the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches to literature.