An oxymoron in Beowulf

My note, “An Oxymoron in Beowulf,” appears in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. This note identifies an oxymoron in the description of Beowulf’s final showdown with the dragon. Here’s the text of the passage in question and the opening frame of the note:

ðær he þy fyrste     forman dogore
wealdan moste     swa him wyrd ne gescraf
hreð æt hilde

                        (Beowulf 2573-75a)

In commentary on this difficult passage, scholars have focused on the syntactical function of the two ambiguous adverb/conjunctions ðær “there; where” and swa “thus; as” and the two adverbial phrases þy fyrste “on that occasion” and forman dogore “for/on the first day/time.” In order to make sense of the passage, many critics give ðær the uncommon meaning “if,” and some construe swa as introducing a relative clause, a difficult interpretation that lacks clear support elsewhere in the corpus. Some scholars also take forman dogore instrumentally with wealdan, thereby spoiling the evident syntactical parallelism between þy fyrste and forman dogore.

Yet the primary difficulty is surely that wealdan means just the opposite of what narrative context seems to require here: “rule,” not “succumb.” […]

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.

Neidorf, Dating of “Beowulf”

My review of The Dating of “Beowulf”: A Reassessment, ed. Leonard Neidorf (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2014), appears in the Review of English Studies. Here’s the opening of the review:

This collection, published under the same title as the 1981 University of Toronto Press volume that it hopes to supersede, grew out of a conference at Harvard University. Thirteen contributors reconsider the dating of Beowulf, and each of them concludes or accepts that Beowulf was composed in the eighth century. As the singular noun of the subtitle suggests, this Dating of ‘Beowulf’ is less a report from the field than a concerted provocation.