I have a piece in Inside Higher Ed today, on the teaching of poetry and decolonizing the curriculum. It’s called “Petitions and the Power of Poetry/Students Should Be Taught New Kinds of Poetry.”
Medieval literature shows ways out of the dystopian novel Trump is forcing us to inhabit
President Trump’s new executive order on immigration, issued today, closely resembles the January executive order that preceded it. A federal judge in Washington state halted the first order on constitutional grounds, a decision upheld by a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision last month.
The first executive order, according to some political observers, was straight out of a dystopian novel. Titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” the order immediately suspended all travel to the U.S. from Syria and six other Muslim-majority countries. The move appeared hastily executed and lacked a coherent rationale from the perspective of national security. Why those seven countries, critics wanted to know, and not other Muslim-majority countries? Why bar entry to green-card holders, who had already been intensely vetted? Why provide no warning, stranding thousands of legal immigrants and long-time permanent residents abroad?
Today’s order has the same title and the same purpose. Iraq has negotiated an exit from the list, and the second order, unlike the first, does not specify an indefinite ban on Syrian immigrants. The new order goes into effect in ten days.
In official statements regarding the first order, the White House insisted that the ban was not a ban, and especially that it was not a Muslim ban—though the text of the January order named only Muslim-majority nations and allowed for exceptions “when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality.” These and similar bald self-contradictions elicited comparisons to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other works of fiction that imagine the coercive power of a fully totalitarian state. Nineteen Eighty-Four currently sits at #22 on Amazon’s bestseller list. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is #37; a television series is forthcoming on Hulu. Nineteen Eighty-Four had topped the list following the January order. People are hungry for answers and precedents.
In place of the exceptions for religious minorities, section 1.b.iv of the March order defends the January order against charges of religious discrimination and Islamophobia. The language is worth quoting in full:
(iv) Executive Order 13769 did not provide a basis for discriminating for or against members of any particular religion. While that order allowed for prioritization of refugee claims from members of persecuted religious minority groups, that priority applied to refugees from every nation, including those in which Islam is a minority religion, and it applied to minority sects within a religion. That order was not motivated by animus toward any religion, but was instead intended to protect the ability of religious minorities — whoever they are and wherever they reside — to avail themselves of the USRAP in light of their particular challenges and circumstances.
Note that the first executive order named no countries “in which Islam is a minority religion”! Notice, too, how important it is for those who crafted both orders to dispute the (blatantly) hateful motivation of the first order after the fact. Section 1.b.iv exemplifies this administration’s agonistic relationship with the truth. Expect Nineteen Eighty-Four to see another spike in sales.
Reference to dystopian novels is appropriate not so much because Nineteen Eighty-Four predicts Trumpism as because Trump behaves like a caricature, bypassing the details of policy in pursuit of ratings. The immigration executive orders, like other actions taken by Trump in the first months of his presidency, seem motivated by a desire to rile up his base rather than by any informed political program. The settings in which his actions make sense, and to which they are directed, remain the Twitterverse and the well-attended rallies of the faithful.
The idea that the immigration bans make American citizens safer could be charitably described as a fantasy. No national of any of the six (or seven) countries has killed anyone in a terrorist attack in the United States in the past 15 years. Most years, more Americans die at the hands of toddlers with guns than perish by terrorist violence. This includes domestic terrorism, which neither version of “Protecting the Nation” addresses. As often in politics (and fiction), ideology masquerades as policy. The executive orders amount to an emotional indulgence for xenophobic factions on the right. Therein lies their fictional essence. Of course, that is no consolation for those affected by the bans nor their families in the United States and abroad. Fiction is not an escape from reality but a way of experiencing it. Emotional indulgences always seem to come at the price of someone else’s pain.
For the time being, Americans (and the world) may be locked in a Nineteen-Eighty-Four-meets-hotel-commercial storyline. Kellyanne Conway’s phrase “alternative facts” set off alarm bells in January but actually falls short of Trump’s own brand of doublethink. According to Trump, there is no verifiable reality to which his discourse is alternative. “Any negative polls,” he tweeted last month, “are fake news.” Ipso facto, apparently. If the departure from Bush-Clinton-Obama gentility seems sudden, that is to some extent because Americans have spent the previous decades asleep, unable or unwilling to diagnose less well-advertised Orwellian developments. From his predecessors, Trump inherits a vast machinery of immigration laws, drones, and detention centers. He has only to use it.
Looking back beyond 20th-century dystopian fiction can suggest other, more constructive forms of collective political imagination. In 14th-century England, Syria was celebrated as the homeland of the founders of Britain. According to a version of the wildly popular medieval historical narrative known as the Brut, Britain was discovered long before the birth of Christ by 33 Syrian sisters. Their father, the story goes, had married them off to 33 Syrian noblemen, whom they despised. The husbands beat their wives, but “they behaved even worse than before.” Their father, the king of Syria, was ashamed. He sent for his 33 daughters and told them to shape up or “lose his love forever.” The women responded by killing their husbands in the middle of the night, whereupon they were banished from Syria and set sail for Britain. The eldest sister, Albina, gave her name to the new country: Albion.
The Albina legend is one of many origin stories that circulated in medieval England. In an earlier version, the women are said to come from Greece. Later on in the Brut, Britain is founded by the eponymous Brutus of Troy, great-grandson of Aeneas. That Albina and Brutus belong to legend rather than historical fact does nothing to mitigate their power as ideas. By tracing British polities back across the sea to Greek or Syrian nobility and Trojan conquerors, medieval English readers connected their island—situated at the edge of the known world—to cosmopolitan culture. For subjects with something to prove, immigration is not a problem but a necessity.
The medieval English view of Syria was by no means egalitarian, however. After arriving on the island, Albina and her sisters become “wondrous eager” for men, lie with the Devil, and engender a race of giants whom Brutus must later eradicate. Temporal and physical distance from ancient Syria enabled readers of the Brut to project fantastical qualities onto the 33 immigrant sisters. The Albina legend participates in then-current discourses surrounding race, gender, and the East.
At the same time, the story typifies the possibilities of literary imagination before modern nationalism. Scholars of medieval culture disagree about whether it makes sense to speak of ‘nations’ in the Middle Ages. If 14th-century England was a nation, it was a different kind from modern global powers like the United Kingdom and the United States. A monarchy administered by a hypermobile, multilingual elite, late medieval England was, in the words of Derek Pearsall, “part of the continent, and not a very important part” (Old English and Middle English Poetry, p. 85). The political imperative behind the Albina legend was the need to disavow Britain’s geographical and cultural marginality. When Chaucer entered the literary scene in the 1360s, he didn’t assume the cultural superiority of the English language. On the contrary, his provocation consisted in writing haute French and Italian literature, but writing it in English.
Intervening between Chaucer and our current literary/political moment is the idea of the nation in the modern sense, an idea over which much ink has been spilled and for which countless people have died. Most political thought and action since the Enlightenment, from Mandela to Mussolini, has unfolded inside the idea of the nation. Trump’s ascendancy, like the result of the Brexit referendum in the UK, represents a rejection of late-century globalization and nostalgia for a nationalistic status quo. “Protect the Nation” is “Make America Great Again” and “America First” translated into an executive order. It is the arbitrary exercise of spiteful isolationism. Either version of the document could be fiction, if their effects on thousands of innocent lives were not so palpable. The protests at airports and across the country in January had a symbolic flavor, as protests tend to do. There were allusions to Lady Liberty, Voldemort, Mordor, and Orwell. The symbolism of literary fantasy, empty as it often must be, made a strangely appropriate response to such a destructive empty gesture. Expect more of the same this week.
Trump’s campaign platform named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. Hence the resonance with the hypernationalized future landscapes of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. Hence the Hulu series, whose viewers will presumably investigate their authoritarian reality by entering a yet more authoritarian fictional world. Medieval literature serves as a reminder that the political imaginary can exist beyond the traps and clichés of closed borders.
My note, “Adam Scriveyn and Chaucer’s Metrical Practice,” appears in Medium Ævum. Here’s the opening:
In a recent article in this journal, A. S. G. Edwards casts doubt on the traditional attribution of Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn to Geoffrey Chaucer. Edwards begins by questioning the reliability of John Shirley’s attribution of the poem to Chaucer in the unique surviving manuscript copy, Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.20 (second quarter of fifteenth c.). He then mobilizes generic, lexical, and thematic evidence indicating that Adam Scriveyn (I will use this short title) was composed not by Chaucer but by ‘a person with overall responsibility for overseeing the writing of a manuscript or manuscripts of Chaucer’s works’, in whose voice, Edwards argues, the poem is most comfortably read. The present note supplements the case against Chaucerian authorship of Adam Scriveyn with metrical evidence.
Adam Scriveyn is composed in the English pentameter, the accentual-syllabic metre that Chaucer invented and popularized. It comprises a single stanza of rhyme royal (rhyming ababbcc), one of the stanza forms invented by Chaucer. […]
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 a 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.]