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.]

Meter as a way of thinking

Yesterday, I gave an invited talk for the MIT Ancient & Medieval Studies Colloquium Series. My gratitude to Arthur Bahr for the invitation. My talk was entitled “Early English Meter as a Way of Thinking.” Here’s the opening frame of the talk:

This paper is about structures of thought that happen to take the form of poetry. So stated, my object of inquiry would seem to be intellectual history, to which poetics is subordinated. However, I will strive to demonstrate that verse form is never incidental to the thinking it performs. Apprehending meter as a way of thinking necessarily involves reimagining thinking itself.

My title echoes Simon Jarvis, who recommends approaching “prosody as cognition.” Jarvis had Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth in mind when he coined that phrase. I seek to test Jarvis’s concept against a different literary archive, exploring the particular kinds of thinking done by and through early English meter. I’ll focus on the second half of the fourteenth century, a stretch of decades that saw a large uptick in the production of literature in English. As we will see, in medieval England meter was a way of thinking about form and balance, translation and vernacularity, and the historicity of literary practice. I’ll present three case studies introducing three kinds of metrical practice: the half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter, the interplay between Latin and English in Piers Plowman, and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter.

The protagonists of the three case studies are the three biggest names in Middle English literature: the Gawain poet, William Langland, and Geoffrey Chaucer. The first of these is no name at all but a cypher: the Gawain poet, thought to have composed the four poems in British Library Cotton Nero MS A.X. For this poet, no external evidence for authorship or biography has been identified. William Langland is little more than a floating name in literary history: mentioned in a few contemporary documents, Langland probably belonged to the well-to-do Rokele family. The name ‘Langland’ itself may be a pseudonym. Chaucer, of course, is the Grand Poobah of medieval English literature. Like Gilbert and Sullivan’s character, Chaucer was chronically overemployed; at one time or another he was a clerk, controller of customs, diplomat, esquire, forester, page, and soldier. These three poets have garnered the lion’s share of scholarly attention, and this paper follows suit by placing them at the center of an essay in historical poetics. But I’ll continually emphasize how the metrical practice of a range of contemporary and prior poets shaped the structures of thought informing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and the Canterbury Tales.

My broadest aim this afternoon is to convince you that intellectual history and poetics can inform one another. Indeed, where poetry is concerned, the procedures of the two fields ought to coincide. Medievalists have made significant contributions toward understanding poetry as cognition: I’m thinking especially of the work of Ruth Evans, Alastair Minnis, Fiona Somerset, Nicholas Watson, and others under the banner of what Minnis calls “medieval literary theory.” This research program compares the explicit theories of authority and textuality propounded in Latin by medieval scholars with the often implicit theorization of literature performed by vernacular texts themselves. To date, few medievalists have considered the intellectual significance of English meter, though I am indebted to the work of Thomas Cable, a metrist who has always insisted that the study of meter is about “mental structures.” From the perspective of intellectual history, I propose to enrich the study of medieval literary theory by disaggregating the English literary field by metrical tradition. Alliterative meter does not think the same way pentameter thinks; the difference should matter in any account of medieval literary theory. From the perspective of poetics, I propose to redirect the philological procedures of the highly traditionalist field of metrics toward a phenomenological poetics. If meter lives in the mind, then it is part of the job of a metrist to discover what it is doing up there.

Quantity in the alliterative tradition

This past weekend, I presented a short paper at the MLA Annual Convention in Austin. My paper, “Quantity in the Alliterative Tradition,” summarizes current thinking on the topic. Thanks to Natalie Gerber and Tom Cable for including my paper in a panel on quantity in English verse. Here is a modified version of the paper:

Quantity matters in the meter of Beowulf and other early English poems. It matters in the form of a metrical principle known as resolution. Metrical resolution served alliterative poets as a way of counting; it can serve modern scholars as evidence for the cultural meanings of verse craft. This paper therefore has two sections: How it Works and What it Means.

How it Works

Metrical resolution operates at the conjunction of metrical stress and syllabic quantity. Resolution works like this: a metrically stressed, quantitatively short syllable plus the following syllable is equivalent to a metrically stressed, quantitatively long syllable. Short stressed + any = long stressed. In the wacky math of alliterative meter, 1 + 1 = 1. Both sides of the equation count as a single metrically strong position, or ‘lift.’ Short syllables are those with an etymologically short vowel followed by zero consonants. (I mark long vowels with macrons.) So for example, in Beowulf 3a hū ða æþelingas ‘how the noblemen,’ æþel- undergoes resolution, resulting in the metrical pattern xxSrSx, where ‘S’ represents a lift without metrical resolution, ‘Sr’ represents a lift with metrical resolution, and ‘x’ represents an unstressed syllable. The pattern xxSrSx is equivalent to xxSSx but not to xxSxSx. In Old English meter, resolution is quasi-obligatory.

The relevance of metrical stress is what distinguishes resolution from the quantitative principles of classical meters. In alliterative meter, two adjacent unstressed, short syllables never add up to one long syllable. In other words, the first of the two syllables undergoing resolution must be one that receives stress. (In alliterative verse, metrical stress is assigned by prosodic weight: content words, such as nouns, receive stress, while function words, such as pronouns, do not.)

In Old English meter, resolution works in harmony with a number of other principles in the metrical system. The quantitative principle is like one functionality of a multifarious and well-oiled machine. The experience of applying resolution in versification and scansion must have been something like this: once metrical stress is assigned to a syllable, check the quantity. If long, count the syllable as a lift. If short, look to the right and count the next syllable together with the first syllable as a lift.

So resolution is a way of counting. It is equally important in historical perspective, as evidence for the development of the alliterative meter. The standard narrative has been that resolution fell into disuse around the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), along with most other features of Old English meter.

More recently, however, Nicolay Yakovlev has demonstrated that resolution continued to be used in alliterative verse into the thirteenth century. In his 2008 Oxford thesis, “The Development of Alliterative Metre from Old to Middle English,” Yakovlev convincingly identifies the use of resolution in Lawman’s Brut, a twelfth-century alliterative verse chronicle. So for example, in Brut 144b & þene dēað þolien ‘and suffer death,’ þoli– undergoes resolution, resulting in the metrical pattern xxxSSrx. The pattern xxxSSrx is equivalent to xxxSSx but not to xxxSSxx. Obviously the judgment that Brut 144b shows resolution depends on an idea of what metrical patterns were acceptable to Lawman. It is only by assuming a certain metrical pattern that you can project resolution in the first place. The same is true, by the way, of Old English meter, but I didn’t mention it earlier because we know a lot about the metrical patterning of Old English verse. Before Yakovlev, we knew next to nothing about the metrical patterning of the Brut. In Early Middle English alliterative meter, resolution is optional rather than quasi-obligatory.

Yakovlev’s arguments about metrical resolution are one small part of a paradigm-shifting demonstration that the alliterative meter was in continuous use from the seventh to the sixteenth century. This conclusion flies in the face of 75 years of metrical and literary scholarship. You may have heard of the Alliterative Revival. According to Yakovlev, no such event occurred. For Yakovlev, metrical resolution is one vector of formal continuity in metrical history. In other words, resolution helps us see that the meter used in Lawman’s Brut is a later instantiation of the meter used in Beowulf: significantly changed, yes, but through continuous development rather than reinvention.

Finally, let’s bring our story to the end of the alliterative tradition: the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries, the age of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story here is simple. Resolution really did die out. Everyone agrees that resolution is no longer functional in Middle English alliterative meter. So for example, in Gawain 6b and pātrounes bicome ‘and became overlords,’ –come does not undergo resolution, resulting in the pattern xSxxxSx. The pattern xSxxxSx is not equivalent to xSxxxSr or xSxxxS.

To sum up, resolution was a historically dynamic feature of the English alliterative meter. Resolution was in use from the earliest recorded poems in the seventh and eighth centuries down to the beginning of the thirteenth century. First it was quasi-obligatory; then it became an optional feature; then it disappeared. The alliterative meter incorporated quantity for at least five centuries but then continued to evolve without quantity for three more centuries.

What it Means

Most immediately, metrical resolution means that alliterative poets were thinking about quantity in the process of versification and scansion. I want to emphasize how odd that is. Resolution recapitulates equivalences that are thought to have obtained in prehistoric Old English, when quantity played a larger role in the regulation of syllables. Yet resolution remained a feature of alliterative meter as late as c. 1200. So one way to understand resolution is as a metrical vestige: a linguistic principle became encoded as a metrical principle, and the metrical principle then outlived the linguistic one by centuries. By the time Lawman employed it, resolution had become a highly artificial principle, only thinkable in the context of a durable poetic tradition.

Alliterative poets were thinking about quantity in vernacular versification, but this thinking lay on a different conceptual plane from theoretical knowledge about Latin metrics. English alliterative verse rose and fell before poets began experimenting with classical quantities in English verse. The last alliterative poems also predate the earliest treatises on English meter. Obviously these two historical developments, metrical and intellectual, are directly connected: you cannot employ classical quantities in English meter until English meter becomes a reputable object of academic attention. And that did not happen until the closing decades of the sixteenth century. By then, the alliterative meter had already gone defunct. Alliterative poets have left behind no ars poetica and very little explicit commentary of any kind on their own metrical practice in the vernacular. Poets probably learned alliterative meter tacitly, through repeated imitation of their predecessors. Therefore, metrical resolution in the alliterative tradition was almost certainly not a learned imitation of classical meter. So another way of understanding resolution is as a cultural phenomenon: an illustration of how metrical features can function and fall away in the absence of explicit prosodic theory.

Partly because of the lack of an ars poetica, it has proven difficult for modern scholars to reconstruct alliterative verse. Since the early nineteenth century, alliterative meter has most often been described as accentual, but this is an overstatement. The quantitative principle coexisted with the accentual principle in the eleventh, twelfth, and early thirteenth centuries. Alliterative meter in these centuries was a blended form, accentual-quantitative. Moreover, Yakovlev has made the stunning argument that Old English meter was not accentual at all. (For the significance of this claim, see Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics.”) So a third way of understanding resolution is as a historiographical corrective: a reminder that alliterative verse was more complexly organized than you might have heard.

Metrical vestige, cultural phenomenon, historiographical corrective: in promising new research, quantity in the alliterative tradition is all of these, and more.

I have also deposited the paper in MLA CORE.

Tradition and literary history

My first book, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History, is published by Cambridge University Press (2016).

Eric Weiskott, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary HistoryEnglish Alliterative Verse tells the story of the medieval poetic tradition that includes Beowulf, Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, stretching from the eighth century, when English poetry first appeared in manuscripts, to the sixteenth century, when alliterative poetry ceased to be composed. The book draws on the study of meter to challenge the traditional division of medieval English literary history into ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ periods. The two halves of the alliterative tradition, divided by the Norman Conquest of 1066, have been studied separately since the nineteenth century; this book uses the history of metrical form and its cultural meanings to bring the two halves back together. In combining literary history and metrical description into a new kind of history called ‘verse history,’ English Alliterative Verse reimagines the historical study of poetics.

Individual chapters consider (1) Beowulf; (2) prologues to Old English poetry; (3) Lawman’s Brut, an alliterative verse chronicle of the twelfth century; (4) prologues to Middle English poetry; (5) St. Erkenwald, an alliterative romance of the fourteenth or fifteenth century; and (6) the alliterative tradition in the sixteenth century.

A version of Chapter 3 appears in an edited volume devoted to Lawman’s Brut. I have also edited two late fifteenth-century alliterative poems, The Ireland Prophecy (Studies in Philology) and The Vision of William Banastre (in an edited volume devoted to early English poetics), and I have brought to light two sixteenth-century excerpts from Piers Plowman (Review of English Studies). These new texts inform the arguments of Chapter 6. Four articles bring the arguments and methods of the book to related topics: the relationship between metrical history and language history (Modern Philology); the meter of Piers Plowman (Yearbook of Langland Studies); the history of modern scholarship on medieval verse (ELH); and the historical study of poetics (Modern Language Quarterly).


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.