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.

a companion website

Through a generous grant from Boston College’s Academic Technology Advisory Board, I have received funding to use the MediaKron digital toolkit to build a companion website for my undergraduate course, Middle English Alliterative Poetry. An in-progress version of the site is publicly available here. The site currently features a short guide to Middle English pronunciation, with sound clips; a short guide to Middle English alliterative meter, with bibliography; a short guide to medieval English codicology and paleography, with annotated manuscript images and bibliography; and a timeline of poems and significant historical events, with short descriptions and bibliographies. Through collaboration with my students, the site will eventually feature an introduction to each course text, with annotated manuscript images and bibliographies. Here’s the course description, which also appears on the landing page of the website:

In the fourteenth century, there were two ways of writing poetry in English. Chaucer’s rhyming, syllable-counting iambic pentameter exemplifies one tradition. This course makes a survey of the other tradition, known today as alliterative poetry. Among the poems we will read are tales of King Arthur’s court, the story of a resurrected corpse discovered in London, and a wild allegorical dream-vision starring such characters as Bribery and Truth. We ask how this poetry is formally organized, where this form of writing comes from, and why medieval English writers chose to use it. No prior knowledge of Middle English required.

listening to syntax

At Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference in Madison, CT, I participated in a critical seminar called “Listening to the Line.” My gratitude to Natalie Gerber for the invitation, and for organizing and leading the seminar. What follows is a modified version of the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my paper, “Listening to the Syntax of Alliterative Poetry.” This paper is not a fully developed critical argument but an attempt at an exposition, for a non-medievalist audience, of a historical perplexity from my area of specialization:

Historical background

The term ‘alliterative meter’ denotes the unrhymed meter used in Old English poetry, as in Beowulf (?eighth/tenth century); in Early Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Lawman’s Brut (c. 1200); and in Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century). This verse form does not survive to the present day: sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century, the alliterative meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms.

Modern scholars inevitably approach the alliterative meter with expectations molded by the experience of scanning accentual-syllabic poetry. Such expectations are generally unhelpful for appreciating the historically significant aspects of the alliterative meter, however. A useful opposition for capturing the difference between accentual-syllabic verse forms and the alliterative meter is deductive/inductive. Deductive meters, such as iambic pentameter, consist of the concatenation of perceptually similar metrical units (feet, syllables, etc.). As a result, they have a predictable beat (hence ‘deductive’), even if this beat is only ever notional. Inductive meters, such as the alliterative long line, consist of the juxtaposition of perceptually dissimilar metrical units. As a result, they have no predictable beat, not even a notional one. Instead, the pattern of each metrical unit must be discovered on a case-by-case basis through the application of specialized rules for the assignment of metrical stress (hence ‘inductive’).

Weird syntax

Just as Middle English alliterative meter disrupts many of the expectations that modern readers have learned to bring to modern verse, so too the syntax of Middle English alliterative poetry disrupts the syntactical expectations involved in parsing canonical English poetry from Geoffrey Chaucer to Robert Frost. From a modern perspective, the syntax of Middle English alliterative verse can seem weird, unnecessarily complex, or archaizing. This perception captures something important about the syntax of alliterative verse, but it is also the result of left turns and blind alleys in literary history, which have alienated modern commentators from the alliterative tradition. In this sense, the strange syntax of Middle English alliterative verse measures the historical distance between fourteenth- and twenty-first-century literary cultures.



Readers will have noticed by now that syntactical inversions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cluster in the second half of the line, and often at the very end of the line. There is a metrical reason for this asymmetrical distribution. While syntax may seem like its own, independent domain, in alliterative verse meter and syntax are best understood as two expressions of a single internalized metrical grammar. Many of the inversions discussed here occur in part for metrical convenience. So for example, “as I in toun herde” “as I heard in town” (Gawain 31) avoids a pattern with two long dips (*as I herde in toun). Patterns with two long dips were not part of the metrical system of the second half of the line in fourteenth-century alliterative verse. Thus meter and syntax work together to create normative lines. There is an analogy to be made to the way that Donald Wesling describes the interface of meter and syntax in modern accentual-syllabic meters (Wesling, The Scissors of Meter).

Syntax also takes on a life of its own in Middle English alliterative verse as a marker of poetic artifice. Even if they strike modern readers as unnecessarily complex, syntactical inversions in Middle English alliterative poetry seem to have signaled a high and serious poetic style. And alliterative poetry is nothing if not serious: in addition to the gold-and-tinsel Arthurian antiquity of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the corpus includes the apocalyptic/homiletic/satiric masterpiece Piers Plowman, the luridly anti-Semitic Siege of Jerusalem, the high-chivalric Destruction of Troy, and a number of allusive political prophecies inspired by the Prophecies of Merlin embedded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138). There are no straightforwardly comedic or celebratory alliterative poems, or at least none that have survived. The affect of alliterative narrative is characteristically high-minded and sententious. Encoding and deciphering elaborate syntactical inversions made up an important part of the cultural value of composing and reading (or hearing) this poetry.

Finally, we might inquire why Middle English alliterative verse exhibits the stylized syntactical inversions that it does. To answer this question requires comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to earlier alliterative poems. Such a comparison reveals that syntactical inversions had always characterized the alliterative tradition. In the openings of Beowulf and the Brut, we find, e.g., “þrym gefrunon” (prose order “gefrunon (þone) þrym” “heard of the might”) (Beowulf 2) and “at æðelen are chirechen” (prose order “at are æðelen chirechen” “at a splendid church”) (Brut 3). Neither of these arrangements was characteristic of Old English or Early Middle English prose syntax, and thus, inferentially, neither was characteristic of the poets’ normal spoken syntax. The syntax of fourteenth-century alliterative verse, then, shows historical pressure from earlier phases of this metrical tradition. If so, the often contorted syntax of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight expresses a relation of belonging in metrical tradition. Writing “baret þat lofden” instead of “þat lofden baret” “who loved battle” was not only syntactically permissible and metrically expedient; it also amounted to a prise de position in late medieval English literary culture. By contrasting the syntax of Middle English alliterative verse with that of other Middle English literature (where such inversions are rare to non-existent), we can begin to delineate the cultural stakes of alliterative meter and its weird syntax.

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.

Gawain in 101 tweets

This month, I composed a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 101 tweets, corresponding to the 101 stanzas of the original Middle English alliterative poem. This project was inspired by Elaine Treharne’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf in 100 tweets and Alice-Catherine Jennings’s translation of the Old French poem Song of Roland in 291 tweets. To create my translation, I cross-referenced Neilson’s translation with the original Middle English text.

I was thinking about Gawain because I have been reading it with my undergraduate seminar, Literary Approaches to the Past. One of the themes of the course is the way that attitudes toward the distant past find expression not only in literature but also in the material conditions of its production, transmission, and reception. We began with William Caxton’s printed edition of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, and we will end with Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. In late April, we will visit the Burns Library at Boston College to explore rare books and manuscripts relating to the course content.

Gawain occurs in only one manuscript copy, known today as British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. Unusually for a manuscript of medieval English poetry, Cotton Nero A.x has illustrations depicting scenes from the four poems it contains, including Gawain. I chose to include images of the manuscript text and manuscript illustrations at appropriate points in my translation, because I felt that this was an opportunity for medieval and modern text technologies to speak to one another. Ironically, in this my translation comes closer to reproducing a medieval experience of reading Gawain than modern critical editions, which tend not to include images of the manuscript text or the illustrations.

Translating Gawain in 101 tweets was an exercise in concision; it also taught me two things about the poem as a poem. First, I was reminded that this is a poem of lists: lists of clothing items, lists of food, lists of animal parts, lists of landscape features. Many of the tweets took the form of a list. Second, the third section of the poem is very long. The poet devotes more attention to Gawain’s stay at Hautdesert Castle, its three hunting scenes interlaced with three bedroom scenes, than to any other event in the poem. This imbalance teaches us something about the poet’s conception of the poem as a narrative; it also raises questions about the conventional modern title for the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which refers only to the action of the first and fourth sections.