Saint Kenelm, illustrated

My note, “Saint Kenelm in an Imaginative Illustration,” appears in Notes & Queries. The note concerns a twelfth-century illustration of Kenelm, also featured on the cover of my first book. Here’s the opening:

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 368 (mid or late twelfth c.) contains one of eight complete surviving copies of the Vita et miracula Sancti Kenelmi (1066–1075). The Vita is the earliest substantial account of the career of Kenelm, whose story would go on to feature in the South English Legendary and later English and Anglo-Latin texts. The narrative recounts Kenelm’s premonitory vision, decapitation, surreptitious burial, and posthumous rediscovery. In the climactic scene, the location of the saint’s murdered body is divulged to the pope in Rome by a dove carrying in its beak ‘a snow-white parchment inscribed with golden letters in English’ (‘niueam menbranam aureis litteris anglice inscriptam’, §10). In Douce 368 and other early manuscripts of the Vita, the English inscription is reported as a rhyming Latin couplet. However, three thirteenth- and fourteenth-century manuscripts gloss the passage with an English alliterative couplet: ‘In Klent Koubeche | Kenelm kunebearn/ liy under yorne | heaved bereved’ (‘In Clent Cow-valley, Kenelm the royal scion lies under a thorn-bush, decapitated’). The English alliterative couplet survives elsewhere in a free-standing late twelfth-century copy. An early eleventh-century application of the epithet cynebearn to Kenelm suggests that the alliterative poem predates the Vita. Like Cædmon’s Hymn, another miraculous English poetic utterance, the alliterative snippet on Kenelm seems to have moved from memory (in the earliest manuscripts) to the margins (in later manuscripts) and finally to the main text (in later redactions of the legend).

The Douce 368 text of the Vita opens on folio 80r with a historiated initial D depicting a resplendent Kenelm crowned and enthroned, a globus cruciger in one hand and a lily in the other. A dove with wings spread and beak open occupies the upper right corner of the illustration, over Kenelm’s shoulder. To the extent that they take notice of such details, scholars offer contradictory interpretations of the function of the dove. A note in a modern hand in the manuscript describes ‘the dove bringing the narrative of his murder’, evidently mistaking Kenelm for the Pope. F. W. Potto Hicks remarks only that ‘the dove refers to the legend of the letter announcing his death being carried to Rome’. Miriam Gill offers, ‘a bird to the right of his head must refer either to his premonitionary dream or to the dove which brought the news of his death to the Pope’. Rosalind Love, in a thorough description of the manuscript, has Kenelm ‘attended by a bird bearing something in its beak—perhaps the letter delivered to the pope in Rome’. Judith Collard sees the dove ‘touching his crown’.

Each of these interpretations captures a partial truth, but I see a possibility to improve on them by more closely connecting the illustration to the narrative of the Vita and by allowing the illustrator more artistic license. […]


The opening of the Vita et miracula Sancti Kenelmi in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 368 (mid or late twelfth c.). St. Kenelm, enthroned, holds orb and lily; a dove places a crown on his head.

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.

Metrical cultures before 1800

I’ve organized a panel for MLA 2016 (Austin), entitled “English Metrical Cultures before 1800.” The panel has now been selected for inclusion in the conference. The panel will feature papers from Ian Cornelius, Megan Cook, and Joshua Swidzinski. Here I reproduce the opening and closing of the rationale for the session:

Yopie Prins, Meredith Martin, and other scholars have called for a ‘historical poetics’ that would reevaluate the received narrative of English literary history by recovering alternate ways of theorizing and experiencing poetic form. In her award-winning Rise and Fall of Meter, Martin argues that meter mattered in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English culture, and in ways that were strategically obscured by later polemicists and practitioners. The emergent field of historical poetics, conceptualized as the study of the reciprocal relationship between meters and cultures, represents an exciting new way of synthesizing formalism and historicism in the study of English literature.

Thus far, historical poetics has been most strongly associated with the study of nineteenth-century British poetry. This panel proposes to take a longer view onto the histories of English poetry, in order to explore continuities and change in English metrical cultures over time. The panel features one paper from each of the periods of English literary history before 1800: medieval, early modern, and the eighteenth century. While the panel has a wide chronological range (c. 1000-1800), the three papers cohere in their close focus on specific feedback loops between English meters and English cultures. Even more specifically, each of the essays situates ‘English’ ‘metrical’ cultures in a reciprocal relationship with non-English and/or non-metrical cultural forms. Each of the papers articulates a historically specific answer to the chiastic question: How do meters form cultures, and how do cultures form meters? Through its large chronological sweep and narrow thematic focus, this panel promises to bring together attendees addressing similar research questions in disparate periods of literary history.


Together, these three papers will expand the chronological frame of historical poetics and demonstrate the dynamism of meter as a culturally significant practice in English literary history. In particular, they will present three historical case studies of the way in which English metrical cultures emerge from cultural formations not traditionally associated with English meter as such. Austin, Texas, would be a particularly appropriate venue for this panel, since the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin currently employs or has employed several distinguished specialists in pre-1800 English prosody and poetics (Mary Blockley, Thomas Cable, Winfred Lehmann, and Lisa Moore).