A poetic compound

My article, “Grass-Bed: A Poetic Compound in the Alliterative Tradition,” appears in Anglia. This article synthesizes the study of meter and the study of poetic vocabulary through a case study of one rare poetic word closely affiliated with the alliterative tradition from Old to Middle English. Here’s the abstract:

The compound word grass-bed occurs four times in Old and Middle English texts. In each case, grass-bed occurs in an alliterative poem; in each case, the word is used as a kenning for a site of bodily death (a battlefield or a grave). The chronologically and metrically uneven distribution of poetic words like grass-bed in the corpus of medieval English texts raises questions about the reliability of the extant written record, the historical resources of individual writers, and the cultural meanings of poetic traditions. Meanwhile, research in alliterative metrics has begun to suggest that the division of medieval English literary history into Old and Middle subperiods masks fundamental continuities between pre- and post-Conquest alliterative verse. Progress in alliterative metrics refocuses the historical problems attendant upon rare poetic words like grass-bed. Conversely, against the backdrop of technical argumentation in the field of metrics, the study of words offers a second way of understanding the continuity of the alliterative tradition. This article explores connections between metrical history and lexical history via a case study of one especially long-lived and metrically marked poetic word.

Counting and scanning

This weekend, I presented a paper at Digital Britain: New Approaches to the Early Middle Ages in Cambridge, MA. My gratitude to Sam Berstler, Joey McMullen, and Erica Weaver for the invitation, and for organizing the conference. My paper, “Counting and Scanning: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to Early English Meter,” is an essay in the philosophy of science, focusing on the use of quantitative reasoning in a specialized field of literary study. Here’s the opening frame:

This is a paper in defense of counting in literary studies. It’s also a paper about why counting needs defending in literary studies in 2016. First, I’d like to connect these topics to the conference theme.

The so-called digital turn in academic knowledge production poses a material challenge to the methodological status quo of the humanities. Digital technology makes a bold promise: the quantification of human experience. For constituents of the status quo, the promise of digital technology seems more like a threat. Many humanists worry about what is lost when the richness of culture and the arts is reduced to data. For others, digital tech enables the humanities to live up to their potential. To take an egregious example, Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ does not merely claim to be a good method of reading literature; it claims to be the best method. In promoting statistical approaches to literary history, Moretti taps into philosophical attitudes that predate the digital. His aggressive empiricism is at once the attraction and the scandal of distant reading.

Thus the digital turn irritates a long-standing tension in humanistic study between qualitative and quantitative methods. I propose to explore this tension by focusing on a field of inquiry that bears an unusual relationship to it. Metrics, depending on your perspective, is either the field entrusted with explaining what makes poetry poetry, or the field charged with inferring an organizational system from linguistic patterning. Metrical scholarship combines qualitative and quantitative reasoning in a way that has become uncomfortable in literary studies.

Discomfort with the modus operandi of metrics is acute in the case of early medieval literature, whose systems of formal organization lie at a great cultural remove from those of modern literature. In reconstructing early medieval meters, the value of modern experiences of poetics, and hence the network of assumptions underlying data collection, is always open to question. About the meter of Beowulf, for example, it is currently possible to hold any one of a number of mutually contradictory theoretical views. Moreover, Old English metrical theories cluster in two incommensurable research paradigms, one continuously elaborated since the nineteenth century, the other disclosed for the first time in 2008 (see Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics”). Metrists disagree, and they disagree about why they disagree. For many literary scholars, meanwhile, metrics is a field that deploys the rhetoric of accumulation to make exaggerated claims on historical truth.

In light of these problems, what I’d like to do this morning is to sketch the function of counting in metrics, with reference to my research on English alliterative verse. I have two goals: to affirm the role of quantitative reasoning in literary study, and then to set a certain limit on that role. In what follows, I identify and address two philosophical challenges to counting as a critical method. One challenge comes from the right, framed in the language of neopositivism; the other comes from the left, framed in the language of poststructuralism. I contend that the neopositivist and poststructuralist positions both miss the full significance of counting as a way of getting at “the heart of a poem,” in the words of Simon Jarvis. Ultimately, I’ll argue that metrical study explodes the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches to literature.counting and scanning header

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).