a missing term in metrics

My article, “Systematicity, a Missing Term in Historical Metrics,” appears in Language and Literature. This article introduces a new technical term in historical metrics in order to address and connect two of the most persistent problems encountered by modern metrical specialists. The title of the article pays homage to a seminal essay in evolutionary biology, Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba’s “Exaptation—A Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Here’s the abstract:

This essay identifies two persistent problems in the historical study of meter—nonconformant metrical patterns and metrical change—and offers a new term as a conceptual tool for understanding their interdependence. The term ‘systematic’ denotes metrical patterns that conform to synchronically operant metrical principles. The corresponding term ‘asystematic’ denotes the minority of actually occurring metrical patterns that fall outside the metrical system as such for historical reasons. All systematic patterns are necessarily metrical, but not all metrical patterns are systematic. It is argued that the systematicity/metricality distinction in historical metrics is analogous to the regularity/grammaticality distinction in historical linguistics and similarly fundamental to historical analysis. By introducing a new technical term, this essay seeks to shift the metrist’s object of study from the metrical system qua system to meter as a complex historical experience. The value of the concept of systematicity is illustrated through three case studies in asystematic metrical patterns from early English poetic traditions: verses with three metrical positions in Beowulf, lines with masculine ending in Middle English alliterative verse, and the infamous ‘broken-backed lines’ in the pentameter of John Lydgate. In each case, it is argued that the contrast between systematic and asystematic metrical patterns illuminates the diverse historical and perceptual negotiations that inevitably lie behind metered texts.

a postdating of throw ‘time’

My note, “A Postdating of Throw ‘Time’ in Twelfth Night,” appears in Notes & Queries. It’s expected to be published in fall 2016. This note identifies the latest known instance of throw in the sense ‘time,’ in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century play. I teach Twelfth Night in Literature Core, and I noticed that editors of the play do not consistently catch Orsino’s pun on the word throw in Act 5. This prompted me to consult the Oxford English Dictionary, where throw ‘time’ was said to have disappeared in the early sixteenth century. Here’s an abbreviated version of the opening paragraph of the note:

In the final act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1600-01), Duke Orsino rebuffs Feste’s third request for payment: ‘You can fool no more money out of me at this throw’ (V.i.32). The primary meaning of throw is ‘time’, from Old English þrag ‘time; season’. The secondary meaning is ‘throw (of the dice)’, playing on Feste’s dice metaphor (‘Primo, secundo, tertio is a good play’, V.i.29). This occurrence of throw ‘time’ postdates by almost a century the last citation for that meaning at Oxford English Dictionary Online, ‘throw, n.1, 1 (‘The time at which anything happens; an occasion’), from Gavin Douglas’s Eneados (1513).

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.

counting and scanning header

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.

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.

phonology and literary history

This past weekend, I presented a paper at the Medieval Academy of America Annual Meeting in Boston. My paper, “Metrical Phonology and Literary History in the Age of Chaucer,” introduces three English metrical traditions–alliterative meter, tetrameter, pentameter–and points to some phonological evidence for cross-pollination between them in the fourteenth century. Here’s the opening frame:

At the end of Book V of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer apostrophizes the poem:

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.


This passage has attracted significant attention as a testament to linguistic, metrical, and textual variation in medieval England. The apostrophe appears to substantiate conclusions that medievalists are ready to accept anyway: that Chaucer’s language, meter, and texts were in flux around him, and that Chaucer was exquisitely aware of this situation. In the standard interpretation, the speaker of the passage is a lot like a modern editor, worried about language change, metrical decay, and scribal error.

In this paper I’d like to suggest a different cultural context for Chaucer’s hand-wringing: the mediated interaction between language and meter in fourteenth-century English verse. ‘Metrical phonology’ is my term for the linguistic forms that meter encodes. Think, for example, of the variation between monosyllabic and disyllabic scansions of the word heaven in Elizabethan poetry. I will argue that metrical phonology should be understood in terms of the larger historical formation in which it is embedded: the poetic tradition. In the fourteenth century, there were three major metrical options for poets working in English: the alliterative meter, the tetrameter, and the pentameter. The alliterative meter had been in continuous use since at least the eighth century. The tetrameter entered the English literary field in the mid thirteenth century. Chaucer invented the pentameter on the basis of French and Italian models in the 1380s: Troilus and Criseyde is his first substantial work in this new verse form. The three major Middle English meters thus had different histories. Yet these histories also inflected one another. Study of metrical phonology calls for triangulation between historical and comparative analysis. That’s what I’ll try to provide.

By mapping Middle English metrical phonologies, it becomes possible to attain some critical distance from the Troilus and Criseyde passage. Through apostrophe, Chaucer hints at the complexity of fourteenth-century vernacular poetics. However, writing before English became an academic subject, Chaucer necessarily expresses his position in literary culture symptomatically rather than analytically. Attention to the historicity of metrical phonology helps us understand what Chaucer meant by the neologism ‘mismeter’ but also how meter could appear to Chaucer as a poetic problem in the first place.