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).

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.

the alliterative tradition after 1450

This past October, I gave an invited talk for the Harvard English Department Medieval Colloquium. My gratitude to Erica Weaver and Helen Cushman for the invitation. My talk, entitled “Alliterative Meter and the Alliterative Tradition after 1450,” was drawn from the final chapter of my first book. Here’s the opening paragraph of the talk:

Alliterative meter after 1450 has received much less attention than its fourteenth-century ancestor. As a result, basic questions about metrical phonology and metrical typology remain unanswered. Yet if the alliterative tradition exerted significant pressure on adjacent literary forms before 1450, as argued in the previous chapters, then mapping the forms of post-1450 alliterative meter promises to sharpen understanding of post-1450 English literary culture as a whole. This chapter traces the generic, codicological, textual, and cultural contexts for alliterative meter in the century before it disappeared from the active repertoire of verse forms. In doing so, this chapter lays the groundwork for a new literary history of the sixteenth century. After surveying the extant alliterative poems composed after 1450, I describe the systemic changes manifested in alliterative meter in this period, completing the formal evolution set out in previous chapters. The second section considers mid sixteenth- to mid seventeenth-century print and manuscript evidence for the reception of earlier alliterative meter, focusing on the two manuscript texts of Scottish Field (1515-47), Robert Crowley’s first edition of Piers Plowman (1550), and Crowley’s own poetry. I reconstruct scribes’ and authors’ perceptions of the alliterative meter in the period after the conclusion of active metrical practice but before the advent of modern metrical theory. I conclude by arguing that the contribution of the alliterative tradition to the so-called invention of modern literature has been underestimated by literary histories that enforce an absolute division between ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ periods of literary activity.

a note on Beowulf 2910a

My note, “Beowulf 2910a ‘leofes ond laðes’,” appears in Notes and Queries. This note proposes a new syntactical interpretation of one verse in a problematic passage in Beowulf. I argue on the basis of this new interpretation that the Beowulf poet does not suggest an equivalence between Beowulf and the dragon to the extent that some scholars have supposed. Here’s the text of the passage in question and the opening frame of the note:

                        Wiglaf siteð
ofer Biowulfe,     byre Wihstanes,
eorl ofer oðrum     unlifigendum,
healdeð higemæðum     heafodwearde
leofes ond laðes.

(Beowulf 2906b-2910a)

Critical discussion of this passage has focused on the form and referent of the rare word higemæðum. The word is traditionally interpreted either as an adjective with the poetically understated meaning ‘weary of mind (i.e. dead)’, parallel with unlifigendum ‘not living (i.e. dead)’, or as an otherwise unattested noun higemæð(u) ‘weariness of mind’ or ‘mind-honor’, used quasi-adverbially to describe Wiglaf’s state of mind. Eduard Sievers proposed emendation to nominative singular higemeðe ‘weary of mind’, applying the adjective to Wiglaf. Sievers’s suggestion was accepted by a few editors before being withdrawn by Sievers himself. In their textual note, the editors of Klaeber’s Beowulf wisely resist the temptation to posit a hapax legomenon or engage in an ad hoc emendation in order to solve a difficult passage. The precise agreement in syntax, sense, and poetic connotation between unlifigendum and higemæðum, and the undoubted use of the same adjective elsewhere in Beowulf (2242a hygemeðe), strongly support the adjectival interpretation. In 2442a, hygemeðe must mean ‘wearying the mind’ rather than ‘weary of mind’. However, as the editors of Klaeber’s Beowulf observe, ‘many poetic compounds are nonce constructions rather than fixed terms, and thus they need not have the same meaning in all contexts’. Indeed, as the editors also note, ‘weary of mind’ would be the expected meaning for an adjective hygemeðe and ‘wearying the mind’ the more unusual one.

There is an additional difficulty in this passage which has gone unrecognized, but which affects the interpretation of higemæðum. The editors of Klaeber’s Beowulf follow previous commentators in taking leofes ond laðes to refer to Beowulf and the dragon, ‘the beloved (one) and the hated (one)’. Yet this interpretation causes at least three problems. […]

phantom syllables

My article, “Phantom Syllables in the English Alliterative Tradition,” appears in Modern Philology. This article lays the groundwork for my first book by comparing and connecting phenomena in Old English meter and Middle English alliterative meter. Less obviously, the article is a first attempt to generalize and operationalize the key concept of ‘metrical phonology,’ i.e., the stylized linguistic forms that inhabit meter. Here’s a representative paragraph, followed by the concluding paragraph:

Carried out with the help of electronic concordances and graphing software, these often perspicacious metrical analyses tend toward notational abstraction. But medievalists interested in the entwined fates of poetry and language ignore meter at their peril. Tucked away in R. D. Fulk’s compendious History of Old English Meter (1992), implicit in the conclusions drawn therein, is the premise that poetic meter is a reliable criterion for establishing absolute chronologies, that developments in verse form follow straightforwardly from developments in the spoken language. A metrical history of comparable scope and polemical density has yet to be written for the Middle English poems, but the seeds have been sown or, rather, the lines of battle have been drawn. It is a battle that must be fought on metrical grounds, for whatever one might like to say about the revivals, survivals, or deaths of poetic traditions, one must in any case confront a burgeoning cache of hard data excavated from the very stuff of metrical language and therefore not directly beholden to the standard accounts of linguistic change or dialectal variation.


The story of alliterative poetry is neither one of decay and neglect nor of the inevitable triumph of a language or a culture. At each moment, poets must have had access to an array of metrical attitudes ranging from the avant-garde to the nostalgic, full of sounds newfangled, familiar, outdated, and all but forgotten. Future scholarship on alliterative verse would do well to attend to the poetry’s motley meter, built of past language states but not reducible to any one of them; in constant development but never caught up with the times; forever at play with invisible friends, old sounds that had disappeared without going obsolete.