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.

Piers Plowman and the alliterative tradition

My article, “Piers Plowman and the Durable Alliterative Tradition,” appears in the Yearbook of Langland Studies. It’s scheduled to appear in early 2017 for 2016. This essay applies the methodology of my first book to the most widely copied and persistently idiosyncratic Middle English alliterative poem. Here’s the opening frame of the essay:

In recent years, the principles governing the alliterative meter in the fourteenth century have been discovered and elaborated by a series of distinguished scholars: Hoyt Duggan and Thomas Cable in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by Judith Jefferson, Ad Putter, Myra Stokes, and Nicolay Yakovlev in the 2000s. The new metrical scholarship refocuses questions of literary history, poetics, and the cultural meaning of meter. Yakovlev’s 2008 Oxford dissertation, in particular, powerfully demonstrates continuity between Old English, Early Middle English, and Middle English alliterative meter. Indeed, this new research paradigm has begun to suggest the incoherence of the received period terms ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ as such. Yet each of these metrical experts has bracketed Piers Plowman as formally aberrant. Duggan concludes that ‘Langland clearly did not always care to make his alliterative long line fit the conventions that governed other alliterative poets’; Cable confides, ‘I suspect that Langland knew the rules […] but felt free to break them’; Putter, Jefferson, and Stokes find Piers Plowman ‘metrically idiosyncratic’; and Yakovlev labels the poem ‘metrically deviant’. Because Piers Plowman is among the longest and most studied alliterative poems and by far the best attested in manuscript, its relation to the wider alliterative tradition emerges as a major question for metrists and literary historians.

This essay reconsiders the extent to which the meter of Piers Plowman conforms to that of the surrounding alliterative tradition. The first section summarizes progress in Middle English alliterative metrics, with emphasis on the observable metrical development that justifies reference to a durable alliterative tradition spanning the seventh through the sixteenth centuries. The second section compares the meter of Piers Plowman with the emergent metrical model, identifying major similarities and minor differences between Piers Plowman and other fourteenth-century alliterative poems. The third section explores the cultural implications of the similarities and differences, thereby situating Langland’s formal choices in the metrical landscape of late fourteenth-century London. I argue that Langland stands apart from other alliterative poets not because he flouts metrical rules but because of the peculiar way in which he fulfills them; I then argue that the meter of Piers Plowman reflects the interaction of a major diachronic and a major synchronic force, the durable alliterative tradition and Langland’s metrical landscape. A central aim of this essay is to bring progress in metrical study to the wider attention of Middle English specialists. To that end, I append a glossary of technical terms.

Cole and Galloway, Companion to “Piers Plowman”

My review of The Cambridge Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), appears in Speculum. Here’s the opening of the review:

This volume is the second of its kind. A Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley, 1988), marked a high point of sophistication and diversification in the study of this challenging Middle English poem. Following in the tradition of Alford’s volume and capitalizing on research progress since 1988, Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway’s Companion offers a panoptic view of major issues in the historical and literary interpretation of Piers Plowman.

The contributions are organized into three parts: “The poem and its traditions” (Helen Barr, Ralph Hanna, Steven Justice, and Jill Mann), “Historical and intellectual contexts” (Robert Adams, James Simpson, Matthew Giancarlo, Cole and Galloway, and Suzanne Conklin Akbari), and “Readers and responses” (Simon Horobin, Lawrence Warner, and Nicolette Zeeman). The volume’s tripartite arrangement (for a medieval poem obsessed with trios and trinities) invites linear reading, leading, in a familiar critical arc, from the poem qua literature, to its wider historical contexts, and finally to its importance for subsequent histories. At the same time, each essay is designed as a self-contained introduction to the poem.

Somerset and Watson, Truth and Tales

My review of Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media, ed. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), appears in Arthuriana. Here’s the opening of the review:

This collection, dedicated to Richard Firth Green, grew out of the fourth annual meeting of the Canada Chaucer Seminar (Toronto, April 2012). The volume’s fourteen essays move across and between the large topics of popular culture, orality and literacy, and media studies, with a primary focus on medieval English literature and culture.

The contributions are organized into three central sections: ‘Repetition and Continuity: The Claims of History’ (Thomas Hahn, Stephen Yeager, M. J. Toswell, and Fiona Somerset), ‘Cultural Divides and Their Common Ground’ (Alastair Minnis, Michael Johnston, Lisa J. Kiser, and Barbara A. Hanawalt), and ‘New Media and the Literate Laity’ (Nicholas Watson, Robyn Malo, Kathleen E. Kennedy, and Michael Van Dussen). These are bookended by two single-essay sections entitled ‘The Truth of Tales 1’ (Green) and ‘The Truth of Tales 2’ (Andrew Taylor). Intersecting the editors’ chronological/methodological groupings, one can discover various subconversations about, e.g., vernacular theology (Toswell, Minnis, Watson, and Malo), merchants and their books (Johnston, Malo, and Kennedy), the way in which literature encodes human-animal relations (Somerset and Kiser), and London law (Hanawalt and Kennedy).


Of especial interest to readers of Arthuriana is Somerset’s essay on Lawman’s Brut. […]