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.

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. […]

English prosody and poetics

My individual graduate tutorial, English Prosody and Poetics, 1300-1600 (syllabus), will run this spring. This tutorial is a practical and theoretical introduction to issues in late medieval and sixteenth-century poetics. Here are the learning objectives for each unit:

1. Introduction to Verse History and Historical Poetics

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history of metrical study and the key concepts ‘rhythm’ and ‘meter’; comparison of intrinsic (formal/practical) and extrinsic (historical/cultural) approaches to metrical form; practical understanding of modern syllabic meters.

2. The Alliterative Tradition in its Eighth Century

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of the alliterative meter in the late medieval period; comparison of competing explanations for the existence of fourteenth-century alliterative poetry; comparison of the use of the alliterative meter in two compositions, Piers Plowman and St. Erkenwald; practical understanding of alliterative b-verse meter.

3. Chaucer’s Tetrameter

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of the tetrameter or octosyllable in the fourteenth century; comparison of more and less strictly syllabic accentual English meters; practical understanding of template meter or dolnik.

4 & 5. Chaucer’s Pentameter, Tail Rhyme, and Prose

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of Chaucer’s decasyllable/pentameter in the fourteenth century; comparison of Chaucer’s several meters and two staged discussions of form (after Sir Thopas and in the Parson’s Prologue); understanding of the relationships between metrical form and manuscript form in Sir Thopas; comparison of Chaucer’s metrical choices in the larger context of his ‘metrical landscape’; practical understanding of Chaucer’s decasyllable/pentameter.

6. Chaucer’s Pentameter in the Fifteenth Century

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of Chaucer’s decasyllable/pentameter in the fifty years following Chaucer’s death; comparison of Chaucer’s metrical habits to those of his literary heirs, Hoccleve and Lydgate; understanding of the critical uses of, and historical problems with, the concept of a ‘Chaucerian tradition’ extending into the fifteenth century; practical understanding of Lydgate’s decasyllable/pentameter.

7. (Chaucer’s) Pentameter in the Sixteenth Century

Learning objectives: Theoretical understanding of the history and cultural contexts of the decasyllable/pentameter in the sixteenth century; comparison of Chaucer’s metrical habits to those of Wyatt, Surrey, and Shakespeare; understanding of Martin Duffell’s concept of ‘the Italian line in English,’ with reference both to Chaucer and later versifiers; critical scrutiny of sixteenth-century perceptions of earlier and contemporary meter as expressed by Gascoigne and Puttenham; practical understanding of Wyatt’s decasyllable/pentameter.