progress report

I thought I’d give a progress report and some backstory on my current book project, Unheard Melodies: Apophatic Poetics in English Literature.

I was an experimental poet before I was a scholar of premodern England. In this book, for the first time in my scholarly career, I am paying critical attention to the contemporary American lyric poetry that I have been reading, teaching, and writing for years. The point of connection is what I call apophatic poetics: literature’s invitation to apprehend the inapprehensible, as in John Keats’s “On a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”

I argue that apophaticism entered English poetic practice in premodernity via apophatic (or ‘negative’) theological discourse (on which see Turner). However, I’ve organized the book conceptually rather than historically, and it’s not important for my argument that any particular author have theology in mind. In fact, it’s more interesting when they don’t. When Lerner writes a verse essay theorizing “the negative lyric” (59-67), I think he is thinking of Adorno and Hegel, but his use of negation has more in common with pseudo-Dionysius.

I’ve come to see Keats as the crucial hinge between premodern and contemporary apophatic poetics. His famous term negative capability names a disposition that lies behind many of the works I discuss in the book. Keats’s sweet unheard melodies sound an awful lot like the heavenly/mental music described in the Prick of Conscience, Pearl, Margery Kempe’s Book of Margery Kempe, and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Centuries later, Dickinson echoes Keats (Miller 198, 684):

This World is not conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
It beckons, and it baffles—
Philosophy, don’t know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity, must go—


The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful—

Dickinson’s “through a Riddle” refers to 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see through a glass darkly [per speculum in enigmate],” which has emerged for me as a key scriptural reference-point for apophatic poetics. Speculum and enigma are the names of early literary genres, mirror for princes and riddle. The works I consider in the book all, in different ways, understand themselves to be inadequate, reflecting the world (like a mirror) but with mysterious distortions (like a riddle).

This is also my Piers Plowman book. I consider William Langland the grandmaster of apophatic poetics. Ejecting his poem into the undefined negative space surrounding familiar languages, literary forms, genres, motifs, texts, doctrines, devotional practices, and historical persons and events, he weaves a text almost entirely out of what I call apophatic effects. I read Piers Plowman in enigmate, following Gruenler and other modern commentators but also echoing the English rebels of 1381, who discerned under the surface of the poem an incitement to insurrection, and John Bale, who says he found in Piers Plowman both prophetic grandeur and an abundance of figurative language (Bale’s word is similitudines ‘analogies,’ another keyword of my book).

Part I of the book, now drafted, is a survey of forms of apophatic effects: unpronounceable syllables, metrical duck-rabbits, unreadable novels, and more. Authors and texts considered in part I include Anne Carson, Beowulf, Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wallace Stevens, Victoria Chang, and Vladimir Nabokov. Part II, yet to be written, will discuss the careers of six poets, three from the fourteenth century and three US-based poets born in the middle of the twentieth: Geoffrey Chaucer, Bob Dylan, Langland, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Willis, and the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m going to have fun comparing and contrasting across the six-hundred-year gulf.

further reading

Dickinson, Emily, and Cristanne Miller, ed. Poems: As She Preserved Them. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Gruenler, Curtis. “Piers Plowman” and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

Lerner, Ben. Angle of Yaw. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2006.

Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

tyrannical curriculum

The more and more I teach at the college level, the more and more I appreciate how intertwined teaching and research are for professional academics. This is not immediately obvious when reading through scholarship on the page. Periodization ensures that fields don’t connect, because courses within those fields don’t connect.

The same dynamic plays out within the fields of literary study. Features of the intellectual landscape in my own field that puzzled me as an undergraduate and PhD candidate are readily explained with reference to the need to teach in a curriculum. The overwhelming centrality of Chaucer in late medieval English studies corresponds to the provision of Chaucer courses at nearly every college and university. We offer “Chaucer” ostensibly because Chaucer is uniquely important, and because undergraduates most want to take these courses. I have grown skeptical of both of these implicit rationales, the first about Chaucer’s intrinsic worth and the second about students’ preferences. I now think it’s the other way around: Chaucer remains canonical and well-known because every English-department medievalist shares an experience of taking and/or teaching a class on his work. It’s just easier to have something to say about texts that you regularly discuss with students. And the Chaucerian texts that get the most attention in scholarship, in turn, are those that are easiest to teach and most commonly taught to undergraduates: the Wife of Bath’s Tale, less so Troilus, still less the Boece or most of the lyrics. It’s understandable.

There are more subtle examples. The first part or visio of Langland’s Piers Plowman (A.Prologue-8 / B.Prologue-7 / C.Prologue-9) receives far more scholarly attention than the rest of the poem, which makes up about two-thirds of Piers Plowman by volume. That is because the visio is a blueprint for the whole poem, but it is also because it’s typically not possible to read beyond the visio in the undergraduate (or often even the graduate) classroom. The visio is all we have time for when we teach Piers Plowman in a course on alliterative poetry, or political poetry, or religious literature, or multilingualism, etc.

This is true for Old English, too. Beowulf dominates this field for many reasons, and a major reason is that it is nearly always the spring semester text, after a fall introduction to the language. It’s the right size to get through in one semester at a fast clip, but there’s no room to read other texts in that semester. For the same reason, a handful of short texts (the ones in Eight Old English Poems, ed. R. D. Fulk) also get a lot of play: they are bite-sized and easy to work through in a non-Beowulf spring Old English seminar.

Texts that, on paper, ought to be central to our assessment of medieval English literary culture are often relegated to the status of specialized topics because they are difficult to squeeze into a semester: the Paris Psalter (the longest poem in Old English), Lawman’s Brut (the longest poem in Early Middle English), the Prick of Conscience (the most-copied poem in Middle English), the so-called Wycliffite Bible. Not to mention the many important medieval English texts not composed in English, which must be taught in translation, if at all, in the US: Richard Rolle’s Latin writings, Gower’s Vox clamantis, Froissart’s dits amoureux. Medievalists whose training is in a different language tradition are always on about the single-minded prioritization of the English language in English departments, and they have a point. It’s a point less about the individual moral rectitude of researchers in this field than it is about the pragmatism of keeping a research career spinning while teaching a full courseload.

(Now, it’s always possible to do research on texts that you never teach, but it is much harder to maintain that split-brain for long.)


Here is an opposite framing of all this. I have the incredible privilege of learning with my students about texts that I then analyze in scholarship. The feedback loop between teaching and research is both professionally convenient and intellectually fulfilling. Just this semester, rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with my students generated two small new ideas about the poem, which are now under consideration as two scholarly notes. One must, after all, teach something, and, unbelievably, I get paid to read and think about the literature that I already want to read and think about. If that has to include Chaucer, well, fine, I’ll think of something to say about him, too.

The problem arises, I think, as it also does for periodization and linguistic nationalism, when the boundary-line between foreground and background sinks below the level of consciousness: when we forget the tyranny of the curriculum and mistake a field of study for a self-sufficient and essentially disinterested response to the past. Medievalists, like other humanists, have long since discarded the idea that historical work could ever really be disinterested, yet certain basic assumptions about what is a ‘major’ text, which poets had an ‘Age,’ seem to replicate the thinking that we claim to have transcended as a field. (This mirrors the situation with periodization, whereby the political-historical boundaries that, we all agreed long ago, should not deterministically govern English literary history still do so in the curriculum, and therefore in the distribution of fields, hiring, scholarly organizations. . .)


What to do? I don’t know. In a small way, I’ve been trying to be a bit more experimental in what I assign to undergraduates, partly in order to be a bit more experimental in what I can speak about in my research. I teach anonymous political prophecies in English and Latin, Welsh poetry in translation, Gower alongside Chaucer, Piers Plowman beyond the visio. This has meant foreshortening some other, expected components of my course offerings.

Experimentalism is a decision that I have the luxury of making as a tenured professor rather than a graduate candidate, a job-seeker, or a junior colleague. Ideally, though, experimental teaching can in turn change expectations, reflecting a different vision of the field back into research, hiring, etc. The prospects for this shift in perspective seem to me good: postmedievalists don’t know all that much about our texts, anyway, so I think they are just as happy to hear about an anti- or non-Chaucerian book as a Chaucerian one–as long as you promise to teach “Chaucer” one way or another.

St. Erkenwald (again)

Chapter 5 of my first book is a close reading and contextualization of an alliterative romance from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century. St. Erkenwald narrates the discovery beneath St. Paul’s cathedral of the miraculously preserved corpse of a pagan British judge, who discourses with Erkenwald, seventh-century bishop of London, about his life and times. Erkenwald sheds a tear that accidentally baptizes the judge, whose body disintegrates as his soul rockets heavenward.

My chapter title, “The Erkenwald Poet’s Sense of History,” refers to my PhD adviser Roberta Frank’s “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History,” itself modeled on her PhD adviser Morton W. Bloomfield’s “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” The three essays all take a polemical stance against the familiar claim that medieval writers lacked a sense of history. Chaucer’s poetry, Beowulf, and St. Erkenwald, in different ways, belie the still-current narrative of a “birth of the past” (Schiffman: a 2011 book) in early modern Europe.

However, its placement in English Alliterative Verse meant that my chapter could not fully develop this theme with reference to St. Erkenwald. The purpose of the chapter was to illustrate the historical arguments advanced in more schematic form in the rest of the book–arguments about alliterative meter, medieval English literary and cultural history, and Old English/Middle English periodization. Now I have a new book forthcoming on medieval/modern periodization in English literature, and while it doesn’t feature St. Erkenwald, I’d like to revisit the poem’s historicism. St. Erkenwald provides a potent refutation of the ideology of ‘the’ ‘Renaissance,’ insofar as that ideology is expressed as a claim about a swerve in historical perspective. At the same time, the poem is blatantly anachronistic: the judge is dressed like a fourteenth-century judge, for example.

In the book, I described the Erkenwald poet’s sense of history this way:

For a late medieval composition, St. Erkenwald is “full of oddly advanced notions” [Frank 57, of Beowulf]. Its achievement is not to redeem the past, but to traverse a longue durée so broad that it connects Christianity with what Christianity would repudiate. In the course of events every possible response to this conjunction is mooted, but none is endorsed. Like the squabbling clans of Beowulf in the wake of the hero’s death, the Londoners of St. Erkenwald seem doomed to squander the legacy of the past. Construction grinds to a halt; the hoi polloi just gawk. After a week of research and prayer, the tomb is as inscrutable as ever. The tearful baptism is inadvertent and of debatable sacramental efficacy. An attentive late medieval reader would have wondered why God preserved the corpse in the first place, whether He therefore preserved others, what the inscription meant, how old the judge was, what sort of England he lived in, and whether pagan souls could, or should, be saved by baptism. Six hundred years have not made any of these questions easier to answer. The bishop’s confrontation with the unknown is all the more striking for being unexpected. No one in St. Erkenwald goes in search of a tomb, or a judge, or a pagan past. Tomb, judge, and past simply materialize.

I would now emphasize the paradox enclosed in the second sentence. Chakrabarty writes–in a book that welcomes the European Middle Ages into ‘modernity’–“It is because we already have experience of that which makes the present noncontemporaneous with itself that we can actually historicize” (112). This is an idea that the author of St. Erkenwald intuited and expressed at the level of narrative form. The poem, a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century depiction of seventh-century London, literally represents a present “noncontemporaneous with itself.” That distant present has its own past, to which it bears a relation that is, fictionally at least, not reducible to late medieval historicism. The distant past and the proximate past of St. Erkenwald are scenes of which the poem’s readers “already have experience,” through the genres of historiography and hagiography.

In St. Erkenwald, the paradoxical desire for and horror of the past takes on a specifically Christian flavor. A supercessionist religion, Christianity must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Judaism. Analogously, within Christianity and its history, Protestantism must both absorb and expel (what can thereby be distinguished as) Catholicism.

Chakrabarty’s work in the philosophy of history suggests that anachronism and historicism describe a fully dialectical relationship. If so, no temporal or spatial boundary-line drawn around human experiences of history can be valid. St. Erkenwald reaches the same conclusion. The past in the poem is unlike the present, but it is nevertheless contained within the present: the past is right here, lurking underneath your cathedral. The Erkenwald poet’s sense of history is archaeological (Otter).

St. Erkenwald shows attunement to the possibilities of historical difference; but it balances that attunement against a sense of anachronism. The past did not have to be born, because it has always been present.

further reading

Bloomfield, Morton W. “Chaucer’s Sense of History.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 51 (1952): 301-13.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000; repr. 2007.

Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In The Wisdom of Poetry: Essays in Early English Literature in Honor of Morton Bloomfield, ed. Larry D. Benson and Siegfried Wenzel (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1982), pp. 53-65.

Otter, Monika. “‘New Werke’: St. Erkenwald, St. Albans, and the Medieval Sense of the Past.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 24 (1994): 387-414.

Schiffman, Zachary Sayre. The Birth of the Past. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.