on liking Chaucer

First, some background. I began reading medieval English poetry the summer after high school (a failed attempt at my parents’ copy of Chaucer). What attracted me initially was the linguistic challenge:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
. . .

I sensed that Middle English belonged to me as an English speaker, that no one else could claim an upper hand in it except by dint of the same sort of study I was putting in. This was even truer of Old English, the language of Beowulf. There are words in Old English whose meanings are simply unknown. More than dead liturgical languages like Latin or Sanskrit, Old English is a lost language. That appealed to me. At the end of college, I decided to become a medievalist.

This was my preprofessional formation. I linger over it because the issue of who the Middle Ages are for is politically fraught. There has rightly been a movement to decolonize medieval studies, still an overwhelmingly white field. It is Eurocentric by definition, since the sequence ancient-medieval-modern originated in European historiography.

In graduate school, I learned that medieval literature was related to the places in which it was made. Chaucer spoke for London and the royal court. Most other writing in English was “provincial,” a catch-all term and often pejorative. I studied this literature long before setting foot in England, so that my mental map of the country was drawn out of a reading of the literature. I was once challenged at a conference on my definition of “southern” for tenth-century England. My definition conflicted with modern UK regional nomenclature. On reflection, I was glad the issue came up. It’s an issue of different social trajectories in the academy. My own perspective made me receptive to weird, dislocational arguments like that of Nicholas Howe (a Yale PhD from the New York metro area, like me), who theorized that the capital city of early medieval England was Rome.


I teach Chaucer every other year to undergraduates, and I have a professional obligation to like him. It’s an obligation that’s taken some years to fulfill. I dutifully published an essay on him in graduate school in the Chaucer Review, connecting the Friar’s Tale to medieval forest bureaucracy—a topic that interested me more than Chaucer, at the time. The essay was intended to prove to potential employers that I could “do” Chaucer. One reader wrote that the historical dimension of the essay was stronger than the literary one. It was probably supposed to be an insult. But it was true.

I found Chaucer’s writing smug. I could feel the author winking at the reader through his characters. His stories were too comfortable being stories. The Canterbury Tales were poetic in form, but their style reminded me of modern novels and reminded me why I did not choose to study modern novels. Chaucer was so urban (at least to this rural reader), but his urbanness was deflected, almost never present on the surface of the work itself. You had to go to grad school to learn about it.

It has taken me years to place Chaucer to my satisfaction. My first book gave him only a cameo appearance. That book was more concerned with bridging the subfields of Old English and Middle English, which parted ways in the nineteenth century. In my second book, I have a trio of chapters that plugs Chaucer back into a literary context that makes sense to me. I realized what I really disliked was the gravitational pull he exerts on late medieval English studies. Instead of seeing Chaucer as (I think) he was, an initially insignificant sliver of his literary world, the field treats him as a benchmark for other writing in English. This remains the case whether he is read as prototypically English or, more recently, as a minor French or Italian writer. The field looks back on Chaucer through fifteenth-century goggles, for it was then that he became a benchmark. I teach Chaucer as an aberration, intentionally deflating students’ expectations about studying “the Father of English Poetry.”

My book puts Chaucer back in his place through the histories of English meters. Chaucer was a great innovator in this area. He invented the iambic pentameter. But Chaucer’s invention had a minimal impact prior to c. 1450. That’s a missed connection of half a century after the poet’s death. I wanted to write scholarship that recovered the weirdness of pentameter prior to that moment of mainstreaming.

Part of my reconciliation to Chaucer involved deeper study of his pre-CanterburyTales writing, the dream visions: the Romaunt of the RoseDeath of Blanche the Duchess,* House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Legend of Good Women. Less commonly taught than the Canterbury Tales, these poems are less novelistic, more ‘medieval.’ The first three are in iambic tetrameter. They show us a Chaucer who has not yet had the pentameter idea.

The other missing piece fell into place when I read William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Langland provides vital context for reading Chaucer. You would almost think the two men belonged to different worlds. Their poems belong to different orders of reality.** Chaucer is a ubiquitous London bureaucrat, Langland a shadowy western cleric. But Langland lived in London, as well. His poem has a doubleness of place that corresponds to a certain flatness I detect in parts of Chaucer. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage is a pretext for stories; for Langland, being in transit is the main thing. The House of Fame, my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, is not coincidentally the work of Chaucer that shows most clearly (we think) the influence of Piers Plowman. Langland, the “provincial” author, provincializes Chaucer. Piers Plowman thematizes that which Chaucer can’t or won’t say about himself.

I’m writing this blog post to record the chain of events that, over time and through many discussions with my students, has generated my take on Chaucer. My book simply unspools this take as achieved knowledge, but perhaps there’s value or interest in the personal backstory.

It’s OK not to like the texts you study or teach. Sometimes there’s something to be learned, about the text or about yourself, from sitting with dislike.

*Known today under the title The Book of the Duchess. But see Ellis.
**Bourdieu’s field theory has been helping me sort out the relationship between social placement and literary style in my research into early English poetry. The term “social trajectory” is Bourdieu’s.

further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Randal Johnson, ed. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ellis, Steve. “The Death of the Book of the Duchess.” Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 249-58.

Grady, Frank. “Chaucer Reading Langland: The House of Fame.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996): 3–23.

did Chaucer write Chaucers Wordes unto Adam?

My note, “Adam Scriveyn and Chaucer’s Metrical Practice,” appears in Medium Ævum. Here’s the opening:

In a recent article in this journal, A. S. G. Edwards casts doubt on the traditional attribution of Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn to Geoffrey Chaucer. Edwards begins by questioning the reliability of John Shirley’s attribution of the poem to Chaucer in the unique surviving manuscript copy, Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.3.20 (second quarter of fifteenth c.). He then mobilizes generic, lexical, and thematic evidence indicating that Adam Scriveyn (I will use this short title) was composed not by Chaucer but by ‘a person with overall responsibility for overseeing the writing of a manuscript or manuscripts of Chaucer’s works’, in whose voice, Edwards argues, the poem is most comfortably read. The present note supplements the case against Chaucerian authorship of Adam Scriveyn with metrical evidence.

Adam Scriveyn is composed in the English pentameter, the accentual-syllabic metre that Chaucer invented and popularized. It comprises a single stanza of rhyme royal (rhyming ababbcc), one of the stanza forms invented by Chaucer. […]

meter as a literary practice

At the New Chaucer Society 20th Biennial Congress in London this past week, I participated in a roundtable entitled “Literary Value in 2016.” Thanks to Bobby Meyer-Lee for including me. Here is my contribution, entitled “Meter as a Specifically Literary Practice in the Age of Chaucer,” in full:

What makes poetry poetry? The free verse revolution of the twentieth century has made this question difficult to answer. In the fourteenth century, it was not a troublesome question. Poetry, unlike all other forms of writing, was metered. It can be challenging for modern scholars to transport ourselves back to a time when metrical verse occupied the entire space of ‘poetry,’ but the trip is worth making. By recognizing meter as a specifically literary practice, it becomes possible to appreciate its cultural significance in the Age of Chaucer.

A second impediment to our understanding of medieval meter as a dynamic cultural category is the asymmetry between the practice and the theory of meter. The question, What makes poetry poetry? was not troublesome in the fourteenth century; but it was also not asked in the fourteenth century. Medieval England produced and consumed many metrical treatises, but all of them concerned the Latin language and most of them were also written in that language. Vernacular poetics would not become an academic subject or a sustained cultural discourse until the closing decades of the sixteenth century. For Chaucer and his contemporaries, English meter was a practice but not a theory. In what follows I discuss two kinds of metrical practice: the half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter.

‘English alliterative verse’ refers to the unrhymed meter used in Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and some 300 other medieval English poems. The most fundamental feature of alliterative verse is division of the metrical line into two half-lines, known as the ‘a-verse’ and ‘b-verse.’ The metrical-syntactical break between them is known as the ‘caesura.’ In the late fourteenth century, the caesura assumed particular importance as a flexion point between two mutually exclusive metrical arenas. The Middle English alliterative b-verse housed a small set of highly conspicuous metrical patterns, while the a-verse housed a gigantic array of highly indeterminate metrical patterns. This asymmetry between a-verse and b-verse causes every Middle English alliterative line to assume the following form: ‘not X or Y’ | ‘X or Y’, where ‘X’ and ‘Y’ represent two major variations on a theme. Consider a passage from Gawain:

Ande quen þis Bretayn watz bigged     bi þis burn rych
Bolde bredden þerinne,     baret þat lofden,
In mony turned tyme,     tene þat wroʒten.
Mo ferlyes on þis folde     han fallen here oft
Þen in any oþer þat I wot,     syn þat ilk tyme. (20-24)

The poet segregates major ideas in the half-lines, one idea per half-line: Britain, Brutus; bold men, battle; time, harm; wonders, often; elsewhere, back then. In the first three lines, the caesura divides the prosaic word order of the a-verse from the habitually contorted syntax of the b-verse: ‘by this man noble’ for ‘by this noble man,’ etc. Alternation between less and more artificial syntax within each line is one of the strangest and most telling features of the alliterative tradition in general and Gawain in particular. Cumulatively across the poem, metrical asymmetry enables what is precisely the Gawain poet’s major intellectual achievement: the construction of a visceral ancient world of chivalric romance that pointedly comments on its own constructedness.

The previous example focused on alliterative meter. With Chaucer, the focus shifts to the two other major Middle English meters, tetrameter and pentameter. Chaucer used the former extensively, and he invented the latter.

The English tetrameter was invented in the middle of the thirteenth century under influence from French and Latin octosyllabic verse. By the time Chaucer set out to write the Book of the Duchess, the tetrameter was the readiest alternative to the alliterative meter. The metrical phonology of tetrameter, i.e., the linguistic forms that fill out meter, reflects its medium-length history. While conservative, thirteenth-century word forms appeared in fourteenth-century tetrameter, they coexisted with contemporary spoken forms (‘S’=strong position, ‘x’=weak position):

x       S   x    S          x   S   x  S   x
Yif he had eyen hir to beholde (Book of the Duchess 970) (elision –en hir)

 x       S   x   S               S   x    x   S  x
And to beholde the alderfayreste. (1050) (elision the ald-; stress shift –fayreste)

In the first line, the infinitive beholde counts a phantom inflectional –e. (We know this because beholde rhymes with wolde, whose –e is also historically justified.) In the second line, the –e in beholde is discounted in scansion.

In the 1380s, Chaucer did something extraordinary: he invented a meter and inaugurated a metrical tradition that would go on to dominate the English literary field. When composing pentameter, Chaucer used a variable metrical phonology:

x          S           x    S      x     S   x     S   x     S  x
Hym thoughte that his herte wolde breke (Canterbury Tales I 954)

x  S      x      S            x      S      x    S  x   S
Into myn herte, that wol my bane be. (I 1097)

In the first line, herte counts a phantom historical –e, while in the second line, the –e in herte is discounted in scansion. If metrical phonology is an expression of metrical history, then a newly created meter ought to employ contemporary phonology. Where did Chaucer get those phantom –e’s? I suggest that the answer lies not in his wide reading in French, Italian, and Latin but in his prior metrical practice in English. Chaucer effectively transposed the metrical phonology of the English tetrameter to the newer meter. In this way, the pentameter inherited some of the historical baggage of its key English precursor, the tetrameter.

Chaucer’s phantom –e’s are not often understood as a problem. Instead, they are mined as primary evidence for Chaucer’s spoken language. The usual explanation for the variation evident in the metrical minimal pairs with beholde and herte is that Chaucer’s London English had two different available forms, one conservative and one innovative. Yet northern alliterative verse, written in less conservative dialects than the Canterbury Tales, actually employs far more phantom syllables. So metrical phonology and linguistic phonology do not necessarily track together, and Chaucer’s phantom –e’s require a historical explanation. I believe his familiarity with tetrameter provides that explanation.

The half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter are, above all, practices. They are two actions that fourteenth-century poets took in order to turn language into literature. The lack of a metadiscourse of English prosody in the fourteenth century meant that metrical actions were relatively unselfconscious actions. As such, they may be best conceptualized in the terms of Bourdieusian cultural studies. Metrical practices are a kind of habitus. Like the cultural habits analyzed by Bourdieu, fourteenth-century metrical practices were ingrained, serial, and socially situated acts.

Having categorized meter as habitus, I’d now like to return to the word ‘literary’ in the title of this session and propose that meter was the most centrally important habitus in the production, consumption, and historical development of medieval English poetry. This proposition obviously prioritizes meter over other features of poetry that get more airtime in current criticism, and in that sense it’s a deliberate provocation. But I’d like to stress that the proposition also has the effect of levelling the poetic playing field. Once we reject the modern distinction between poetry and verse, a more capacious medieval English literary field comes into focus. Meter connects the Book of the Duchess to the Prick of Conscience and Piers Plowman to the Destruction of Troy. For all their differences, these canonical and non-canonical poems each enter the literary field through meter.

I began by identifying two impediments to historicizing meter: our modern experience of free verse and of the technical field of English prosody, neither of which existed in the fourteenth century. These impediments, however, are also opportunities for reconciliation in disciplinary history. The supposed pendulum swings between form and history in Anglophone scholarship since the 1980s have left the earlier rejection of the field of metrics largely intact. This is, let me be the first to say, partly the fault of metrists, who can’t seem to agree on anything. But fourteenth-century English poetry shows with particular clarity why we can’t do without metrics. The binary choice between a notion of the literary and the affirmation of various theoretical, ideological, and historical critiques of literary studies is a false one. Scholars should seek to understand literary form precisely as the way in which literary texts, as literary texts, record historical experience. In conclusion, another provocation: A formalist historicism may be our field’s best chance to articulate the value of literary studies within the twenty-first-century university.

[In the subsequent discussion, Jessica Brantley rightly remarked that some contributors, including me, had left prose out of the account. Meter is specifically literary practice, but it is not the only one. Fourteenth-century English meter occupied the whole space of ‘poetry,’ but poetry did not occupy the whole space of ‘literature.’ My department at Boston College divides the undergraduate English major intro courses into poetry and prose, and meter is the major feature that reinforces this distinction. However, there are of course many other ways of slicing up the literary field.]