in defense of metrics

In my forthcoming book Meter and Modernity in English Verse, I begin by defending metrics, the study of poetic meter, a.k.a. prosody. As you probably know if you read this blog, meter is my thing. Metrics needs defending not just because it is a contentious and technical subject, but because it has come in for wounding criticism lately.

I’ll ventriloquize the case against metrics, to avoid naming names. (I do name names in the book.) Metrics, say its critics, is a faux science. It is fruitlessly technical. What do metrists have to show for all those graphs, statistics, symbols, and Greek terms? A relic of Victorian philology, metrics can’t create the knowledge about poetry that it claims to create. It is of historical interest, like alchemy, but it is not worth the paper it is printed on. A sure sign that metrics is a bunch of hot air is the fact that metrists can’t even agree on the basics, such as the nature of stress, the proper placement of accents in a line of poetry, and where poetic forms come from. Each generation’s terminology becomes unintelligible to the next.

This critique sometimes extends to a second target. Meter, the object that metrics purports to disclose, can’t matter in literary studies nowadays. It is a fantasy. The historical stability and formal knowability of meter, implied by techniques of metrical analysis, are illusory. Worse, meter is an illusion that distracts us from what really matters: the political and social meaning of poetry.

I had to respond to these criticisms, because the goal of my book was to build metrical history into a new account of English literary history. If meter had no value, my book had no value!

My basic response is to point out a self-contradiction. The anti-metrists must posit a type of impossible, transcendental knowledge, in order to criticize metrics for not creating it. They choose to judge metrical scholarship against a standard that does not apply to other methodologies, as if metrics, to be legitimate, had to be an infallible truth discovery mechanism, instead of, say, an informed approximation of what poets do. In the book, I write:

To reject metrics as a fantasy of absolute, dehistoricized knowledge is to accede, per negativum, to that fantasy. Metrics is indeed historically contingent, inherently political, and prone to self-confirmation. In this, metrics resembles all other approaches to the study of literature. The choice between affirmation of metrics and acceptance of the limits of historical interpretation is a false one. Metrical form is indeed a literary correlate of politics and ideology. Precisely because it lives in history, however, it refracts as much as it reflects. Poets never make metrical choices in a vacuum. Metrical histories pressurize individual moments of creation and reception, just as political histories pressurize individual moments of action and affiliation. Ideally, metrics accomplishes the very dialectical movement between general and particular, form and history, literary practice and social stratification, that its critics accuse it of short-circuiting.

Criticism of metrics can be so pointed only because few scholars “do” metrics anymore. It’s easy to dismiss a type of knowledge you don’t seek. Plus, meter is still regularly taught to undergraduates, yet the metrical theory in use in the classroom is a century out of date. The lag between textbooks and scholarship leaves the subject all the more vulnerable to criticism.

Lest this sound like the usual complaint that everyone should devote themselves to my hobbyhorse topic, I’ll say (and I say in the book) that metrists are equally to blame. The critics have a point. Metrists bandy about terms that are opaque to other literary scholars; they sometimes appear to promise scientific knowledge about literature; and they often do not explore meter’s intersections with political and social history. In rehabilitating metrics for literary history, my book strives to do better in each respect. The result is, I hope, a metrically inflected literary history that both metrists and anti-metrists can understand, and accept.

politics as prophecy

to understand why political discourse today is so furious, look to medieval England

Last week, the House of Representatives passed a resolution formalizing the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. With this vote, the political situation would appear to inch closer to the result that liberals have been expectantly predicting since 2016.

There’s more than a little anxiety about defeat baked into liberals’ expectations of victory. From the prospect of Brexit to climate catastrophe, from Elizabeth Warren’s “I Have A Plan For That” to Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” predictions about the future are the bread and butter of political discourse. They are more than campaign promises, wishful thinking, or a scientific consensus, though they are these things, too. Like predictions of the apocalypse in various religious traditions, political predictions instill the sense of a common cause, galvanizing believers to agitate for the future they demand. Thinking of politics today as a form of prophecy clarifies why political dialogue can be so furious—and so impervious to fact-checking. It also means politics today is not as different as we might wish from politics in the European Middle Ages, when a more overt type of prophecy energized political action.

In pre-Enlightenment Britain, this political prophecy was associated with a particular strand of history writing, the one whose cast of characters included King Arthur and Merlin. Merlin was, among other things, a prophet. People took very seriously the obscure “prophecies of Merlin,” which represented political and ethnic conflict between the English and the Welsh in terms of dragons, lightning bolts, and rivers of blood. From the Wars of the Roses to the English Revolution, people experienced contemporary political developments through the prism of a vast and complicated future imaginary. You can read the binding real-world force of prophecy in any number of historical episodes: Richard II fleeing to Ireland in 1399, because he feared that certain lines in a popular prophecy referred to himself; the prophecy book that nearly convinced Anne Boleyn not to marry Henry VIII; the Benedictine nun Elizabeth Barton, hanged in 1534 for spreading “false” prophecy.

Political prophecy is supposed to be something that we cast off, like a sheath of skin, on the way to becoming modern. The German social historian Reinhart Koselleck, who has perhaps the best claim to being the theorist of prophecy, associated apocalyptic prophecy with the Middle Ages and a special kind of self-fulfilling secular prophecy with modernity. According to Koselleck, thinking primarily of northern Europe, only during and after the Enlightenment did it become possible to imagine a future and then work to make that future real. Koselleck’s ideas are powerful, but they are incomplete. The cultural dynamic he described as quintessentially modern was already in place in the fifteenth century, in the reign of Henry VI, when supporters of Henry’s rival, the once and future Edward IV, commissioned manuscripts of prophecy in order to stoke partisan rage and redirect English political history.

Prophecy is still with us, but we no longer call it by that name. Following the religious and political persecutions of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe—a new phase of cultural absolutism that we are still working through—prophecy came to be concealed inside the seemingly rational machinery of political platforms, advertisements, speeches, and negotiations. Prophecy went underground.

The subterranean history of political prophecy extends right through the 20th century. In that century, communism, fascism, and liberalism laid claim to three mutually exclusive visions of a utopian future, and the world went to war over them. Or think of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous line about “the arc of the moral universe.” What is this if not political prophecy? King’s phrase orients grassroots political action toward a future imagined but not yet realized. His commitment to prophecy (biblical as well as political) lay in the conviction, not that the present redeems the past, but that the future redeems the present.

The politics of climate change have a similar structure. I am not the first to notice the religious overtones of the debate, with charges of apocalypticism on one side met by charges of denialism on the other. A more apt comparison would be with medieval political prophecy. Human-caused global warming is scientifically indisputable at this point, but that fact can’t explain the intransigence of people and corporations with an interest in denying that there is a problem. What unites these groups is a belief in the future of capitalism, the infinite scalability of exploitation: a dangerous idea, challenged by the approach of an increasingly uninhabitable future.

Another example is the spectacular failure of pollsters’ predictions in the ramp-up to the 2016 US presidential election. For Trump’s opponents on the left as well as his backers on the right, in opposite ways, the inaccuracy of most pre-election polling lent his victory the stature of a singularity, an extension of American history into an unplanned-for future.

Trump seems particularly at ease in the prophetic mode. In his inaugural address, he alleged a dystopia of “American carnage” and promised redemption for “the forgotten men and women of our country.” During the campaign, Trump had named real problems in America—income inequality, the entrenchment of a political class, the centralization of cultural power, the hollowing out of the blue-collar professions, terrorism—but proposed to solve them with the fantasy of a nation that becomes an island unto itself. “But that is the past,” he said. “And now we are looking only to the future.” His critics’ tendency to focus on Trump’s lies and opportunism is understandable, but it misrecognizes the source of his political appeal. In 2008, Barack Obama was the chosen prophet for a leftish alliance (an alliance later riven by the discrepancy between prophecy and reality). Trump has consistently nominated himself as a counter-prophetic voice for those backward-looking, mostly white American voters who could experience not only 2008 Obama’s predicted future but even the political present of the Obama years as an apocalypse scenario.

Looking back to the European Middle Ages is a sobering reminder of the political power that imagined futures hold over the present. When it comes to politics, the choice has never been between facts and imagination. (This is what the term post-truth, the word of the year for 2016, gets wrong about our political and cultural moment.) Every political proposition implies a new future. We are still learning this essential lesson of the 20th century, and every century before that: choose a future, or a future will choose you.

what was periodization?

Davis Periodization and SovereigntyI’m teaching a graduate seminar called Periodization. We have been reading critical and theoretical texts addressing the content, history, and politics of the periods in which English literature is conventionally studied. These include medieval, early modern, Romantic, Victorian, antebellum American, post-1945, and so on.

Midway through the semester, one of my students pointed out that an awful lot of our texts are from the late 2000s and early 2010s.

Some highlights:

Ahead of the curve were David Aers’s “A Whisper in the Ear of Early Modernists,” in Culture and History, 1350-1600 (1992); William A. Green’s very helpful overview essay, “Periodization in European and World History” (1992); the collection The Challenge of Periodization, edited by Lawrence Besserman (1996); and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (2000; reprinted 2007), which frames the problem of periodization within the paradox of the European specificity of the general concepts operant in historical scholarship. Green and Chakrabarty are historians like Le Goff, and historians have a longer history of discussing this topic. Green’s title echoes Dietrich Gerhard’s “Periodization in European History” (1956). Aers and Besserman, like Simpson, Davis, and Le Goff, represent medieval studies, which for obvious reasons has led the conversation on periodization.

This is also specifically a University of Pennsylvania phenomenon. David Wallace, Margreta de Grazia, and Ania Loomba, who teach in the English department there, were all involved in the JMEMS cluster. University of Pennsylvania Press published Davis’s book.

I was in graduate school in 2009-2014, so perhaps the chronological clumping in my syllabus is partly attributable to my formative reading during those years. But I think something more than that is going on. As a field, we appear to be exiting a phase of intense scrutiny of periodization. Not much literary scholarship worrying out loud about this topic had existed before 2000, and perhaps not much will appear after 2020. Somewhere in the late 2000s, periodization even became trendy, which is the only explanation for the English Institute’s decision to focus on it in 2008.

What’s surreal about this pattern of research production in literary studies is that “periodization” has come and gone without any appreciable effect on English department curricula or hiring practices–the intransigence of which has become a trope in our writing on periodization (as in this blog post itself). We have noticed the chronological boxes we’re working in, but we have largely stayed inside the boxes. There are two honorable exceptions: queer theory, and American studies insofar as it operates as an area studies.

What was “periodization” (2002-2015) about, if it wasn’t about revising our institutions or improving our scholarly practice? Underwood’s book can help. Writing at the tail end of the “periodization” phenomenon, Underwood argues that defenses of periodization aren’t really defenses of periodization. They are defenses of a social institution, of a particular attitude to the past that has been very prestigious in literary studies since (he claims) the 1840s, and for which the traditional periods have always felt like unusually suitable vehicles. This seems right to me. Evidently, in the 2000s and early 2010s literary scholars became a bit more comfortable publicly challenging these social institutions–but not comfortable enough to change them in any way!

Jameson writes, “We cannot not periodize” (29). But Davis writes, “In an important sense, we cannot periodize the past” (5).

I’m not sure where to go from here. I have always been interested in this topic, which strikes at the heart of historical study. There’s a contradiction inherent in our belatedness as readers, our desire for an encounter with a past that obviously did not understand itself to be past. My first book was on poetic meter and Old English/Middle English periodization. I’m writing a second book about meter and medieval/modern periodization. The political and institutional problems involved with traditional period categories haven’t gone anywhere, and so I’ll risk being the only person in the room still talking about periodization in the 2020s.

review of Underwood

I recently read Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013) with my PhD seminar. The book never received a review in a medieval studies journal, as far as I know. However, the book seems to me as relevant as ever. So I wrote a review for medievalists, to appear in English Studies. Here’s how it begins:


Any medievalist who has read Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) can attest to a strange experience. The novel depicts a twelfth-century English society riven by the legacy of the Norman Conquest (1066). The old chestnuts of nineteenth-century medievalism–language as identity, history as racial conflict, oral poetry as political protest–are all already here, but expressed by characters named Wamba, Athelstane, Reginald Front-de-Bœuf. It is disorienting to encounter zombie ideas in a novel that predates the hiring of the first professor of English literature, in 1828.

Ted Underwood’s book is not on most medievalists’ radar. It is a literary and institutional history centered on the early nineteenth century. Yet its arguments about the formation of English studies return again and again to the teaching and literary representation of the Middle Ages. More even than its author indicates, this book demonstrates the foundational importance of medievalism to the discipline of English.

Scott is the hero, or villain, of the book. […]


on literary periodization

The graduate seminar I’m leading, Periodization, is currently finishing up Ted Underwood’s book Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013). The book argues that periodization (splitting history up into periods like ‘medieval,’ ‘Romantic,’ ‘Victorian,’ ‘antebellum American’) has dominated literary-historical research almost since the hiring of the first English professor, in 1828. Underwood sees periodization as fulfilling a social function, namely cultivating readers through an experience of historical discontinuity. In the 1990s, that social function was called into question, yet periodization survived institutionally, in hiring, in the curriculum, and in graduate training.

In the last chapter, Underwood considers more recent arguments about periodization (p. 161):

I think contemporary discussions of periodization usually go astray by conflating the intellectual and social dimensions of the problem–as if the disciplinary authority of historical contrast rested on the mathematical convenience of period boundaries. Against the drawing of temporal boundaries no one can raise serious objections. It is arbitrary but very useful to divide the day into twenty-four hours. Anthologies need to begin and end somewhere. We might occasionally need to be warned about reifying such boundaries, but if they were really arbitrary conveniences rather than social institutions, this would be roughly as dangerous as reifying “July.”

But the authority of periodization does not rest on the convenience of boundaries. It springs from a commitment to discontinuity that has long defined the cultural purpose of literary studies, and that contemporary scholars still feel as part of their disciplinary identity. This commitment to discontinuity goes far beyond the dates of anthologies and survey courses; it shapes critical discourse from top to bottom.

The preceding chapters of Why Literary Periods Mattered earn the big claim about discontinuity in the second paragraph here. This passage understands something about literary periodization that nearly all of periodization’s defenders, and many of its critics, leave out. Defenses of periodization either exaggerate moments of rapid cultural change at the beginning and end of a period, reifying the category, or else (and this is becoming the standard move, I think) they dismiss periodization as a “mathematical convenience,” inevitable and not worth squabbling over. Much criticism of periodization mirrors these two moves, either exaggerating continuity across period boundaries or proposing arbitrarily defined new periods. What either reaction fails to do is to face up to periods as “social institutions”–and, I’d add, institutions that are not thought to possess equal social value.

Underwood recommends quantitative methods as a counterbalance to periodization’s single-minded focus on discontinuity, a project he now pursues in Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change (Chicago, 2019). The last chapter of Why Literary Periods Mattered appears in our syllabus in a unit on Language / method, featuring examples of work that moves beyond traditional periodization. Other scholars in Language / method are David Blackbourn, Seeta Chaganti, Joan DeJean, Barbara Fuchs, Reinhart Koselleck, and Kevin Ohi. Language / method fits into our Institutions movement. In the next movement of the course, Politics, we’ll address what periods-as-social-institutions have come to mean, politically.

further reading

Davis, Kathleen. Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.

Graff, Gerald. “How Periods Erase History.” In On Periodization: Selected Essays from the English Institute, ed. Virginia Jackson (2010), paras. 97-123.

Ohi, Kevin. Dead Letters Sent: Queer Literary Transmission. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Simpson, James. “Diachronic History and the Shortcomings of Medieval Studies.” In Reading the Medieval in Early Modern England, ed. Gordon McMullan and David Matthews (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 17-30.