an oxymoron in Beowulf

My note, “An Oxymoron in Beowulf,” appears in ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews. This note identifies an oxymoron in the description of Beowulf’s final showdown with the dragon. Here’s the text of the passage in question and the opening frame of the note:

ðær he þy fyrste     forman dogore
wealdan moste     swa him wyrd ne gescraf
hreð æt hilde

                        (Beowulf 2573-75a)

In commentary on this difficult passage, scholars have focused on the syntactical function of the two ambiguous adverb/conjunctions ðær “there; where” and swa “thus; as” and the two adverbial phrases þy fyrste “on that occasion” and forman dogore “for/on the first day/time.” In order to make sense of the passage, many critics give ðær the uncommon meaning “if,” and some construe swa as introducing a relative clause, a difficult interpretation that lacks clear support elsewhere in the corpus. Some scholars also take forman dogore instrumentally with wealdan, thereby spoiling the evident syntactical parallelism between þy fyrste and forman dogore.

Yet the primary difficulty is surely that wealdan means just the opposite of what narrative context seems to require here: “rule,” not “succumb.” […]

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.]

a poetic compound

My article, “Grass-Bed: A Poetic Compound in the Alliterative Tradition,” appears in Anglia. This article synthesizes the study of meter and the study of poetic vocabulary through a case study of one rare poetic word closely affiliated with the alliterative tradition from Old to Middle English. Here’s the abstract:

The compound word grass-bed occurs four times in Old and Middle English texts. In each case, grass-bed occurs in an alliterative poem; in each case, the word is used as a kenning for a site of bodily death (a battlefield or a grave). The chronologically and metrically uneven distribution of poetic words like grass-bed in the corpus of medieval English texts raises questions about the reliability of the extant written record, the historical resources of individual writers, and the cultural meanings of poetic traditions. Meanwhile, research in alliterative metrics has begun to suggest that the division of medieval English literary history into Old and Middle subperiods masks fundamental continuities between pre- and post-Conquest alliterative verse. Progress in alliterative metrics refocuses the historical problems attendant upon rare poetic words like grass-bed. Conversely, against the backdrop of technical argumentation in the field of metrics, the study of words offers a second way of understanding the continuity of the alliterative tradition. This article explores connections between metrical history and lexical history via a case study of one especially long-lived and metrically marked poetic word.

the authorship of St. Erkenwald

At the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, this past week, I participated in a panel discussion entitled “Alliterative Traditions,” held in memory of Larry D. Benson. Thanks to Susanna Fein, Daniel Donoghue, and Nicholas Watson for including me. Here I reproduce the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my contribution, “The Authorship of St. Erkenwald: Why Are We Having This Conversation?”:

St. Erkenwald is a romance in English alliterative verse, found uniquely in a late fifteenth-century manuscript anthology of hagiography. The plot of the poem is as follows: in the seventh century, Erkenwald, bishop of London, discovers a tomb beneath St. Paul’s Cathedral covered in indecipherable carvings and containing the undecayed body of a pagan judge, who begins to speak to the astounded onlookers; after interviewing him about his life and death, Erkenwald unintentionally baptizes the judge by reciting the baptismal formula while shedding a tear.

From its first printing in 1881, St. Erkenwald has often been ascribed to the anonymous poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the other Middle English poems in British Library, MS Cotton Nero A.x. The case for the Gawain poet’s authorship rests on internal evidence. Before 1965, co-authorship of St. Erkenwald and the Gawain poems was orthodoxy; after 1965, proponents of co-authorship came to occupy a marginal position in scholarship on both poems. The difference was a carefully argued essay by Larry Benson (“The Authorship of St. Erkenwald“). In my contribution to this panel discussion in Benson’s memory, I ask what is at stake in this particular philological debate.

The authorship of St. Erkenwald is a small problem with big implications for literary history. It radiates outward from the study of one alliterative poem to related issues: most immediately, the oeuvre of the Gawain poet, but also the literary culture of the Northwest Midlands in the fourteenth century, the value of style as historical evidence, the status of authorship in metrical tradition, and the increasingly suspicious literary-historical concept of an Alliterative Revival.


The irony of the co-authorship debate is that it has been unkind to St. Erkenwald, which figures in anthologies and criticism, if at all, as an optional addendum to an important foursome of poems. Like Beowulf, St. Erkenwald may have been stupendously unimportant, unread, unimitated, and quickly forgotten by contemporaries. Of course, modern scholars are under no obligation to take a medieval view of the poem’s literary merits (I certainly do not); but, equally, the poem is under no obligation to yield intelligible answers to modern questions. St. Erkenwald deserves separate treatment in any case, not because it is a work of genius that transcends its tradition, but because it epitomizes its tradition. I think Larry Benson understood this; he framed his 1965 essay as a rescue mission. “[T]he most unfortunate effect of the attribution,” he wrote, “is that it has obscured the real literary value of [St. Erkenwald]” (394-95).

My forthcoming monograph on English alliterative verse represents an extended attempt to demonstrate and contextualize the “real literary value” of St. Erkenwald, together with two earlier alliterative poems of exceptional historical significance: Beowulf and Lawman’s Brut. The only concerted close reading in a book otherwise concerned with metrical and cultural history comes in the fifth chapter, and it is devoted to St. Erkenwald. The central question of St. Erkenwald, I argue there, is the central question of the alliterative tradition: how to uncover and understand the distant past. Consequently the narrative proceeds in two discrete stages, excavation and interview. The hinge comes after line 176, precisely halfway through this 352-line poem.

The literary arguments of this chapter rely directly on Larry Benson’s withering critique of the case for co-authorship. In 2016, St. Erkenwald can stand on its own as an important and worthwhile alliterative poem. For it is in one way, at least, a more perfect poem than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: it crystallizes the problem of history with none of the distractions of chivalric romance. In 1965, Benson dramatically redirected a critical conversation that, ironically because of his contributions to it, we are now ready to stop having.

a postdating of throw ‘time’

My note, “A Postdating of Throw ‘Time’ in Twelfth Night,” appears in Notes & Queries. It’s expected to be published in fall 2016. This note identifies the latest known instance of throw in the sense ‘time,’ in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century play. I teach Twelfth Night in Literature Core, and I noticed that editors of the play do not consistently catch Orsino’s pun on the word throw in Act 5. This prompted me to consult the Oxford English Dictionary, where throw ‘time’ was said to have disappeared in the early sixteenth century. Here’s an abbreviated version of the opening paragraph of the note:

In the final act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1600-01), Duke Orsino rebuffs Feste’s third request for payment: ‘You can fool no more money out of me at this throw’ (V.i.32). The primary meaning of throw is ‘time’, from Old English þrag ‘time; season’. The secondary meaning is ‘throw (of the dice)’, playing on Feste’s dice metaphor (‘Primo, secundo, tertio is a good play’, V.i.29). This occurrence of throw ‘time’ postdates by almost a century the last citation for that meaning at Oxford English Dictionary Online, ‘throw, n.1, 1 (‘The time at which anything happens; an occasion’), from Gavin Douglas’s Eneados (1513).