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.]

phenomenological poetics

I’d like to use this post to introduce a general methodological approach in the field of poetics. Much of my work on early English poetry thus far has been concerned to analyze poetic features not as objective linguistic structures but as mental events. Meter as a mental event; syntax as a mental event; wordplay as a mental event. This general approach to poetics might be termed ‘phenomenological poetics.’*

In pursuing phenomenological poetics, I find myself producing scholarly work that cuts across the structuralism/poststructuralism and formalism/historicism dichotomies. On the one hand, phenomenological poetics differs from most strands of structuralism in refusing to externalize form. For example, my article on Old English poetic syntax mounts a historicist argument against modern editors who propose to chop poetic texts into modern sentences. I argue that certain kinds of syntactical complications are stylistic effects purposefully offered to medieval minds, not syntactical problems accidentally offered to modern textual criticism. To make this argument, however, I build on the findings of modern linguistics and the study of syntax: it’s an argument about the history of form that recognizes form but tries hard not to reify form.

On the other hand, phenomenological poetics operates differently from most strands of poststructuralism, too. For example, my first book tracks the history of the English alliterative meter from the seventh to the sixteenth century. Where poststructuralists often express skepticism about the reality of meter as an object of inquiry, I discuss meter as a real mental event. I consider my work to be materialist, with the understanding that the materials are not pronunciations, spellings, syllables, or even metrical notations but forms of expectation and perception. Meter, for me, lives in the mind, but it lives in the mind in formally and historically specifiable ways. My book argues, in part, that we should not allow that formal and historical nuance to be flattened out by skepticism about our ability to capture it. In phenomenological poetics, questions about literary form and questions about literary history simply coincide, inasmuch as recovering medieval thought processes about poetry is an inherently formal and historical task.

In describing my approach as materialist but concerned with mental processes, I am, of course, coming close to the interdisciplinary field known as cognitive poetics. The cognitive sciences are those dealing with the material that grounds the mental. Thus far I have not connected my research in poetics with the cognitive sciences, but I have learned a great deal from metrists who have: Nick Myklebust, for example.

*A quick Google search reveals that others have used the phrase in a different sense, to refer to poetry that itself engages phenomenological philosophy or phenomenological experience.

verse by verse

My article, “Old English Poetry, Verse by Verse,” appears in Anglo-Saxon England. Here’s the abstract:

Certain syntactical ambiguities in Old English poetry have been the focus of debate among students of metre and syntax. Proponents of intentional ambiguity must demonstrate that the passages in question exhibit, not an absence of syntactical clarity, but a presence of syntactical ambiguity. This article attempts such a demonstration. It does so by shifting the terms of the debate, from clauses to verses and from a spatial to a temporal understanding of syntax. The article proposes a new interpretation of many problematic passages that opens onto a new way of parsing and punctuating Old English poetry.

In this essay in the history of poetic style, I demonstrate that the sequence in time of Old English half-lines sometimes necessitates retrospective syntactical reanalysis, a state of affairs which modern punctuation is ill-equipped to capture, but in which Anglo-Saxon readers and listeners would have recognized specific literary effects. In the second section, I extrapolate two larger syntactical units, the half-line sequence and the verse paragraph, which differ in important ways from the clauses and sentences that modern editors impose on Old English poetic texts. Along the way, I improve the descriptive accuracy of Kuhn’s Laws by reinterpreting them as governing half-line sequences rather than clauses. I conclude with a call for unpunctuated or minimally punctuated critical editions of Old English verse texts.

listening to syntax

At Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference in Madison, CT, I participated in a critical seminar called “Listening to the Line.” My gratitude to Natalie Gerber for the invitation, and for organizing and leading the seminar. What follows is a modified version of the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my paper, “Listening to the Syntax of Alliterative Poetry.” This paper is not a fully developed critical argument but an attempt at an exposition, for a non-medievalist audience, of a historical perplexity from my area of specialization:

Historical background

The term ‘alliterative meter’ denotes the unrhymed meter used in Old English poetry, as in Beowulf (?eighth/tenth century); in Early Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Lawman’s Brut (c. 1200); and in Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century). This verse form does not survive to the present day: sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century, the alliterative meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms.

Modern scholars inevitably approach the alliterative meter with expectations molded by the experience of scanning accentual-syllabic poetry. Such expectations are generally unhelpful for appreciating the historically significant aspects of the alliterative meter, however. A useful opposition for capturing the difference between accentual-syllabic verse forms and the alliterative meter is deductive/inductive. Deductive meters, such as iambic pentameter, consist of the concatenation of perceptually similar metrical units (feet, syllables, etc.). As a result, they have a predictable beat (hence ‘deductive’), even if this beat is only ever notional. Inductive meters, such as the alliterative long line, consist of the juxtaposition of perceptually dissimilar metrical units. As a result, they have no predictable beat, not even a notional one. Instead, the pattern of each metrical unit must be discovered on a case-by-case basis through the application of specialized rules for the assignment of metrical stress (hence ‘inductive’).

Weird syntax

Just as Middle English alliterative meter disrupts many of the expectations that modern readers have learned to bring to modern verse, so too the syntax of Middle English alliterative poetry disrupts the syntactical expectations involved in parsing canonical English poetry from Geoffrey Chaucer to Robert Frost. From a modern perspective, the syntax of Middle English alliterative verse can seem weird, unnecessarily complex, or archaizing. This perception captures something important about the syntax of alliterative verse, but it is also the result of left turns and blind alleys in literary history, which have alienated modern commentators from the alliterative tradition. In this sense, the strange syntax of Middle English alliterative verse measures the historical distance between fourteenth- and twenty-first-century literary cultures.



Readers will have noticed by now that syntactical inversions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cluster in the second half of the line, and often at the very end of the line. There is a metrical reason for this asymmetrical distribution. While syntax may seem like its own, independent domain, in alliterative verse meter and syntax are best understood as two expressions of a single internalized metrical grammar. Many of the inversions discussed here occur in part for metrical convenience. So for example, “as I in toun herde” “as I heard in town” (Gawain 31) avoids a pattern with two long dips (*as I herde in toun). Patterns with two long dips were not part of the metrical system of the second half of the line in fourteenth-century alliterative verse. Thus meter and syntax work together to create normative lines. There is an analogy to be made to the way that Donald Wesling describes the interface of meter and syntax in modern accentual-syllabic meters (Wesling, The Scissors of Meter).

Syntax also takes on a life of its own in Middle English alliterative verse as a marker of poetic artifice. Even if they strike modern readers as unnecessarily complex, syntactical inversions in Middle English alliterative poetry seem to have signaled a high and serious poetic style. And alliterative poetry is nothing if not serious: in addition to the gold-and-tinsel Arthurian antiquity of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the corpus includes the apocalyptic/homiletic/satiric masterpiece Piers Plowman, the luridly anti-Semitic Siege of Jerusalem, the high-chivalric Destruction of Troy, and a number of allusive political prophecies inspired by the Prophecies of Merlin embedded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138). There are no straightforwardly comedic or celebratory alliterative poems, or at least none that have survived. The affect of alliterative narrative is characteristically high-minded and sententious. Encoding and deciphering elaborate syntactical inversions made up an important part of the cultural value of composing and reading (or hearing) this poetry.

Finally, we might inquire why Middle English alliterative verse exhibits the stylized syntactical inversions that it does. To answer this question requires comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to earlier alliterative poems. Such a comparison reveals that syntactical inversions had always characterized the alliterative tradition. In the openings of Beowulf and the Brut, we find, e.g., “þrym gefrunon” (prose order “gefrunon (þone) þrym” “heard of the might”) (Beowulf 2) and “at æðelen are chirechen” (prose order “at are æðelen chirechen” “at a splendid church”) (Brut 3). Neither of these arrangements was characteristic of Old English or Early Middle English prose syntax, and thus, inferentially, neither was characteristic of the poets’ normal spoken syntax. The syntax of fourteenth-century alliterative verse, then, shows historical pressure from earlier phases of this metrical tradition. If so, the often contorted syntax of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight expresses a relation of belonging in metrical tradition. Writing “baret þat lofden” instead of “þat lofden baret” “who loved battle” was not only syntactically permissible and metrically expedient; it also amounted to a prise de position in late medieval English literary culture. By contrasting the syntax of Middle English alliterative verse with that of other Middle English literature (where such inversions are rare to non-existent), we can begin to delineate the cultural stakes of alliterative meter and its weird syntax.