a missing term in metrics

My article, “Systematicity, a Missing Term in Historical Metrics,” appears in Language and Literature. This article introduces a new technical term in historical metrics in order to address and connect two of the most persistent problems encountered by modern metrical specialists. The title of the article pays homage to a seminal essay in evolutionary biology, Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth S. Vrba’s “Exaptation—A Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Here’s the abstract:

This essay identifies two persistent problems in the historical study of meter—nonconformant metrical patterns and metrical change—and offers a new term as a conceptual tool for understanding their interdependence. The term ‘systematic’ denotes metrical patterns that conform to synchronically operant metrical principles. The corresponding term ‘asystematic’ denotes the minority of actually occurring metrical patterns that fall outside the metrical system as such for historical reasons. All systematic patterns are necessarily metrical, but not all metrical patterns are systematic. It is argued that the systematicity/metricality distinction in historical metrics is analogous to the regularity/grammaticality distinction in historical linguistics and similarly fundamental to historical analysis. By introducing a new technical term, this essay seeks to shift the metrist’s object of study from the metrical system qua system to meter as a complex historical experience. The value of the concept of systematicity is illustrated through three case studies in asystematic metrical patterns from early English poetic traditions: verses with three metrical positions in Beowulf, lines with masculine ending in Middle English alliterative verse, and the infamous ‘broken-backed lines’ in the pentameter of John Lydgate. In each case, it is argued that the contrast between systematic and asystematic metrical patterns illuminates the diverse historical and perceptual negotiations that inevitably lie behind metered texts.

counting and scanning

This weekend, I presented a paper at Digital Britain: New Approaches to the Early Middle Ages in Cambridge, MA. My gratitude to Sam Berstler, Joey McMullen, and Erica Weaver for the invitation, and for organizing the conference. My paper, “Counting and Scanning: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches to Early English Meter,” is an essay in the philosophy of science, focusing on the use of quantitative reasoning in a specialized field of literary study. Here’s the opening frame:

This is a paper in defense of counting in literary studies. It’s also a paper about why counting needs defending in literary studies in 2016. First, I’d like to connect these topics to the conference theme.

The so-called digital turn in academic knowledge production poses a material challenge to the methodological status quo of the humanities. Digital technology makes a bold promise: the quantification of human experience. For constituents of the status quo, the promise of digital technology seems more like a threat. Many humanists worry about what is lost when the richness of culture and the arts is reduced to data. For others, digital tech enables the humanities to live up to their potential. To take an egregious example, Franco Moretti’s ‘distant reading’ does not merely claim to be a good method of reading literature; it claims to be the best method. In promoting statistical approaches to literary history, Moretti taps into philosophical attitudes that predate the digital. His aggressive empiricism is at once the attraction and the scandal of distant reading.

Thus the digital turn irritates a long-standing tension in humanistic study between qualitative and quantitative methods. I propose to explore this tension by focusing on a field of inquiry that bears an unusual relationship to it. Metrics, depending on your perspective, is either the field entrusted with explaining what makes poetry poetry, or the field charged with inferring an organizational system from linguistic patterning. Metrical scholarship combines qualitative and quantitative reasoning in a way that has become uncomfortable in literary studies.

Discomfort with the modus operandi of metrics is acute in the case of early medieval literature, whose systems of formal organization lie at a great cultural remove from those of modern literature. In reconstructing early medieval meters, the value of modern experiences of poetics, and hence the network of assumptions underlying data collection, is always open to question. About the meter of Beowulf, for example, it is currently possible to hold any one of a number of mutually contradictory theoretical views. Moreover, Old English metrical theories cluster in two incommensurable research paradigms, one continuously elaborated since the nineteenth century, the other disclosed for the first time in 2008 (see Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics”). Metrists disagree, and they disagree about why they disagree. For many literary scholars, meanwhile, metrics is a field that deploys the rhetoric of accumulation to make exaggerated claims on historical truth.

counting and scanning header

In light of these problems, what I’d like to do this morning is to sketch the function of counting in metrics, with reference to my research on English alliterative verse. I have two goals: to affirm the role of quantitative reasoning in literary study, and then to set a certain limit on that role. In what follows, I identify and address two philosophical challenges to counting as a critical method. One challenge comes from the right, framed in the language of neopositivism; the other comes from the left, framed in the language of poststructuralism. I contend that the neopositivist and poststructuralist positions both miss the full significance of counting as a way of getting at “the heart of a poem,” in the words of Simon Jarvis. Ultimately, I’ll argue that metrical study explodes the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches to literature.

Stanford visit

Eric Weiskott at Stanford

photo credit: Elaine Treharne

This past week, I visited Stanford University as a Text Technologies Fellow. While at Stanford I also spoke to the Workshop in Poetics, recorded a video interview for a developing digital resource for the study of prosody, and guest-lectured on early English alliterative meter in English 301B, Love and Loss in Early English, 900-1300. My gratitude to Elaine TreharneArmen DavoudianRoland GreeneNick Jenkins, and Mary Kim for these invitations and to Armen, Mary, and Daeyeong (Dan) Kim for making local arrangements. Here is a summary of my visit on Stanford’s website.

As a Text Technologies Fellow, I gave a lecture to the Stanford CMEMS Workshop entitled “The Old English Exeter Book and the Idea of a Poem.” This lecture represents new thinking at the nexus of poetic meter, manuscript form, and the history of ideas. My thanks to the attendees for helpful questions and criticisms. Here’s a modified version of the opening frame of the talk:

As a visitor to the Workshop in Poetics, I presented a work in progress entitled “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory.” This essay relates the conclusions of my first book to the emergent research paradigm known as ‘historical poetics.’ My thanks to the members of the Workshop for incisive questions and comments. Here’s an abstract:

Scholars of Victorian poetry have called for a ‘historical poetics’ that would reevaluate the received narrative of English literary history by recovering alternate ways of theorizing and experiencing poetic form. This essay takes a longer view onto the histories of English poetry from the perspective of Old English and Middle English verse. The primary purpose of the essay is to offer medieval English poetry as a case in point for historical poetics, thereby bringing a different literary archive to bear on critical conversations about the theory and practice of English versification. The contribution of this essay to the field of historical poetics will be to indicate a constitutive gap between the practice and theory of verse. Through three case studies drawn from ongoing research on the alliterative tradition, I seek to demonstrate what is distinctive about the cultural work of early English poetics. Recognition of the ways in which modern questions fail to illuminate medieval meters is the first step toward a more capacious historical poetics.

As a contributor to a developing digital resource for the study of prosody, I discussed alliteration as a poetic device and an ornament in alliterative meter; the alliterative tradition, Old to Middle English; and the state of the field of alliterative metrics.

As a guest lecturer in English 301B, I taught a class of undergraduates and graduate students about the history of the alliterative metrical system c. 900-1200, with examples drawn from the Battle of Brunanburh (c. 937), Durham (1104-1109), and Lawman’s Brut (c. 1200). We asked how this metrical system stood around 900, how it changed between then and 1200, and how modern scholars have conceptualized these metrical principles and transformations. It was exciting to be able to help the students connect meter with the primary concerns of the seminar: linguistic form, literary style, periodization, and manuscript context.

Piers Plowman and the alliterative tradition

My article, “Piers Plowman and the Durable Alliterative Tradition,” appears in the Yearbook of Langland Studies. It’s scheduled to appear in early 2017 for 2016. This essay applies the methodology of my first book to the most widely copied and persistently idiosyncratic Middle English alliterative poem. Here’s the opening frame of the essay:

In recent years, the principles governing the alliterative meter in the fourteenth century have been discovered and elaborated by a series of distinguished scholars: Hoyt Duggan and Thomas Cable in the 1980s and 1990s, followed by Judith Jefferson, Ad Putter, Myra Stokes, and Nicolay Yakovlev in the 2000s. The new metrical scholarship refocuses questions of literary history, poetics, and the cultural meaning of meter. Yakovlev’s 2008 Oxford dissertation, in particular, powerfully demonstrates continuity between Old English, Early Middle English, and Middle English alliterative meter. Indeed, this new research paradigm has begun to suggest the incoherence of the received period terms ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ as such. Yet each of these metrical experts has bracketed Piers Plowman as formally aberrant. Duggan concludes that ‘Langland clearly did not always care to make his alliterative long line fit the conventions that governed other alliterative poets’; Cable confides, ‘I suspect that Langland knew the rules […] but felt free to break them’; Putter, Jefferson, and Stokes find Piers Plowman ‘metrically idiosyncratic’; and Yakovlev labels the poem ‘metrically deviant’. Because Piers Plowman is among the longest and most studied alliterative poems and by far the best attested in manuscript, its relation to the wider alliterative tradition emerges as a major question for metrists and literary historians.

This essay reconsiders the extent to which the meter of Piers Plowman conforms to that of the surrounding alliterative tradition. The first section summarizes progress in Middle English alliterative metrics, with emphasis on the observable metrical development that justifies reference to a durable alliterative tradition spanning the seventh through the sixteenth centuries. The second section compares the meter of Piers Plowman with the emergent metrical model, identifying major similarities and minor differences between Piers Plowman and other fourteenth-century alliterative poems. The third section explores the cultural implications of the similarities and differences, thereby situating Langland’s formal choices in the metrical landscape of late fourteenth-century London. I argue that Langland stands apart from other alliterative poets not because he flouts metrical rules but because of the peculiar way in which he fulfills them; I then argue that the meter of Piers Plowman reflects the interaction of a major diachronic and a major synchronic force, the durable alliterative tradition and Langland’s metrical landscape. A central aim of this essay is to bring progress in metrical study to the wider attention of Middle English specialists. To that end, I append a glossary of technical terms.

counting and the heart of a poem

At the MLA conference in January, in a roundtable session entitled “Rhythm and Rhyme,” the poet-critic Simon Jarvis offered the following general observation: “Counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem.” Jarvis titled his paper “In Defense of Numbers,” with a pun on the historical meaning of ‘numbers’ (‘verses of poetry’).

In my own critical practice, I find Jarvis’s observation to be profoundly true, and in a way that often goes unremarked in the larger conversations about the study of poetry. I thought I would record some of my reactions to Jarvis’s statement here, with examples drawn from my own research on medieval English verse. This post can then function as a summary of my modes of investigation as well as a medievalist Defense of Numbers.

My research into medieval English meters involves a lot of counting. First, I count in order to define a study corpus. The distinction between alliterative and non-alliterative Middle English poetry, for example, is crucial to my research program. One way to appreciate the distinction is to read a list of alliterative and non-alliterative poems generated by a certain set of criteria. Counting is a way to understand what counts in a given critical paradigm.

Second, I count in order to define a research problem. For example, I might search through the text of Piers Plowman B for lines ending in the word gold. (Hooray for concordances.) I might want to make such a search because the rules of Middle English alliterative meter, as these are currently understood, prohibit monosyllabic words like gold from appearing at the end of the line. (And of course meter is itself another form of counting.)

Third, I count the attributes of a given dataset. For example, the quantity, distribution, grammatical structure, and poetic context of the lines ending in gold in Piers Plowman B might all be relevant to their interpretation. This stage of research generally involves Excel spreadsheets with multiple columns.

Finally, counting in poetry almost always involves discounting: whatever interpretation or explanation I offer for lines ending in monosyllables in Piers Plowman B, it will likely cover some but not all of the verses in the dataset. I think this might be the phenomenon that Jarvis most had in mind when he wrote that “counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem.” As soon as one recognizes multiple instantiations of a poetic form pointing to contradictory critical conclusions, one has begun the work of understanding a poem as a poem.

It seems to me there are two critical objections to counting-as-interpretation that successful counting must answer. From the right, counting appears less as an interpretive process than as an objective truth discovery mechanism. Adopting the language and rhetoric of the hard sciences, certain strands of philology tend to view data as given information that must be carefully counted, after which time the truth becomes apparent to all reasonable observers. This sort of methodology tends to underestimate the extent to which critical paradigms serve to create ‘the data’ by shaping the questions we ask of available evidence. Saying this need not amount to solipsism or relativism, as the work of Thomas Kuhn shows clearly.

From the left, counting comes under fire as scientism or solutionism, the quantification of qualitative phenomena. Adopting the language and rhetoric of French philosophy, certain strands of poststructuralism tend to regard statistics in general with suspicion. This sort of methodology tends to emphasize the uniqueness and irreducible historicity of each individual poetic text. And yet counting need not imply an escape from the individual poetic text as such. On the contrary, “counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem.”

What the empiricist and poststructuralist objections share is the assumption that counting should be understood as an inductive process involving little or no subjective self-reflection. For the empiricists, this is what is so valuable about counting; for the poststructuralists, this is why counting is always suspect.

Of the two challenges to counting as a vehicle for transporting oneself into the heart of a poem, the poststructuralist critique is the more fundamental. In modern English departments, it is also the more prevalent. This is, I presume, why Jarvis styled his paper a Defense of Numbers (rather than, say, an Exposition of Critically Aware Counting). Yet I would like to raise one final caution about poststructuralist critiques that have supposedly done away with previously important theoretical concepts in the study of poetry (such as ‘foot’ or ‘volta’ or ‘lyric’). The kind of critical practice that ought to please structuralists and poststructuralists alike (indeed, the kind of critical practice that the structuralists always intended: see Culler’s Structuralist Poetics) is one that engages in counting but also remains aware of its limitations. Counting can often take us quite quickly into the heart of a poem, but to understand where we are when we get there, scholars must appreciate counting as an occasion for critical reflection.

Postscript: It turns out there are five lines ending in gold in Piers Plowman B. Two primary types of interpretation recommend themselves. On the one hand, one might view these five verses as asystematic, that is, nonconformant with general metrical principles. The reasons for asystematic verses might be historical (such verses were once conformant but have become nonconformant as a result of ongoing metrical evolution) or perceptual (such verses express a poet’s or scribe’s overgeneralization of metrical principles). In favor of this interpretation is the rarity of such lines: gold appears at line end in Piers Plowman in only five of its 22 occurrences in the poem, or a total of 0.07% of all lines in Piers Plowman (more counting). On the other hand, one might seek to salvage these verses as metrically systematic. For example, all five instances of gold at line end in Piers Plowman B are the objects of prepositions: while inflectional –e‘s, inherited from Old English case usages, are not generally counted in modern scansion of Middle English alliterative meter, the example of gold might be a reason to count at least some of them. In favor of this interpretation is the spelling of gold: in all five cases, gold is spelled golde in several manuscripts, even though it is spelled without –e in normal scribal practice. Both of these possible explanations, negative and positive, would teach us something important about the historical poetic practices in which William Langland and his audience engaged.