the alliterative tradition after 1450

This past October, I gave an invited talk for the Harvard English Department Medieval Colloquium. My gratitude to Erica Weaver and Helen Cushman for the invitation. My talk, entitled “Alliterative Meter and the Alliterative Tradition after 1450,” was drawn from the final chapter of my first book. Here’s the opening paragraph of the talk:

Alliterative meter after 1450 has received much less attention than its fourteenth-century ancestor. As a result, basic questions about metrical phonology and metrical typology remain unanswered. Yet if the alliterative tradition exerted significant pressure on adjacent literary forms before 1450, as argued in the previous chapters, then mapping the forms of post-1450 alliterative meter promises to sharpen understanding of post-1450 English literary culture as a whole. This chapter traces the generic, codicological, textual, and cultural contexts for alliterative meter in the century before it disappeared from the active repertoire of verse forms. In doing so, this chapter lays the groundwork for a new literary history of the sixteenth century. After surveying the extant alliterative poems composed after 1450, I describe the systemic changes manifested in alliterative meter in this period, completing the formal evolution set out in previous chapters. The second section considers mid sixteenth- to mid seventeenth-century print and manuscript evidence for the reception of earlier alliterative meter, focusing on the two manuscript texts of Scottish Field (1515-47), Robert Crowley’s first edition of Piers Plowman (1550), and Crowley’s own poetry. I reconstruct scribes’ and authors’ perceptions of the alliterative meter in the period after the conclusion of active metrical practice but before the advent of modern metrical theory. I conclude by arguing that the contribution of the alliterative tradition to the so-called invention of modern literature has been underestimated by literary histories that enforce an absolute division between ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ periods of literary activity.

three-position verses in Beowulf

My note, “Three-Position Verses in Beowulf,” appears in Notes and Queries. This note proposes that some metrical patterns with three positions are rare but authentic in the meter of Beowulf. More generally, the note seeks to draw a theoretical distinction between systematic metrical patterns (those that adhere to the metrical system obtaining at a given point in verse history) and asystematic patterns (those that do not adhere to the synchronic metrical system for historical reasons). Here’s the opening frame:

The most recent theory of Old English meter is that of Nicolay Yakovlev. Like many of his predecessors, Yakovlev finds that the Old English half-line is composed of four metrical positions. However, he countenances two five-position patterns, known in Sieversian notation as A* and D*. He goes on to discuss the theoretical implications of their existence:

[A] traditional metre is hardly ever given opportunity [sic] to become completely cohesive. The average time span between major prosodic upheavals appears to be less than that required to eliminate any remains of the previous restructuring. It means, inter alia, that the number of asystemic patterns, i.e. patterns that are not produced by general metrical rules and should therefore be specified individually, may be greater or smaller at any given point in poetic history, but it will hardly ever be zero. Given the rare opportunity to observe a cross-section in the history of a poetic tradition, we always see ‘a work in progress’; the picture observed will always be inherently dynamic, similarly to a proper synchronic description of a language. Old English patterns D* and A* seem to be examples of such a historical residue.

Yakovlev provides a brilliant explanation for the occurrence of five-position verses. In a ‘traditional metre’, i.e., one with a continuous historical development, marginal patterns could coexist with normative ones for a certain length of time before being normalized or reinterpreted as a new norm. Yakovlev does not identify any other ‘asystemic patterns’, but nothing in his account of Old English meter precludes the possibility.

Although they are always explained differently or emended, verses of the form SxS occur in Beowulf. […]

meter and textual criticism

My article, “Alliterative Metre and the Textual Criticism of the Gawain Group,” appears in the Yearbook of Langland Studies. Here’s the opening frame of the essay:

Recent studies have gone some way toward solving the riddle of Middle English alliterative metre, while at the same time uncovering evidence of continuity between Old English metre, Early Middle English alliterative metre, and Middle English alliterative metre. The principles governing the alliterative metre 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 metre. In particular, the alliterative tradition appears to have been both more durable and more dynamic than proponents of a so-called Alliterative Revival supposed.

The new metrical models should interest the textual editor because, cautiously applied, they can supplement other considerations in the editing of alliterative verse texts. This essay reexamines Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron’s authoritative edition of Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Certain readings, both editorial and scribal, now seem implausible in light of current metrical theory. In addition to their intrinsic interest for students of the Cotton Nero poems, my proposed emendations and non-emendations are meant to function as a case study in the application of metrical theory to textual criticism. I take as my models a recent essay by Stokes on metre and emendation in Gawain and another by Jefferson and Putter on the text of the Middle English alliterative poem Death and Life, though my understanding of alliterative metre and my editorial sensibilities do not accord with theirs in every detail. In what follows, I summarize two points of general agreement among metrists, review the stress assignment and metrical phonology of Middle English alliterative poetry, and track Andrew and Waldron’s understanding of alliterative metre across the five printings of their edition. The second section presents ten verses in the Cotton Nero poems in which metrical theory can be of service to textual criticism. In the third and final section, I review a recent essay by Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre and discuss two promising avenues for future research at the intersection of metrics and textual criticism: the alliterative metre of Piers Plowman and the shape of the a-verse in Middle English alliterative poetry.

Throughout, I argue that metre can be utilized as one dimension of editorial assessment in conjunction with other considerations, while remaining circumspect about its ability to furnish independent grounds for emendation. This essay seeks to lay the groundwork for future research by consolidating progress in alliterative metrics, illustrating the application of metrical theory to textual criticism in ten individual passages in the Gawain group, and exploring the theoretical and methodological implications of cooperation between metrics and editing. The combination of practical, theoretical, and methodological discussion is meant as a provocation to future studies that might address broader topics, for example the Gawain-poet’s metrical habits in general, as well as narrower ones, such as metrical approaches to a locus desperatus in the text of Piers Plowman.

Andrew and Waldron’s edition makes a worthy candidate for scrutiny, because it represents a comprehensive editorial achievement. I hope to show that metrical considerations can aid in the identification of implausible editorial emendations. More generally, I argue that the dialectical process of editing with metrical theory and theorizing metre with edited texts should serve as a reminder of the limits of cooperation between these fields of inquiry and hence the provisional nature of both metre and edited text as historical reconstructions. Andrew and Waldron’s hugely influential edition remains indispensable, but its lack of engagement with metrical theory on the level of editorial praxis undermines the plausibility of its text in several places.