Meter as a way of thinking

Yesterday, I gave an invited talk for the MIT Ancient & Medieval Studies Colloquium Series. My gratitude to Arthur Bahr for the invitation. My talk was entitled “Early English Meter as a Way of Thinking.” Here’s the opening frame of the talk:

This paper is about structures of thought that happen to take the form of poetry. So stated, my object of inquiry would seem to be intellectual history, to which poetics is subordinated. However, I will strive to demonstrate that verse form is never incidental to the thinking it performs. Apprehending meter as a way of thinking necessarily involves reimagining thinking itself.

My title echoes Simon Jarvis, who recommends approaching “prosody as cognition.” Jarvis had Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth in mind when he coined that phrase. I seek to test Jarvis’s concept against a different literary archive, exploring the particular kinds of thinking done by and through early English meter. I’ll focus on the second half of the fourteenth century, a stretch of decades that saw a large uptick in the production of literature in English. As we will see, in medieval England meter was a way of thinking about form and balance, translation and vernacularity, and the historicity of literary practice. I’ll present three case studies introducing three kinds of metrical practice: the half-line structure in Middle English alliterative meter, the interplay between Latin and English in Piers Plowman, and final –e in Chaucer’s pentameter.

The protagonists of the three case studies are the three biggest names in Middle English literature: the Gawain poet, William Langland, and Geoffrey Chaucer. The first of these is no name at all but a cypher: the Gawain poet, thought to have composed the four poems in British Library Cotton Nero MS A.X. For this poet, no external evidence for authorship or biography has been identified. William Langland is little more than a floating name in literary history: mentioned in a few contemporary documents, Langland probably belonged to the well-to-do Rokele family. The name ‘Langland’ itself may be a pseudonym. Chaucer, of course, is the Grand Poobah of medieval English literature. Like Gilbert and Sullivan’s character, Chaucer was chronically overemployed; at one time or another he was a clerk, controller of customs, diplomat, esquire, forester, page, and soldier. These three poets have garnered the lion’s share of scholarly attention, and this paper follows suit by placing them at the center of an essay in historical poetics. But I’ll continually emphasize how the metrical practice of a range of contemporary and prior poets shaped the structures of thought informing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, and the Canterbury Tales.

My broadest aim this afternoon is to convince you that intellectual history and poetics can inform one another. Indeed, where poetry is concerned, the procedures of the two fields ought to coincide. Medievalists have made significant contributions toward understanding poetry as cognition: I’m thinking especially of the work of Ruth Evans, Alastair Minnis, Fiona Somerset, Nicholas Watson, and others under the banner of what Minnis calls “medieval literary theory.” This research program compares the explicit theories of authority and textuality propounded in Latin by medieval scholars with the often implicit theorization of literature performed by vernacular texts themselves. To date, few medievalists have considered the intellectual significance of English meter, though I am indebted to the work of Thomas Cable, a metrist who has always insisted that the study of meter is about “mental structures.” From the perspective of intellectual history, I propose to enrich the study of medieval literary theory by disaggregating the English literary field by metrical tradition. Alliterative meter does not think the same way pentameter thinks; the difference should matter in any account of medieval literary theory. From the perspective of poetics, I propose to redirect the philological procedures of the highly traditionalist field of metrics toward a phenomenological poetics. If meter lives in the mind, then it is part of the job of a metrist to discover what it is doing up there.

Phonology and literary history

This past weekend, I presented a paper at the Medieval Academy of America Annual Meeting in Boston. My paper, “Metrical Phonology and Literary History in the Age of Chaucer,” introduces three English metrical traditions–alliterative meter, tetrameter, pentameter–and points to some phonological evidence for cross-pollination between them in the fourteenth century. Here’s the opening frame:

At the end of Book V of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer apostrophizes the poem:

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge.


This passage has attracted significant attention as a testament to linguistic, metrical, and textual variation in medieval England. The apostrophe appears to substantiate conclusions that medievalists are ready to accept anyway: that Chaucer’s language, meter, and texts were in flux around him, and that Chaucer was exquisitely aware of this situation. In the standard interpretation, the speaker of the passage is a lot like a modern editor, worried about language change, metrical decay, and scribal error.

In this paper I’d like to suggest a different cultural context for Chaucer’s hand-wringing: the mediated interaction between language and meter in fourteenth-century English verse. ‘Metrical phonology’ is my term for the linguistic forms that meter encodes. Think, for example, of the variation between monosyllabic and disyllabic scansions of the word heaven in Elizabethan poetry. I will argue that metrical phonology should be understood in terms of the larger historical formation in which it is embedded: the poetic tradition. In the fourteenth century, there were three major metrical options for poets working in English: the alliterative meter, the tetrameter, and the pentameter. The alliterative meter had been in continuous use since at least the eighth century. The tetrameter entered the English literary field in the mid thirteenth century. Chaucer invented the pentameter on the basis of French and Italian models in the 1380s: Troilus and Criseyde is his first substantial work in this new verse form. The three major Middle English meters thus had different histories. Yet these histories also inflected one another. Study of metrical phonology calls for triangulation between historical and comparative analysis. That’s what I’ll try to provide.

By mapping Middle English metrical phonologies, it becomes possible to attain some critical distance from the Troilus and Criseyde passage. Through apostrophe, Chaucer hints at the complexity of fourteenth-century vernacular poetics. However, writing before English became an academic subject, Chaucer necessarily expresses his position in literary culture symptomatically rather than analytically. Attention to the historicity of metrical phonology helps us understand what Chaucer meant by the neologism ‘mismeter’ but also how meter could appear to Chaucer as a poetic problem in the first place.

Somerset and Watson, Truth and Tales

My review of Truth and Tales: Cultural Mobility and Medieval Media, ed. Fiona Somerset and Nicholas Watson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), appears in Arthuriana. Here’s the opening of the review:

This collection, dedicated to Richard Firth Green, grew out of the fourth annual meeting of the Canada Chaucer Seminar (Toronto, April 2012). The volume’s fourteen essays move across and between the large topics of popular culture, orality and literacy, and media studies, with a primary focus on medieval English literature and culture.

The contributions are organized into three central sections: ‘Repetition and Continuity: The Claims of History’ (Thomas Hahn, Stephen Yeager, M. J. Toswell, and Fiona Somerset), ‘Cultural Divides and Their Common Ground’ (Alastair Minnis, Michael Johnston, Lisa J. Kiser, and Barbara A. Hanawalt), and ‘New Media and the Literate Laity’ (Nicholas Watson, Robyn Malo, Kathleen E. Kennedy, and Michael Van Dussen). These are bookended by two single-essay sections entitled ‘The Truth of Tales 1’ (Green) and ‘The Truth of Tales 2’ (Andrew Taylor). Intersecting the editors’ chronological/methodological groupings, one can discover various subconversations about, e.g., vernacular theology (Toswell, Minnis, Watson, and Malo), merchants and their books (Johnston, Malo, and Kennedy), the way in which literature encodes human-animal relations (Somerset and Kiser), and London law (Hanawalt and Kennedy).


Of especial interest to readers of Arthuriana is Somerset’s essay on Lawman’s Brut. […]

NCS 2016 cfp: Chaucer’s Langland

A call for papers for a roundtable at the 2016 New Chaucer Society conference in London (July 10-15). Co-organized by Stephanie Batkie and myself. Submit abstracts using this interface.

Chaucer’s Langland

Many scholars have discerned evidence of the influence of Piers Plowman on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. What is the literary-historical significance of this “obligatory conjunction” between two major Middle English poems? This session seeks to enrich the current critical discussion about the cultural and literary resonance of Langland’s alliterative poem for Chaucer and his audience. Possible topics for short position papers include Chaucer’s perceptions of the alliterative meter; the nature of Chaucer’s access to manuscripts of Piers Plowman; Chaucer and Langland as London poets; Piers Plowman as a pre-Ricardian poem; and the overlapping literary genres of the two poetic projects, especially dialogue and estates satire.

NCS 2016 cfp: Meters and Stanza-Forms

A call for papers for a seminar at the 2016 New Chaucer Society conference in London (July 10-15). Co-organized by Jenni Nuttall and myself. Submit abstracts using this interface. As a seminar, this session will involve two or three precirculated critical essays, chosen by the organizers, and precirculated excerpts from primary texts, chosen by the participants.

Meters and Stanza-Forms: The Favorite and the Forgotten

The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed a proliferation of metrical forms and great experimentation with stanza-forms in English. Study of these holds out the promise of charting new lines of formal affiliation and alternate literary histories of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This seminar will investigate, through individual case studies, what it is to write and read metrically and stanzaically. As Mark Lambert writes: “the maker of stanzaic narrative is […] conspicuously committed […] to finding a certain shape of experience again and again.” This session will offer a space in which to compare the shapes of experience made by Middle English meters and stanza-forms both familiar and rare. Participants will be asked to focus on one meter and/or stanza-form and precirculate a short, representative passage.