progress report

I thought I’d give a progress report and some backstory on my current book project, Unheard Melodies: Apophatic Poetics in English Literature.

I was an experimental poet before I was a scholar of premodern England. In this book, for the first time in my scholarly career, I am paying critical attention to the contemporary American lyric poetry that I have been reading, teaching, and writing for years. The point of connection is what I call apophatic poetics: literature’s invitation to apprehend the inapprehensible, as in John Keats’s “On a Grecian Urn”: “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.”

I argue that apophaticism entered English poetic practice in premodernity via apophatic (or ‘negative’) theological discourse (on which see Turner). However, I’ve organized the book conceptually rather than historically, and it’s not important for my argument that any particular author have theology in mind. In fact, it’s more interesting when they don’t. When Lerner writes a verse essay theorizing “the negative lyric” (59-67), I think he is thinking of Adorno and Hegel, but his use of negation has more in common with pseudo-Dionysius.

I’ve come to see Keats as the crucial hinge between premodern and contemporary apophatic poetics. His famous term negative capability names a disposition that lies behind many of the works I discuss in the book. Keats’s sweet unheard melodies sound an awful lot like the heavenly/mental music described in the Prick of Conscience, Pearl, Margery Kempe’s Book of Margery Kempe, and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Centuries later, Dickinson echoes Keats (Miller 198, 684):

This World is not conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
It beckons, and it baffles—
Philosophy, don’t know—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity, must go—


The words the happy say
Are paltry melody
But those the silent feel
Are beautiful—

Dickinson’s “through a Riddle” refers to 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see through a glass darkly [per speculum in enigmate],” which has emerged for me as a key scriptural reference-point for apophatic poetics. Speculum and enigma are the names of early literary genres, mirror for princes and riddle. The works I consider in the book all, in different ways, understand themselves to be inadequate, reflecting the world (like a mirror) but with mysterious distortions (like a riddle).

This is also my Piers Plowman book. I consider William Langland the grandmaster of apophatic poetics. Ejecting his poem into the undefined negative space surrounding familiar languages, literary forms, genres, motifs, texts, doctrines, devotional practices, and historical persons and events, he weaves a text almost entirely out of what I call apophatic effects. I read Piers Plowman in enigmate, following Gruenler and other modern commentators but also echoing the English rebels of 1381, who discerned under the surface of the poem an incitement to insurrection, and John Bale, who says he found in Piers Plowman both prophetic grandeur and an abundance of figurative language (Bale’s word is similitudines ‘analogies,’ another keyword of my book).

Part I of the book, now drafted, is a survey of forms of apophatic effects: unpronounceable syllables, metrical duck-rabbits, unreadable novels, and more. Authors and texts considered in part I include Anne Carson, Beowulf, Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wallace Stevens, Victoria Chang, and Vladimir Nabokov. Part II, yet to be written, will discuss the careers of six poets, three from the fourteenth century and three US-based poets born in the middle of the twentieth: Geoffrey Chaucer, Bob Dylan, Langland, Claudia Rankine, Elizabeth Willis, and the poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’m going to have fun comparing and contrasting across the six-hundred-year gulf.

further reading

Dickinson, Emily, and Cristanne Miller, ed. Poems: As She Preserved Them. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Gruenler, Curtis. “Piers Plowman” and the Poetics of Enigma: Riddles, Rhetoric, and Theology. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017.

Lerner, Ben. Angle of Yaw. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2006.

Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cole and Galloway, Companion to “Piers Plowman”

My review of The Cambridge Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), appears in Speculum. Here’s the opening of the review:

This volume is the second of its kind. A Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. John A. Alford (Berkeley, 1988), marked a high point of sophistication and diversification in the study of this challenging Middle English poem. Following in the tradition of Alford’s volume and capitalizing on research progress since 1988, Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway’s Companion offers a panoptic view of major issues in the historical and literary interpretation of Piers Plowman.

The contributions are organized into three parts: “The poem and its traditions” (Helen Barr, Ralph Hanna, Steven Justice, and Jill Mann), “Historical and intellectual contexts” (Robert Adams, James Simpson, Matthew Giancarlo, Cole and Galloway, and Suzanne Conklin Akbari), and “Readers and responses” (Simon Horobin, Lawrence Warner, and Nicolette Zeeman). The volume’s tripartite arrangement (for a medieval poem obsessed with trios and trinities) invites linear reading, leading, in a familiar critical arc, from the poem qua literature, to its wider historical contexts, and finally to its importance for subsequent histories. At the same time, each essay is designed as a self-contained introduction to the poem.

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. […]