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.

quantity in the alliterative tradition

This past weekend, I presented a short paper at the MLA Annual Convention in Austin. My paper, “Quantity in the Alliterative Tradition,” summarizes current thinking on the topic. Thanks to Natalie Gerber and Tom Cable for including my paper in a panel on quantity in English verse. Here is a modified version of the paper:

Quantity matters in the meter of Beowulf and other early English poems. It matters in the form of a metrical principle known as resolution. Metrical resolution served alliterative poets as a way of counting; it can serve modern scholars as evidence for the cultural meanings of verse craft. This paper therefore has two sections: How it Works and What it Means.

How it Works

Metrical resolution operates at the conjunction of metrical stress and syllabic quantity. Resolution works like this: a metrically stressed, quantitatively short syllable plus the following syllable is equivalent to a metrically stressed, quantitatively long syllable. Short stressed + any = long stressed. In the wacky math of alliterative meter, 1 + 1 = 1. Both sides of the equation count as a single metrically strong position, or ‘lift.’ Short syllables are those with an etymologically short vowel followed by zero consonants. (I mark long vowels with macrons.) So for example, in Beowulf 3a hū ða æþelingas ‘how the noblemen,’ æþel- undergoes resolution, resulting in the metrical pattern xxSrSx, where ‘S’ represents a lift without metrical resolution, ‘Sr’ represents a lift with metrical resolution, and ‘x’ represents an unstressed syllable. The pattern xxSrSx is equivalent to xxSSx but not to xxSxSx. In Old English meter, resolution is quasi-obligatory.

The relevance of metrical stress is what distinguishes resolution from the quantitative principles of classical meters. In alliterative meter, two adjacent unstressed, short syllables never add up to one long syllable. In other words, the first of the two syllables undergoing resolution must be one that receives stress. (In alliterative verse, metrical stress is assigned by prosodic weight: content words, such as nouns, receive stress, while function words, such as pronouns, do not.)

In Old English meter, resolution works in harmony with a number of other principles in the metrical system. The quantitative principle is like one functionality of a multifarious and well-oiled machine. The experience of applying resolution in versification and scansion must have been something like this: once metrical stress is assigned to a syllable, check the quantity. If long, count the syllable as a lift. If short, look to the right and count the next syllable together with the first syllable as a lift.

So resolution is a way of counting. It is equally important in historical perspective, as evidence for the development of the alliterative meter. The standard narrative has been that resolution fell into disuse around the time of the Norman Conquest (1066), along with most other features of Old English meter.

More recently, however, Nicolay Yakovlev has demonstrated that resolution continued to be used in alliterative verse into the thirteenth century. In his 2008 Oxford thesis, “The Development of Alliterative Metre from Old to Middle English,” Yakovlev convincingly identifies the use of resolution in Lawman’s Brut, a twelfth-century alliterative verse chronicle. So for example, in Brut 144b & þene dēað þolien ‘and suffer death,’ þoli– undergoes resolution, resulting in the metrical pattern xxxSSrx. The pattern xxxSSrx is equivalent to xxxSSx but not to xxxSSxx. Obviously the judgment that Brut 144b shows resolution depends on an idea of what metrical patterns were acceptable to Lawman. It is only by assuming a certain metrical pattern that you can project resolution in the first place. The same is true, by the way, of Old English meter, but I didn’t mention it earlier because we know a lot about the metrical patterning of Old English verse. Before Yakovlev, we knew next to nothing about the metrical patterning of the Brut. In Early Middle English alliterative meter, resolution is optional rather than quasi-obligatory.

Yakovlev’s arguments about metrical resolution are one small part of a paradigm-shifting demonstration that the alliterative meter was in continuous use from the seventh to the sixteenth century. This conclusion flies in the face of 75 years of metrical and literary scholarship. You may have heard of the Alliterative Revival. According to Yakovlev, no such event occurred. For Yakovlev, metrical resolution is one vector of formal continuity in metrical history. In other words, resolution helps us see that the meter used in Lawman’s Brut is a later instantiation of the meter used in Beowulf: significantly changed, yes, but through continuous development rather than reinvention.

Finally, let’s bring our story to the end of the alliterative tradition: the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries, the age of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story here is simple. Resolution really did die out. Everyone agrees that resolution is no longer functional in Middle English alliterative meter. So for example, in Gawain 6b and pātrounes bicome ‘and became overlords,’ –come does not undergo resolution, resulting in the pattern xSxxxSx. The pattern xSxxxSx is not equivalent to xSxxxSr or xSxxxS.

To sum up, resolution was a historically dynamic feature of the English alliterative meter. Resolution was in use from the earliest recorded poems in the seventh and eighth centuries down to the beginning of the thirteenth century. First it was quasi-obligatory; then it became an optional feature; then it disappeared. The alliterative meter incorporated quantity for at least five centuries but then continued to evolve without quantity for three more centuries.

What it Means

Most immediately, metrical resolution means that alliterative poets were thinking about quantity in the process of versification and scansion. I want to emphasize how odd that is. Resolution recapitulates equivalences that are thought to have obtained in prehistoric Old English, when quantity played a larger role in the regulation of syllables. Yet resolution remained a feature of alliterative meter as late as c. 1200. So one way to understand resolution is as a metrical vestige: a linguistic principle became encoded as a metrical principle, and the metrical principle then outlived the linguistic one by centuries. By the time Lawman employed it, resolution had become a highly artificial principle, only thinkable in the context of a durable poetic tradition.

Alliterative poets were thinking about quantity in vernacular versification, but this thinking lay on a different conceptual plane from theoretical knowledge about Latin metrics. English alliterative verse rose and fell before poets began experimenting with classical quantities in English verse. The last alliterative poems also predate the earliest treatises on English meter. Obviously these two historical developments, metrical and intellectual, are directly connected: you cannot employ classical quantities in English meter until English meter becomes a reputable object of academic attention. And that did not happen until the closing decades of the sixteenth century. By then, the alliterative meter had already gone defunct. Alliterative poets have left behind no ars poetica and very little explicit commentary of any kind on their own metrical practice in the vernacular. Poets probably learned alliterative meter tacitly, through repeated imitation of their predecessors. Therefore, metrical resolution in the alliterative tradition was almost certainly not a learned imitation of classical meter. So another way of understanding resolution is as a cultural phenomenon: an illustration of how metrical features can function and fall away in the absence of explicit prosodic theory.

Partly because of the lack of an ars poetica, it has proven difficult for modern scholars to reconstruct alliterative verse. Since the early nineteenth century, alliterative meter has most often been described as accentual, but this is an overstatement. The quantitative principle coexisted with the accentual principle in the eleventh, twelfth, and early thirteenth centuries. Alliterative meter in these centuries was a blended form, accentual-quantitative. Moreover, Yakovlev has made the stunning argument that Old English meter was not accentual at all. (For the significance of this claim, see Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics.”) So a third way of understanding resolution is as a historiographical corrective: a reminder that alliterative verse was more complexly organized than you might have heard.

Metrical vestige, cultural phenomenon, historiographical corrective: in promising new research, quantity in the alliterative tradition is all of these, and more.

I have also deposited the paper in MLA CORE.

tradition and literary history

My first book, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History, is published by Cambridge University Press (2016).

Eric Weiskott, English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History

English Alliterative Verse tells the story of the medieval poetic tradition that includes Beowulf, Piers Plowman, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, stretching from the eighth century, when English poetry first appeared in manuscripts, to the sixteenth century, when alliterative poetry ceased to be composed. The book draws on the study of meter to challenge the traditional division of medieval English literary history into ‘Old English’ and ‘Middle English’ periods. The two halves of the alliterative tradition, divided by the Norman Conquest of 1066, have been studied separately since the nineteenth century; this book uses the history of metrical form and its cultural meanings to bring the two halves back together. In combining literary history and metrical description into a new kind of history called ‘verse history,’ English Alliterative Verse reimagines the historical study of poetics.

Individual chapters consider (1) Beowulf; (2) prologues to Old English poetry; (3) Lawman’s Brut, an alliterative verse chronicle of the twelfth century; (4) prologues to Middle English poetry; (5) St. Erkenwald, an alliterative romance of the fourteenth or fifteenth century; and (6) the alliterative tradition in the sixteenth century.

A version of Chapter 3 appears in an edited volume devoted to Lawman’s Brut. I have also edited two late fifteenth-century alliterative poems, The Ireland Prophecy (Studies in Philology) and The Vision of William Banastre (in an edited volume devoted to early English poetics), and I have brought to light two sixteenth-century excerpts from Piers Plowman (Review of English Studies). These new texts inform the arguments of Chapter 6. Four articles bring the arguments and methods of the book to related topics: the relationship between metrical history and language history (Modern Philology); the meter of Piers Plowman (Yearbook of Langland Studies); the history of modern scholarship on medieval verse (ELH); and the historical study of poetics (Modern Language Quarterly).

before prosody

My article, “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory,” appears in Modern Language Quarterly. This article draws on the methods and arguments of my first book to reconsider the historical study of poetics in general. Specifically, the essay makes a medievalist contribution to the emerging subfield known as ‘historical poetics.’ I workshopped an earlier version of this essay while visiting Stanford University. Here’s the abstract:

Since the sixteenth century, the history of English poetics has had two sides: a history of theory and a history of practice. Contemporary literary scholars are mapping new connections between the history of theory and the history of practice, under the rubric of “historical poetics.” Thus far historical poetics has been most strongly associated with the study of nineteenth-century poetry. This essay takes a longer view onto the histories of English poetry from the perspective of early English verse. Medieval English poets practiced literary form at a time when vernacular poetics had not yet become an academic subject or a sustained cultural discourse. This essay offers medieval English poetry as a case in point for historical poetics, thereby bringing a different literary archive to bear on methodological debates about the historical study of poetics. Three case studies, centered on alliterative verse, explore what is distinctive about the cultural work of early English poetics.

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.