Words from the ’80s (the 1580s)

Two of my scholarly notes have been accepted for publication in Notes & Queries: “Antedatings of ‘the Dark Ages’” and “The First Recorded References to ‘Blank Verse’.”

Milton Of Reformation

John Milton, Of Reformation (1641)

These notes discuss the earliest instances of these phrases known to me, in both cases from the 1580s and in both cases predating the earliest quotation given in the corresponding Oxford English Dictionary entry. The notes go on to discuss the historical significance of the terms.

These lexicographical studies grew out of research for my second book project, tentatively titled Meter and Modernity in English Verse, 1350-1650. I became interested in the history of technical terms for historical periods and metrical forms, especially when the emergence of the terms is belated in comparison with what they describe.

A postdating of throw ‘time’

My note, “A Postdating of Throw ‘Time’ in Twelfth Night,” appears in Notes & Queries. It’s expected to be published in fall 2016. This note identifies the latest known instance of throw in the sense ‘time,’ in Shakespeare’s early seventeenth-century play. I teach Twelfth Night in Literature Core, and I noticed that editors of the play do not consistently catch Orsino’s pun on the word throw in Act 5. This prompted me to consult the Oxford English Dictionary, where throw ‘time’ was said to have disappeared in the early sixteenth century. Here’s an abbreviated version of the opening paragraph of the note:

In the final act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1600-01), Duke Orsino rebuffs Feste’s third request for payment: ‘You can fool no more money out of me at this throw’ (V.i.32). The primary meaning of throw is ‘time’, from Old English þrag ‘time; season’. The secondary meaning is ‘throw (of the dice)’, playing on Feste’s dice metaphor (‘Primo, secundo, tertio is a good play’, V.i.29). This occurrence of throw ‘time’ postdates by almost a century the last citation for that meaning at Oxford English Dictionary Online, ‘throw, n.1, 1 (‘The time at which anything happens; an occasion’), from Gavin Douglas’s Eneados (1513).

Phenomenological poetics

I’d like to use this post to introduce a general methodological approach in the field of poetics. Much of my work on early English poetry thus far has been concerned to analyze poetic features not as objective linguistic structures but as mental events. Meter as a mental event; syntax as a mental event; wordplay as a mental event. This general approach to poetics might be termed ‘phenomenological poetics.’*

In pursuing phenomenological poetics, I find myself producing scholarly work that cuts across the structuralism/poststructuralism and formalism/historicism dichotomies. On the one hand, phenomenological poetics differs from most strands of structuralism in refusing to externalize form. For example, my article on Old English poetic syntax mounts a historicist argument against modern editors who propose to chop poetic texts into modern sentences. I argue that certain kinds of syntactical complications are stylistic effects purposefully offered to medieval minds, not syntactical problems accidentally offered to modern textual criticism. To make this argument, however, I build on the findings of modern linguistics and the study of syntax: it’s an argument about the history of form that recognizes form but tries hard not to reify form.

On the other hand, phenomenological poetics operates differently from most strands of poststructuralism, too. For example, my first book tracks the history of the English alliterative meter from the seventh to the sixteenth century. Where poststructuralists often express skepticism about the reality of meter as an object of inquiry, I discuss meter as a real mental event. I consider my work to be materialist, with the understanding that the materials are not pronunciations, spellings, syllables, or even metrical notations but forms of expectation and perception. Meter, for me, lives in the mind, but it lives in the mind in formally and historically specifiable ways. My book argues, in part, that we should not allow that formal and historical nuance to be flattened out by skepticism about our ability to capture it. In phenomenological poetics, questions about literary form and questions about literary history simply coincide, inasmuch as recovering medieval thought processes about poetry is an inherently formal and historical task.

In describing my approach as materialist but concerned with mental processes, I am, of course, coming close to the interdisciplinary field known as cognitive poetics. The cognitive sciences are those dealing with the material that grounds the mental. Thus far I have not connected my research in poetics with the cognitive sciences, but I have learned a great deal from metrists who have: Nick Myklebust, for example.

*A quick Google search reveals that others have used the phrase in a different sense, to refer to poetry that itself engages phenomenological philosophy or phenomenological experience.

Verse by verse

My article, “Old English Poetry, Verse by Verse,” appears in Anglo-Saxon England. Here’s the abstract:

Certain syntactical ambiguities in Old English poetry have been the focus of debate among students of metre and syntax. Proponents of intentional ambiguity must demonstrate that the passages in question exhibit, not an absence of syntactical clarity, but a presence of syntactical ambiguity. This article attempts such a demonstration. It does so by shifting the terms of the debate, from clauses to verses and from a spatial to a temporal understanding of syntax. The article proposes a new interpretation of many problematic passages that opens onto a new way of parsing and punctuating Old English poetry.

In this essay in the history of poetic style, I demonstrate that the sequence in time of Old English half-lines sometimes necessitates retrospective syntactical reanalysis, a state of affairs which modern punctuation is ill-equipped to capture, but in which Anglo-Saxon readers and listeners would have recognized specific literary effects. In the second section, I extrapolate two larger syntactical units, the half-line sequence and the verse paragraph, which differ in important ways from the clauses and sentences that modern editors impose on Old English poetic texts. Along the way, I improve the descriptive accuracy of Kuhn’s Laws by reinterpreting them as governing half-line sequences rather than clauses. I conclude with a call for unpunctuated or minimally punctuated critical editions of Old English verse texts.

Metrical cultures before 1800

I’ve organized a panel for MLA 2016 (Austin), entitled “English Metrical Cultures before 1800.” The panel has now been selected for inclusion in the conference. The panel will feature papers from Ian Cornelius, Megan Cook, and Joshua Swidzinski. Here I reproduce the opening and closing of the rationale for the session:

Yopie Prins, Meredith Martin, and other scholars 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. In her award-winning Rise and Fall of Meter, Martin argues that meter mattered in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English culture, and in ways that were strategically obscured by later polemicists and practitioners. The emergent field of historical poetics, conceptualized as the study of the reciprocal relationship between meters and cultures, represents an exciting new way of synthesizing formalism and historicism in the study of English literature.

Thus far, historical poetics has been most strongly associated with the study of nineteenth-century British poetry. This panel proposes to take a longer view onto the histories of English poetry, in order to explore continuities and change in English metrical cultures over time. The panel features one paper from each of the periods of English literary history before 1800: medieval, early modern, and the eighteenth century. While the panel has a wide chronological range (c. 1000-1800), the three papers cohere in their close focus on specific feedback loops between English meters and English cultures. Even more specifically, each of the essays situates ‘English’ ‘metrical’ cultures in a reciprocal relationship with non-English and/or non-metrical cultural forms. Each of the papers articulates a historically specific answer to the chiastic question: How do meters form cultures, and how do cultures form meters? Through its large chronological sweep and narrow thematic focus, this panel promises to bring together attendees addressing similar research questions in disparate periods of literary history.


Together, these three papers will expand the chronological frame of historical poetics and demonstrate the dynamism of meter as a culturally significant practice in English literary history. In particular, they will present three historical case studies of the way in which English metrical cultures emerge from cultural formations not traditionally associated with English meter as such. Austin, Texas, would be a particularly appropriate venue for this panel, since the English Department of the University of Texas at Austin currently employs or has employed several distinguished specialists in pre-1800 English prosody and poetics (Mary Blockley, Thomas Cable, Winfred Lehmann, and Lisa Moore).