Journal Article

Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory

by Eric Weiskott

The primary purpose of the essay is to offer medieval English poetry as a case in point for historical poetics.

Since the sixteenth century, the history of English poetics has had two sides: a history of theory and a history of practice.[1] In the late sixteenth century, classically educated men subjected accentual-syllabic English verse to Latin quantitative scansion and attributed the confused result to deficiencies in English poetry and the English language. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from John Milton’s metrical experiments to George Hickes’s monumental Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus (1705), poetry and prosodic theory were both under continual development. The late nineteenth century witnessed an upsurge in the production of both English poetry and theoretical writing about its metrical forms. In the early twentieth century, Anglo-American modernists championed free verse through poetic compositions as well as directive treatises.

Contemporary literary scholars are mapping new connections between the history of theory and the history of practice. Yopie Prins, Meredith Martin, and other scholars of Victorian poetry have called for a ‘historical poetics’ that would reevaluate the received narrative of English literary history by recovering alternative ways of theorizing and experiencing poetic form (Hall 2011; Martin 2012; Prins 2008). Martin’s 2012 book, The Rise and Fall of Meter, trawls now-obscure poetics manuals and the annals of prosodic infighting to challenge the inevitability of modern scansional techniques. Through a combination of archival research and cultural analysis, Martin implicates the concept of meter in British war and nation-building, from Empire Day to the National Service League to the New English Dictionary. The unlikely protagonists of Martin’s new literary history are the prosodist George Saintsbury and the poet-prosodists Robert Bridges, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Coventry Patmore. Martin argues that meter mattered in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England, and in ways that were strategically obscured (and then simply forgotten) by later polemicists and practitioners.

In addition to meter, this emergent research program reconsiders two other literary topics of enduring critical interest. On one side, historical poetics shades off into the histories of poetic genres, especially lyric, as in the essays gathered in the January 2008 issue of PMLA under the heading “The New Lyric Studies” (cp. Jackson 2014). On the other side, historical poetics shades off into the histories of poetry per se, with focus on the twentieth-century amalgamation of diverse literary forms and practices into an idea of Poetry with a capital ‘P.’ These two projects of historical recovery converge in Virginia Jackson’s book-length study, Dickinson’s Misery (2005). By coordinating material and cultural analysis with a critique of editorial and critical history, Jackson seeks to relocate the lyricism of Emily Dickinson’s verse from practices of poetic composition to practices of poetic reading. In Jackson’s account, the New Critical flattening of poetry into Poetry and the explosion of the genre of the lyric are best comprehended as one and the same historical process. Jackson proposes to break into new understandings of the histories of English poetry, less by offering a new account of poetic form than by fixing critical attention on “the history of lyricization” (2008: 183) as a cultural process in its own right.

From different angles, Simon Jarvis and Jonathan Culler have endeavored to broaden the scope of historical poetics to include the description of poetic forms in their aesthetic richness and historical dynamism. In a pair of essays responding to Prins’s program of historical poetics, Jarvis argues for “technique” as “the way in which the work of art most intimately registers historical experience” (2010: 931; cp. 2014). Conceiving of poetry as “an institution, a series of practices as real as the belief in them and the capacity for them” (2010: 933), Jarvis questions the presumption that the representation of poetic practices mirrors the practices themselves. “The history of verse thinking is not the same as the history of representations of verse thinking” (932), he cautions. Similarly, Culler qualifies the poststructuralist critique of the category of lyric, emphasizing the distinction between theory and practice. In the case of the genre of lyric, Culler contends that “the weight of tradition helps make there be something to be right or wrong about” (2009: 883; cp. 2014, 2015). Jarvis’s and Culler’s reformulations of historical poetics share the assumption that the historical development of literary practices might matter as much as, and differently from, the historical development of metaliterary discourses.

Disagreement about the grounds on which to reconstruct the history of verse activates long-standing tensions between extrinsic and intrinsic or conceptual and practical approaches to literary history. Prins registers the familiar admonition that formalism become historicist when she submits that “practical application is not the point of historical poetics. There are other, more interesting questions” (2008: 233). Jarvis makes the less familiar gesture of recommending that historicism become formalist: “Historical poetics needs above all to be wary of thinking that it can exit from the painful difficulty of specifying the history of verse technique” (2014: 115). Tension between ostensibly opposite ways of stating a research problem is partially a function of the historical period under consideration. Distinctions between extrinsic and intrinsic literary histories, or between form and the representation of form, became newly contentious as the professional study of prosody picked up steam in the mid nineteenth century. Dennis Taylor argues that the Victorian period “was the first period to discover a theory of metre adequate to the genius of its poets” (1988: 3-4). It was in the late nineteenth century (though in Russia, not England) that the phrase ‘historical poetics’ was first wielded (Jarvis 2010: 932). Jarvis frames his reformulation of historical poetics in terms of the study of pre-Victorian poets, primarily Pope and Wordsworth.

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 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 the methodological debate sketched above. Medievalists have much to contribute to the conversation about the historical perplexities of English verse, particularly since medieval poets have left behind no ars poetica explicating their understanding of English meter and poetic style. Medieval English poets practiced literary form at a time when vernacular poetics had not yet become an academic subject or a sustained cultural discourse. As such, the case of medieval English verse throws into relief the terms of modern debates about the idea and practice of poetry.

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. Meaningful difference between the practice and the theorization of verse may strike some readers as self-evident. However, such difference is not always assumed in the new wave of research into the history of poetics. The gap between the practice and theory of English verse was wider in the medieval centuries than at any other time, but coming to terms with this gap, I argue, yields methodological lessons that can be carried forward into later periods of study.

Medieval English poetry was composed, copied, and consumed not only before prosody but also before modern education, modern militarism, modern nations, modern racialism, the globalization of English, and the development of English literature as an academic discipline—all central themes in Martin’s book. Through three case studies drawn from ongoing research on the alliterative tradition, this essay seeks to demonstrate what is distinctive about the cultural work of early English poetics. I focus on the alliterative tradition because subsequent developments in literary history render it paradigmatically alien from a modern perspective. The term ‘alliterative’ (an eighteenth-century designation, unknown to medieval poets) refers to the unrhymed meter used in Beowulf (?eighth/tenth c.), Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth c.), and around 300 other English poems. Despite the modern nomenclature, it is not alliteration per se but a set of metrical principles governing patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that is definitive of this meter. Thus alliterating prose and alliterating accentual-syllabic poems (such as Pearl) fall outside the alliterative tradition. Though it is not the primary purpose of this essay to discuss alliterative meter in detail, more technical studies are cited where appropriate.

The three case studies concern the continuity of alliterative meter across ten centuries of literary history, c. 650-1550 CE; Geoffrey Chaucer’s perceptions of alliterative romance in the late fourteenth century; and the northern and prophetic coloring of alliterative verse after 1450. Each case study begins by summarizing formal and cultural contexts for alliterative verse and ends by positioning knowledge about alliterative verse as a contribution to historical poetics. The conclusion connects medieval practice and modern theory more directly by looking forward to the sixteenth century and the inauguration of sustained metadiscourses of English poetic form. By combining methodologies from metrics, cultural studies, historiography, literary criticism, and genre studies, I propose to assess the historical significance of alliterative verse (and, by implication, other medieval English poetry). This essay takes its place beside recent scholarship that historicizes Old English and Middle English poetic forms (Bahr 2013; Brantley 2013; Butterfield 2011; Cannon 2004; Johnson 2013; Thornbury 2014; Trilling 2009; and Tyler 2006).

As its subtitle indicates, this essay traverses the dialectic between the practice and the theory of verse by moving from practice to theory. This movement is facilitated by the order of case studies: in the case of alliterative meter, no prosodic metadiscourse survives, and probably none ever existed; in the case of Chaucer’s perceptions of alliterative romance, the perceptions are sparse and largely inadequate to the poetic practice they describe; while in the case of post-1450 alliterative verse, literary history witnessed a more subtle feedback loop between perception and practice. By arranging the case studies from least to most self-reflexive, I mean to trace a historically dynamic relationship between the perception and the practice of verse in this poetic tradition. The conceptual movement from practice to theory has come to seem less intuitive than the reverse in the light of modern “prosody wars” (Martin 2012: 2), but I argue that it better represents the elaboration of prosodic metadiscourse upon and around preexisting poetic practices in early English literary culture.

Across the three case studies, I will emphasize the compatibility of the competing definitions of historical poetics summarized above. In recovering the cultural meaning of medieval English poetic forms, this essay takes the view that the extrinsic and intrinsic approaches to poetics are complementary. On the one hand, I share Martin’s skepticism that poetics and cultural studies can or should be conducted separately. Martin’s concept of “metrical cultures” (2012: 14) can illuminate medieval English verse with little adjustment. I also take to heart Prins’s caveat that “the sound of poetry is never heard without mediation” (2008: 229). If anything, the caveat is even more appropriate for early English poetics. Since its rediscovery by modern antiquarians, the sound of early English verse has never been heard without considerable mediation. On the other hand, I will also affirm with Jarvis that “[t]he relationship between thinking about verse and thinking in verse is not necessarily a cooperative one” (2014: 115). The practical/theoretical dichotomy implied by Prins’s declaration that “practical application is not the point of historical poetics” risks merely inverting the overinvestments of the New Criticism: the dividing line between form and history remains intact, but researchers have now migrated to the side of history. In my view, historical poetics should strive to understand literary form and literary history as mutually constitutive. At the interface of formalist and historicist research protocols, Prins’s historical poetics and Jarvis’s historical poetics converge.

Before turning to the first case study, a note on the state of the field. The discussion of early English poetics in this essay is not intended to represent the consensus view among medievalists. For many aspects of the study of alliterative verse, no consensus exists. This is especially true of the subfield of alliterative metrics, which is currently experiencing a growth phase. Important discoveries have been made since 2005 but without yet displacing prior critical appraisals (overviews: Cable 2009; Cole 2010: 162-64; Weiskott 2013b, forthcoming-b). Throughout, I summarize and cite the published arguments that seem to me the most persuasive, in service of the goal of making a medievalist contribution to a larger conversation about the historical study of poetry. Statements that rely primarily on original research are accompanied by citations.

Alliterative Meter, 650-1550: Practice before Theory

The term ‘alliterative meter’ denotes the unrhymed meter used in Old English poetry, as in Beowulf; in Early Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Lawman’s Brut (c. 1200)[2]; and in Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman (c. 1370-90). Because the study of Old English poetry and the study of Middle English alliterative poetry have usually been conducted separately, and because no extant alliterative poem is datable to the period c. 1250-1340, some scholars have expressed doubts about the continuity of the alliterative tradition from Old to Middle English (Blake 1979; Salter 1988: 170-79; Turville-Petre 1977). Skepticism about continuity arose in response to early twentieth-century scholars whose arguments for an alliterative longue durée appeared unduly nationalistic to a later generation (Cornelius 2012). More recent scholarship reaffirms continuity in alliterative verse history. It does so by reconstructing a plausible formal trajectory for the alliterative meter, Old English to Early Middle English to Middle English (Putter, Jefferson, and Stokes 2007: 260-62; Russom 2004; Weiskott 2013a, 2013b; Yakovlev 2008).

From Old to Middle English, certain aspects of the alliterative meter remained remarkably stable. Two forms of metrical continuity lend themselves to brief description. First, in all phases of the alliterative tradition, the metrical line consisted of two ‘half-lines,’ divided by a mid-line syntactical break or ‘caesura.’ Thus the first lines of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight take the following form, where a tabbed space represents the caesura:

                      Hwæt we Gar-Dena     in geardagum

                      (“Listen! We [have heard] of the Spear-Danes’ | [glory] in days of yore”)

                      Siþen þe sege and þe assaut     watz sesed at Troye.

                      (“After the siege and the onslaught | was finished at Troy”)

At no point in the evolution from Old to Middle English alliterative meter does the caesura cease to bear metrical significance. Second, in all phases of the alliterative tradition a binary distinction between content words (nouns, adjectives, etc.) and function words (articles, pronouns, etc.) determined metrical stress assignment (Duggan 1990; Momma 1997: 28-54; Russom 2009). Content words normally receive metrical stress, while function words normally do not. In the lines cited, the content words Gar-Dena, geardagum, sege, assaut, sesed, and Troye receive metrical stress on their root syllable(s), while the function words hwæt, we, in, siþen, þe, and, watz, and at do not. Thus the lines scan as follows, where ‘S’ represents a metrically stressed syllable and ‘x’ represents a metrically unstressed syllable:

                      x           x    S      S x     x    S     S x

                     Hwæt we Gar-Dena     in geardagum

                     x   x     x  S  x x      x x   S         x     S  x  x      S  x

                    Siþen þe sege and þe assaut | watz sesed at Troye.

Both forms of continuity—half-line structure and the hierarchy of content words and function words—distinguished alliterative meter from non-alliterative English metrical traditions as these developed from the late twelfth century onward. In Chaucer’s fourteenth-century pentameter, for example, the unit of composition is the line, not the half-line, and metrical stress is determined to a larger degree by contextual phrasal and rhythmical contour. Thus the opening line of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales scans as follows, with metrically stressed function words underlined:

                     S           x   S    x      S     x     S    x    S   x

                     Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote

or possibly

                     x           S   x   S x   S      x     S    x    S   x

                     Whan that Aprillë with his shoures soote.

Here the function words whan (or possibly that) and with receive metrical stress due to the expectation of an alternating rhythm. Promotion of function words and (after c. 1100) demotion of content words did occur in alliterative meter, but as uncommon metrical expedients rather than constitutive features of metrical stress assignment.

Other aspects of the alliterative metrical system changed or disappeared over the course of 900 years. Two forms of metrical change lend themselves to brief description. First, Old English meter accords a special license to verbal prefixes, e.g., be- in becuman ‘become’ (Cornelius 2015: 475-76; Yakovlev 2008: 57-60). Unlike other metrically unstressed syllables, verbal prefixes may be omitted altogether from the metrical count (‘prefix license’). Thus Beowulf 271a scans as follows, where ‘p’ represents an omitted prefix:

                     p     S    x x  x     S    S

                     Gewat þa ofer wægholm

                     (“[the ship] went then over the billowy sea”)

The pattern pSxxxSS is metrically equivalent to SxxxSS, a normal pattern. Verbal prefixes are less frequently omitted for the sake of meter in Early Middle English alliterative verse (Yakovlev 2008: 198-200); by the fourteenth century, the prefix license has disappeared from the metrical system. Second, in certain metrical positions Old English meter permitted alternation between monosyllabic (‘short’) and multisyllabic (‘long’) sequences of metrically unstressed syllables (‘dips’). In the first line of Beowulf cited above, for example, the first half-line begins with a long dip (xxSSx) while the second begins with a short dip (xSSx). In the course of metrical history, alternation between short and long dips came to be regularized in the second half-line (Cable 1991: 66-84; Duggan 1986; Putter, Jefferson, and Stokes 2007: 19-118). By the fourteenth century the second half-line must contain one long dip. Thus, where the metrical patterns xSSx and xxSSx were equally acceptable for the Beowulf poet in either half-line, the Gawain poet avoids placing the pattern xSSx in the second half-line.

This continuous history of poetic practice must be pieced together with modern scholarly tools: there survives no medieval theory of alliterative meter. It is doubtful whether an alliterative ars poetica ever existed, for poets had little cause to theorize vernacular prosody at a time when English was a second choice to Latin in literary culture. From the seventh to the mid sixteenth century in England, ars metrica and ars poetica referred exclusively to Latin meter and were almost always composed in the Latin language (Purcell 1996: 71-120; Ruff 2005). Faute de mieux, scholars have scoured alliterative poetry itself for pronouncements about poetic form. However, the four passages most often nominated as reflexive statements about meter are all better interpreted otherwise (Cornelius 2012: 270-71; Pearsall 1977: 153-54). For example, when the Gawain poet identifies his tale as being “With lel letteres loken” (“held together with loyal letters,” 35), he was probably referring to literary composition and oral recitation (with letteres = ‘writing’) rather than to alliteration per se. Even if the reference is to alliteration, it is difficult to extrapolate a metrical theory from such a generalized allusion. Quite simply, for 900 years alliterative meter constituted an untheorized cultural practice (Cornelius forthcoming: Ch. 1). Medieval authors could think and write with some precision about vernacular language (Wogan-Browne et al. 1999), yet this kind of formalized self-consciousness did not extend to vernacular prosody. Evidently poets became inculturated in the alliterative tradition not through formal instruction but by repeated imitation of their contemporaries and predecessors. As a result, twenty-first-century theories of the alliterative metrical system have no direct medieval antecedents. The modern field of alliterative metrics reaches back only to the eighteenth century and later, when this meter was recognized first as quantitative, then as an arrangement of alliterating sounds, and finally and most enduringly as accentual (Cornelius 2015; Weiskott forthcoming-b).

The absence of sustained theoretical attention to alliterative meter during the Middle Ages did not prevent meter from carrying cultural baggage. To the contrary, alliterative meter embodied and refracted many cultural forms over 900 years. For example, alliterative meter appears to have been persistently marked as vernacular in literary culture. Many of the most-copied alliterative poems are brief proverbs that survive only indirectly, in Latin or non-alliterative English contexts. These alliterative snippets showcase sententiousness and vernacularity. Thus cultural preconceptions shaped the alliterative tradition at a fundamental level, that of manuscript survival. More broadly, the politics of alliterative writing changed profoundly after the twelfth century, when non-alliterative English meters were first introduced on the model of French, Italian, and Latin verse forms. Whereas Old English meter had occupied the entire space of English poetry, by the fourteenth century the alliterative meter has assumed a minor position in a newly diversified metrical landscape. The gradual marginalization of the alliterative tradition within the English literary field was a centuries-long cultural process that inflected the meaning and form of alliterative verse. The next section uses the case of Chaucer’s metaliterary comments to explore the idea of alliterative verse in late medieval English literary culture in greater detail.

The medieval English situation confirms, with particular clarity, Jarvis’s view that thinking in verse and thinking about verse are different activities. In English literary history, the practice of poetics predates the theory of prosody by 900 years. On a long view, the emergence and consolidation of prosodic metadiscourse, not the practice of meter, is the historical process in need of special explanation. In this way, the alliterative tradition defamiliarizes the nineteenth- and twentieth-century prosodic discourses analyzed by Martin. The “more interesting [i.e. theoretical] questions” adumbrated by Prins must themselves be understood as historically specific, insofar as they depend on post-medieval critical categories. The absence of a metadiscourse of vernacular prosody in medieval English literary culture directs attention to meter as an unselfconscious ingrained practice, that is, a habitus, in both the medieval and the Bourdieusian sense of the term. To say this is not to isolate medieval English meters from culture or history but, on the contrary, to begin to identify the forms through which poetic traditions functioned as cultural institutions.

Chaucer and Alliterative Romance: Perceptions or Practice

If medieval English writers almost never set about to construct theoretical explanations for vernacular metrical practices, they could nevertheless perceive those practices, represent them poetically, and deploy stereotypes about them. Poets working after the introduction of non-alliterative English meters in the twelfth century certainly recognized the metrical choices that lay before them. Yet this recognition was always pressurized by longer histories of metrical form. The twelfth-century schism between the alliterative tradition and English poetry per se had a lasting impact on late medieval perceptions of this verse form—indeed, a more lasting impact than late medieval writers themselves could have appreciated (Weiskott 2013a: 34-48). Lacking modern disciplinary tools, medieval contemporaries essentially lacked access to metrical history. Given changes in language, orthography, meter, and forms of textualization[3] between the tenth and fourteenth centuries, one might doubt whether Middle English poets or audiences knew the first thing about Old English poems (Cameron 1974; Sauer 1997). It is telling that one of the most explicit medieval comments about alliterative meter came in the last quarter of the fourteenth century, roughly 200 years after alliterative meter first became visible as one of several metrical choices in the vernacular. It is also telling that this comment came from a non-practitioner: Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer (d. 1400) was a bureaucrat, a courtier, a translator, and a vernacular poetic innovator. His use of the English language connects him to, but also distinguishes him from, contemporary and earlier writers working in English, French, Italian, and Latin. Almost uniquely among pre-1400 poets, Chaucer is no less easily categorized as a European writer who happened to write in English than as an English writer with international aspirations (Butterfield 2009: 8-10; Smith 2006). His attachments to meters mirror his attachments to languages. Over the course of his career, Chaucer pushed the boundaries of the non-alliterative English metrical traditions as these had developed for two centuries before his birth. A master of the French-derived English tetrameter, Chaucer also synthesized French and Italian precursors to craft a new English meter, known today as the pentameter (Duffell 2000). Although his literary canonization over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries helped render the alliterative tradition alien for later writers and scholars, in his own day Chaucer typified the sensibilities of an aggressive London literary avant-garde—in matters metrical no less than in other respects.

In what has become the most famous medieval remark about alliterative verse, Chaucer has his Parson declare to the other Canterbury Tales pilgrims, “I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre” (X 43; all quotations of Chaucer are fr. Chaucer 1987). The Parson’s remark is often pressed into service as evidence of the provincialism of the Middle English alliterative tradition. Yet it is not primarily intended to denigrate alliterative verse but to characterize the Parson as one totally lacking in poetic skill (Mueller 2013: 5-6). If alliterative meter is not supposed to rate highly for Chaucer’s fashion-forward audience, it nevertheless makes the short-list of forms that lie beyond the Parson’s abilities. That he rhymes “but litel bettre” (X 44) and is “nat textueel” (X 57) belies the Parson’s excuse for foregoing alliterative meter (“I am a Southren man,” X 42), and it is by no means certain that Chaucer is here endorsing the designation of alliterative verse as lowbrow, provincial, and generically typecast. The immediate meaning of the reference seems to be only that a bumbling southerner would be likely to disparage alliterative poetry in such terms. Ultimately, the value of mentioning the “‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre” may not be metropolitan snobbery so much as the implication that Chaucer himself was better informed about alliterative verse.

This Chaucerian one-liner adumbrates a continuum of perception within which the alliterative tradition operated in the late medieval centuries. On the one hand, Chaucer marks off the alliterative meter as socially, generically, and geographically exotic. The implicit comparisons between the homely and the sophisticated, between romance and everything else, and between the south and the north of England serve to consolidate Chaucer’s position in a literary and cultural avant-garde. On the other hand, the alliterative meter also appears here as a skill, a cultural practice that eludes a plainspoken southern parson. All of these perceptions of the alliterative meter had a history already in the fourteenth century, and all of them would gain further traction in the following two centuries, as alliterative verse became increasingly marginalized within the English literary field.

Internal views of the alliterative tradition, from the perspective of a practicing poet, a scribe, or a well-versed reader, must have differed from Chaucer’s external view. Chaucer’s Parson gives voice to a prosodic stereotype: like all stereotypes, this one exaggerates certain features of its target and ignores others. In fact, none of the Parson’s three implied opinions about alliterative verse—that it is northern, low-class, and circumscribed by the genre of romance—do justice to contemporary poetic practice. Piers Plowman, by far the best-attested Middle English alliterative poem, partially takes place in London and certainly circulated in manuscript there; the poem has been thought to mark a significant juncture in London literary history (Hanna 2005: 243-304). Some other fourteenth-century alliterative poems were likely composed in or near the metropolis, e.g., A Bird in Bishopswood and A Complaint against Blacksmiths (Kennedy 1987; Salter 1988: 199-214). Nor were alliterative poets déclassé; they labored in the same multilingual and international literary environment as Chaucer. Many Middle English alliterative poems take the form of direct translations of French or Latin texts, while others show mastery of subtle theological distinctions or the finer points of courtly cuisine. Alliterative poetry embodied rather than antagonized an upwardly mobile English poetic establishment. Finally, alliterative verse comes in more flavors than romance. Piers Plowman can be variously classified as a political tract, an allegorical debate, a satirical treatise, and a prophecy: it is perhaps least easily apprehended as a romance. The poet of the arch-romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is also thought to have composed Cleanness and Patience, two theological/homiletic treatises in alliterative meter.

Discrepancies between the terms in which Chaucer discussed alliterative meter and the ways in which it was actually practiced in his lifetime do not negate Chaucer’s perceptions. To the contrary, the discrepancies illustrate an important point about meter and the perception of meter: the former can exceed (or, put differently, fail to live up to) the latter. Through the character of the Parson, Chaucer put the idea, but not the practice, of alliterative meter to work. One reason to take such work seriously would be to weave metrical perceptions into cultural history.

The Canterbury Tales represents perhaps the first time in the history of English alliterative verse that metaliterary perceptions were expressed with enough specificity to begin to tell the cultural stakes of meter. Alliterative verse had always been a culturally charged idea and series of practices; Chaucer identified it as a topic for conversation as well. The conversation about alliterative meter went on in fits and starts from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century and then, in a more professional mode, from the eighteenth century to the present. Both of these conversations, separated by the unalliterative seventeenth century, are of intrinsic historical interest, and either might be made the subject of a cultural history in the style of Martin’s book. Yet I have suggested here that historians of verse must resist the temptation to subsume historical poetic practices under historical discourses about those practices. The cultural meaning of reflexive commentary on meter remains underspecified when divorced from analysis of the metrical-cultural situation that the commentary addresses. It is important to inquire into Chaucer’s attitudes toward alliterative meter; it is equally important to recognize that his attitudes overstate the fourteenth-century metrical-cultural situation. The extreme rarity and severe inadequacy of contemporary accounts of alliterative verse are salient features of the tradition itself, and features that can only be appreciated by combining formalist and historicist methodologies.

The Alliterative Tradition after 1450: Perceptions and Practice

In the decades after Chaucer’s death, the cultural meaning of English meter changed in unprecedented ways. Through normal literary influence, the increasingly central position of London in English literary culture, and some special pleading by Thomas Hoccleve, John Lydgate, William Caxton, and other taste-makers, Chaucer’s pentameter rapidly ascended the ranks of English meters. The fifteenth century witnessed the inception of a Chaucer canonization industry that quickly installed Chaucer atop a newly metropolitan hierarchy of English poets. The Chaucer canonization industry was also a pentameter canonization industry: by the end of the fifteenth century, the pentameter had come to occupy the position of honor in a reconfigured metrical menu. The last extant alliterative poems were composed toward the middle of the sixteenth century, after which time the alliterative meter disappeared from the active repertoire of English verse forms. The period between 1450 and 1550 thus marks a turning point in alliterative verse history and a new phase in the interplay between metrical perceptions and metrical practice.

One indication of the cultural and metrical pressures bearing on late alliterative verse is the emergence of a new kind of alliterating English poetry in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This new kind of poetry, typified by the Awntyrs off Arthure (late fourteenth/early fifteenth c.), employed heavy alliteration, alliterative poetic vocabulary, and even alliterative rhythms in an elaborately rhymed stanza structure. Alliterating stanzaic poems like Awntyrs tell the story of certain aspects of alliterative meter going mainstream in new, composite meters. Though traditionally grouped together with (unrhymed) alliterative poems, the alliterating stanzaic poems differ from them both metrically and syntactically (Cornelius forthcoming: Ch. 5; Lawton 1980: 611-12). In the remainder of this section, I focus on the unrhymed poems.

In contrast to the relative abundance of alliterative poetry dating from the previous hundred years, only eight extant (unrhymed) alliterative poems are datable to after 1450: the Ireland Prophecy (Weiskott forthcoming-c) and the Vision of William Banastre (Weiskott forthcoming-a), both late fifteenth-century political prophecies; the Prophecie of Beid, Prophecie of Bertlington, Prophecie of Waldhaue, and Prophesie of Gildas, late political prophecies from the printed Whole Prophesie of Scotland, &c. (1603); William Dunbar’s Treatise of the Two Married Women and the Widow (c. 1500); and the battle poem Scottish Field (1515-47). Though alliterative meter clearly remained a viable choice after 1450 in certain literary and social contexts, these eight poems testify to the increasing marginalization of alliterative poetry in literary culture. The perceived capacities of the alliterative form must have undergone severe restriction after 1450. Fully six of the eight poems are political prophecies; all eight have connections to Scotland, whether thematic, geographical, or codicological. All eight are recorded in northern dialect forms in manuscript and early print. The idea that the alliteration tradition was pushed northward by the Chaucerian tradition describes a late medieval cultural stereotype about alliterative meter as much as it describes an actual historical process. The feedback loop between poets, printers, compilers, scribes, and an incipient reading public colored the alliterative tradition northern after 1450, completing a process of prosodic typecasting that had begun at least a century earlier.

The pivotal event in the final chapter of alliterative verse history was the appearance in 1550 of the first print edition of Piers Plowman, edited by Robert Crowley (Stinson 2008: 178-81). Two more printings followed in rapid succession later in the same year. Here an alliterative poem has become the object of quasi-scholarly inquiry. Crowley’s brief preface, “The Printer to the Reader,” is a monument in the history of textual criticism. It features, inter alia, description of alliteration as a formal feature: “the nature of hys miter is, to haue thre wordes at the leaste in euery verse whiche beginne with some one letter” (Short Title Catalogue [STC] 19906, iir). Especially telling is Crowley’s perception that alliterative meter is old-fashioned: “He [Langland] wrote altogyther in miter: but not after ye maner of our rimers that write nowe adayes (for his verses ende not alike)” (iir). This remark implies that Crowley did not regard alliterative meter as a live option in 1550. Nevertheless, Crowley trusts that his prefatory remarks on verse form will enable readers to enjoy the meter of Piers Plowman (“This thinge [i.e., alliteration] noted, the miter shal be very pleasaunt to read,” iiv). Many metrical specialists no longer understand alliteration as a defining feature of alliterative meter (Cable 1991: 132; Hanna 1995; Yakovlev 2008: 23-4), but Crowley’s view would have a long afterlife in scholarship.

In addition to marking alliterative meter as obsolescent, Crowley anticipates later writers in associating alliterative meter with the genre of political prophecy. In his preface, Crowley disputes the authenticity and interpretation of two passages in Piers Plowman that might be construed as prophecies (“And that which foloweth and geueth it the face of a prophecye is lyke to be a thinge added of some other man than the fyrste autour” and “Loke not vpon this boke therfore, to talke of wonders paste or to come,” iiv). Crowley titled his edition The Vision of Pierce Plowman, and later commentators would read the poem in this form as well as continuing to read manuscript copies. In engaging Piers Plowman as prophecy, Crowley was part of a sixteenth-century crowd. In his Scriptorum illustrium maioris Bryttanie (1557-59), John Bale noted that Langland “foretold many things prophetically, which we have seen fulfilled in our days” [propheticè plura prędixit, quę nostris diebus impleri uidimus] (STC 1296a, 474; translation mine). In a passing mention of Piers Plowman in his Arte of English Poesie (1589), George Puttenham likewise dubbed Langland “a very true Prophet” of the Reformation (STC 20519, 50). And the unnamed author of the Petition directed to Her Most Excellent Maiestie (1591), sometimes identified as the pamphleteer Job Throckmorton, cited Piers Plowman as political prophecy: “Piers Plowman likewise wrote against the state of Bishops, and prophecied their fall in these wordes” (STC 1522a, 34). These notices join the evidence of the eight extant post-1450 alliterative poems in suggesting the extent to which alliterative meter and political prophecy overlapped in perception and practice after 1450 (Weiskott 2016, forthcoming-a, forthcoming-c).

The generic coloring that attached to the alliterative form by the sixteenth century explains the comments of Crowley, Bale, Puttenham, and the author of the Petition. It also explains the practice of the poets responsible for the six post-1450 alliterative prophecies. Finally, it explains the preservation of these poems. Four of them survive because of their inclusion in the printed Whole Prophesie of Scotland, &c., issued to celebrate the accession of a Scottish king to the English throne (James VI/I), a key prediction of medieval English political prophecies. The other two, the Ireland Prophecy and the Vision of William Banastre, appear in large fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscript anthologies of prophecies and political writings. The prophetic context of these poems suggests another reason to historicize poetic practices and perceptions: this is often the surest method for discovering why individual texts were transmitted and preserved. Taken together, the composition, copying, printing, editing, and interpretation of alliterative poetry after 1450 register the same intensifying typecasting in literary culture.

In comparison with earlier periods of alliterative verse history, the scarcity of (unrhymed) alliterative verse after 1450 caused more significant overlap between the practice and perception of meter.[4] In a process familiar from other chapters of literary and cultural history, in the case of alliterative verse typecasting, marginalization, and scarcity entered into a powerful feedback loop. The result was the death of a millennium-old poetic tradition and, not coincidentally, the cultural promotion of a new one: the pentameter tradition. The last phase of the alliterative tradition was also the first in which the practice of alliterative meter lived up to (or, put differently, was reduced to) a set of rigid cultural preconceptions. Late alliterative verse illustrates how cultural preconceptions can come to stigmatize poetic practices, and, in turn, how poetic practices can come to reinforce cultural preconceptions.

The final 100 years of alliterative verse, then, mark the juncture at which intrinsic and extrinsic modern approaches to alliterative meter most directly coincide. In part, this is due to the wider scope of the conversation about English meters in the sixteenth century, a development examined in greater detail in the conclusion of this essay. At the same time, the conformity of poetic perceptions to poetic practice in the alliterative tradition must itself be recognized as a culturally significant development, one that distinguishes post-1450 alliterative verse from earlier phases of the tradition. A corollary of distinguishing between histories of metrical practice and histories of metrical perception is affirming that, sometimes, the two intersect. And yet, for the alliterative tradition at least, such cooperation between perceptions and practice signaled a narrowing of the metrical imaginary. Meter was able to think less as proto-prosodists were able to think more about it. Post-1450 alliterative verse can be seen to illustrate its own marginalization in ever broader brushstrokes. In line with Prins’s dictum that poetic form is always already mediated, the prosodic typecasting of alliterative verse constituted an important form of mediation interceding between medieval poetic practice and modern ears. However, such typecasting emerged after 1450 as a new (or newly important) form of mediation in the long alliterative tradition.

Conclusion: Literary History and the History of Prosody

At the turn of the seventeenth century and for some time afterwards, alliterative verse was hardly ever read or studied. Medieval studies as a field of historical inquiry got underway in the sixteenth century. However, the focus of the earliest publications was on Old English prose (Graham 2000). Individual manuscript codices of medieval English verse, such as the Junius manuscript of Old English poetry and the Percy Folio of Middle English poetry, would not be mobilized as historical evidence until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After 1700, the story of alliterative verse and the story of alliterative metrics intertwined and reinforced one another, as successive generations of prosodists sought to make sense of the form, history, and cultural meaning of a defunct English meter. Anyone who proposes to say anything about alliterative verse today is necessarily heir to a literary history as well as a history of prosodic study.

A contemporary student of verse whose work particularly reflects the vicissitudes of literary history and the history of prosody (albeit malgré lui) is the poet-critic James Fenton (Jones 2010: 1009-1011). In the opening of his Introduction to English Poetry (2002), Fenton excludes Old English poetry from consideration on the grounds that “[i]t is somebody else’s poetry” (1). Fenton confides, “I can’t accept that there is any continuity between the traditions of Anglo-Saxon poetry and those established in English poetry by the time of, say, Shakespeare” (1). He goes on to reject Middle English poetry as well, though “[w]ith Chaucer we are much nearer home” (2). Predictably, Fenton’s chronological dividing line between “somebody else’s poetry” and its unstated opposite, ‘our poetry,’ coincides with the English Reformation. Such schematic periodization takes literary history back to the brave new world of Puttenham, who opined in his Arte of English Poesie that “beyond that time [i.e., the reigns of Edward III and Richard II] there is litle or nothing worth commendation to be founde written in this arte [i.e., verse]” (48).

For Puttenham, the reasons for the irrelevance of pre-1327 English poetry were (explicitly) political, intellectual, legal, linguistic, and (implicitly) racial. He writes of “the late Normane conquest, which had brought into this Realme much alteration both of our langage and lawes, and there withall a certain martiall barbarousnes, whereby the study of all good learning was so much decayd, as long time after no man or very few entended to write in any laudable science” (48). In 1589 this was a powerful new insight into the shape of English literary history. Indeed, Puttenham’s is one of the earliest attempts to constitute English literary history as a discrete field of inquiry. By 2002 Fenton could activate the same discourses of nation, language, and race without identifying them as such, except to remark that “English poetry begins whenever we decide to say the modern English language begins” (1). Moreover, Puttenham’s own milieu has become for Fenton the decisive watershed, further aligning the putatively spasmodic history of English poetry with the consolidation of the discourses on which that history rests.

If the rationale for Fenton’s periodization of English poetry is explicitly linguistic, it is also implicitly metrical: he favorably compares Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, composed in pentameter, to the alliterative Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The latter is “baffling and comprehensible by turns” (Fenton 2002: 1), the former “much nearer home, both linguistically and in terms of poetic practice” (2). Fenton’s presentism here echoes an influential Old Historicist narrative that characterized alliterative poetry as a backwater tradition, drowning in the welter of new literary forms in the Age of Chaucer. As this essay has recounted, the alliterative tradition itself transcended such stereotypes, at least before 1450. In the thirteenth century, alliterative meter lost its position as the default English verse form. But this meter endured, and the poets who continued to use it produced some of the most memorable poetry of the medieval centuries. From the seventh to the sixteenth century, alliterative meter does not so much rise or fall as stay put: it plods.

Cursory as they are, Fenton’s remarks illustrate how the discipline of literary study, including prosody, can retrospectively simplify literary history and obscure the cultural stakes of poetic forms. Like Puttenham, Fenton compartmentalizes the poetic past into binaries: Anglo-Saxon and English, local and cosmopolitan, popular and literary, medieval and modern. Insistence on such binaries has ceased to be a feature of literary-critical discourse, yet their force continues to be felt in the organization of research fields and in critical judgments about individual texts or authors. Chaucer, to take the egregium exemplum, continues to occupy a central position in English studies precisely because he is (perceived to be) the most English, cosmopolitan, literary—in a word, modern—medieval British author. But, of course, Chaucer inaugurates a modern literary or linguistic tradition only from the retrospect of later centuries (Butterfield 2009; Cannon 1998: 179-220). This is not to say that modernity and modernization are simply foreign subjects for a medievalist historical poetics—as though there could ever have been a Middle Ages without two somethings to be in the middle of! Rather, study of medieval English verse must continually strive to unthink the inevitability of modern poetic categories while retracing, in many cases, the very histories that created those categories. For this reason, struggling with and against medieval English poetics is a useful exercise for medievalists and modernists alike.

This essay focused on the subset of early English poetry known as alliterative verse. It did so for the same reason that Fenton found Troilus and Criseyde “much nearer home” than Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Left turns and blind alleys in literary history have alienated modern commentators from the alliterative tradition, with the result that close study of alliterative meter captures the historical distance of medieval English literary culture with particular clarity. However, my emphasis on poetic practice applies more generally to the study of early English poetry. By the fourteenth century, alliterative meter was one of many untheorized English verse forms. Chaucer, for example, was evidently able to compose thousands of lines of pentameter—an English meter he is usually credited with inventing—without ever naming or discussing this new meter. Two centuries earlier, the poets of Poema Morale (c. 1180) and Ormulum (late twelfth c.) had drawn on Latin models to create what was then a radically new English meter, the septenary. Neither of these poems is intelligible outside the context of the history of medieval Latin writing, including the long tradition of Latin metrical treatises. Yet neither poem offers any commentary on its own metrical form, apart from two vague references in the Dedication of the Ormulum to rime ‘poem; meter’ (Cannon 2004: 93, 96). Although this essay focused on poetry in English, the other language traditions of medieval England (French and Latin, but also Norse and Welsh) each enabled historically significant connections and disjunctures between poetic practice and literary theory. All in all, the case of medieval verse reveals how much larger the history of poetry is than the history of prosodic study in the English tradition.

In conclusion, a word on the methodological implications of the kind of historical poetics modeled in this essay. The disciplinary formation of literary studies is often understood as a vacillation between form and history: an Old Historicism, keyed to political history, coexisted with German-style philology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, followed by the valorization of the literary text as a self-contained object in the New Criticism, followed by the revaluation of history in the New Historicism and various strands of cultural studies—or so the story goes (more nuanced accounts: Attridge 2008; Liu 1989; Strier 2002). Newer critical approaches to literature synthesize form and history by retracing the shapes of particular historical series, such as the history of the material book or the history of contact between English and other language traditions. In one sense, the present essay adds momentum to the cyclicity of critical history by joining recent calls for a new formalism that would return the focus of literary studies to literary form while affirming the theoretical and ideological critiques of the past forty years (Cohen 2007; Levine 2006; Levinson 2007; Loesberg 1999; Marshall and Buchanan 2011). In another sense, this essay has sought to transcend the formalism/historicism dichotomy by reading poetic form as an important kind of historical practice. One salutary feature of the term ‘historical poetics’ is that it connects form and history inextricably.

The story of early English poetry is neither one of decay and neglect nor of the inevitable triumph of a language or a culture. That this story unfolded for centuries without the help of a movement or a school or a theory, political, intellectual, or literary, suggests the inadequacy of some traditional literary-historical terms of engagement. Specifically, the conversation about the historical contextualization of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English poetics, recently reinvigorated by Jackson and Prins and taken up in turn by Culler, Jarvis, Martin, and others, needs to acknowledge the historicity of its subject and its methods. Generalizations about Poetry with a capital ‘P,’ or about the present-day study of its forms and histories, can be sharpened by taking early English poetry into consideration. In this essay, I identified two broad domains for reconstructing what was thinkable in medieval English verse: metrical practice and metrical perception. The key insight afforded by study of alliterative verse history is that practice and perception are separate domains, whose intermittent cooperation should be discovered through theorization and close reading rather than projected from the study of one onto the study of the other. Recognition that modern questions often fail to illuminate medieval meters is the first step toward a more capacious historical poetics. As foil or as precursor, medieval verse can help specify the historicity of modern English meters, modern prosodic metadiscourse, and the contemporary study of both.




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[1] Thanks are due to Marshall Brown, Ian Cornelius, and Bruce Holsinger for commenting on earlier drafts of this essay, and to participants in the Stanford Workshop in Poetics for helpful discussion of a draft of this essay in October 2015.

[2] Like other Early Middle English alliterative poets, Lawman makes extensive use of internal rhyme between half-lines but not end rhyme between long lines.

[3] Old English poetry was laid out as prose. Over the course of the thirteenth century, lineated format became the norm for English poetry, though prose format remained an (increasingly uncommon) option well into the sixteenth century. See Weiskott 2013a: 41-2.

[4] For alliterating stanzaic verse, the overlap between perception and practice was just as significant but located in a different region of literary genre: most late alliterating stanzaic poems are affiliated with the genre of ‘flyting’ or verbal dueling.

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