Nicolay Yakovlev’s 2008 Oxford thesis has already been felt to mark a significant juncture in the history of the study of alliterative meter. This essay describes Yakovlev’s conceptualization of metrical history as a paradigm shift in study of medieval English literary history. The central section of the essay charts the scholarly study of alliterative verse, 1700–2000, focusing on the braiding of political, literary, linguistic, and metrical histories. The essay concludes by considering the intellectual significance of a non-teleological English literary history and pointing out some of the shapes it might take, focusing, as throughout, on the alliterative tradition.

In 2008, Nicolay Yakovlev submitted a D.Phil. thesis at the University of Oxford entitled “The Development of Alliterative Metre from Old to Middle English.”1 Little known outside the field of metrics, and still unpublished, this thesis has already been felt to mark a significant juncture in the history of the study of alliterative meter.2 With a rare combination of conceptual clarity and philological precision, Yakovlev traces a continuous history of composition in the English alliterative meter, stretching from Beowulf (?eighth/tenth centuries) through Lawman’s Brut (circa 1200) through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century) and on into the sixteenth century.

In excavating this metrical longue durée, Yakovlev synthesizes prior work in alliterative metrics but also challenges it in two major ways. First, he discloses a new theoretical paradigm for Old English meter. Where most previous commentators described Old English meter as accentual, that is, based on the stress of individual words, Yakovlev describes it as morphological, that is, based on the category membership of individual morphemes regardless of their position within the word. Yakovlev follows long-standing scholarly consensus, from Eduard Sievers to Thomas Cable, in conceptualizing the Old English half-line as a frame of four metrical positions.3 However, by dispensing with alliteration, feet, word boundaries, and distinctions between levels of metrical stress, his theory normalizes several apparent anomalies of the Old English metrical system. For example, metrists have long observed that in some cases a verbal prefix or the negative particle ne must be omitted from the metrical count. In an accentual theory, it is unclear how any linguistic material could fail to register a metrical value. In Yakovlev’s morphological theory, the so-called prefix license simply denotes the least metrically prominent of three morphological classes: the root syllables of content words or morphemes (nouns, adjectives, certain suffixes, and so on) form strong metrical positions; function words or morphemes (articles, prepositions, grammatical inflections, and so on) form weak metrical positions; and verbal prefixes and ne form weak metrical positions or no position at all. The concept of the [End Page 259] metrical position has underlain most theories of Old English meter since Sievers. Yakovlev’s novel interpretation of the prefix license makes the metrical position a more abstract entity than previous theorists had allowed.

The second salient innovation in Yakovlev’s thesis is his threefold focus on Old English, Early Middle English, and Middle English verse. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Old English and Middle English literature developed into separate subfields within the study of medieval English literature. Over the course of the twentieth century, these subfields virtually became non-overlapping magisteria in critical practice. Asymmetry between Old English and Middle English literature was reflected and reinforced by the structure of college curricula, academic associations, literary histories, and metrical terminology. As a side effect of this scholarly division of labor, Early Middle English literature became a disciplinary wasteland. By applying a consistent terminology to all three phases of the alliterative tradition, Yakovlev is able to sketch a series of transformations directly connecting these three phases in one centuries-long catena of metrical practice. The result is a more dynamic model of the alliterative tradition as a whole, and a more contextualized view of individual developmental moments within that tradition. Synchronic and diachronic vectors of metrical history interlock in Yakovlev’s thesis with an unprecedented degree of synergy.

While Yakovlev’s principal subject is metrical evolution, his work should also be understood as an important contribution to the study of English literary history. Although in theory Yakovlev accepts the traditional periodized terms “Old English,” “Early Middle English,” and “Middle English” (a section in the final chapter asks “When did Middle English begin?”), in practice “The Development of Alliterative Metre” blurs the boundaries between these three segments of continuous metrical and linguistic history (290). Renegotiation of received period terms is a direct consequence of the diachronic and non-teleological perspective adopted by Yakovlev. “Given the rare opportunity to observe a cross-section in the history of a poetic tradition,” he writes, “we always see ‘a work in progress’; the picture observed will always be inherently dynamic” (69). Yakovlev’s contribution to the study of medieval English literary history is most evident in his third chapter, in which he rehabilitates Lawman as a card-carrying member of the alliterative tradition. Considered irregular by nearly all prior researchers, the meter of Lawman’s Brut serves Yakovlev as the fulcrum of a lengthy metrical history. By refusing to orient metrical [End Page 260] evolution toward or away from traditional landmarks in political and social history, such as the Norman Conquest (1066) and the Black Death (1348–50), Yakovlev puts Lawman on an equal footing with previous and subsequent alliterative poets. Before Yakovlev, it was possible to invoke a critical consensus that “[t]he fourteenth-century alliterative long line … does not develop in any traceable way from the Anglo-Saxon long line.”4 After Yakovlev, it has become necessary to imagine a less sharply periodized literary history for the alliterative tradition.

In offering a notably non-teleological account of the development of alliterative meter, Yakovlev does nominally indulge in one form of teleology. He advertises his thesis as a demonstration “that the sometimes radical contrasts between the [alliterative] verse of different periods can be accounted for by the linguistic changes that are known to have occurred in English between the production of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” (2). The presumed patron-client relationship between language and meter induces Yakovlev to speak of “the deterioration of the poetic tradition” in the tenth and eleventh centuries (291). As we will see, in conjecturing tenth- and eleventh-century decline Yakovlev joins a long line of prior commentators, stretching back to the earliest modern studies of alliterative meter. Yakovlev does indeed show how small changes in linguistic form might have contributed to wide-ranging adjustments in metrical system. And yet, in practice, he repeatedly demonstrates the mediated nature of the meter-language relationship. For example, he finds metrical resolution, a quantitative equivalence principle thought to reflect prehistoric Old English phonology, alive and well in Lawman’s twelfth-century alliterative line (see 217–21).5 Yakovlev’s metrical history stands on its own as a complete description of a historical series. He does not so much settle as continually raise the question of linguistic pressure on metrical development.

Yakovlev’s thesis takes its place among other recent studies in metrics and literary history that have begun to conceptualize forms of continuity across the Old English/Middle English divide. In 2004, four years before Yakovlev’s work, Geoffrey Russom made a similar demonstration of metrical continuity from different theoretical principles.6 In his English Alliterative Tradition of 1991, Cable had contributed to this research program by clarifying the principles behind Old English meter and Middle English alliterative meter and refining terminology for Early Middle English alliterative meter. At that time, Cable followed critical consensus in describing Old English poetry, Early Middle English alliterative poetry, and Middle English alliterative poetry as [End Page 261] three distinct corpora. By 2009, Cable could state in a review essay that “[t]here had to have been some kind of evolutionary process” connecting Old English verse to Middle English alliterative verse.7 In two essays of 2009, Donka Minkova formalized the continuity of alliterative meter in the terms of universal metrics.8

Three recent book-length studies, each focused on a different chronological range, come to complementary conclusions about the shape of medieval English literary history. In Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, Emily Thornbury reimagines pre-Conquest English literary history through an exploration of the cultural contexts of poetry writing. By combining Old English and Anglo-Latin evidence, Thornbury rebuts the presumption that “poet” and “poem” were privileged, transcendental categories whose meanings changed little over time and across space. Instead, she posits contemporaneous “poetic sub-dialects” corresponding to various communities, real or imagined.9 In Living Through Conquest, Elaine Treharne restores the eleventh and twelfth centuries to a position of prominence in English literary history by tracing continuities in literary and documentary activity after 1066. Treharne frames her efforts in terms of literary periodization, setting out to reconsider “the supposed death of English literature after the Norman Conquest.”10 In From Lawmen to Plowmen, Stephen Yeager constructs a new genealogy for the Piers Plowman tradition of Middle English alliterative verse.11 Through a combination of discourse analysis and close reading, Yeager situates the Piers Plowman tradition in a literary and documentary longue durée extending back through twelfth- and thirteenth-century alliterative verse to the tenth/eleventh-century homilist Wulfstan. While these researchers historicize textual communities, material practices, and cultural discourses rather than meter as such, the implications for a metrically oriented literary history are there to be drawn out in all three books.

The narrative of decay and rupture queried in these recent studies has a long critical history. This long critical history is the primary subject of this essay. The alliterative meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms in the middle of the sixteenth century, but the professional study of alliterative verse did not commence until the eighteenth century. Thereafter, the story of alliterative verse and the story of alliterative metrics intertwined one another, as successive generations of prosodists sought to make sense of the form, history, and cultural meaning of a defunct English meter. From 1700 to 2000, perceptions of decline served to organize metrical study and literary history and also to correlate these areas of inquiry. In 1705, George [End Page 262] Hickes titled his chapter on Early Middle English poetry “On Semi-Saxon Poetics, or the Corrupt Poetry of the Anglo-Saxons” [De Poetica Semi-Saxonica, sive corrupta poesi Anglo-Saxonum].12 Hickes knew of no Early Middle English alliterative poetry and scarcely any Middle English alliterative poetry, but this did not prevent him from conceiving of literary history in metrical terms. Whereas he conjectured that Old English meter consisted of complex quantitative patternings, Hickes asserted that “Semi-Saxon Poetics”—as in the syllable-counting Poema Morale (circa 1180)—was marked by “inept poetic numbers or meter and rhythm” [numeris poeticis sive metro rhythmoque ineptis].13 In his voluminous History of Old English Meter of 1992, R. D. Fulk still found it necessary to describe certain features of tenth-, eleventh-, and twelfth-century alliterative meter as “faulty,” “aberrant,” “anomalous,” “defective,” and “extraordinary.”14 Virtually every research area in early English metrics underwent large-scale expansion and elaboration between 1705 and 1992, and Fulk’s book stands as the most comprehensive and densely argued statement on its subject to date. Yet the symmetry between Hickes’s and Fulk’s perceptions of metrical decline bespeaks deeper continuities in the way that scholars have envisioned the relationship between alliterative meter and English literary history.

Renewed interest in the metrical and literary longue durée suggests the value of retracing the historical affiliations of two fields of inquiry often pursued in isolation from one another. In this essay in the history of ideas, I show how models of metrical history have had correlates in the realm of literary history and vice versa. The conjunction of metrical history and literary history remains implicit in much scholarship on alliterative verse from the eighteenth century onward, but I will argue that the two fields have often been regarded as congruent. In particular, I contend that the divergence of metrics and literary history in the late twentieth century was a direct response to 250 years of sustained interaction between the two fields.

In offering this disciplinary history in parvo, I mean to contextualize Yakovlev’s accomplishment by revisiting the sequence of earlier research activity that “The Development of Alliterative Metre” simultaneously crystallizes and exceeds. The central section of this essay charts the scholarly study of English alliterative verse, 1700–2000, focusing on two major themes. The first is the braiding of political, literary, linguistic, and metrical histories in the critical commentary on alliterative verse, from Hickes forward. New scholarship presents metrical history as relatively independent of political and linguistic history. However, this relative independence remains under-conceptualized [End Page 263] in the new wave of research—even by Yakovlev, its leading theorist. I show that scholars have been wrestling with problems of correlation and independence of historical series since the beginnings of modern study of alliterative verse. Second, I seek to explore the way that metaphors and periodization structure critical inquiry. To that end, I offer a conspectus of metaphors for English literary history, 1700–2000. The use of heavily biological metaphors in literary scholarship of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries has given the diachronic study of literature a bad name, yet the period boundaries that such metaphors registered remain in full force in current critical practice. I argue that biological metaphors appeared as imaginative solutions to research problems at the nexus of political, literary, linguistic, and metrical history. I devote particular attention to scholarship of the twentieth century, because it forms the immediate backdrop for Yakovlev’s interventions. The essay concludes by considering the intellectual significance of a non-teleological English literary history and pointing out some of the shapes it might take, focusing, as throughout, on the alliterative tradition.

This essay may be read alongside a recent essay by Ian Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics.” Cornelius analyzes Yakovlev’s non-accentual theory of Old English meter in exacting detail before retracing the nineteenth-century emergence and consolidation of the proposition that alliterative meter was organized by word stress. The present essay considers the literary-historical dimensions of the disciplinary history narrated by Cornelius. Readers are invited to consult Cornelius’s essay for more extensive treatment of technical topics.

i. early english metrics and literary history, 1700–2000

In his Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus of 1705, Hickes proposed that the regularity of Old English meter lay in the repetition of quantitative patternings, as in Latin and Greek verse. Writing at an early stage in the study of the Old English language, Hickes freely conceded his inability to formalize the strophic patterns that he intuited in the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. Nonetheless, Hickes’s quantitative hypothesis had the effect of aligning Old English poetry with classical poetry and against all subsequent English verse down to Hickes’s day. In a double move that would be repeated many times in later scholarship, Hickes figured the history of English literature as an ascent and also a decline. In the introduction to the Thesaurus, he promised that careful readers would come away from the work [End Page 264] knowing “the origin of their native language and its progress down to the times of Henry II” [patrii sermonis originem, & ad Henrici II. usque tempora progressum]; his Anglo-Saxon grammar offered a glimpse of “the first rudiments of our present-day poetry” [hodiernæ nostræ poeseos prima rudimenta].15 At the same time, Hickes referred changes in post-Conquest English verse forms to linguistic decay and corruption. Even in the absence of a positive statement of Old English meter, Hickes could comprehend English literary history as the gradual disintegration of an ancient linguistic and metrical unity. That he also understood this disintegration to have laid the foundation of modern English verse goes some way toward explaining Hickes’s contempt for seventeenth-century poetry.16

By the second half of the eighteenth century, the development of alliterative meter from Old to Middle English had fully emerged as a research problem. In a seminal essay of 1765, Thomas Percy connected the meter of Piers Plowman with Old English meter, recommending the one as an aid to decoding the other. According to Percy, Langland’s use of “many peculiar Saxon idioms … deserves the attention of those, who are desirous to recover the laws of ancient Saxon poesy.”17 By gathering under one head all the English alliterative poems known to him, Percy was able to show that this meter remained in use “so low as the sixteenth century.”18 Thomas Warton would repeat this phrase verbatim in his History of English Poetry of 1774, along with several other phrases lifted from Percy’s essay.19 Warton’s comments on alliterative verse do not represent independent research, but they do show an early desire to weave metrical scholarship into literary history.

As the field of alliterative poetry widened through these early citations, perplexities of metrical typology and literary history were now understood to extend well beyond the Norman Conquest. In 1775, Thomas Tyrwhitt followed Percy in describing the metrical line of Piers Plowman as a descendant of Old English meter but rejected Hickes’s suggestion that Old English meter was quantitative. Doubting the one paradigm on offer in alliterative metrics, Tyrwhitt could only apprehend the persistence of the alliterative meter as a kind of prosodic fiat. Citing Percy, he mused: “It is plain that Alliteration must have had very powerful charms for the ears of our ancestors, as we find that the Saxon Poetry, by the help of this embellishment alone … was able to maintain itself, without Rime or Metre, for several centuries.”20 Subsequent research would upend Tyrwhitt’s agnosticism about alliterative meter while freighting the “powerful charms” of this verse form with political, literary, and linguistic significance. [End Page 265]

In 1781, Robert Henry related that in the fourteenth century “an attempt was made to revive, or at least to imitate the alliterative poetry of the Anglo-Saxons without rhyme.”21 Henry’s phrase is, as far as I can determine, the first recorded use of the biological metaphor of revival in this context, predating by over 125 years the early citations assembled by Derek Pearsall.22 For Henry as for later scholars, conceptual connections between biology, metrics, and literary history enabled the metaphor of revival to appear as an explanation of the evident reemergence of alliterative meter in the fourteenth century. In this way, alliterative metrics contributed to a much larger late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century epistemic formation, under which cultural history and the biological life cycle (later, evolutionary history) unfolded as homologous processes.

By the early decades of the nineteenth century, metrical experts such as Rasmus Rask and Joseph Bosworth were able to understand alliterative meter as accentual rather than quantitative or completely unregulated.23 The accentual paradigm in early English metrics had the effect of aligning alliterative verse with medieval and modern accentual-syllabic poetry and against classical poetry. There was, however, a predictable lag between the earliest articulations of the accentual paradigm in metrical study and corresponding reformulations of English literary history. In non-specialist literary scholarship, the evident formlessness of alliterative meter continued to pose a fundamental research problem well into the nineteenth century. As late as 1865, William Francis Collier could affirm in a general history of English literature that “[n]o work, in which rhyme or metre was used, can be traced in our literature until after the Norman Conquest.”24

The periodization of medieval English literary history was probably less settled in the first half of the nineteenth century than in any other era of disciplinary history. Working within different paradigms of early English metrics, or doubting the metricality of alliterative verse as such, scholars variously located the decisive break between ancient and modern at the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the fifth century, the Christianization of England in the seventh, the Viking incursions of the ninth, or the Norman Conquest of the eleventh.25 The confluence of political, literary, linguistic, and metrical histories would be reinforced by subsequent scholarship, even as each of these historical series was reimagined and elaborated.

As the full breadth of the surviving alliterative corpus came into critical view in the early nineteenth century, scholars devised a variety of dynamic metaphors in order to expound new metrical and literary [End Page 266] histories. In 1801, George Ellis offered that “some notice” of French writing was necessary “to connect the links of our literary history.”26 Elsewhere, Ellis figured metrical traditions as military forces, referring to the “successful struggle against the Norman ornament of rhyme.”27 In 1805, Sharon Turner compared Old English poetry to an upwardly mobile person, narrating that “[t]owards the close of the Anglo-Saxon æra it began to lay aside its homely dress and coarser features.”28 In 1819, Thomas Campbell likened Lawman to “the new insect stirring its wings, before it has shaken off the aurelia state.”29 Biological metaphors were already encoded in the technical literary terms “corruption,” “descendant,” and “specimen,” as well as the technical metrical term “foot.” As the discipline of biology itself was consolidated over the course of the nineteenth century, so too were discourses of organicism in metrics and literary history. In literary studies of this period as in biology, ontogeny recapitulated phylogeny. Thus Campbell’s image of Lawman as a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis was meant to characterize literary developments preceding and succeeding the Brut by several centuries.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the accentual paradigm in early English metrics was elaborated and consolidated and became general knowledge among literary scholars. The crowning achievement of this sequence of research activity was Walter Skeat’s 1868 “Essay on Alliterative Poetry,” which put the accentual paradigm on a coherent technical footing.30 By 1864, as elementary a text as William Smith’s edition of Thomas Shaw’s History of English Literature could report that Piers Plowman was “constructed by a mixture of alliteration and rhythmical accent.”31 Through this new consensus, the alliterative tradition emerged as a historically specific literary corpus, whose principles of formal organization were reducible neither to those of classical verse nor to those of other and later English verse.

The consolidation of the accentual paradigm in the middle of the nineteenth century enabled scholars to evaluate the texture of alliterative verse history with unprecedented precision. In his massively erudite Geschichte der englischen Litteratur of 1877, Bernhard ten Brink remarked that the Old English Paris Psalter “appears to be more recent” [Jünger scheint] than the Kentish Psalm, though “hardly as recent as we might be tempted to conclude from the somewhat prosaic diction, and the frequently incorrect versification” [schwerlich so jung als man aus der ziemlich schwunglosen Diction und dem häufig uncorrecten Versbau zu schließen geneigt sein könnte].32 Here the history of meter adumbrates, but also overdetermines, poetic chronology. Poetic [End Page 267] lexis and meter serve to diagnose relative chronology, yet these signs and symptoms exceed the historical truth they reveal. Ten Brink’s cautious wording evinces a recurrent tension in scholarship between convergences and divergences of two historical series, meter and poetry. In leveraging metrical difference into a hypothetical chronology, later commentators would often struggle to match the methodological nuance of this monograph of 1877.

The last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed monumental elaborations of the accentual paradigm. In its scope, its organization, and its argumentation, Jakob Schipper’s Englische Metrik of 1881–88 represented a complete revision, and even expansion, of Edwin Guest’s magisterial History of English Rhythms of 1838.33 Schipper’s title advertised a treatment of the “historical and systematic development” [historische und systematischer Entwickelung] of English verse forms. The organization of the work reflects this double focus on history and system. Schipper arranges discussion of poetic texts in broadly chronological order, subdivided by metrical tradition. This hybrid format enabled him to reach new heights of precision in comparing alliterative poems. For example, Schipper noted of the Old English Judgment Day II that “alliteration is … throughout fairly correctly handled; however, there also appear … irregularities, which are characteristic of this period of disintegration [Auflösung] of the old forms” [Der Stabreim ist … im Ganzen ziemlich correct gehandhabt; doch kommen auch … Unregelmässigkeiten vor, die charakteristisch sind für diese Epoche der Auflösung der alten Formen].34 Schipper was able to generalize such evaluations into two competing formal trajectories in the history of alliterative verse. The “progressive” [fortchrittlichè] trajectory leads from classical Old English meter through the Death of Alfred (1036–45) to Lawman and Middle English short rhyming couplets, while the “conservative” [conservative] trajectory leads from classical Old English meter through the Death of Edward (1066) to the Middle English (unrhymed) alliterative corpus.35 In discussing these two stylistic trajectories at length, Schipper made clear the importance of metrics to literary history and vice versa. Englische Metrik represents a high-water mark for cooperation between metrical and literary-historical research programs. Like Yakovlev after him, Schipper triangulates between diachronic and synchronic description in order to uncover the internal mechanisms of historical development.

During this period of disciplinary history, Francis Gummere’s Handbook of Poetics for Students of English Verse was the most widely read introductory text to summarize metrical and literary-historical [End Page 268] scholarship. The Handbook went through eight printings between 1885 and 1913 and equipped a generation of Anglo-American students with a basic understanding of English metrical traditions.36 In the last of the book’s three parts, Gummere, a scholar of Old English literature, offers three chapters on meter whose organization mirrors one of his major sources, Schipper’s Englische Metrik. Gummere undertakes to condense the metrical histories narrated by Schipper and ten Brink. Like his authorities, Gummere establishes metrical decline through a comparison of individual poetic compositions, even if space does not permit him to explain the philological procedures that underlie his impressionistic descriptions. That a poetics textbook could devote one third of its bulk to metrical and literary history is one measure of the advanced state of study in both fields and their interpenetration at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the preface to the third edition of the Handbook, published in 1890, Gummere communicates the excitement of “the masterly investigations of Sievers” into Old English meter, published in the Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur in the late 1880s.37 Yet Gummere also assures readers that “what is said in §2, Chap. VII, of this book [a section on ‘Anglo-Saxon Metres’], though needing correction in detail, is fairly true to the spirit of Anglo-Saxon poetry.”38 To a certain extent, Gummere was justified in bracketing Sievers’s achievement. Though more cohesive than any previous statement of meter within the accentual paradigm, Sievers’s theory of Old English meter amounts to a thoroughgoing systematization of mainstream critical opinion on such technical concepts as stress assignment, foot patterns, and anacrusis (G Auftakt, today understood as a special case of the prefix license).39 Sievers’s most important contributions to the study of Old English meter concerned metrical resolution (G Auflösung) and the principle that each verse comprises four metrical positions (G Glieder). From the perspective of literary history, the primary effect of Sievers’s demonstrations was to reinforce the impression of a metrically regular Beowulf and metrical decline in the late tenth and eleventh centuries. Sievers’s multipart essay of over 200 pages begins with Beowulf, thereby implicitly presenting it as the prototypical instantiation of Old English accentual rhythms. Gummere would have had Beowulf in mind when he remarked in his 1890 preface that Sievers’s studies “have shown more method and regularity in our old rhythm than had been attributed to it by earlier researches.”40 As the longest Old English poem and, already by the 1880s, the most widely acclaimed work of literature in an early Germanic language, Beowulf [End Page 269] made a natural starting point for Sievers’s inquiries. Nevertheless, the foundation of Old English metrical theory on Beowulf bequeathed a certain methodological circularity to subsequent researches in this area.

The third edition of the Handbook may have gone to press too early for Gummere to take account of Karl Luick’s important essay of 1889, which did for Middle English alliterative meter what Sievers’s essay had done for Old English meter.41 In stark contrast to Sievers’s essay, Luick’s was soon forgotten, leaving the accentual paradigm in Middle English alliterative metrics underdeveloped until the breakthroughs of the past 30 years.

By the end of the nineteenth century, then, the consensus view of metrical history had been thoroughly integrated into the study of literary history. The crowning achievement of this sequence of research activity was Hermann Paul’s exhaustive Grundriss der germanischen Philologie of 1891–93.42 Paul groups metrics and literary history together in the second volume, with contributions by ten Brink, Luick, Schipper, and Sievers, among others. Scholars of this period further developed organicist and naturalistic metaphors for literary and metrical history. In 1895 Jean Jules Jusserand connected the difficulties of dating Old English poems to an anecdote from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars: “Anglo-Saxon poetry is like the river Saone; one doubts which way it flows.”43 For William John Courthope, writing in the same year, Old English meter was a literary species that went “extinct” after the Conquest.44 In 1898, George Saintsbury referred to the apparent reemergence of the alliterative meter in the fourteenth century as a “resurrection” and a “revolt”: meter as revenant and meter as armed resistance.45 Particularly noteworthy is Gummere’s description of the meter of Piers Plowman as “a sort of Indian Summer for the old Germanic metre.”46 Gummere’s metaphor implies a decisive break in continuity (an Indian summer characteristically follows a hard frost) succeeded by a rare and short-lived return to prior conditions. In the following century, metaphors of revival and reflorescence would become the most prominent way in which alliterative meter and literary history intersected in critical discourse.

The first quarter of the twentieth century saw the publication of several German studies dedicated to establishing a chronology of Old English poems on metrical grounds. Lorenz Morsbach, Gregor Sarrazin, Carl Richter, and Friedrich Seiffert applied the latest articulations of the accentual paradigm to the Old English poetic corpus, seeking to isolate linguistically more conservative or more innovative metrical word forms.47 Though the proposed chronologies differed in [End Page 270] detail, the cumulative effect of this research activity was to reinforce the received narrative of metrical decline from Beowulf to the Battle of Maldon. Working without a theory of Early Middle English alliterative meter, these researchers could only measure metrical differences between Beowulf and later or less conservative alliterative poems in terms of decay and irregularity. In his 1992 book, Fulk presents these German studies as the first specifically metrical excursions into questions of chronology, disconnected from “the Romantic assumption that verse devoted to early Germanic myth and legend must be very early.”48 In fact, as the preceding discussion shows, metrical and cultural assumptions about early English poetry had always been intertwined. Morsbach, Sarrazin, Richter, and Seiffert did not establish a poetic chronology from nothing. Rather, they tested a newly precise understanding of meter against the received view of literary history. The understanding of meter was, following Sievers, largely based on Beowulf. The received view of literary history derived from early scholars’ ideas about Anglo-Saxon culture, Romantic assumptions and all.

In many ways, Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody of 1906–10 typifies the interface between metrics and literary history in this period. An organizing feature of Saintsbury’s study, and one that anticipates later critical developments, is its resolutely synchronic focus. Though proceeding chronologically, Saintsbury lays special emphasis on similarities and connections between coeval poems. In the first chapter, for example, he attempts to comprehend five Early Middle English poems, including poems in isosyllabic meters and the alliterative meter, as expressions of a single moment in the history of English prosody.49 Given this synchronic standpoint, it is not surprising that Saintsbury denies any direct connection between Old English meter and Middle English alliterative meter. For Saintsbury, the Middle English alliterative corpus is to be measured against other Middle English verse, in which perspective it appeared to him to have been “only a loop or backwater in the stream of English poetry.”50 This oft-cited judgment should be understood as a symptom of increased subspecialization within medieval English studies. Saintsbury’s scholarship shows little familiarity with Old English metrics beyond some perfunctory references to Sievers; his History of English Prosody begins with the Conquest.51 By labeling the problem of the appearance of Middle English alliterative verse “unsolved and probably insoluble,” Saintsbury effectively issued a challenge to metrists and literary historians that stood unanswered until the twenty-first century.52 [End Page 271]

Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody would be cited often in late-century scholarship as a flagrant example of nationalized and racialized literary history. It is important to note, however, that in adopting a skeptical attitude toward the prehistory of Middle English alliterative meter Saintsbury understood himself to be occupying a moderate position, in contrast to “[t]hose fortunate and patriotic persons who can afford to see nothing but accentual rhythm, with a little rhyme added, in the verse of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries—who serve it straight as heir to Anglo-Saxon prosody.”53 Here diachronic claims about meter appear as unacceptable commitments to historical stasis. Throughout the History of English Prosody, Saintsbury performs reductions of metrical diachrony to metrical synchrony, emphasizing, like Hickes before him, the unity of English prosody in each period of its development and its diversity across time. Even as late twentieth-century researchers repudiated the standard nineteenth- and early twentieth-century isomorphism between nations, literatures, languages, and meters, they also adopted and extended Saintsbury’s categorical avoidance of diachronic claims about meter.

Discourses of organicism and naturalism in metrics and literary history reached new heights during the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1906, Thomas Seccombe and W. Robertson Nicoll rhapsodized that “Chaucer is … to Langland as the sun is to the moon, and to the great corpus of … Old English … poetry of the remoter past, as the moon is to the Milky Way.”54 Here the history of English poetry is mapped onto galaxy formation, with provision made for both diachronic and synchronic diversity. Saintsbury referred to Lawman as “the workshop, the experimental laboratory, of true English prosody”: meter as handiwork and meter as scientific discovery.55 W. P. Ker’s image of a “purer tradition” of alliterative verse “hidden away some-where underground” between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries obliquely depends upon the commonplace equation between literary traditions and running streams.56 For Ker and his contemporaries, the form of Middle English alliterative meter implied the existence of a vigorous but unrecorded tradition of English poetry connecting Maldon to the Middle English alliterative William of Palerne. The metaphor of the underground river was for Ker a suggestive way to capture this literary-historical implication of metrical research.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the historical questions posed by the form of Middle English alliterative verse came to dominate research at the intersection of metrics and literary history. Scholars presented evidence and argued motions in what Saintsbury had [End Page 272] presciently dubbed “the great case of Persistence v. Resurrection.”57 Not coincidentally, other disciplinary rifts were deepening during the same period. First, the Old English/Middle English divide was entrenched by increasing scholarly output, and corresponding pressure to specialize; by the increasingly complex structure of English language and literature curricula; and especially by the increasing focus on a handful of canonical texts from the beginning of the medieval period (Beowulf, Dream of the Rood) and the end (Canterbury Tales, Piers Plowman). Second, commerce between Anglophone and German scholarship in metrics and literary history decreased and ceased to drive intellectual developments. Third, the field of alliterative metrics attained a level of technical complexity that came to appear forbidding to most literary historians. These three trends in disciplinary history were connected. Anglophone scholarship on Old English metrics remained in closer communion with German scholarship than did other sectors of Anglophone medieval English studies during the twentieth century. Decreased engagement with German scholarship, in turn, fossilized Sievers’s theory as the last important (or readily comprehensible) statement on the subject. Finally, the canonization of Sievers made metrical study look like a research protocol that only pertained to Old English verse.

The focus on the historical perplexities of the Middle English alliterative corpus directed attention to two key questions: the metrical form of surviving alliterative poems and the nature and extent of lost alliterative poetry. The most conspicuous midcentury contribution to the first question was J. P. Oakden’s Alliterative Poetry in Middle English of 1930–35.58 Oakden applies accentual scansion to the entire checklist of known Early Middle English and Middle English alliterative poetry, with a view to establishing their dates, dialects, metrical styles, and literary-historical impact. While Oakden regarded his work as a demonstration of the continuity of alliterative meter from Old to Middle English, his 676-page tome had the unintended effect of accelerating the divergence of metrics and literary history and deepening the rift between Old English and Middle English. The second question, that of lost alliterative verse, received its authoritative treatment in R. M. Wilson’s Lost Literature of Medieval England of 1952.59 Wilson’s study, an insightful dissertation on nothing, surveys the extant evidence of fragmentary, paraphrased, translated, or fully lost works of medieval English literature. Twenty years earlier, in a notorious essay, R. W. Chambers had compared the reconstruction of the alliterative tradition to “excavating a buried city” before averring that alliterative [End Page 273] meter “was kept alive by oral tradition through nine generations,… till it suddenly came forth, correct, vigorous, and bearing with it a whole tide of national feeling.”60 The intense focus in early-century scholarship on advanced technical descriptions of meter or speculation about lost metrical traditions helps explain why late-century scholars largely elected to suspend these two research questions. As the most rhetorically ornate and ideologically overdetermined presentation of the hypothesis of an atavistic Alliterative Revival, Chambers’s essay did the most to bring the case for continuity into disrepute later in the century.

Scholarship of the late twentieth century carried forward the disciplinary trends already evident earlier in the century. The Old English/Middle English divide continued to widen, so much so that by century’s end the Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature and the ambiguously titled Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature could feature almost completely non-overlapping content, with no contributors shared between the two collections’ 46 total chapters.61 Following Thorlac Turville-Petre’s influential Alliterative Revival of 1977 and a series of important essays by Elizabeth Salter, Middle English scholars as a group turned away from questions about metrical evolution and sought to understand fourteenth- and fifteenth-century alliterative verse as a contemporary cultural phenomenon.62 By exploring points of contact between the extant fourteenth- and fifteenth-century alliterative corpus and contemporary politics, political geography, historiography, literary genre, and rhetorical theory, this revisionist research succeeded in reinscribing alliterative poetry in the multilingual literary culture of late medieval England.

Disciplinary rebellion was a predictable result of the rhetorical overinvestments and empirical overstatements of earlier scholarship. However, post-1977 historicism tended to accentuate rather than solve the problems of form that had animated earlier activity in the fields of metrics and literary history. The term “Alliterative Revival” was henceforth understood to name either a conscious new beginning in literary history (as Turville-Petre controversially argued in 1977) or an area of ignorance, “the most significant ‘Old Historicist’ failure in Middle English studies” (as Ralph Hanna judged in 1999), a gap in knowledge not yet adequately filled or explained.63 The underdeveloped state of the accentual paradigm in Middle English alliterative metrics, 1935–85, exacerbated this literary-historical deadlock. Estranged from the metrical paradigm informing Oakden’s study, researchers emphasized those historical facets of the Middle English alliterative corpus [End Page 274] that appeared to depend least on questions of metrical form.64 Norman Blake’s conjecture that Middle English alliterative verse derived from Old English alliterating prose may be understood as a product of the epistemic hiatus between the last early-century articulations of the accentual paradigm in Middle English alliterative metrics and the first late-century articulations of it.65 When, in 1979, Blake charged that Turville-Petre’s Alliterative Revival “organizes Middle English poetry in the wrong way,” he was bringing to consciousness the methodological disaffection between metrics and literary history.66 The organization of Turville-Petre’s book reflected the results of earlier metrical research, but his literary argument contradicted them. The late twentieth century marked a nadir in critical understanding of Early Middle English alliterative verse, which now fell in between the interests of self-identified Old English and Middle English specialists.67

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Hoyt Duggan and Cable came to mostly congruent conclusions about the metrical principles governing the “b-verse” or second half-line in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century alliterative meter.68 Though Duggan and Cable quickly descended into a contentious debate about the metrical status of historical -e, in retrospect their studies accomplished the same basic task, which was to use the accentual paradigm—virtually for the first time since Luick—to formalize a metrical template for the Middle English alliterative b-verse. In the same period, Fulk’s History of Old English Meter loomed large in the field of Old English metrics. Fulk drew on a continuous history of research within the accentual paradigm in order to measure the metrically encoded phonology of Old English poems (the sounds and inflections counted in meter) against language history. Like those of Hickes, Sievers, and Saintsbury, Fulk’s approach to meter in his History was essentially synchronic. In order to chart a historically dynamic relationship between meter and language, he must hold the metrical system constant for three hundred years, stopping just short of the “anomalous” versification of the late tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries. Fulk recognized that the designation of more innovative metrical patterns as “anomalous” was “a jaundiced view, analogous to calling Shakespeare’s English degenerate by comparison to Chaucer’s,” but it was an inevitable result of the transhistorical metrical template that Fulk projected onto the Old English poetic corpus.69

Duggan’s and Fulk’s studies were thoroughly embedded in their subfields, even if their research results sometimes seemed to point backward (for Duggan) or forward (for Fulk) in alliterative verse history.70 Though conceived as “a series of synchronic analyses, arranged [End Page 275] chronologically,” Cable’s English Alliterative Tradition of 1991 moved more fluidly across the Old English/Middle English divide, treating the whole chronological range of alliterative verse with the same technical vocabulary and statistical methodology.71 In this way, Cable’s research helped lay the conceptual groundwork for Yakovlev’s breakthroughs.

ii. literary history without events

Yakovlev’s thesis marks a paradigm shift in the study of Old English meter. By articulating an internally consistent non-accentual theory of that meter, Yakovlev challenges the shared assumptions of 200 years of metrical scholarship in the accentual paradigm. In this essay, I have argued that Yakovlev’s thesis also marks a paradigm shift in the study of medieval English literary history. By directly connecting Old English, Early Middle English, and Middle English alliterative meter, Yakovlev challenges the shared assumptions of 300 years of literary-historical scholarship that projected cumulative decay or definitive rupture around 1066 and 1350. Following Yakovlev, there is need for new modes of periodization and new metaphors for literary history. I take up these issues in turn.

By reconnecting Old and Middle English alliterative meter, Yakovlev’s arguments raise insistent questions about literary periodization; in doing so, they bring into sharper focus the priorities of past scholarship. If Turville-Petre and Blake differed over whether there was a unitary Alliterative Revival, they nevertheless coincided in the judgment that Middle English alliterative poetry bore no demonstrable relationship to pre-1300 alliterative verse. Late twentieth-century skepticism about the continuity of the alliterative tradition can now be understood in part as a defense and consolidation of the idea of Middle English literature. Complementarily, Fulk’s references to metrical decay around 1066 can now be understood in part as a defense and consolidation of the idea of Old English literature. Old English literature and Middle English literature have been immensely influential ideas, with many accomplishments to their credit. Yet by segmenting medieval English literature into two critical conversations, scholars systematically misrepresented certain aspects of historical literary practice, especially those that happened to cross the point of incision. Yakovlev’s demonstrations correct these critical distortions, while undermining the discontinuous literary-historical shape (peak—trough—peak) to which the distortions correspond. [End Page 276]

In particular, Yakovlev delineates a new shape in literary history—or rather, he delineates an old shape with new precision. The written alliterative tradition extends from the last quarter of the seventh century, the approximate date of Cædmon’s Hymn, to the second quarter of the sixteenth century, the approximate date of the late alliterative battle poem Scottish Field. Before Cædmon’s Hymn, alliterative meter recedes into the mists of prehistory; after Scottish Field, it went defunct as a viable option in English literary culture. Between these outer limits, the alliterative tradition functioned as a gigantic and slow-moving cultural institution. The “period of more than a thousand years” of alliterative poetry that William Daniel Conybeare noticed in 1826 can now be appreciated as a coherent literary period as well as a coherent literary archive.72 The conventional moniker “the alliterative tradition” now applies to this archive in a more formally and historically meaningful sense than it could have for Conybeare, who wrote during the first wave of research in the accentual paradigm and before the appearance of the first scholarly editions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Lawman’s Brut.73 In all, around 300 alliterative poems survive. The often peripheral manuscript contexts, fragmentary textual forms, and gaps in attestation of specialized vocabulary of this corpus over ten centuries imply that what has survived is only the tip of the iceberg. Yakovlev’s thesis does not mark the end of periodization but instead a new kind of periodization, in which the unit is not the political reign but the poetic tradition.

Has the time come for an Annales School of literary history? By way of conclusion, I consider what metaphors might be most useful in writing a literary history without events. As we have seen, the remains of the alliterative tradition attracted a variety of critical responses between 1700 and 2000. What nearly all these responses share, however, is a focus on choices (for example, Lawman imitates Old English meter) and events (for example, the Alliterative Revival) as the parameters within which literary history becomes intelligible. This configuration of a research field recalls the methods of a certain kind of political history, with which, after all, metrics and literary history have often been in close communion. Thus the various biological and military metaphors for an “Alliterative Revival,” in scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, represent various strategies for grasping the historical significance of a socioliterary movement or event.

By contrast, “The Development of Alliterative Metre” narrates metrical and literary history without events. “The tradition survives,” writes Yakovlev, “by the simple fact that the change is continuous, and [End Page 277] therefore any collapse predicted by an abstract model of separate stages never materialises” (283). In these terms, the disjunctures, revivals, and decadence projected by 300 years of modern commentary do not arise as such. Instead, the alliterative tradition can be seen to have developed precisely by a series of non-events: it did not melt into alliterating prose in the tenth century, nor rhyming meter in the twelfth and thirteenth; it did not wither away after the Norman Conquest in the face of new, syllable-counting French- and Latin-inspired English meters; it did not perish at the end of the thirteenth century and it was not revived in the middle of the fourteenth; and the invention of print and the literary canonization of Chaucer’s decasyllable/pentameter did not immediately cut short its tenure. The alliterative meter underwent profound evolutionary change from Cædmon’s Hymn to Scottish Field, but the changes were so gradual as to be imperceptible to individual practitioners. As in speciation or linguistic diversification, the major metrical developments described by Yakovlev unfolded continuously and on an imponderably large chronological scale. None of them was an event in any journalistic sense. For example, the gradual attenuation of the principle of metrical resolution spanned seven centuries (circa 650–1250). In Yakovlev’s terms, the so-called “Alliterative Revival” of the fourteenth century was a non-event in the history of a metrical tradition—in contrast to both Turville-Petre’s arguments and the nationalistic views against which he was reacting. Yakovlev’s thesis does not mark the end of metaphor but instead a new kind of metaphor, whereby a poetic tradition is not a moldering edifice but a dynamic institution.

In offering the metaphor of the institution, I echo terminology recommended by Simon Jarvis for the historical contextualization of modern verse.74 The metaphor of the institution has the advantage of locating continuity and change above the level of the individual practitioner. A salient feature of nineteenth- and twentieth-century speculation about an Alliterative Revival was the assumption that a fourteenth-century literary movement would find its origins in the work of an influential forerunner, most often the homilist Ælfric, Lawman, or Langland. If the Alliterative Revival was to be a movement, comparable to modern literary movements, it needed a leader or patron saint—an Ezra Pound. In its most extreme form, the hypothesis of an Alliterative Revival led scholars to conceptualize alliterative and non-alliterative poetry as mutually exclusive schools locked in zero-sum combat for control of the English literary field. In the first instance, such a view falters in the face of direct evidence that poets composed [End Page 278] both kinds of verse. From those rare cases in which an extant alliterative poem may be assigned to a wider literary oeuvre, it is clear that the alliterative tradition cuts across the authorial self. Thus the late fourteenth-century Gawain poet composed at least three alliterative poems (Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) but also at least one non-alliterative one (Pearl), and the Scottish poet William Dunbar composed at least one alliterative poem (the Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo, circa 1500) but also at least 83 non-alliterative ones. The metaphor of the institution offers a way to understand why this should be so. Investigating metrical traditions as institutions illuminates the dialectical relationship between meters and authorial selves, in the same way that, for example, ecclesiastical history intertwines the history of ethics.75 In comparison with biological and military metaphors, the bureaucratic metaphor of the institution offers a more capacious way to imagine the place of the author in a multimodal literary field.

Organic matter decays, and wars flare up and subside, but institutions can endure even as their forms, materials, and functions change. Yakovlev does not invoke the metaphor of the institution, but his thesis demonstrates the need for such a metaphor in coming to grips with ten centuries of alliterative poetry. In light of Yakovlev’s challenge to the literary-historical status quo, it is worthwhile to take one last look at the teleologies lingering behind much prior research on alliterative meter. As we have seen, teleologically charged metaphors of decay and renaissance informed both the early twentieth-century scholars who posited continuity between Old English and Middle English alliterative meter and the late twentieth-century scholars who doubted continuity. Specifically, interwar revivalism and later reactions against it shared the assumption that the development of poetic traditions points toward or away from landmarks in political and cultural history. Where the revivalists affirmed that the alliterative tradition resisted political centralization and cultural internationalization, the skeptics sought to understand fourteenth- and fifteenth-century alliterative verse as a novel expression of centralization and internationalization. For the revivalists, the continuity of alliterative meter established the continued presence of an aboriginal counterculture in English history. For the skeptics, the rejection of continuity seemed the best available means by which to deny the existence of such a counterculture.

Metrical research since 2000 has reaffirmed the continuity of the alliterative tradition without reactivating the teleological metaphors associated with the twentieth-century debate about a so-called [End Page 279] Alliterative Revival. The rejection of points of origin and the rejection of points of culmination in this new wave of research effectively accomplish the same essential task: to put flesh on old bones, or (to reverse the metaphor) to strip away the layers of mediation that pre-interpret a culturally remote literary tradition. The story of alliterative poetry is neither one of decay and neglect nor of the inevitable triumph of a language or a culture. That this story unfolded 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. The metaphor of the institution, with its implication of long-term stability as well as small-scale complexity, may point the way to a more historically appropriate understanding of alliterative meter as a literary practice.

This essay has traced the rise and fall of teleological models of medieval English metrical and literary history. My largest aim in narrating this disciplinary history was to show why literary history should continue to be a central focus of literary studies. In the late twentieth century, discourses of organicism became unsavory to literary scholars and provided the impetus to divorce the study of literary history from metrics in particular and philology in general. Yakovlev’s thesis holds out the possibility of rapprochement. After Yakovlev, it should be possible to write a literary history for alliterative verse without decay, without progress, with no resurrections and no Indian summers: a literary history without events.

Eric Weiskott
Boston College


Thanks are due to Ian Cornelius, Ben Glaser, and Ralph Hanna for commenting on earlier drafts of this essay.

1. Nicolay Yakovlev, “The Development of Alliterative Metre from Old to Middle English” (D.Phil. thesis, Univ. of Oxford, 2008). Hereafter cited parenthetically by page number.

2. See Thomas Cable, “Progress in Middle English Alliterative Metrics,” review of Studies in the Metre of Alliterative Verse, by Ad Putter, Judith Jefferson, and Myra Stokes (Oxford: Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, 2007) and Yakovlev, Yearbook of Langland Studies 23 (2009): 243–64, esp. 264; and Ian Cornelius, “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics,” JEGP 114 (2015): 459–81.

3. See Eduard Sievers, Altgermanische Metrik (Halle: Niemeyer, 1893); and Cable, The English Alliterative Tradition (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

4. Christine Chism, Alliterative Revivals (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 16.

5. On resolution in Old English meter and language see Robert Stockwell and Donka Minkova, “Old English Metrics and the Phonology of Resolution,” in Germanic Studies [End Page 280] in Honor of Anatoly Liberman, ed. Kurt Gustav Goblirsch, Martha Berryman Mayou, and Marvin Taylor (Odense: Odense Univ. Press, 1997), 389–406.

6. See Geoffrey Russom, “The Evolution of Middle English Alliterative Meter,” in Studies in the History of the English Language II: Unfolding Conversations, ed. Anne Curzan and Kimberly Emmons (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004), 279–304. Yakovlev does not cite Russom’s essay and does not appear to have been aware of it by 2008.

7. Cable, “Progress,” 264.

8. See Minkova, “Diagnostics of Metricality in Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in Approaches to the Metres of Alliterative Verse, ed. Judith Jefferson and Ad Putter (Leeds: Leeds Studies in English, 2009), 77–113; and “On the Meter of Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in Towards a Typology of Poetic Forms: From Language to Metrics and Beyond, ed. Jean-Louis Aroui and Andy Arleo (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2009), 209–28. See also Eric Weiskott, “Lawman, the Last Old English Poet and the First Middle English Poet,” in Laʒamon’s “Brut” and Other Medieval Chronicles: 14 essays, ed. Marie-Françoise Alamichel (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013), 11–57; and “Phantom Syllables in the English Alliterative Tradition,” Modern Philology 110 (2013): 448–58.

9. Emily V. Thornbury, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), 209.

10. Elaine Treharne, Living through Conquest: The Politics of Early English, 1020–1220 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), 2.

11. See Stephen M. Yeager, From Lawmen to Plowmen: Anglo-Saxon Legal Tradition and the School of Langland (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2014).

12. George Hickes, Linguarum Veterum Septentrionalium Thesaurus Grammatico-Criticus et Archæologicus, 2 vol. (Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre, 1705), 1:222. Unless otherwise noted, all translations mine.

13. Hickes, 1:222. See Poema Morale, in Hickes, 1:222–24.

14. R. D. Fulk, A History of Old English Meter (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), §291, §297, §303, §304.

15. Hickes, 1:xv, 1:235.

16. Cornelius comments, “The chapter ‘De Poetica Anglo-Saxonum’ is sprinkled with deprecations aimed at seventeenth-century poetry, passages in which Hickes identified himself as a kindred spirit to the Elizabethan quantitative reformers” (“Accentual Paradigm,” 463).

17. Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3 vol. (London, 1765), 2:267.

18. Percy, 2:267.

19. See Thomas Warton, The History of English Poetry, from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century, 3 vol. (London: Dodsley, etc., 1774–81). Warton writes: “This alliterative measure, unaccompanied with rhyme, and including many peculiar Saxon idioms appropriated to poetry, remained in use so low as the sixteenth century” (1:314).

20. Thomas Tyrwhitt, The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, 5 vol. (London: Payne, 1775–78), 4:49–50.

21. Robert Henry, The History of Great Britain, from the First Invasion of it by the Romans under Julius Cæsar, 6 vol. (London [1 & 6] and Edinburgh [2–5], 1771–93), 4:519.

22. See Derek Pearsall, “The Alliterative Revival: Origins and Social Backgrounds,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry and its Literary Background: Seven Essays, ed. David Lawton (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1982), 34. Pearsall notes uses from 1907, 1913, and 1915. Henry’s phrase also predates the 1862 citation offered as “the earliest explicit use [End Page 281] of Alliterative Revivalist terminology” by Randy Schiff. See Schiff, Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 2011), 21. To my discussion of biological metaphors in literary study, compare Mary Poovey, “The Model System of Contemporary Literary Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 27 (2001): 408–38. Like this essay, Poovey’s essay demonstrates the historicity of these metaphors, though Poovey has different foci (genre studies rather than metrics, and an archaeology of present critical practice rather than disciplinary history per se).

23. See Rasmus Rask, Angelsaksisk Sproglære tilligemed en kort Læsebog (Stockholm: Wiborg, 1817); and Joseph Bosworth, The Elements of Anglo-Saxon Grammar (London: Harding, Mavor, & Lepard, 1823).

24. William Francis Collier, A History of English Literature in a Series of Biographical Sketches (London: Nelson, 1865), 38.

25. See George Ellis, Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances, 3 vol. (London: Bulmer, 1801), 1:36, 1:149; and Sharon Turner, The History of the Manners, Landed Property, Government, Laws, Poetry, Literature, Religion, and Language, of the Anglo-Saxons (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, 1805), 374. John Josias Conybeare raised the possibility of locating the break at the Christianization of England, only to reject the idea. See J. J. Conybeare, “Further Observations on the Poetry of our Anglo-Saxon Ancestors,” Archaeologia 17 (1814): 271. William David Conybeare rejected the Viking invasions as a period boundary for the development of alliterative meter, noting the persistence of this verse form into the sixteenth century. See J. J. Conybeare, Illustrations of Anglo-Saxon Poetry, ed. W. D. Conybeare (London: Harding & Lepard, 1826), xxxix–xl.

26. Ellis, 1:36.

27. Ellis, 1:149.

28. Turner, 374.

29. Thomas Campbell, An Essay on English Poetry (Boston: Wells & Lilly, 1819), 29.

30. See W. W. Skeat, “An Essay on Alliterative Poetry,” in Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, 3 vol., ed. John W. Hales and Frederick J. Furnivall (London: Trübner, 1867–68), 3:xi–xxxix. For this period of disciplinary history down to 1930, see the more general accounts of Dennis Taylor, Hardy’s Metres and Victorian Prosody (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), 18–42; and Meredith Martin, The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930 (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2012).

31. Thomas B. Shaw, A History of English Literature, ed. William Smith (London: Murray, 1864), 50. In subsequent iterations of Smith’s edition, this description was extended to Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede and Richard the Redeless. See Shaw, A Smaller History of English and American Literature. For the Use of Schools, ed. Smith and Henry T. Tuckerman (New York: Sheldon, 1870), 49.

32. Bernhard ten Brink, Geschichte der englischen Litteratur, 2 vol. (Berlin: Oppenheim, 1877), 61. The English translation is from Horace M. Kennedy’s translation. See Bernhard ten Brink, Early English Literature, trans. Kennedy (New York: Holt, 1883), 48.

33. See Jakob Schipper, Englische Metrik in historischer und systematischer Entwickelung dargestellt, 3 vol. (Bonn: Strauss, 1881–88); and Edwin Guest, A History of English Rhythms, 2 vol. (London: Pickering, 1838).

34. Schipper, §38.

35. Schipper speaks of “these two main trends in the handling of the Anglo-Saxon long line, which we shall call the ‘progressive’ or ‘loose’ and the ‘conservative’ or ‘strict’” [diesen beiden Hauptrichtungen in der Behandlung des angelsächsischen Langverses, [End Page 282] welche wir die fortschrittliche oder freie und die conservative oder strenge nennen wollen] (§40).

36. See Francis B. Gummere, A Handbook of Poetics for Students of English Verse, (Boston: Ginn, 1885); and A Handbook of Poetics for Students of English Verse (Boston: Ginn, 1890). The second edition was published in 1886 and reprinted in 1888; the third edition was reprinted in 1898, 1902, 1903, and 1913.

37. Gummere (1890), xiii.

38. Gummere (1890), xiii. See Eduard Sievers, “Zur Rhythmik des germanischen Alliterationsverses,” Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 10 (1885): 208–314, 451–545, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 12 (1887): 454–82.

39. For an important precursor to Sievers’s theory, see Max Rieger, Die alt- und angel-sächsische Verskunst (Halle: Waisenhaus, 1876). For discussion of Sievers’s relationship to his German precursors, see Julius Goebel, “Zur Vorgeschichte der sievers’schen Typentheorie,” Anglia 19 (1897): 499–508; and Jürgen Kühnel, Untersuchungen zum germanischen Stabreimvers (Göppingen: Kümmerle, 1978), 259–319. For comparison of Sievers’s theory with two others from the 1890s (those of Andreas Heusler and Max Kaluza), see Patrizia Aziz Hanna Noel, “Layers of Versification in Beowulf,” Anglia 127 (2010): 246–54.

40. Gummere (1890), xiii. In the first edition Gummere had referred to Beowulf and a few other Old English poems as “[t]he high-water mark of this old poetry” ([1885], 173).

41. See Karl Luick, “Die englische Stabreimzeile im XIV., XV. und XVI. Jahrhundert,” Anglia 11 (1889): 399–419.

42. See Grundriss der germanischen Philologie, 3 vol., ed. Hermann Paul (Strassburg: Trübner, 1891–93).

43. J. J. Jusserand, A Literary History of the English People: From the Origins to the Renaissance (London: Fisher, 1895), 39. This passage did not appear in the French version. See Jusserand, Histoire littéraire du peuple anglais: des origines a la renaissance (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1894), 43.

44. W. J. Courthope, A History of English Poetry, 6 vol. (London: Macmillan, 1895–1910), 1:83.

45. George Saintsbury, A Short History of English Literature (London: Macmillan, 1898), 62, 110.

46. Gummere (1885), 177.

47. See Lorenz Morsbach, “Zur Datierung des Beowulfepos,” in Nachrichten von der königl. Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, phil.-hist. Klasse (Berlin: Weidmann, 1906), 251–77; Gregor Sarrazin, “Zur Chronologie und Verfasserfrage angelsächsischer Dichtunger,” Englische Studien 38 (1907): 145–95; Carl Richter, Chronologische Studien zur angelsächsischen Literatur auf Grund sprachlich-metrischer Kritierien (Halle: Niemeyer, 1910); Sarrazin, Von Kädmon bis Kynewulf: eine litterarhistorische Studie (Berlin: Mayer & Müller, 1913); and Friedrich Seiffert, Die Behandlung der Wörter mit auslautenden ursprünglich silbischen Liquiden oder Nasalen und mit Kontraktionsvokalen in der Genesis A und im Beowulf (Halle: Hohmann, 1913).

48. Fulk, History, 5n5.

49. See Saintsbury, The History of English Prosody, 3 vol. (London: Macmillan, 1906–10), 1:41–45.

50. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, 1:191.

51. See Saintsbury, Short History, 2–3; History of English Prosody, 1:12–14; and “The Prosody of Old and Middle English,” in The Cambridge History of English Literature, [End Page 283] 15 vol., ed. A. W. Ward and A. R. Waller (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1907), 1:372–74.

52. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, 1:100.

53. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, 1:100.

54. Thomas Seccombe and W. Robertson Nicoll, The Bookman Illustrated History of English Literature, 2 vol. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1906), 1:8.

55. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, 1:76. In a later passage Saintsbury speaks of “a plastic mass of decomposed or decomposing Anglo-Saxon verse-material, upon which are brought to bear, like multiplied potters’ thumbs or like the tools of a lathe, the influences of Latin, of French, and perhaps of other languages” (1:79).

56. W. P. Ker, “Metrical Romances, 1200–1500,” in Cambridge History of English Literature, 1:292. See also Ker, English Literature: Medieval (London: Williams & Norgate, 1912), 59–60.

57. Saintsbury, History of English Prosody, 1:126.

58. See J. P. Oakden, Alliterative Poetry in Middle English, 2 vol. (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1930–35).

59. See R. M. Wilson, The Lost Literature of Medieval England (London: Methuen, 1952). Wilson organized the literary field thematically rather than formally, with the result that comments on putative lost alliterative poems are scattered throughout; see Wilson, 1–64, 116, 161.

60. R. W. Chambers, “On the Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and his School,” in Nicholas Harpsfield: The Life and Death of Sir Thomas More, ed. Elsie V. Hitchcock (EETS OS 186, 1932), lxvi, lxvii.

61. See The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991); and The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999). The former may now be read alongside The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature, ed. Clare A. Lees (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012), which contains 26 chapters and also shares no contributors with Wallace’s Cambridge History, while the latter may be read alongside The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Literature 1100–1500, ed. Larry Scanlon (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009), which contains 18 chapters and also shares no contributors with Godden and Lapidge’s Cambridge Companion. The two twenty-first-century volumes do share one contributor across time periods: Diane Watt. See also Treharne, 2n4.

62. See Cornelius, “Alliterative Revival: Retrospect and Prospect,” review of Revivalist, by Schiff, Yearbook of Langland Studies 26 (2012): 261–76, esp. 266; and Reconstructing Alliterative Verse: The Pursuit of a Medieval Meter (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, forthcoming), chapter 3.

63. Ralph Hanna, “Alliterative Poetry,” in Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, 488.

64. Two notable exceptions to this generalization are the metrically centered discussions of Derek Pearsall, Old English and Middle English Poetry (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), 150–88; and David A. Lawton, “Gaytryge’s Sermon, Dictamen, and Middle English Alliterative Verse,” Modern Philology 76 (1979): 329–43.

65. See N. F. Blake, “Rhythmical Alliteration,” Modern Philology 67 (1969): 118–24.

66. Blake, “Middle English Alliterative Revivals,” review of The Alliterative Revival, by Thorlac Turville-Petre (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1977), Review 1 (1979): 206.

67. Two notable exceptions to this generalization are Carolynn VanDyke Friedlander, “Early Middle English Accentual Verse,” Modern Philology 76 (1979): 219–30; [End Page 284] and Angus McIntosh, “Early Middle English Alliterative Verse,” in Middle English Alliterative Poetry, 20–33.

68. See Hoyt N. Duggan, “The Shape of the B-Verse in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Speculum 61 (1986): 564–92; “Notes toward a Theory of Langland’s Meter,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 1 (1987): 41–70; and “Final -e and the Rhythmic Structure of the B-Verse in Middle English Alliterative Poetry,” Modern Philology 86 (1988): 119–45. See also Cable, “Middle English Meter and its Theoretical Implications,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 2 (1988): 47–69; “Standards from the Past: The Conservative Syllable Structure of the Alliterative Revival,” Tennessee Studies in Literature 31 (1989): 42–56; and English Alliterative Tradition, 66–84.

69. Fulk, History, 256n10.

70. For glances backward and forward see Duggan, “Final -e,” 145; and Fulk, History, §313–17. See also Fulk, “Old English Poetry and the Alliterative Revival: On Geoffrey Russom’s ‘The Evolution of Middle English Alliterative Meter,’” in Studies in the History of the English Language, 305–12; and Duggan, “The End of the Line,” in Medieval Alliterative Poetry: Essays in Honour of Thorlac Turville-Petre, ed. John A. Burrow and Duggan (Dublin: Four Courts, 2010), 75–76.

71. Cable, English Alliterative Tradition, 132.

72. J. J. Conybeare, Illustrations, lxv.

73. See Syr Gawayne; A Collection of Ancient Romance-Poems, ed. Frederic Madden (London: Taylor, 1839); and Laʒamons Brut, or Chronicle of Britain: A Poetical Semi-Saxon Paraphrase of The Brut of Wace, 3 vol., ed. Madden (London: Taylor, 1847).

74. Simon Jarvis comments, “verse is not a subset of language. It is an institution, a series of practices as real as the belief in them and the capacity for them” (“For a Poetics of Verse,” PMLA 125 [2010]: 933).

75. See James Simpson, “Religious Forms and Institutions in Piers Plowman,” in The Cambridge Companion to “Piers Plowman”, ed. Andrew Cole and Andrew Galloway (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), 97–99. [End Page 285]

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