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  • The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics
  • Ian Cornelius

Among the most unorthodox theories of Old English meter currently in play is Nicolay Yakovlev’s proposal that it was not accentual.1 According to Yakovlev, the standard verse form of Beowulf owed its metricality neither to a fixed count of “major” stresses, nor to a minimal set of recurring accentual contours, but instead to a relatively simple count of four metrical positions per verse. Given this point of departure from received understandings, the success or failure of Yakovlev’s theory rests largely on his ability to define a metrical position and show how the words and syllables that make up actual verses of Old English map onto a basic four-position frame. For this task he is able to draw on a deep file of prior scholarship. For, if Yakovlev’s theory is directly contrary to what we might term the modern vulgate understanding of Old English meter, it is also a direct development of the single most important contribution to this modern tradition, that of Eduard Sievers.2 Sievers demonstrated that most verses of Old English conform to one of five basic rhythmical patterns.3 This has [End Page 459] been his most influential legacy; the essay in which he presented these findings was significantly titled “Zur Rhythmik des germanischen Alliterationsverses.” However, Sievers also noted that the patterns he had identified each unfold within a frame of four metrical positions. He termed these Glieder, or “members”; in the simplest realizations, each Glied is realized by a single syllable.4 Thus, there is authoritative precedent for Yakovlev’s four-position theory. Prior to Yakovlev, however, metricists in the Sieversian tradition have always moved from the definition of four positions to the definition of the rhythms or prosodic contours that form across them.

Indeed, the great bulk of work within Sieversian metrics has been directed into cataloguing and tabulating the various unique combinations of long, short, stressed, half-stressed, and unstressed syllables that actually occur in Old English verse—the Five Types and their forest of subtypes. Within this research program, the notion of the metrical Glied withdraws into the background; to the extent that it maintains a continuous presence, it is just a unit of verse possessed of a certain level of stress and which, in sequence with the verse’s other Glieder, forms the verse’s overall contour of stress. Scansion aims to represent this contour. From here, it is just a short step to dispense with the metrical abstraction of Glieder altogether and treat the syllable as the verse’s definitive constituent. Alan Bliss, who took this step, identified 130 unique contours among the 6,342 nonextended verses of Beowulf.5 His alphanumeric notation is almost as intricate as the system of references to the Summa theologica. (The first four verses of Beowulf are logged as types d3b, d3a, 1D1, and 1A1a, respectively.) Against this taxonomic impulse, Thomas Cable has always urged the principle of metrical simplicity. In important contributions that form key precursors to Yakovlev’s theory, Cable emphasizes that the meter’s “general principle” is its frame of four positions and argues that the Five Types are just the contours that may occur (provided a small number of additional restrictions) within this four-position frame.6 Yet, even Cable turns from the definition of metrical positions to the definition of contours. By rejecting Sievers’s notion of metrical foot and challenging the notion of clashing stress, Cable has sought to bring the Five Types into closer agreement with [End Page 460] intonational phonology. From one end of the Sieversian tradition to the other, researchers have interpreted their central task to be the correct description of prosodic and, more narrowly, accentual contours.

Yakovlev’s insight is that the contours may be epiphenomenal. When recited, the poetry certainly had stress contours; these contributed to its art and guided the placement of alliteration. However, it does not follow from either the presence of a contour, its role in the placement of alliteration, or the poetic effects derivable from it, that it was determinative of the meter. Classical Latin similarly had a stress accent; in the Middle Ages...


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