- English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History by Eric Weiskott
The list of scholars chipping away at the Alliterative Revival continues to grow. Recent contributions to this undertaking include Randy P. Schiff ’s Alliterative Fantasies: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History (2011) and Ian Cornelius’ Reconstructing Alliterative Verse: The Pursuit of a Medieval Meter (2017). Eric Weiskott’s English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History (2016) adds a considerable amount of analysis to this conversation and conveys it in engaging prose. Weiskott contends that alliterative verse evolved continuously from the seventh century into the sixteenth. The foundation of this argument is a new map of the changes that alliterative meter experienced over time. To counter the standard view—alliterative verse reached a peak with Beowulf, deteriorated in early Middle English poetry and expired, only to be revived as a new entity—Weiskott creates a convincing picture of an unbroken and logical series of developments. More engagement with current scholarship that depends on the concept of the Revival would make pieces of Weiskott’s argument feel more urgent; however, the appearance of a similar claim in Cornelius’ book indicates persistent interest in the continuity of the alliterative tradition.
It should, furthermore, be noted that Weiskott’s goals extend further than erasing the Revival. His larger claims include the contention that scholars should consider the history of meter on its own instead of folding it into arguments concerning language, culture, or other realms. The evolution of a metrical tradition follows its own rules and develops its own ‘momentum’ (p. 9). This argument is a valuable warning against the assumption that there is a simple correspondence between metrical developments and other forms of historical change.
Several strands run through the book. Beginning with a morphological rather than an accentual understanding of Old English meter, Chapters One, Three, Four, and Six chart the history of developments in alliterative meter. Some of this [End Page 100] discussion could be challenging for readers who are not well versed in lifts, dips, and metrical resolution. Focus issues include the diversity within the alliterative tradition (see Chapter One in particular), the flaws in arguments that use meter to date Beowulf (Chapter One), the pivotal status of Lawman’s Brut (Chapter Three), and the knowledge of alliterative verse displayed by sixteenth-century poets, despite the increasingly limited contexts in which alliterative verse appeared (Chapter Six).
A second strand concerns the question of how alliterative poetry was perceived over time and its relationship with other verse forms. To better understand how poets addressed their audiences and presented their subject matter, Weiskott examines a stylistic component that can be used to sort poems into categories. In Chapters Two and Four he proposes typologies of prologues to Old and Middle English poetry. These typologies yield groups of poems that Weiskott argues should be our first reference point when we consider the contexts of these poems. Weiskott’s categories also reveal relationships between traditions. He compares the prologues of Middle English alliterative poems to those in ‘non-alliterative’ poems and uses the results to suggest that the alliterative tradition and Middle English romance influenced each other to a greater extent than has been acknowledged.
Throughout the book Weiskott considers a wide range of other evidence to uncover perceptions about alliterative poetry. Chapter Five, for example, examines the late fourteenth-to-mid-fifteenth-century St Erkenwald. The poet displays an interest in history that is characteristic of alliterative verse. What sets this poem apart, Weiskott argues, is its sophisticated willingness to accept the alterity of the distant past. The past, for this poet, cannot be fully understood and should not be reduced to a period of lamentable pagan ignorance. While alliterative verse was marginalized by the time St Erkenwald was composed, therefore, it still served as a vehicle for ‘a serious meditation on history’ (p. 127).
For metrists, Weiskott offers a detailed map of change in alliterative verse. This significant achievement is likely to underwrite future scholarship. For medievalists more generally, the book presents interesting claims to...