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  • The Ear, the Foot, the Gut:The Metaphoric Body of the Timer Tradition of Old English Metrics
  • David O'Neil

Though at first glance an unlikely topic for the current issue, metrical theory is deeply indebted to embodied experience. Poetic meter has often been described in terms of corporeal cadences such as the pulse, the breath, and the step, and technical terms such as arsis and thesis are based in corporeal metaphor. As a harnessing of our speech's inherent prosody, meter may even be felt to express the internal rhythms of our bodies, which, like the celestial bodies, are bound in regularly recurring natural cycles. This is not to say that metered language must be regular at every level of description, but rhythm implies regularity at some level. For example, while a line of ancient Greek dactylic hexameter may admit sixty-four unique sequences of twelve to seventeen heavy and light syllables, rhythmic performance may be inferred from its regular quantitative pattern of six tetramoraic feet. When a meter is described in such a way that it seems to lack any such regularity, we may perceive the apparent absence of rhythm as uncomfortably disembodied.

This has sometimes been the case for students of the Anglo-Saxon alliterative tradition, who have identified over a hundred metrical subtypes in Beowulf alone,1 but no metrical generalization (or at least one that has been agreed on) that might provide a basis for rhythmic performance. Some degree of irregularity is apparent in syllable count, mora count, the position and number of syllables of primary and secondary stress, the position and number of unstressed syllables, and the occurrence of stress clash.2 While stress-based typologies such as Eduard Sievers's attain a kind of regularity, they generalize only halfway, leaving the impression that the meter is based not on a single system, but on a collection of systems that each features its own distinct prosodic contour.3 Such irregularities appear even greater when one considers how frequently syllables must be marked extrametrical due to anacrusis and resolution, operations which Chris Golston succinctly describes as [End Page 65] accommodations in which syllables are "split apart, joined together, or ignored,"4 and which Ian Cornelius includes among the "three salient problems" or "conceptual embarrassments" of stress-based theories.5 Even Geoffrey Russom's insight that the alliterative half-line is prosodically the equivalent of two OE words does not eliminate the appearance of unusual metrical complexity.6 Word-feet range in length from two to six syllables, are subject to strict combinatorial rules, and (like OE words) are structured in varied concatenations of heavy and light syllables at three distinct stress levels. The extent of this complexity is exceptional and contravenes what Golston calls the "basic tendency in language and meter to have one set of feet" ("Old English Feet," p. 112).

The tolerance (or intolerance) of individual metrists for rhythmic irregularity accounts for important historic divisions in the field—most notably between the "stressers" and the "timers." The stressers accept metrical diversity as a simple fact that should be cataloged rather than regularized, while the timers prioritize rhythmic reconstruction as the fundamental objective of metrical theorization. As I will demonstrate in this essay, timer theory was an explicit reaction against the stressers' seeming lack of concern for rhythm, as inferred from analytic typologies that in their most extreme form might fairly be described as a kind of metrical "stamp collecting."7 Cornelius has recently interrogated stresser theories of OE meter, coining the term "the accentual paradigm" to describe the focus on stress that has predominated since the mid-nineteenth century.8 This essay complements that work, presenting a rhetorical analysis of the argumentation of the timers. In keeping with the theme of this issue, I am particularly interested in appeals to the body that function as a counter to the essentially cognitive (or "disembodied") analyses of the stressers. These appeals support claims that traditional Anglo-Saxon verse was musical ("the ear"), timed in isochronic units ("the foot"), and intuitive ("the gut"). In the conclusion, I consider a broader implication for the rift between the stressers and the timers, arguing that the persistent lack of...


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