- Reconstructing Alliterative Verse: The Pursuit of a Medieval Meter by Ian Cornelius
Ian Cornelius offers the ‘pursuit’ of a meter that, he claims, we can no longer properly hear, so completely did its elusive and complicated rules vanish beneath the influence of poetry driven by the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables qua syllables, which had become (and remain) the only familiar building blocks of English meter. By the late sixteenth century, the venerable alliterative tradition had entirely dissolved into impersonations and reinterpretations, as if alliterative verse were merely an ornamentally distinct variety of iambic pentameter or anapests (Spenser’s ‘Some gan to gape for greedie gouernaunce’ or his ‘lovers of lordship and troublers of states’). Such an approach to metrical history may remind us of Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Not Knowing Greek,’ where ‘not knowing’ refers not to Woolf’s personal exile from the privileged world of male scholars but an insistence that neither she nor the scholars can actually capture a lost poetics, whose later echoes and reinterpretations pose as much hindrance as help. ‘We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we now do in English,’ Woolf observes—though she doesn’t hesitate to describe some features she discerns as that poetics’ original elements.
Cornelius’ compressed and meticulous pursuit is equally cautious but ultimately extraordinarily ambitious: in finely argued chapters, it seeks to recover comprehensive rules of this terminally medieval meter, whose often dramatically changing phases are patchily preserved through half a millennium. Cornelius’ overarching point is not just that we mishear, but also that the meter itself changed by reinterpretations— mishearings—of its own traditions, some drastic. This adopts and builds on Geoffrey Russom’s important proposals for how late-medieval alliterative meter might be explained as ‘normalizing’ certain exceptional elements in Old English meter, as the language developed into a fundamentally different form; Cornelius manages the contiguous stages of this through the ‘new paradigm’ formulated by Nicolay Yakovlev in his (unpublished) 2008 dissertation, already applied by a few other scholars (notably Cornelius’ own student, Eric Weiskott). For all of his scholarly modesty, Cornelius is more Yakovlevian than Yakovlev: he intently tests and takes further the view that Old English metrics began not from ‘accentual’ principles but ‘morphological’ ones—that is, not syllable counts but classes of words that take or resist stress, with specific options for metrical resolution and stretches of unstressed syllables, a legacy shaping post-Conquest and later alliterative meter as it accommodated, with gradually [End Page 76] expanding consequences, the growing number of small function words required by English’s shift to an analytic language.
This grants metrics itself a central role in metrical history, positing underlying poetic continuities in spite of the drastic changes and major gaps in the documented data. Cornelius shows both an unwavering commitment to this assumption and a vigorous interest in the exceptions and variations, while frequently chipping away at the long scholarly history that has led both toward and away from the claims Cornelius endorses. Lawman’s Brut remains, as usual, a hard case. One could choose almost any line from The Brut to retest and debate Cornelius’ multiple explanations for what amounts to that poet’s creative destruction of earlier alliterative verse along with its germination of features that would dominate later. But the alternatives to Cornelius’ view of a continuous ‘tradition’ briefly exposed by The Brut would be either viewing the looser prose rhythms of Ælfrician homily as bridging the general gap in written alliterative verse from 900 to 1350, leaving later alliterative verse a self-created thing (a view Cornelius demolishes), or—Russom’s easier stratagem—setting Lawman and his peculiarities aside, and conjecturing widespread orally sustained poetry marching steadily from the meter of Beowulf to that of William of Palerne. Like Yakovlev and Weiskott, Cornelius goes through not around Lawman, giving even more attention than either of those to the elements in The Brut that violate the norms of both Old and later Middle English alliterative...