- The Evolution of Verse Structure in Old and Middle English Poetry: From the Earliest Alliterative Poems to Iambic Pentameter by Geoffrey Russom
Although Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (hereafter Gawain) is named neither in the title of Geoffrey Russom’s new monograph, nor in any chapter title, this Arthurian poem is the principal object of study. Chapters Five through Nine treat the verse types employed in Gawain’s unrhymed alliterative long lines. Chapter Ten treats Gawain’s short lines. Earlier chapters supply theoretical and historical support. Russom’s thesis is that the verse types employed in the long lines of Gawain are the descendants of those employed in Beowulf, and that the evolutionary path from the Beowulf-meter to [End Page 82] the Gawain-meter was governed by certain universal principles (these are articulated in Chapters One and Two). The chapter on Gawain’s short rhymed lines, titled ‘The Birth of English Iambic Meter,’ stands apart from the diachronic argument. It supplies a snapshot of the metrical system that would supplant alliterative meter in English in the century after Gawain.
In two previous monographs, Russom has set forth a theory of the meter of Beowulf and of cognate meters in other medieval Germanic languages (Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987]; ‘Beowulf’ and Old Germanic Metre [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998]). His account of Old English meter remains consistent across all three books: according to Russom, the decisive event was the development of a fixed word-initial stress accent in proto-Germanic. Thereafter, Germanic languages developed verse forms keyed to the stress accents and syllabic shapes of words: ‘Foot patterns correspond to native word patterns’ (‘Beowulf’ and Old Germanic Metre, p. 2; compare pp. 54–58 in the book under review). Termed ‘word-foot theory,’ Russom’s account is rightly praised for its explanatory intention: it conceives of poetic meter as a function of a salient prosodic feature of early Germanic languages.
A corollary is that meter should change as language changes, and this is the specific topic of the book under review: Russom plots the development of an English meter across the first six centuries of its recorded history, from the eighth century to the fourteenth. This historical arc is extrapolated from richly detailed analysis of three poems—Beowulf, The Battle of Maldon, and Gawain. Chapter Three recapitulates Russom’s earlier accounts of the meter of Beowulf and supplies the status quo ante for the developments traced here. Chapter Four details the metrical peculiarities of the late Old English poem The Battle of Maldon (probably composed soon after 991, the year of the battle it commemorates) in a series of precise comparisons with Beowulf. The title of this chapter, ‘From Late Old English Meter to Middle English Meter,’ is misleading, but Russom’s point is that Maldon diverges from the classical Old English meter in ways that anticipate much later compositions. The remainder of the book argues, in meticulous detail, that Gawain fulfills the metrical transformations adumbrated in Maldon.
This argument should generate robust discussion. Extended or ‘hypermetrical’ verses (e.g., Beowulf 1163a, gan under gyldnum beage) generally feature as an addendum in accounts of Old English meter. Russom’s diachronic theory grants them an integral role, with important consequences for understanding of the metrical structure of verses like 1573a in Gawain: Whettez his whyte tuschez (pp. 246–54). More interesting still are patterns of syntax motivated evidently to avoid placing monosyllabic pronouns in the coda of the a-verse (pp. 180–81, 201–2, 227, 230–31, 239–40, etc.). An example is Gawain 351a, Whil mony so bolde yow aboute, where one might have expected aboute yow, without syntactic inversion. Russom remarks that ‘Shifting the pronoun usually improves the meter in an obvious way but is sometimes more difficult to explain’ (p. 294 n5). He rightly calls for more research. The ‘principle of closure,’ arguably the component of ‘universalist poetics’ of greatest...