Medieval Metre is Seriously Cool. Seriously!

by Jane Toswell, co-author of our new book Early English Poetic Culture and Meter: The Influence of G. R. Russom

So why should I learn about Old and Middle English metre anyway?
Well, it’s true, metre can be a hard subject.  Hearing the rhythm in words and the aural patterns of repetition and imagery can be hard today, as students of English literature know.  If they have the choice, they often don’t want to study poetry.  But poetry is worth the effort.  Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry, and the metre of his poetry is really easy to figure out since every one of his poems is also music, based on a striking pattern of sound and rhythm.  These patterns of sound and repetition, these patterns of repetition are the guts of poetry.  Old English and Middle English poetry are different enough from modern poetry that they take some extra study of those guts in order to appreciate and better articulate our understanding of medieval poetry.

Okay, so what should I read first?
That one is easy.  This collection of papers is for Geoffrey Richard Russom (known to medievalists the world over as “Rick”), because he has been a mentor for many of us when we were young graduate students and junior faculty, and because he is the writer on medieval metre who can take all that complexity and reduce it to some simple patterns and rules.  He wouldn’t call them rules, but strong tendencies, patterns of usage.  He has several books, especially on Beowulf, and especially on pulling together the different Germanic languages to see the metrical patterns they share. Rick is all about recognising patterns.  And so, we wanted to take his work and add to it, from a range of points of view.  Fyi, his bibliography is at the back of the book.

All right, but why should I read this book?  Why shouldn’t I just go and read Rick Russom’s books?
Well, do that too.  But in this book we interact with Rick by rejuvenating, pushing, and testing his theories.  For example, Tom Cable writes a foreword pointing out the ways he and Rick have agreed and disagreed over several decades, and Rob Fulk in chapter two picks up on how Old English and Old Norse poets treat verses with only verbs and particles (adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions).  Jun Terasawa (chapter one) seizes upon the short verses in Beowulf, those which in the surviving manuscript have only three syllables, and shakes them about to determine what editors have done with them, and what serious metrical thinking would suggest should be done with them.  Like Fulk, Terasawa models serious metrical study, testing every hypothesis and investigating every possibility.  In a similar mode is Megan Hartman (chapter five), who asks what room there is in the Rick’s famous theory for Beowulf that metrical feet correspond to words for non-Beowulf-like texts.  She takes sample sections from a range of other texts, and applies the theory to figure out how there is a loosening of some constraints, and a hardening of others, so that the word-foot theory works, but works differently.

Okay but that’s metrical analysis for other metrists to fight about.  I edit texts.  What’s useful for me in here?
Funny you should ask.  We’ve got two serious metrists who decided to edit texts for this volume, and to use their editions to ask metrical questions.  Eric Weiskott (chapter nine) is a Middle English scholar, and he tackles here a previously unedited late fifteenth-century poem which he calls the “Vision of William Banastre” and presents as an example of very late alliterative meter which demonstrates continuity going right back to Old English meter. Tom Bredehoft (chapter eight) edits a poem that was previously presented as prose, a confessional prayer found in the Regius Psalter from the late tenth century in Anglo-Saxon England, and with his edition of it as poetry argues for a continuum between poetic prose and prose-like poetry in late Old English. Both Bredehoft and Weisskott recognise that editing has to begin with understanding the nature of the text, and to do that you need to understand meter.

Fine, but I am more interested in style and word patterning.  Is there anything here for me?

Well, my co-editor, Lindy Brady, and I might be able to help you out ourselves.  Lindy in chapter four examines the occurrences of boars in Beowulf, references to these fierce and famous pigs in the poem which, she argues, seem to be tied to the Geats and to their victories in the first part of the poem.  It makes you think that close reading is actually useful.  I argue in chapter seven for formalizing something which a lot of Old English scholars have noted in passing, which is that polyptoton, using several words based on the same root, is a standard feature of the literature.  I hint (carefully) that in some texts polyptoton can almost be a metrical pattern, a way of offering some patterning in poems where the metrical constraints have loosened considerably.

Yeah, okay, but I want the edgy stuff, the scholarship that is really heading in new and interesting directions.  What have you got for me?
Got you covered too.  Read Hal Momma, who tackles the metrical psalter in chapter six and makes it interesting (somehow), investigating it as a translation text and using a theoretical matrix drawn from Eugene Nida and translation theorists.  Cool stuff.  And for a mind-blowing new approach, read Dan Donoghue (chapter three), who seizes upon Geoffrey Nunberg’s linguistic theory of punctuation, knocks it up against Old English manuscript punctuation, and draws really fascinating new conclusions about how this kind of interdisciplinarity can really energize the field.  Rick, who is the kind of interdisciplinarian who has published on Tolkien, on drinks of death in medieval literature, and on oral-formulaic approaches, would entirely approve.

Okay, you got me.
Excellent news.  Spread the word.  And do so rhythmically, bearing in mind that poetry comes from harnessing the patterns of speech, the rhythms of our everyday expressions.