Alliterative Meter and the Textual Criticism of the Gawain Group
Recent studies have gone some way toward solving the riddle of Middle English alliterative meter, while at the same time uncovering evidence of continuity between Old English meter, early Middle English alliterative meter, and Middle English alliterative meter. The new metrical scholarship refocuses questions of literary history, poetics, and the cultural meaning of meter. This essay reexamines Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron’s authoritative edition of Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Certain readings, both editorial and scribal, now seem implausible in light of current metrical theory. Throughout, Weiskott argues that meter can be utilized as one dimension of editorial assessment in conjunction with other considerations, while remaining circumspect about its ability to furnish independent grounds for emendation. The first section of the essay summarizes two points of general agreement among metrists, reviews the stress assignment and metrical phonology of Middle English alliterative poetry, and tracks Andrew and Waldron’s understanding of alliterative meter across the five printings of their edition. The second section presents ten verses in the Cotton Nero poems in which metrical theory can be of service to textual criticism. In the third and final section, Weiskott reviews a recent essay by Ralph Hanna and Thorlac Turville-Petre and points to a few promising avenues for future research at the intersection of metrics and textual criticism.