English Alliterative Verse: Poetic Tradition and Literary History
This book tells the story of the medieval poetic tradition that includes Beowulf, PPl, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, stretching from the eighth century, when English poetry first appeared in manuscripts, to the sixteenth century, when alliterative poetry ceased to be composed. Weiskott draws on the study of metre to challenge the traditional division of medieval English literary history into Old English and Middle English periods. The two halves of the alliterative tradition, divided by the Norman Conquest of 1066, have been studied separately since the nineteenth century; this book uses the history of metrical form and its cultural meanings to bring the two halves back together. In combining literary history and metrical description into a new kind of history he calls ‘verse history’, Weiskott reimagines the historical study of poetics.
The introduction, ‘The Durable Alliterative Tradition’, defines the alliterative tradition and surveys the development of the alliterative metre, 650–1550. Chapter 1, ‘Beowulf and Verse History’, charts the evolution of the alliterative metre from 950 to 1100, and adduces new evidence of synchronic metrical variety in this misunderstood period; the chapter re-evaluates certain metrical and cultural arguments thought to establish a very early date (before c. 750) for the composition of Beowulf. Chapter 2, ‘Prologues to Old English Poetry’, develops a typology of prologues to long Old English poems; after surveying the types of prologue and their use in individual compositions, the chapter concludes by exploring the implications of the prologue typology for historicizing the style of Beowulf. Chapter 3, ‘Lawman, the Last Old English Poet and the First Middle English Poet’, clarifies recent scholarship on the metre of Lawman’s Brut and extends it to other early Middle English alliterative poetry; the chapter goes on to demonstrate how Lawman’s conservative style resembles that of his Old English predecessors, how the two manuscript versions of the Brut represent two different visions for the future of alliterative verse, and how Lawman’s treatment of the Arthurian past anticipates Middle English romance. Chapter 4, ‘Prologues to Middle English Alliterative Poetry’, argues that the lack of firm documentary evidence for the composition of alliterative poetry between the Middle English Physiologus and William of Palerne (1336–61) is an accident of manuscript survival, not evidence of the death of alliterative verse and a subsequent ‘Alliterative Revival’. Chapter 5, ‘The Erkenwald-Poet’s Sense of History’, offers a case in point for the arguments of Chapter 4 through a reading of the understudied Middle English alliterative poem St Erkenwald, reading St Erkenwald as a serious meditation on history. Chapter 6, ‘The Alliterative Tradition in the Sixteenth Century’, traces the generic, codicological, textual, and cultural contexts for alliterative metre in the century before it disappeared from the active repertoire of verse forms.