What would English literary history look like if the unit of measure were not the political reign but the poetic tradition? The earliest poems in English were written in alliterative verse, the meter of Beowulf. Alliterative meter preceded tetrameter, which first appeared in the twelfth century, and tetrameter in turn preceded pentameter, the five-stress line that would become the dominant English verse form of modernity, though it was invented by Chaucer in the 1380s. While this chronology is accurate, Eric Weiskott argues, the traditional periodization of literature in modern scholarship distorts the meaning of meters as they appeared to early poets and readers.
In Meter and Modernity in English Verse, 1350-1650, Weiskott examines the uses and misuses of these three meters as markers of literary time, "medieval" or "modern," though all three were in concurrent use both before and after 1500. In each section of the book, he considers two of the traditions through the prism of a third element: alliterative meter and tetrameter in poems of political prophecy; alliterative meter and pentameter in William Langland's Piers Plowman and early blank verse; and tetrameter and pentameter in Chaucer, his predecessors, and his followers. Reversing the historical perspective in which scholars conventionally view these authors, Weiskott reveals Langland to be metrically precocious and Chaucer metrically nostalgic.
More than a history of prosody, Weiskott's book challenges the divide between medieval and modern literature. Rejecting the premise that modernity occurred as a specifiable event, he uses metrical history to renegotiate the trajectories of English literary history and advances a narrative of sociocultural change that runs parallel to metrical change, exploring the relationship between literary practice, social placement, and historical time.
List of Abbreviations
Note on Quotations and Scansion
Introduction. Modernity: The Problem of a History
Part I. Alliterative Meter, Tetrameter, Political Prophecy
Chapter 1. English Political Prophecy: Coordinates of Form and History
Chapter 2. The Age of Prophecy
Chapter 3. The Ireland Prophecy and the Future of Alliterative Verse
Chapter 4. Tetrameter: The Future of Alliterative Verse
Chapter 5. Where Have All the Pentameter Prophecies Gone?
Part II. Alliterative Meter, Pentameter, Langland
Chapter 6. Alliterative Meter and Blank Verse, 1540-1667
Chapter 7. The Rhymelessness of Piers Plowman
Chapter 8. Langland's Meter and Blank Verse, 1700-2000
Part III. Tetrameter, Pentameter, Chaucer
Chapter 9. Chaucer and the Problem of Modernity
Chapter 10. Chaucer's English Metrical Phonology: Tetrameter to Pentameter
Chapter 11. The Age of Pentameter
Conclusion. From Archive to Canon
Appendix A. English Prophecy Books
Appendix B. Some Texts of English Verse Prophecies Not Noted in NIMEV
Appendix C. Compilers, Scribes, and Owners of Manuscripts Containing Political Prophecy
Appendix D. The Ireland Prophecy
"Eric Weiskott saves us from reading the history of English poetry as a narrative in which formal, thematic, and linguistic developments keep step across a progress of periods. Meter, in its own diversity—the asynchronous rise and fall of its many kinds—proves to be an ideal instrument for disaggregating the rates and durations of change across many domains."—Jeff Dolven, Princeton University