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A Comparative Study of Old English Metre.

Whitman, F.H., Pp. ix + 170. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 1993. 35.75[pounds].

HARDLY a year passes without the publication of a new theory of Old English metre. Some recent theories -- like those of G. Russom and C. B. Kendall -- have made significant contributions to our understanding of the subject, though none has consolidated a position to challenge Sievers. Others have perplexed the reader with jumbled musical notations and pseudo-scientific metrical mumbo-jumbo. F. H. Whitman's Comparative Study is 1993's contribution. It merits serious attention, but fails to map out a coherent theory.

The author's method is a comparative one, and his starting point is the fact that accentual alliterative verse is found not only in Old English, but in Old Irish and, probably, Old Latin too. Through the analysis of the last and the first of these, Whitman tries, so he says in his preface, to cast light upon `primitive metrical patterns that might underlie the three traditions' (viii). The exclusion of Old Irish from the subsequent discussion is, accordingly, curious, and compromises the whole endeavour. In the heart of the book -- the chapters on stressed openings in Sievers's Types B and C, light verses, and clashing stress in Old English -- the comparative method virtually disappears and the Latin verse discussed in the opening chapter is nearly forgotten. A central problem with this work, then, is that its diverse parts are not clearly enough welded together by the proposed comparative approach, which demanded a more thorough introduction. How much less likely is it, for example, that Old English had clashing stress because it is rare or non-existent in Saturnian and non-Saturnian poetry, which was written so long before and so far away from Beowulfs date and place of composition? Whitman postulates an underlying Indo-European metrical principle of alternating stresses which was obfuscated in Old English by the loss of unstressed stem vowels between stressed lexemes, especially compounded ones. If, however, Anglo-Saxon poets were as deeply averse to proximate stresses, as Whitman supposes Indo-Europeans to have been, it is surprising that they did not artificially preserve such unstressed syllables in their compositions in order to avoid the clash, or make greater use of prepositions and demonstratives for the same purpose. If we compare Beowulf with AElfric's rhythmical prose, we find far less clashing stress in the latter, together with greatly increased use of prepositions and demonstratives. This comparison suggests that the evidence of Old Latin -- however interesting in itself -- tells us little or nothing about Sievers's Types C,D,and E.

Whitman's new paradigm is an adaptation of Pope's rhythmical theory. He agrees with Pope that the feet in a half-line are of equal duration, but departs from this model by arguing that half-lines are not all of equal duration, some having two feet and others three, and also in his view that foot boundaries need not coincide with word boundaries. Although the variation in the number of syllables to a foot is rarely as great as in Pope's theory, Whitman's is still open to one of the standard objections to isochronous models: how can monosyllabic and multisyllabic feet be articulated in the same (or roughly the same) time period without either the monosyllabic feet drawled out to an implausible degree, or multisyllabic feet ludicrously gabbled? For example, in Whitman's scansion of Beowulf 9b-10a, there are four feet: ymb/ sittendra ofer/ hron/ race. So, we must believe that the single syllable of the first foot ymb has equal duration to the five syllables of the second sittendra ofer! Because foot and word boundaries need not coincide, Whitman scans verses like geong in geardum and range hwile identically, both having two disyllabic feet, but, as Bliss rightly observed, double alliteration is nearly compulsory in the first type, but optional in the second, appearing in only a third of possible instances. This difference in word structure is marked by the poets, but is ignored by Whitman who scarcely ever mentions the evidence of alliteration as a guide to the metre. Though it is possible that extra alliteration is governed solely by syntax rather than metrical rule, recent work on the metrical grammar of Old English poetry (especially that of Kendall) has demonstrated the interdependence of the two. The author does not mention Kendall's book, nor Kuhn's Laws on which so much of Kendall's work depends, and this is especially damaging because the central chapters here focus on verse-clause openings in Sievers's Types B and C, and light verses, and Kuhn's Laws are concerned almost exclusively with the opening of the verse-clause.
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Author:Griffith, Mark
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1995
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