How do you know a poem when you see one? This was the question I set for myself as a Text Technologies Fellow. I study medieval English poetry, and I am interested in how poetic texts become intelligible as poems, both for medieval practitioners and for modern scholars. Exploring this question means coordinating between several kinds of evidence: lexical, literary, metrical, and codicological (relating to the construction of medieval books). It turns out that the idea of a poem has a history: the medieval English poetic field was organized in a rather different way from its modern counterpart. My broadest goal for this research is to suggest how medieval ideas about poetry could be plugged back into the intellectual history of poetics that skips from, say, Aristotle to George Puttenham.
During my time at Stanford, I approached these questions through the study of one particular manuscript, the Old English Exeter Book. The Exeter Book is the richest source for English poetry before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. To put this in perspective: around 200 Old English poems survive, and the Exeter Book contains 130 of them. I made significant progress on an article arguing that some poetic texts in this manuscript counted as ‘poems’ in the minds of the manuscript’s makers and users, while others did not. One section of the article concerns a widely anthologized set of short poems: the Husband’s Message, the Ruin, the Wife’s Lament, and Wulf and Eadwacer (often grouped together as ‘elegies’), plus 96 enigmatic texts titled Riddles by modern editors. I arrived at two conclusions. First, these 100 texts all pertain to the same category, modern genre terms and titles notwithstanding. Second, this category was something other than ‘poem,’ at least for the compiler and scribe of the Exeter Book. I am grateful to Elaine Treharne and Stanford Text Technologies for the opportunity to investigate the intellectual nuances of early English poetic cultures.
While at Stanford, I also workshopped my essay, “Before Prosody: Early English Poetics in Practice and Theory,” with the Workshop in Poetics. This essay uses the case of English alliterative verse (the verse form of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) to bring a longer historical perspective to recent critical debates about the contextualization of English poetics. The essay improved as a result of the rich conversation in the Workshop, and as of November 2015 it is forthcoming in Modern Language Quarterly.