The Metre of Beowulf: A Constraint-Based Approach

The Metre of Beowulf: A Constraint-Based Approach

The Metre of Beowulf: A Constraint-Based Approach

The Metre of Beowulf: A Constraint-Based Approach


This book presents a novel treatment of the metre of Beowulf, an Old English epic poem of uncertain date and origin which is nonetheless considered one of the gems of Germanic Alliterative Verse. Building on recent advances in generative linguistics, the analysis presented in this book offers compelling explanations for a wide range of metrical phenomena that have been observed but only poorly understood for over a century.


This book is an extensively revised version of my 1998 doctoral thesis, A Constraint-Based Approach to the Meter of Beowulf. My work on this topic began in 1996 as an attempt to account for differences in the realization of verb-second (V2) syntax between Old English prose and alliterative poetry.

To account for the differences I was finding - see Chapter 6 for details -I needed insights into the metre of Old English alliterative poetry which turned out to unobtainable in the established research on the topic. When I encountered the idea of a constraint-based approach to Old English metre at the pre-dissertation oral examination of Chang-Young Sohn at Stanford University in October of 1996,I knew that this paradigm would yield some answers.

To account for the disparities in V2 syntax between poetry and prose, however, I developed an approach to the metre of Beowulf that turned out to be distinct both from Sohn's work on the subject and from earlier, then-unpublished work in constraint-based metrics on which it was based (see Sohn 1998, Golston 1998, and references therein). At a certain point, I also understood that researchers concentrating on Germanic alliterative verse would place an extraordinary burden of proof on any new approach that happened to reject most of the tenets on which the broader consensus on the verse was based (see Chapter 1 for discussion). This understanding, along with the staggering complexity of the data from Beowulf, meant that my approach needed nothing less than a dissertationlength presentation in its own right. I have returned to the subject of V2 syntax – concentrating only on Beowulf – in Chapter 6 of the present volume.

The revisions I have undertaken on the original thesis are farreaching and owe much of their substance to the advice of friends and colleagues who patiently counseled me at different points over the past few years: Elan Dresher, Nila Friedberg, Rob Fulk, Donka Minkova, Tomas Riad, Geoffrey Russom, Robert Stockwell, and an anonymous reviewer for Mouton de Gruyter. I offer my thanks as well to Gabriella Corona for checking my translations of Beowulf.

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