Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

On Footprints and Poetic Feet

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

On Footprints and Poetic Feet

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY PURSUES TWO INTERRELATED QUESTIONS, both of them about feet and how they variously permit and constitute textual and geographic passages. The first concerns the fleshliness encoded in the idea of "poetic feet" and asks how use or knowledge of the prosodic terminology might have shaped medieval understandings of the nature of poetry, in particular its relation to categories of the incorporeal and corporeal, or the spirit and the flesh. By locating a potential frisson in measuring poetry through a fleshly metaphor, I do not mean to assume a preexisting binary between textuality and corporality. Medievalists have demonstrated the ways in which interpretation employed bodily metaphors, with proper reading passing through the carnal text toward a more spiritual truth. (1) But "feet" as a quantity used to measure poetry often seems to work differently than these suggestions of the carnal, obfuscating letter through which the discerning reader must pass. The insistent yet playful sense of physicality attending the idea of poetic feet suggests that the flesh will not be transcended through an engagement with poetry. Poetic feet are not seen through or discarded; rather, they must be accounted for, or counted; they are the body part from which poetry does not shake free.

Secondly, the essay considers descriptions and appearances of non-prosodic feet in medieval poetry, prose, and imagery, investigating how these might be related, even obliquely, to the metaphoric feet that measure poetic syllables or stress. The importance Christian sacred narrative places upon feet--those that breach the gates of Eden, travel roads, leave miraculous prints, become wounded, and break the frames of manuscript illumination--makes a space for prose writers to link that body part to the creation of narrative, even without the formal excuse or resource of meter. This is not to insistently divide poetry from prose, or poetic form from sacred plot, since certain works, I suggest, imbue the foot with a devotional charge not wholly unrelated to the implied fleshliness of prosodic terminology. The sacred plot that hinges on the incarnation of the Word produces and exists as a result of a literary environment whose vocabulary hints at its own incarnational desire: the imaginative wish for ordinary textual output to take flesh, feet first.

According to this sacred history, footfall also initiates narrative: Adam and Eve step beyond the limits of the garden into a dangerous, temporal world, an inner poetic or narrative restlessness manifesting itself as a rhythmic passage across the fallen ground. A medieval commonplace encourages one to apprehend life as a journey, whether pilgrimage or exile, (2) and the commencement of that journey, begun by the fall, is also a fall into language. (3) I am interested in how medieval texts approach the connection between steps and words that such a logic proposes: both rhythmic steps that measure meter, and narrative that insistently conjures the body. This body, the essay shows, marks out narrative limits, crisscrossing the earth in travelogues or stamping out the borders of the known world, but it also is conjured by the trace marked upon the ground or page, and strains to take flesh again through that commemorative print.

The rest of the introduction provides an overview of the ways in which feet appear, disappear, and variously structure and function in classical and medieval texts. The survey is wide ranging, but hardly exhaustive; it is meant simply to suggest the frequency and centrality of feet and their prints in narratives important to the medieval period. The subsequent two sections offer more sustained readings, the first on Dantes Inferno and the second on Mandeville's Travels; these correspond respectively to the two questions about prosodic and less metaphoric feet. I do not offer paradigms for how feet function in poetry and prose, but suggest possibilities for how we might understand their meanings in these different forms, and ultimately how prosodic vocabulary, understandings of embodiment, and poetic sensibilities might be shown to intersect. …

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