The Syntax of Beowulf: Word Order, Poetic Meter, and Formulaic Technique in the Old English Verse Clause
By Geoffrey Russom
This study integrates important discoveries about syntax, meter, and oral-formulaic composition to interpret striking differences between Old English poetry and prose, including many differences that have previously evaded detection. The prehistory of English word order is traced from about 300 BCE, when alliterative meter was born, to the era of Beowulf (about 700 CE). Evolution of poetic word order is then explained as a response to syntactic evolution –– a response significantly delayed by formulaic poets who valued their ancient technique. An analysis is provided for every clause in Beowulf, with each concrete example accompanied by verse numbers for all similar examples. Russom’s integrated approach brings to light general principles of verse structure and formulaic composition that apply in other languages and other poetic traditions. An important feature of the work is its abandonment of Hans Kuhn’s controversial definition of the verse clause in favor of a straightforward linguistic definition. A simplified approach to punctuation provides more accurate representations of poetic syntax that turn out to be more readable as well.
Old English poetry, Verse Structure, Historical English Linguistics, Generative Syntax, Linguistic Typology, Oral-Formulaic Theory
About the Author
GEOFFREY RUSSOM has published numerous books and articles on ancient Northwest European languages, literatures, and cultures. His work on alliterative meters brings to light general principles of verse structure that apply in quite various poetic traditions. Russom is best known for a theory that units of poetic form (metrical positions, feet, half-lines, lines, etc.) are based on units of linguistic form (syllables, words, phrases, sentences, etc.). His research draws on current work in generative syntax and linguistic typology; and he repays his debt to these fields by providing metrical evidence for linguistic claims that are difficult to support with evidence of any other kind.