The Accentual Paradigm

An excerpt from my article “The Accentual Paradigm in Early English Metrics,” which has now appeared in JEGP. I seek to show how Old English poetry first came to be regarded as “accentual” or “strong stress” in nineteenth-century scholarship, and how this thesis has developed since then.

Following Yakovlev’s work, a fresh assessment of our field’s organizing assumptions is both newly possible and newly urgent. In the present case, this means returning to the opening decades of the nineteenth century. For it was then, aided by the new sciences of comparative and historical philology, that moderns first determined that the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons was accentual, based in the patterning of stressed and unstressed syllables. Henceforth the fall of accents would be analogized to the natural and energetic pulses of walking, finger tapping, and breathing. These pulses would eventually be seen to construct a minimal set of accentual contours and the contours would, in turn, be taken to define the meter and guide study of it. I will call this the “accentual paradigm in early English metrics.” In doing so, I use the word “paradigm” in the sense given to it by Kuhn and succinctly expressed by the editors of the OED: “a conceptual or methodological model underlying the theories and practices of a science or discipline at a particular time” (OED 4). The accentual paradigm has been a conceptual and methodological model underlying the discipline of English metrics since its nineteenth-century inception. As such, the paradigm’s force has extended beyond any of its individual instantiations; it has remained current even as the individual theories and scansions generated by it have been revised and refuted.

Several decades ago, Jürgen Kühnel wrote an elegant and engaging history of the scholarship on medieval Germanic meters, a precursor to the one attempted here. Kühnel’s accomplishment was to tell a disciplinary history centered on the ways that successive generations of researchers formulated problems. Research progress in the intervening decades makes it desirable to repeat Kühnel’s experiment, this time with a sharper focus on the emergence, consolidation and subsequent elaborations of the accentual paradigm in early English metrics.

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