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Review of  The Metre of Beowulf

Reviewer: Marc Pierce
Book Title: The Metre of Beowulf
Book Author: Michael G Getty
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English, Old
Issue Number: 14.693

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Date: Thu, 6 Mar 2003 19:38:19 -0500 (EST)
From: Marc Pierce
Subject: The Metre of Beowulf. A Constraint-Based Approach

Getty, Michael (2002) The Metre of Beowulf. A Constraint-Based Approach.
Mouton de Gruyter, hardback ISBN 3-11-017105-8, vi + 368pp, 88 Euros,
Topics in English Linguistics 36.

Reviewed by Marc Pierce, University of Michigan

Old English meter, especially the meter of Beowulf, undoubtedly
the most famous Old English poem, has been, and continues to be, an
exceptionally popular object of study. In the last fifteen years or so,
for instance, a number of relevant monographs have appeared, including the
following (and this list is by no means exhaustive): Russom (1987, 1998),
Creed (1990), Fulk (1992), Suzuki (1996), and Blockley (2001). Numerous
articles and reviews have also appeared, of which I would (somewhat
arbitrarily) single out Stockwell (1996), which nicely summarizes several
current controversies, Stockwell and Minkova (1997), which provides a good
general overview, and the useful review article by Fortson (1998). The
volume under consideration here, a revised version of a 1998 Stanford
dissertation, is a valuable addition to the already massive body of
literature on Old English metrics, as well as to the growing body of
literature on constraint-based metrics (cf. Hayes and MacEachern 1998,
Golston 1998, and Golston and Riad 2000, among others).

After a brief preface and table of contents, the volume proper
gets under way with Chapter 1, 'Introduction' (1-76). In this chapter,
Getty first discusses a number of preliminary issues, including the aims
of the volume, and the intended audience. Following these brief remarks,
Getty sketches the approach of his work and the application of Optimality
Theory (OT) to poetry, before reviewing "Sieversian" analyses of Old
English alliterative verse, concentrating on Sievers (1893), Kuhn (1933),
and Bliss (1958). The next section revolves around the strong claim that
"[g]iven a set of assumptions about which words were stressed and
unstressed in Old English, ... it is possible to understand the metre
while still maintaining these stress properties, in all metrical contexts,
all the time" (52), which involves a rejection of earlier assumptions that
maintained that some types of words were inherently less stressed than
others. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the materials used (a
sample of 1000 long lines, taken in four equal portions from various
sections of the poem, from an electronic edition of the poem).

Chapter 2, 'The stress phonology of Old English' (79-158),
examines the thorny problem of stress assignment in Old English. Getty
notes that most analyses of Old English stress have relied on the stress
patterns reconstructed in Campbell (1959), which, however, "[w]hen held up
against cross-linguistic examination ... comes across as baffling,
inconsistent, and typologically unattested" (79). Getty argues that these
complex stress patterns can be replaced by the following general
principles: (1) initial syllables bear primary stress (except for verbal
prefixes); (2) non-initial heavy syllables, as well as all stressable
initial syllables of secondary conjuncts, bear secondary stress; and (3)
all other syllables are unstressed. Getty then reviews a number of
previous analyses of Old English stress, before presenting an OT analysis
of Old English stress is then presented. He first lays out the
constraints he proposes to use, and then demonstrates how they can
interact by means of a brief analysis of Finnish stress, before turning to
Old English. He next discusses phrasal stress in Old English, and finally
briefly summarizes the arguments presented in the chapter.

Chapter 3, 'Metrical structure at the foot level: Part I'
(161-208), turns to Beowulf. Here Getty discusses how OT analyses of
meter must formally diverge from OT analyses of prose, and then examines
how a generative theory of Old English meter must diverge from analyses of
contemporary meters. Following these discussions, Getty describes how the
metrical types of Sievers (1885, 1893) can be represented in his theory.
The bulk of the chapter argues persuasively in favor of the following four
proposals: (1) the maximum size of a metrical position is that of a
phonological foot, (2) metrical feet are invariably left-strong, (3)
phonologically weak syllables may not occupy strong metrical positions,
and (4) heavy stressed syllables in polysyllabic words may not occupy weak
metrical positions.

Chapter 4, 'Metrical structure at the foot level: Part II'
(209-254), builds on the discussion presented in Chapter 3. This chapter
addresses, among other things, the role of the listener in the meter of
Beowulf. Getty argues that variation in the meter, taken together with
the fact that it was presented orally, entails that many lines in Beowulf
can have more than one possible metrical structure. Further, since the
audience had to parse the poem, metrical patterns should reflect the
"cognitive complexity of this task" (209). And indeed they seem to do so.
For instance, compounds are much more frequent at the right edge of
a-lines (the difference is statistically significant), which, Getty
argues, supports the idea that in a-lines, the use of compounds
compensates for ambiguities in half-line boundaries introduced by
violations of an ALIGNMENT constraint mandating that the head of a
phonological word be aligned with the left margin of a metrical foot

Chapter 5, 'Metrical structure at the level of the half-line and
long-line' (257-302), offers two modifications to the formal structures
employed so far. First, the strong-weak alternation present at the level
of terminal positions is extended to all higher levels of metrical
structure, in order to reflect alliteration patterns. Second, Getty
modifies his representation of metrical feet and half-lines, by using a
different mode of representation for tenary-branching feet, which enables
a better formulation of constraints on alliteration. A thorough discussion
of alliteration, including such issues as how to represent it within a
constraint system and its distribution, is then offered. In the remainder
of the chapter, Getty examines the frequency of metrical patterns, with
regard to binary- and ternary-branching half-lines. Here he returns to
the idea proposed in Chapter 4, namely that "the evaluation and selection
of metrical outputs is guided by limits on reception and metrical parsing
by an audience of listeners" (272). He argues that the Beowulf poet aimed
to avoid metrical ambiguity -- a drive that conflicted with a
meta-constraint FIT(SYS). This constraint, a version of a constraint
originally argued for by Hanson and Kiparsky (1996), holds that
"[l]anguages select metres in which their entire vocabularies are usable
in the greatest variety of ways" (241). This conflict resulted in the
metrical variability and complexity characteristic of Beowulf.

Chapter 6, 'Conclusion' (305-329), summarizes the findings of the
previous five chapters. Following this summary, Getty turns to the
interaction of the metrical system of Beowulf and Old English syntax,
specifically verb placement -- another perennially popular topic (cf.
Pintzuk 1993, 1999 and van Kemenade 1997, among others), and one Getty
himself had addressed earlier (Getty 1997). Essentially, Getty argues
that V2 syntax is favored by the meter in the cases of monosyllabic or
light-stemmed disyllabic forms of the relevant verbs, since this avoids
ternary-branching half-lines. In contrast, V2 syntax is dispreferred by
the meter in the case of heavy-stemmed polysyllabic forms. The concluding
section of the chapter discusses Stochastic OT (Boersma 1997, among

Getty has contributed an important, highly-readable, work to the
study of Old English metrics. He has faced the difficult task of writing
a work with two potential audiences (generativists interested in Old
English alliterative verse and metrists looking for an alternative to
traditional approaches to Germanic metrics), and has done a generally
excellent job of it. While a number of issues will remain controversial,
his solutions are invariably careful and thought-provoking. A case in
point is his discussion of Kaluza's Law (Kaluza 1896), which notes that
etymological factors can influence resolution, presented in Chapter 4.
Getty argues that Kaluza's Law can be formulated in terms of a constraint
FTMAX, which bans phonological feet containing more than two moras.
Essentially, Kaluza's Law avoids a violation of FTMAX within a single
metrical position. The question of how Kaluza's Law should be accounted
for in Old English, where the conditioning factors are no longer present,
remains open, however. (Getty points out that Kaluza's Law resembles such
morphologized phenomena as umlaut and breaking, and suggests that this may
be the key to a solution.)

The volume itself is hardcover and quite sturdy. There is a
handful of typographical errors, which are invariably minor and
self-correcting. Some of the tables and figures spill over on to a second
page (although in some cases this is unavoidable, because of the length of
the table or figure). Finally, more care should have been taken in the
compilation of the references; a number of works cited in the text are not
listed in the references, e.g., Dresher (1978), Faulkes (1991), Golston
(1991), Hanson (1991), Riad (1992), Kiparsky (1998), and Hammond (1999).
These quibbles, however, do not detract from the genuinely high quality of
the work.

Bliss, Alan. 1958. The metre of Beowulf. Oxford: Blackwell.
Blockley, Mary. 2001. Aspects of Old English poetic syntax: Where
clauses begin. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Boersma, Paul. 1997. How we learn variation, optionality, and
probability. Proceedings of the Institute of Phonetic Sciences of
the University of Amsterdam 21: 43-58.
Campbell, Alistair. 1959. Old English grammar. Oxford: Clarendon.
Creed, Robert. 1990. Reconstructing the rhythm of Beowulf. Columbia,
MO: University of Missouri Press.
Fortson, Benjamin W., IV. 1998. Some new work on old problems. The
meter of Beowulf. Diachronica XV: 325-337.
Fulk, Robert D. 1992. A history of Old English meter. Philadelphia, PA:
University of Pennsylvania Press.
Getty, Michael. 1997. Was finite verb placement in Germanic prosodically
conditioned?: Evidence from Beowulf and Heliand. Journal of English
and Germanic Philology 96: 155-181.
Golston, Chris. 1998. Constraint-based metrics. Natural Language and
Linguistic Theory 16: 719-770.
_____ and Tomas Riad. 2000. The phonology of Classical Greek meter.
Linguistics 38: 99-167.
Hanson, Kristin and Paul Kiparsky. 1996. A parametric theory of poetic
meter. Language 72: 287-334.
Hayes, Bruce P. and Margaret MacEachern. 1998. Quatrain form in English
folk verse. Language 74: 473-507.
Kaluza, Max. 1896. Zur Betonungs- und Verslehre des Altenglischen. In:
Festschrift zum siebzigsten Geburtstage Oskar Schade. Koenigsberg:
Hartung. Pp. 101-133.
Kuhn, Hans. 1933. Zur Wortstellung und -betonung im Altgermanischen.
Beitraege zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 57:
Pintzuk, Susan. 1993. Verb-seconding in Old English: Verb movement to
Infl. The Linguistic Review 10: 5-35.
_____. 1999. Phrase structures in competition: Variation and change in
Old English word order. New York: Garland.
Russom, Geoffrey. 1987. Old English meter and linguistic theory.
Cambridge: CUP.
_____. 1998. Beowulf and old Germanic metre. Cambridge: CUP.
Sievers, Eduard. 1885. Zur Rhythmik des germanischen Alliterationverses.
Beitraege zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur 10:
209-314, 451-545.
_____. 1893. Altgermanische Metrik. Halle: Niemeyer.
Stockwell, Robert P. 1996. On recent theories of metrics and rhythm in
Beowulf. In: English historical metrics. Edited by C.B.
McCully and J.J. Anderson. Cambridge: CUP. Pp. 73-94.
_____ and Donka Minkova. 1997. Prosody. In: A Beowulf handbook. Edited
by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, NE: Univ. of Nebraska
Press. Pp. 55-83.
Suzuki, Seiichi. 1996. The metrical organization of Beowulf. Prototype
and isomorphism. Berlin: de Gruyter.
van Kemenade, Ans. 1997. V2 and embedded topicalization in Old and
Middle English. In: Parameters of morphosyntactic change. Edited
by Ans van Kemenade and Nigel Vincent. Cambridge: CUP. Pp.

Marc Pierce is a lecturer in Germanic Languages and Classics at the University of Michigan. His research interests include historical linguistics, phonology, and Germanic linguistics.