Reconstructing an oral tradition: problems in the comparative metrical analysis of Old English, Old Saxon and Old Norse alliterative verse



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The focus of this dissertation is the refinement of comparative metrical analysis, i.e. the comparison of related poetic forms with the goal to reconstruct the form of their common origin. By attempting the reconstruction of early medieval poetry, we can hope to gain a sense of the form of the oral poetic tradition prior to the introduction of writing into these literary cultures. However, the application of the Comparative Method of historical linguistics must be refined before it can be applied to poetic forms. This study uses three case studies to highlight the deficiencies in the Comparative Method as applied to poetry. These case studies, the first on the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European verse form, the second a comparison of metrical anomalies in Old English and Old Saxon verse, and the third a comparison of an Old Norse verse form, known as the dróttkvætt, with certain metrical constructions in Old English and Old Saxon. The first case study, which refutes the reconstruction of a hypothesized ProtoIndo-European verse, reveals that one must seek arbitrary points of comparison, since many structural similarities in verses are the result of non-arbitrary factors. The third chapter compares the anomalous heavy hypermetric verse form in Old Saxon and Old English and concludes that, despite the similarity, one cannot guarantee that it existed also in the Common Germanic poetic tradition. The third chapter argues that the Old Norse dróttkvætt verse of the Vikings is most likely historically related to the Old English and Old Saxon hypermetric verse, despite the dissimilarity between the two. The final chapter of the dissertation puts forth a reconstruction of the Common Germanic hypermetric poetic line and, on the basis of the reconstruction, argues for a revision of the metrical models describing the structure of Old English hypermetric verses. Key points for refinement of the Comparative Method for verse include the need to find arbitrary points of comparison and the need to analyze contextualized marginal forms of verse. Despite the limitations of the Comparative Method in metrical analysis, we can nonetheless gain a sense of the form of the lost oral poetic traditions of the early Germanic languages.