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Line Length in Old English Poetry: A Chronological and Stylistic Criterion

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This article presents the first systematic, quantitative assessment of line length in Old English poetry. Its aim is to determine whether line length can be used as a reliable criterion in studies pertaining to relative chronology and authorship attribution. Our findings indicate that line length is a rather complicated criterion, which is affected not only by language change, but also by subject matter and other non-linguistic variables. Nevertheless, we conclude that critical application of the criterion of line length can yield substantial insights into the dating and authorship of Old English poetry.

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  1. The text of Beowulf is cited throughout from Fulk et al. (2008); translations are cited throughout from Fulk (2010). The texts of all other Old English poems are cited from the editions of Krapp and Dobbie (1931–1953).

  2. The four-position principle originates with Sievers (1885). For recent expositions, see Terasawa (2011) and Pascual (2016).

  3. For the most comprehensive presentation of this argument, see Russom (2017); also relevant are Russom’s anticipatory studies (2002, 2004). For context about the debates into which Russom’s work intervened, see Pascual (2017).

  4. For discussion of the literary-historical implications of this approximate chronology, see Shippey (1993).

  5. In his edition of Judith, Mark Griffith reviews the pertinent metrical, linguistic, and stylistic dating criteria and concludes only that they are “consistent with the poem being late ninth or tenth century in date” (1997: 47). His discussion illustrates well how these criteria are to be evaluated.

  6. See Lapidge (2000, 2006), Russom (2002, 2017), Cronan (2004), Bredehoft (2014), Hartman (2014b), Neidorf and Pascual (2014), Ecay and Pintzuk (2016), and Neidorf (2018). See also the overview of recent chronological research in Neidorf (2016b).

  7. We omitted poems under 100 lines in length on the grounds of inadequate sample size. We found that the elimination of shorter poems produced a more easily legible figure, with less mud for the reader to wade through. We also omitted unpaired half-lines from our calculations (on the assumption that they result from scribal error). We performed our analyses using the text files of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (Krapp and Dobbie 1931–1953) hosted online by the University of Virginia at (last accessed 28 December 2018).

  8. Karasawa, the poem’s most recent editor, dates it to the late tenth century and remarks: “The Menologium has been considered of late southern origin, and in fact there is nothing in the poem that strongly suggests otherwise” (2015: 70).

  9. A similar conclusion might be drawn about the Metrical Psalms of the Paris Psalter, some of which cluster with archaic and Cynewulfian poems rather than late poems. Additionally, the connection between the psalms and the glossarial tradition might explain why some psalms have relatively lower averages.

  10. We observe below a correlation between direct speech and an elevation in the average number of words per line.

  11. We followed the list in Bliss (1967: 162–168) when distinguishing hypermetric from non-hypermetric verses in Maxims I.

  12. A similar statement can be made about Widsith, which has been regarded as one of the earliest extant poems (cf. Neidorf 2013), yet it exhibits a relatively high average number of words per line (5.91). Subject matter is the obvious reason for this unexpected result. The poem’s catalogues of proper names contain sequences of exceptionally long lines, such as Mid Englum ic wæs ond mid Swæfum ond mid ænenum (61), which artificially swell the average. Likewise, the position of Dream of the Rood initially appears exceptional, since part of the poem must be as old as the inscription on the Ruthwell Cross (ca. 750); the aberration in this case is to be explained not only by the poem’s frequent use of hypermetrics, but also by the probable involvement of a later poet, who appears to have revised and augmented the original work (see Neidorf 2016c).

  13. Proponents of tripartite authorship include Schücking (1905), Magoun (1958, 1963); and, most recently, Kiernan (1981). For literary objections to this line of argument, see Brodeur (1970).

  14. This is the argument of Liuzza (1995), which is built upon the theory of scribal behavior propounded by O’Brien O’Keeffe (1990). For a competing view of scribal behavior, see Orton (2000). For an array of arguments against theories of composite authorship or scribal intervention, see Neidorf (2017: §§161–188). For another quantitative approach to the questions at hand, see Drout et al. (2016).

  15. On the variation of metrical types in Old English poetry, see Bliss (1962), Cable (1981), Fulk (1996), and Russom (2002).


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We thank Wang Shouren, Yang Jincai, Wang Jinghua, He Ning, Chen Bing, and all of our other colleagues at Nanjing University who have supported our Old English research group. We also thank R.D. Fulk, Megan Hartman, Rafael J. Pascual, and Geoffrey Russom for helpfully commenting on the draft of this article.

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Correspondence to Leonard Neidorf.

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Neidorf, L., Zhao, Y. & Yu, J. Line Length in Old English Poetry: A Chronological and Stylistic Criterion. Neophilologus 103, 561–575 (2019).

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