A postcolonial reading of Beowulf?

imgp3949I’ve done a great deal of work over the past year on Beowulf, not only on a new translation of the poem but also on the apparatus to run alongside the translation. Recently, too, I put together a talk on ‘Conrad, Beowulf and the Other’ which begins to explore a possible post-colonial reading of Beowulf. (This talk was constructed partly in response to a very good seminar question that Jeremy Solnick asked in 2014.) As it happens, I think constructing a post-colonial reading of Beowulf might well be provocative, but ultimately – and because of the fact that the poem’s monsters are variously described as wanderers, as exiles and/or have no settled habitation – unsatisfying. You may of course disagree. Here’s the relevant talk, presented as a Powerpoint: beowulf-conrad-and-the-other


‘Thinking home’ – the recordings

The Essex Record Office and Essex Book Festival have made their recordings of talks and discussions themed around ‘Thinking home’ at this year’s Essex Book Festival available to everyone. You can hear the recordings by clicking on https://soundcloud.com/essex-record-office/sets/essex-book-festival-thinking-home-event. Recordings include dialogues on migration and panel discussions of home and homelessness as well as a talk on ‘home’ as this is represented and explored Homein the early English epic, Beowulf.

[Thanks to Sanja Bahun and all involved in developing this work.]

Baker Day

J.A. Baker imageJ.A. Baker (1926-1987) is best known for his work The Peregrine (1967), a work which has been called ‘the gold standard of English nature writing’. A website devoted to Baker’s work can be found on http://jabaker.co.uk/

J.A. Baker’s archive, which includes correspondence, poems and other material, can be found in the Albert Sloman Library here at the University of Essex. A computer-readable description of the holdings was produced this year – please click on http://libwww.essex.ac.uk/Archives/JABAKERARCHIVE.pdf

Staff and students from the MA in Wild Writing (and elsewhere) will gather on 6th July 2016 to celebrate and explore Baker’s life and work and to mark the official opening of the Baker archive. This event is open to the public and all are welcome. A provisional programme together with contact details can be found here: JAB draft programme – edit2



Metrics symposium, University of Essex

It’s been too long since I’ve been able to update this blog. One of the biggest pieces of news from the past year has been the successful hosting of a symposium on metrics here at the University of Essex. Participants were Donka Minkova (UCLA), Kristin Hanson (UCBerkeley), Ad Putter (Bristol), Martin Duffell (formerly of Queen Mary, London) and Chris McCully (Essex). Here we are hard at work in Wivenhoe House:

WorkThe following papers were presented:

McCully, ‘Closure’ (an examination of closure constraints in a variety of metrical and freed forms)

Minkova, ‘Prosody, poetic inheritance and early metrical practice’ (the last being an examination of metrical practice ‘as a window into the social and cultural circumstances of text production and consumption in Middle English’)

Hanson, ‘Description and theory and the nature  of metrical art’ (wide-ranging paper which offered inter alia an examination of parameters and constraints in Shakespeare’s dramatic and non-dramatic pentameters)

Putter, ‘Linguistic stress and metrical stress in alliterative and non-alliterative verse’ (focusing on metrical and editorial practice in varieties of medieval and early Modern verse)

Duffell, ‘Word-dancers and wallflowers’ (a paper surveying work in the field, and problems arising from it, since 1991; main focus on medieval and early Modern verse)

and we also discussed a number of ways and means that might help us (and possibly the wider academic community) move forward on the study of prosody and verseform. Looking back, the whiteboard on which we sketched some of our discussions proved to be hugely significant –

Flipchart workshop– and I particularly liked the fact that our notes are headed by the word ‘freedom’. You’ll see we also discussed problems such as circularity of reasoning, the nature of metrical evidence, and that perennially interesting topic, metrical fuzziness. If it’s of interest, you’ll find a draft of Chris’s presentation here under the ‘Work in progress’ tab.

Metrics symposium 2015

Joshua Steele (1779) and English prosody


Today I’ve added a link (under ‘Critical Works – General works on English verseform’) to Joshua Steele’s great 18th century essay on English prosody, Prosodia Rationalis (2nd edition, 1779). As I suspected, Steele was one of the first if not the first to admit (and analyse) the existence of silent beats into his analysis of English speech and verse structure.You may read Steele’s text on-line by clicking the relevant link.

A note on silent beats



It can be extraordinarily difficult to get those beginning their studies of poetic form to hear silent beats (= rhythmically salient pauses) even though such filled silences are present everywhere – in popular songs, poems, even in unmarked forms of discourse. Such silent beats are also structural features of some variations on ballad form: in Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, for instance, silent beats function as line-end markers in lines 2 and 4 of every stanza, indicated by the caret ^ in the following:

The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,

The furrow followed free ^

We were the first that ever burst

Into that silent sea ^

Ask people to say how many rhythmical beats lines 2 and 4 have and almost invariably they’ll say ‘three’ – even though this deployment of the ballad form is underlyingly four-beat throughout.

I suppose the most famous salient pause in history is that occurring on the first beat of Beethoven’s 5th symphony (score fragment above, image from wikipedia). It always disconcerts me – as it was supposed to disconcert me – that this most eloquent musical exploration of defiant tenderness actually begins with…silence.

At present I’m engaged in trying to discover which analyst was the first in the history of English letters to describe such silent beats, and my researches are taking me back to Joshua Steele’s  An Essay towards establishing the Melody and Measure of Speech to be expressed and perpetuated by certain Symbols, which he published in 1775. I’m not saying that Steele was the first to descibe salient pauses but his work is still worth consulting by those interested in the rhythmicity of English, and I hope to post his Essay shortly as part of those critical works accessible through this website. Watch this space. CBMcC