Real Formalism, Real Historicism

Eric Weiskott

I presented a short paper at the MLA in Vancouver, in a roundtable session entitled “‘Real’ Old English?” I reproduce the paper in full here:

In the next seven minutes, I would like to convince you that real formalism and real historicism really are, or really should be, one and the same critical practice. Our idea of what counts as knowledge about early English literature will be enriched by integrating formalist and historicist methods. Those of us who work on prosody and poetics are used to being admonished that formalism needs to be historicist. I agree. But I am equally interested in affirming that historicism needs to be formalist.

Here are two concrete examples of the opportunity for methodological integration, drawn from my research on the alliterative tradition. First, the most famous theory of Old English meter, Sievers’s Five Types, is an ahistorical formalism. It prescribes the same metrical norms…

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