Regularizing Rhythms: Meter as Prescription in Ninth-Century German

Katerina Somers


In this article I investigate meter as a linchpin in the process by which a ninth-century literary culture encroaches on a long-standing oral tradition. I focus on two ninth-century texts, the Old Saxon Hêliand by an unknown poet and Otfrid von Weissenburg’s Frankish Liber Evangeliorum. Both poets tell the story of the life of Christ, but the motivations behind their texts are different. The Hêliand is intended for recalcitrant Saxons, who still required some convincing that being a Christian subject of the Carolingian empire was a desirable state of affairs. In contrast, Otfrid self-consciously attempts to produce one of the German language’s first great works of literature. I argue that their contrasting goals lead the poets to lean more heavily on one of the two main language traditions of the day—the Hêliand poet on the Germanic oral tradition and Otfrid on the Latinate tradition of literacy—and that this relationship has a direct influence on the poems’ rhythms. In the case of the Hêliand, the poet composes in alliterative verse, whose loose meter is rooted in spoken Germanic and, thus, accommodates its rhythms perfectly. This choice has the effect of rendering the Gospel story less culturally alien to the Saxons. Otfrid, on the other hand, creates his own Latin-influenced rhyming verse, whose meter constrains and regularizes the rhythms of his spoken Frankish. This abstraction away from vernacular rhythms represents the monk’s attempt to prescribe good written Frankish as something apart from the pagan sounds of the oral tradition. (KS)

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