Corinne Kenwood / Sun Staff Photographer

Visiting Prof. Seth Lerer delivers the annual M.H. Abrams Lecture in Goldwin Smith Hall Thursday evening.

October 23, 2016

Professor Examines Relationship Between Medieval, Modern English Literature

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Prof. Seth Lerer, literature, University of California, San Diego explored the changing nature of medieval and early modern traditions in English lyrics at a lecture Thursday.

Lerer introduced original medieval poetry and early modern readings, including works by Geoffrey Chaucer, Stephen Hawes and Humphrey Wellys, and also identified changes in lyric interpretations of medieval work.

“[Wellys] brought together a whole range of quotations and selections from 15th century poetry,” he said. “But what he does is not simply offer his selections … He will take stanzas and lines and rearrange them into new poems.”

The fascinating relationship between medieval English lyric and its creative early modern readings is that much of what “people thought were original free-standing poems” were actually “centos of other texts” — literary works composed of works from multiple authors, according to Lerer.

“It’s this process of reading as writing and writing as reading,” he said. “Every act of reading prompts another act of writing.”

Lerer said lyric served as a means for authors to reflect and experiment, self-consciously “historicizing the voice.”

“As we see these readers and writers experimenting with these forms, I want to help us to expose how the literary past informs a political present, and how the writing and reading of poetry went on with old books on the table and familiar words with new pens,” he said.

Lerer also explained that during the 15th and 16th centuries, “the relationship between middle and modern English” was culturally and aesthetically “far more blurry than we might want to imagine.”

“I want to stress that … the distinction that we make — historically, linguistically — between middle English and modern English would not have been a historical distinction at this time,” he said.

Lerer was named Cornell’s fall 2016 M.H. Abrams Distinguished Visiting Professor. His work spans medieval studies, the history of the English language, children’s literature and literary criticism and theory.