in verse # 14 : the alliterative revival

Literary wayfaring in England did not end with the Norman Conquest in 1066.  It forked, one fork following the lead of the French conquerors, the other the lead of the English conquered.  Both of these were excursions into vulgar territory.  As Malone & Baugh have it:  “In any age up to the Renaissance, the Latin literature of Europe is the measure of its intellectual life.”[i]  The vulgar tongues did not always attract the most learned of men, since they tended to express themselves, when they felt the urge, in vulgar Latin.  Three men of Britain are exemplary in this regard:  Walter Map, Giraldus Cambrensis and Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Map (c. 1140-c. 1209) was a noted wit to whom were attributed “some of the most famous of the Goliardic poems”[ii] (the satirical Latin drinking songs perhaps now most famous for providing the text for Carl Orff’s scurrilous and gloriously vulgar cantata Carmina Burana).  Malone & Baugh tell us that “[a] persistent and early tradition credits him with the authorship of the prose Lancelot and other Arthurian romances, a tradition that cannot be accepted in any literal sense.”[iii]  His friend Giraldus was an historian, as was Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Their names are joined not only because they were all writers of Latin works, nor only because Geoffrey wrote History of the Kings of Britain (1137) and Vita Merlini, a life of Merlin in verse (which are connected, like the prose Lancelot, to the matter of Britain), but because they were all Welsh.[iv]  Their path into the new literary world ran through the church, and though they wrote of some of the same matters, they rejected the Welsh bardic tradition.

Contemporary with this trio was Laʒamon,[v] a priest who produced the first Arthurian narrative in English.  This was a translation of the Roman de Brut by a Norman poet, Wace, writing in French.  The Roman de Brut was, in its turn, “based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, and was probably begun around 1150 and finished in 1155.”[vi]  Malone & Baugh say that it is “customary … to assign Laʒamon’s Brut to the year 1205,”[vii] right at the end of Walter Map’s life and 140 years after the Norman Conquest.  So Wace creates from a Welshman’s Latin history a Norman-French poem that includes Arthurian legend, and Laʒamon translates that narrative into English, adding some new materials, such as

the gifts which the elves conferred upon Arthur at birth, the description of his armor — its magic properties or fabrication by supernatural smiths — the dream in which he received warning of Mordred’s treason, and added circumstances in the account of the passing of Arthur.  But the longest and most interesting addition which Layamon makes is the story of the creation of the Round Table….[viii]

But the most interesting thing to me about Laʒamon’s work is that he uses a version of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse in this poem.  Or more precisely, as Malone & Baugh explain it:

He had apparently been brought up on the Old English alliterative verse and his own lines area so clearly in this tradition that about half of them can be scanned by Old English standards.  He makes frequent use of rime, however, as an additional ornament.  The tradition which he represents is apparently a late one which has left behind some of the older practices and acquired certain new habits in their place [which could be Welsh habits of cynghanedd].  Nevertheless it is still English.  His vocabulary is remarkable for the small number of French words in it….[ix]

It would be worth examining the poem in more detail to determine whether there were traces of Welsh meters — but the only text I have access to now is found in Medieval English Verse and Prose in Modernized Versions,[x] which would have smudged the traces, if not obliterated them.  It is, however, worth quoting for its other qualities, even in modernized form:

There came to him anon   one who was a skilled craftsman,                                                        And went to meet the king,   and courteously greeted him:                                                       “Hail to thee, Arthur,   noblest of kings.                                                                                           I am thine own man;   I have traversed many a land.                                                                   I know in woodwork   wondrous many devices.                                                                              I heard beyond the sea   men telling new tidings,                                                                           How thine own knights   at thy board did fight                                                                           On midwinter’s day;   many there fell;                                                                                            For their mighty pride   they played the death game,                                                                 And because of his high race   each would be on the inside.                                                        Now I will make for thee   a work most skillful                                                                              That there may sit at it   sixteen hundred and more,                                                                    All in succession,   that none may sit at the end,                                                                          But without and within,   man beside man.                                                                                   Whenever thou wilt ride,   with thee thou mayst take it,                                                             And set it up where thou wilt   after thine own will;                                                                      And thou needest never dread   throughout the wide world                                                        That ever any proud knight   at thy board stir a fight;                                                                  For there shall the high   be equal to the low.                                                                                Let me but have timber,   and begin that board.”                                                                          In four weeks’ time   that work was completed.                                                                             On a high day   the court was assembled;                                                                                        And Arthur himself went   forthwith to that board,                                                                       And summoned every knight   to that table forthright.                                                                 When they were all set,   the knights at their meat,                                                                 Then spoke each with the other   as though it were his brother.                                               All of them sat round about;   none had an end seat;                                                                    A knight of every race   had there a good place;                                                                            They were all side by side,   the low and the high;                                                                         None might there boast   of a better beverage,                                                                               Than had his companions   who were at that table.[xi]

So we have this single outlier in the three generations after the Norman Conquest, a lone voice crying alliteration in the wilderness — and then, silence, for another three generations.  Now as Malone & Baugh point out, we have other cause to mourn:  “This is the first and also for quite a while the last appearance of King Arthur in English.  When he again returns to the isle of his birth it will be after a considerable sojourn in France, a sojourn which has profoundly altered his character.”[xii]  But, as it also marks the last appearance for that same while of alliterative verse in English, let our mourning be deep and long.

But hold on, I hear you say; surely there is more to come on the alliterative revival?

Your turn.


[i] A literary history of England / edited by Albert C. Baugh. – 2nd ed. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1967.  From that work’s “Book I, The Middle Ages (to 1500)” by Kemp Malone and Albert C. Baugh, p. 143.

[ii] Ibid, p. 146

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, pp. 146-7

[v] The ʒ is, according to MS Word’s Symbol table, a “Latin small letter ezh” which, as I recall, was pronounced like the “ch” in Loch Lomond.

[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_de_Brut, accessed 29 February 2012.

[vii] Op. cit., pp. 170-171.

[viii] Ibid., p. 171.

[ix] Ibid., pp. 171-172.

[x] Medieval English Verse and Prose in Modernized Versions / by Roger Sherman Loomis and Rudolph Willard. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1948.

[xi] Ibid., p. 25, lines 22,847 through 22,877.

[xii] Op. cit., p. 172.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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4 Responses to in verse # 14 : the alliterative revival

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A couple of points:

    - The weirdo letter in the poet’s name isn’t an ezh, but rather a yogh. There are a variety of different spellings, some of which use a w or y in place of the yogh; I don’t know what current scholarly thinking is on the relative accuracy of these.

    - We need to be cautious about phrases like “first Arthurian narrative in English” and “single outlier… crying alliteration in the wilderness,” acknowledging that our knowledge is based on the chancy survival of manuscripts. It’s my understanding that the Brut survives in only 2 manuscripts, while the famous later alliterative texts Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl exist in only one. I don’t know of any way to judge what may or may not have existed during that time that either (a) was never written, or (b) never survived to modern times — except the purely suppositional evidence that literary works in an ancient tradition don’t just pop out of nowhere. The chance that Layamon was working from a knowledge of the Old English tradition seems far less likely than that he was part of an ongoing tradition of which his work is the only textual survivor from his time — at least to me.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Glad to know the identity of the letter; I may have picked the wrong one out of the Word symbol table; it was a little hard to tell what I was looking at, but in WordPerfect the characters are not named at all; so let it be yogh. Baugh and Malone use the “y,” as do Loomis & Willard, the modernizers.
      I grant you that we need to be cautious; I should have said “what Baugh and Malone call the first Arthurian narrative in English,” and I acknowledge that my “crying alliteration in the wilderness” is a bit more poetic than scholarly; but most of the works I have been discussing for the last 8 months or so, including most of the Welsh verse upon which the classic Welsh meters are based, survive in few manuscripts, including *Beowulf.* Layamon may well have been part of an ongoing literary tradition, oral or written; that in fact is the point Malone and Baugh make in their description of him as having been “brought up on the Old English alliterative verse.”

  2. C. M. Malm says:

    Jonathan makes a good point: we really can’t assume that the works that have survived are the only ones that were written. The mix of styles you’ve pointed out is fascinating, but it’s impossible to know whether this was unique to Layamon or not.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Hi, C.M. Welcome to the small circle of “in verse.”
      Jonathan does indeed make a good point, but I don’t believe that I implied, let alone said, that the Brut was the only work written in an alliterative mode at the end of the 12th century. Nor do Malone and Baugh; and back when I was reading Middle English at the University of Washington, no one there did, either.
      It is worth noting again that the Brut is the only work of this kind surviving in these circumstances, but as M&B point out, it survived in the midst of a rich ferment of literature in England, fighting for attention with the Latin and the French and the Anglo-Norman and the emerging English prose and poetry and devotional literatures.
      Layamon may have had no more sources than Wace’s French Roman de Brut, but I believe he must have had an audience to have expanded the Brut to twice its length, and he may well have had other sources for the stories he added — although his imagination would do, in a pinch.
      It is the existence of an audience that intrigues me. I suppose that the poet who wrote out Beowulf was trying to salvage a tradition in peril; but Layamon was clearly writing for an audience available to him — if only in the local pub.
      That is sheer speculation in my part, if not self-delusion. That may be why “in verse” is such a small circle of friends.

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