in verse # 15 : the alliterative resuscitation

When alliterative verse came roaring back to life in the mid-fourteenth century, it was more as a Wolfman than as a creature of some demented Frankenstein.

In the century and a half between Laȝamon’s recasting of Wace’s Roman de Brut,[i] known to scholars simply as Brut or Laȝamon’s Brut, and the writing of the first works of the “alliterative revival,”[ii] there are so few surviving instances of alliterative verse that one might have been forgiven for thinking it dead, if one knew of its earlier life at all.  It had served Anglo-Saxon poets well from their advent in England in 449 to their conquest by the Normans in 1066.  All datings of poems and manuscripts from that period are conjectural, and most of the works are dated by the comparison of dialect and vocabulary differences with the best-established dates of prose works, usually the chronicles.  But it’s all scholarly guesswork.

Call it the alliterative resuscitation if you will — a rose by any other name would still have thorns, after all — a mouth-to-mouth kiss from the crone who served as muse to the Beowulf poet.  Some of the earliest works in the resuscitation were, like Brut, romances mothered from the French:  William of Palerne, for example, a translation of Guillaume de Palerme, in which a werewolf features prominently.  Many others were tales of the Classical world of Greece and Rome, recast in alliterative verse.

But many others are “poems of social and moral protest,”[iii] which might have struck the same fear in the courts that the image of Dracula did in Victorian England, after Bram Stoker raised him from the dead.  After all, Malone and Baugh note

that the period was ushered in by the Black Death with its grave economic and political consequences, that it saw the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and that Wyclif and the Lollard movement are only another manifestation of the general upheaval which unsettled so many established conditions and beliefs.

They find it significant that these “poems of social and moral protest….appear in alliterative verse rather than in the more conventional measure of the court” because, “like most forms of political opposition,” these protests in verse “came from those outside the group in power.”  They go so far as to argue that these poems “express the point of view of the common man.  They are like voices crying in the wilderness, denouncing evils without seeming so much as to hope for their redress.” [iv]

I will address those poems of revolution in my next post, including the idea that they arose far from the centers of power.  For now I want to consider two of the best Arthurian narratives of the alliterative revival:  the Alliterative Morte Arthure and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Both have been recently translated by Simon Armitage, the Morte published in 2012 and Gawain in 2007.  For a flavor of the latter, see my second post.  I think it likely that there is a second reason for the revival of alliterative verse in these circumstances, besides distance (in both senses) from the courts:  these poets were British now, that strange admixture of Anglo-Saxon and Cymric discussed in my first post that resulted from being smothered by the Norman conquerors for two centuries.  In 1204, King John lost Normandy to King Philip II of France; in 1215, the same John signed the Magna Carta, ceding some of his royal powers to the Anglo-Norman barons whose oppressions caused the social and moral protest alluded to above.  In these two poems, in contrast, we see a strong king willing to go to battle for his people and to protect his realm (in the Morte), to the point of carrying the fight across the Channel and into Rome; and, a nobility willing to acknowledge its faults and accept punishment for its failings (in Gawain).  That these values are expressed in the verse of a bygone day may well hint at a contempt for the Norman French court and its values, and the mistakes that led to the loss of Normandy and the Angevin Empire.  This contempt could be expressed by invoking a genuinely British hero, the Anglo-Saxon and/or Welsh warlord-king, Arthur.

But before continuing, let me lay before you yet another description of alliterative meter, this one from James Simpson, which I find very convincing:

Metrical practice is determined by the deeper music of a language.  In Germanic languages the tonic, or accented[,] syllable, is usually the first syllable of a word.  In romance languages, by contrast, the tonic syllable falls toward, or at, the end of words.  Germanic poets therefore highlight the beginning of words with the highlighting effect of alliteration.  Romance poets (e.g., French or Italian) instead highlight the end of words, with rhyme.[v]

I had never before considered the tonic syllable as an element in meter, although I allude to it in my second post (as a contrast between the original of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Armitage’s translation).  But this feature may help explain why rhyme is out of favor in contemporary American verse, perhaps, along with a German tendency to string out adjectives and phrases to name things, signaling to us that English is reverting to its Germanic roots.

Simpson next considers two elements of formal meter:

In accentual poetry, one aspect of the metrical pattern is determined by the distribution and number of accented, or stressed[,] syllables across the line.  Medieval English poetry derived from Germanic roots is accentual poetry.  Accentual poetry is distinguished from syllabic poetry, whose meter is determined by the number of syllables in the line (e.g., French and Italian poetry).  It is also distinguished from quantitative poetry, whose meter is determined by the pattern of long and short syllables across the line (e.g. classical Latin poetry).[vi]

Needless to say, classical Greek poetry is also quantitative, and has given us both most of our terms for meter, like iamb, trochee and spondee, and most of the meters those terms describe, like iambic pentameter.  And what are we to make of Welsh metrical forms, which are almost strictly syllabic?  Well, the Gauls and Cymri are related, after all.

Or perhaps that first is not needless to say.  We are so used to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden and Pope that we do not see the genius with which they bent English to the lash of iambic pentameter.  And we consider Whitman, Dickinson, Pound as Eliot as rebels when, in fact, they may be the real conservatives, trying to return American English to its Germanic roots.  In fact, Tess Gallagher offers a loose-limbed four-stress contemporary American line that seems promising in this regard:

Those Japanese women waiting, waiting                                                                                         all the way back to Shikibu and Komachi                                                                                         for men who, even then, seemed capable                                                                                        of scant affection.  Traitorous though,                                                                                             not to admire the love of women                                                                                                     that shines down long corridors of the past                                                                                    as steadily as those lanterns                                                                                                              I walked under beside the shrines of Kyōto.[vii]

The second of the two elements Simpson considers gets us back to the alliterative resuscitation:

Alliteration determines the second aspect of the metrical pattern.  Accent is produced by the natural music of the language.  Alliteration, by contrast, is produced by art.  Alliteration (from Latin litera, alphabetic letter) consists of the repetition of an initial consonant sound, or consonantal cluster, or vowel sound, or mixture of vowel sounds, in consecutive or closely positioned words.

It is to this art that we will now turn; and to better illustrate the difference between the alliterative and the rhymed, let us look first at part of a stanza from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [I will complicate further the inability of WordPress to display verse properly by interlacing the Middle English text with Armitage’s translation]:

Þe tayl and his toppyng twynnen of a sute,                                                                                     The fetlocks were finished in the same fashion                                                                              And bounden boþe with a bande of a bryʒt grene,                                                                        with bright green ribbon braided with beads,                                                                                Dubbed wyth ful dere stoneʒ, as þe dok lasted,                                                                            as was the tail — to its tippety-tip!                                                                                                   Syþen þrawen with a þwong a þwarle knot alofte,                                                                        And a long, tied thong lacing it tight                                                                                                Þer mony belleʒ ful bryʒt of brende golde rungen.                                                                       was strung with gold bells with resounded and shone.                                                                 Such a fole vpon folde, ne freke þat hym rydes,                                                                          No waking man had witnessed such a warrior                                                                               Watʒ neuer sene in þat sale with syʒt er þat tyme,                                                                       or weird war-horse — otherworldly, yet flesh                                                                          with yʒe.                                                                                                                                                 and bone.                                                                                                                                             He loked as layt so lyʒt,                                                                                                                      A look of lightning flashed                                                                                                                   So sayd al þat hym syʒe;                                                                                                               from somewhere in his soul.                                                                                                              Hit semed as no mon myʒt                                                                                                            The force of that man’s fist                                                                                                      Vnder his dyntteʒ dryʒe.[viii]                                                                                                             would be a thunderbolt.[ix]

Armitage in this translation matches the text line for line, but it is still a loose, though vigorous, translation.  That is the nature of the original, which reflects a northern vocabulary and setting.  His translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, on the other hand, which runs for 4349 lines, is much closer to the original, since its vocabulary is less Middle and more English, as if it were produced for an Anglo-Norman court.  Again, with the same caveat, a small sample of the poem and its translation, showing a bravura alliteration running for 11 lines, from line 2482 through 2492:

On Sononday by the sun   has a flēthe yolden,                                                                               On Sunday, when the sun had spread through the land,                                                                The king calles on Florent,   that flowr was of knightes:                                                                the King called to Florent, that flower among knights:                                                                   “The Fraunchmen enfeebleshes;   ne ferly mē thinks!                                                                 “Our Frenchmen are enfeebled, I should have guessed this would follow                                  They are unfǫnded folk   in thǫ fair marches,                                                                                  for these folk are foreigners in these far-flung fields                                                                      For them wantes the flesh   and food that them līkes.                                                                   and long for the food and fare of their liking.                                                                                   Hēre are forestes fair   upon fęle halves                                                                                          There are fine forests here to every flank                                                                                       And thider fǫmen are fled   with freelich bęstes.                                                                           to which our foes have fled, where beasts roam free.                                                                  Thou shall founde tō the felle   and forray the mountes;                                                              Go forth to the fells and forage through the mountains                                                                 Sir Ferawnte and Sir Floridas   shall follow thy brīdle.                                                                Sir Ferraunt and Sir Floridas shall follow in your footsteps.                                                         Us moste with some fresh męte   rēfresh our pople                                                                       Our men fall faint: refresh us with flesh                                                                                         That are fed in the firth   with the fruit of the erthe.”                                                                   that feeds in the forests on the fruits of the earth.”[x]

Note how loose and limber the alliterative line, in the old original and new reworking.  The contrast between vocabulary in the Alliterative Morte and Gawain could hardly be stronger, nor the contrast between the knotted line of the latter and the flowing line of the former.  The other historical romances, whether written for court or the cabin, could hardly better the contrast.  But hold on, I hear you say:  is there anything more than mere conjecture in all these mutterings about castle and keep?

Your turn.


[i] Itself a French romance, recast around 1205 according to 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, pp. 170-171.

[ii] Right around 1350, according to the Wikipedia entry on “Guillaume de Palerme,” accessed 23 March 2010.

[iii] Malone & Baugh, op. cit., p. 240.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “A note on the meter of the Alliterative Morte Arthure” in The death of King Arthur : a new verse translation / Simon Armitage.  New York : Norton, c2012, p. 15.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] “Glow,” from Moon crossing bridge : poetry / by Tess Gallagher. — St. Paul, Minn. : Graywolf, 1992, p. 79.

[viii] Sir Gawain & The Green Knight / edited by J. R. R.  Tolkien & E. V. Gordon. – Oxford : at the Clarendon Press, 1930, lines 191-202, p. 7.

[ix] Sir Gawain and the Green Knight / translated by Simon Armitage. – London : Faber, 2007, lines 191-202,  p. 13.

[x] Op. cit., pp. 176-177 (Middle English and English translation on facing pages).

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!
This entry was posted in In Verse and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to in verse # 15 : the alliterative resuscitation

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    I like the idea of languages as having their own natural qualities, and think it is interesting that (according to this view) most of the great English poetry seems to have been written in modes not necessarily best suited to the language (or vice versa).

    I’m hesitant, however, about the nationalistic argument. After 300 years, I very much doubt that there was anything Norman in the self-identification of the royal court in England. Similarly, considering that the Angevin Empire ended in the early 13th century and Sir Gawain dates from the late 14th century — a span of 150 years — I very much doubt that it can be seen as a critique of the problems that led to that empire’s dissolution.

    I also think you need to be careful about attributing differences in vocabulary to differences in audience, without accounting first for differences in dialect (which was a matter of geography, not social class, at this time in English history) and for the fact that Alliterative Morte Arthure’s manuscript is about a half-century later than that of Sir Gawain (based on Wikipedia; I admit that I’m too lazy to look it up in my books this evening).

  2. Dennis says:

    I’m not so sure about the nationalistic argument myself (it came to me in a flash of insight as I was finishing the post), but two things might argue for it: first, John Lackland was as much a French monarch as an English in terms of his holdings when he came to power in 1199. He lost both the duchy of Normandy (which was the base from which William conquered England in 1066) and the bulk of the Angevin “empire,” mostly the lands his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, brought into her marriage with his father, Henry II. When he died in October 1216, England was his most secure possession — but I believe that it is very Anglocentric to suggest that there was nothing “Norman in the self-identification of the royal court in England” by 1216. I would contend that it was still an Anglo-Norman French court until John’s death, and to judge from the attempts of subsequent kings to recover their French lands, the loss stung for a long time.
    Moreover, still on the first point, whatever allegiance the Anglo-Saxon landowners owed to John was based on their recognition of him as king, not only of England, but of all the lands he inherited. If, as seems likely, the poems of the alliterative revival were written in the north and west of England — the likeliest origin of the Pearl poet’s work — I would argue that they could easily encompass a dislike for the Anglo-French court and its rulers, even if they were a fading memory.
    Which leads me to my second point: 150 years is not a long period of time as literature goes. We still read Ambrose Bierce and Herman Melville; *Huckleberry Finn* is 127 years old. And I am not arguing for the *Alliterative Morte Arthur* and *Sir Gawain* as critiques of John Lackland, but as reactions to a perceived weakness of the rulers and leaders of England, reinforced by the re-Anglification of Arthur, who was possibly Anglo-Saxon, possibly Welsh, but believed to be a genuine hero. You might argue that the conquered Anglo-Saxon populace would wince at John’s losses rather than rejoice [since they identified with their conquerors], but I think rather that they would despise him, in much the same way that certain partisans of the Confederacy still resent the victory of the Union 147 years after the end of the American Civil War, and still dislike Lincoln, however much they might embrace his party.

  3. Pingback: in verse # 19 : a hideous and intolerable allegory | Dawning of a Brighter Day

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>