In “The horrors of the German language,” chapter 8 of his Words and rules, Steven Pinker reminds us that “no one is biologically disposed to speak a particular language. The experiments called immigration and conquest, in which children master languages unknown to their ancestors, settled that question long ago.”[i] After noting that linguists can’t “test hypotheses about cause and effect” in languages by synthesizing them in test tubes and culturing them, but are reduced to comparisons amongst those already synthesized in those great experiments, and available for study, he concludes:
We find different languages because people move apart and lose touch, or split into factions that hate each other’s guts. People always tinker with the way they talk, and as the tinkerings accumulate on different sides of the river, mountain range, or no-man’s-land, the original language slowly splits in two. To compare two languages is to behold the histories of two peoples: their migrations, conquests, innovations, and daily struggles to make themselves understood.[ii]
English evolved from three languages rubbing up against each other, Welsh and Cornish on the one hand, and Anglo-Saxon [itself a fusion] on the other, in a land where “the experiments called immigration and conquest” proceeded under almost ideal conditions.[iii] I discussed this hand-wringing in the 5th of these posts, “Green armor,” where I began a long discussion of Welsh verse forms. All that in exploring what “in verse” does as a title to unify these postings, because I proposed then to study verse in English, and invert the normal process followed in creative writing classes by starting with the most remote verse and moving towards the present day, rather than starting with current practice and looking back. That’s why I have been discussing the Alliterative Revival.
The Oxford Companion to English Literature defines the “Alliterative Revival” as “a collective term for the group of alliterative poems written in the second half of the 14th cent. in which alliteration, which had been the formal basis of Old English poetry, was again used in poetry of the first importance … as a serious alternative to the continental form, syllabic rhyming verse.”[iv] That “continental form” enters the discussion through French, as a result of the Norman Conquest, and finds its greatest champion in Geoffrey Chaucer. Wikipedia says that Chaucer introduced one of the stanza patterns, rime royal, to English, defining the form thus:
The rhyme royal stanza consists of seven lines, usually in iambic pentameter. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c. In practice, the stanza can be constructed either as a tercet and two couplets (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or a quatrain and a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c). This allows for a good deal of variety, especially when the form is used for longer narrative poems; and along with the couplet, it was the standard narrative metre in the late Middle Ages.[v]
You find both the couplet and rime royal in Chaucer’s unfinished Canterbury Tales, and he wrote both Parlement of Foules and Troilus and Criseyde in rime royal.
One might argue that in Chaucer’s work, rime royal and the couplet displaced alliterative verse as the standard for long narrative poems. One would have to argue that Chaucer knew of alliterative verse to make that premise convincing. Two elements would lend credence to such an argument. First, the Alliterative Revival was well underway during his lifetime, and had in fact begun before it; and second, he puts into the Parson’s mouth a seeming reference to alliteration in “The Parson’s Prologue:”
For which I seye, if that yow list to here Moralitee and virtuous mateere, And thanne that ye wol yeve me audience I wol ful fayn, at Cristes reverence Do yow plesaunce leefful, as I kan. But trusteth wel, I am a Southren man, I kan nat geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ by lettre, Ne, God woot, rym hold I but litel bettre; And therfore, if yow list — I wol not glose — I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose.
“Geeste” here means not “jest,” but carries instead the older meaning, “tell a tale.” Albert C. Baugh glosses the whole phrase in his notes thus:
geeste ‘rum, ram, ruf,’ tell a tale in alliterative verse, which was at this time experiencing a revival in the North, and to a lesser extent in the West. The reason for the Parson’s remark is not obvious, since none of the preceding tales are in this form. Chaucer might have planned a tale to precede The Parson’s Tale which would have used or parodied the measure, but since the Parson holds rime but little better he may be merely contrasting the two current types of verse with prose.[vi]
It would be interesting indeed to have alliterative verse written by Chaucer. Perhaps there is an opening here for one of those literary midrashim like John Gardner’s Grendel or Jon Clinch’s Finn.
The Parson’s despiteful use of verse puts him at odds with his creator, but highlights a problem which English verse has had since the adoption of continental verse forms. This shows up early in The Canterbury tales, in the prologue in fact:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, And smale foweles maken melodye, That slepen al the nyght with open yë (so priketh hem nature in hir corages), — Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages….
I refer, of course, to the dread contortions required to force English verse to rime. If it were not for the constraints imposed by rime, the first two lines would read, in normal word order, “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote hath perced The droghte of March to the roote.” The next two would read “And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu the flour is engendred.” And so on.
It may seem remarkable that, despite the loss of most inflections, English is still flexible enough to accommodate twisted syntax for rhyme, and still make sense. But I rather think that what is happening here is that the rigid word-order of English sentences, the subject-verb-object structure that replaced the lost declensions and cases and gender markings, accommodates rhyme simply because we know what the proper word-order should be, and silently “correct” the syntax to accommodate the rhythm, rime, assonance, consonance and sound of the verse. All this for the sake of beauty. And it persists into the present: such a modern master of the natural voice as Robert Frost must still resort to some of these tactics to make his poems rime.
In this connection, it’s worth pointing out that no one knows how Chaucer spoke exactly; although we shouldn’t, we try to reconstruct his speech based on his use of syllable patterns and rime, drawing support for our theories of how this early modern English sounded from our certainty that his five-stress syllabic verse is invariably “iambic.” Though I would fain not push this thesis too hard, this our practice smacks of circular reasoning to me. We’ve seen how slant-rime and half-rime and assonance were considered virtues in Welsh verse forms; although not so intricately used, these features are not absent in Continental verse. So what might this mean for my attempts to promote alliterative verse as a formal alternative to “the continental form, syllabic rhyming verse”?
In its article on “alliterative verse,” The Oxford companion to English literature concludes that “[n]othing after Middle English could categorically be said to be ‘alliterative verse’, despite its recurrent use as a device throughout English poetry, except perhaps for the rather self-conscious revival of the form in the 20th cent. by such poets as Auden and Day-Lewis.”[vii]
But hold on, I hear you say, isn’t all poetry, since it is a form of art, a “rather self-conscious revival” of some form or another?
[i] Words and rules : the ingredients of language / Steven Pinker. — London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999; p. 211.
[ii] Ibid., pp. 211-3.
[iii] As John McWhorter demonstrates to my satisfaction in Our magnificent bastard tongue : the untold history of English. New York : Gotham, 2008.
[iv] The Oxford companion to English Literature. – Sixth edition / edited by Margaret Drabble. – Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2000; p. 20.
[v] “Rhyme Royal” in Wikipedia, accessed 26 April 2012.
[vi] Chaucer’s major poetry / Albert C. Baugh, editor. – New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, c1963; p. 532.
[vii] Op. cit.