The Style of Middle English Alliterative Verse

Alliterative verse was the main style of poetry used by poets during the Middle Ages in the North of England. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, one of the most famous poems written in Middle English, was written in alliterative verse, and is roughly contemporary with the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, however, as this essay demonstrates the style of writing was quite different.

The distinctive style of the alliterative poems has often been remarked upon. Apart from the obvious stylistic characteristics of the alliterative line, the actual way in which it is used by poets to convey the narrative, especially in descriptive passages, is particularly noticeable. The way in which the alliterative long line is structured in two half lines each containing two stressed words makes it appropriate for listing of detail, which is sometimes characterised by the use of formulae. The heavy reliance on listing of details in alliterative verse means that there is a tendency for alliterative poets ‘to analyse, to suppress the generalisation and present instead the parts of the object described or the stages of the action narrated.’[i] Pearsall and Salter have also pointed out how alliterative poets sometimes try to accumulate as much detail as possible:

Its character is in a rich and luxuriant, often indiscriminate accumulation of substantives, an arbitrary concreteness of reference which can break through to a kind of illusory realism, like some early fifteenth-century Italian examples of advanced International Gothic, through sheer weight of sensory allusion, even though there may be no visual coherence of ordering of scene.[ii]

Unlike the verse of Chaucer, whose use of rhyme and subordinate clauses allows him to link words symbolically and therefore to link ideas between lines, the more static form of the alliterative line creates a greater feeling of concreteness and materiality, especially when the poet is describing material objects in the form of lists. However, the poets do not merely present lists of words which are unrelated to each other in order to describe a realistic object. Sometimes the items are arranged or linked by words which describe spatial relationships in such a way that the object can be almost visualised thanks to the spatial organisation provided by the poet. This is not a technique which Chaucer uses. He much prefers not to become involved in describing what is seen by an observer within the text but instead keeps a narratorial distance from what he describes:

Instead of this emphasis on the observer … we are more used to finding, in literary descriptions in Dante’s age and later, a highly disinterested attitude on the part of the narrator. Keeping almost wholly in the background, he describes to us a landscape, a castle, the interior of a hall … He gives a detailed account of what is before him, but does not refer to his mind and senses as organisers of the descriptive pattern.[iii]

Alliterative poets, however, are more willing to use their viewpoint in the scene and so bring their audience closer to it and allow them almost to imagine participation with the story. Such a technique has been shown to have been applied most consistently by the Gawain-poet, where ‘focalisation’ of objects takes place, whereby the object of the ‘textual viewer’s’ gaze is described  in progressively greater hermeneutically significant detail. Alain Renoir uses as an example the description of Gawain riding through the Wirral (700-762). Such a process has been described by Renoir as having the same effect as the close-up of a cinematograph. He reminds us that it is not only visual detail which is expressed but also emotional force, as there is no outside interpretation of what is seen apart from the visual experience of it. He sums up the technique as drawing ‘a single detail out of a uniformly illuminated scene which is then allowed to fade out in obscurity and of which we may be given an occasional dim glimpse at psychologically appropriate moments.’[iv]

Although the Gawain-poet is the most consistent user of such a technique, dense description is a feature of all these poems, particularly when describing dramatic events such as battles and storms. The following two examples are simply small extracts of lengthier descriptions and could be replaced by other passages from the same texts or others where events are presented in a concrete, highly visualised manner. Dense description of important action is a consistent characteristic of alliterative verse:

Sodonly the softe winde vnsoberly blew;

A myste & a merkenes myngit to-gedur;               mingled

A thoner and a thicke rayne thrublet in the skewesthunder-storm, raged,

                                                                                 heavens

With an ugsom noise, noy for to here;                   horrible, troubling

All flasshet in a ffire, the firmament ouer;

Was no light but a laite, that launchit aboue;         lightning, shot

Hit skirmyt in the skewes with a skyre low,          battled, angry, flame

Thurgh the claterand clowdes clos to the heuyn,

As the welkyn shuld walt for wodenes of hete.   the heavens were rending,

                                                                             fury

With blastes full bigge of the breme wyndes,      fierce

Walt vp the waghes vpon wan hilles:               waves, small

Gest, 12494-12504

 

Bruschese boldlye on burde  brynyede knyghtes,  Charged, board, mailed

Owt of botes one burde,  brystis the hetches,    break

Som gomys thourghegyrde  with gaddys of yryn,     men, struck through,

                                                                                   spikes

Gomys gayliche clede  englaymes wapen.             clad, covered with gore,

                                                                          weapons

Archers of Inglonde  full egerly schottes,

Hittis thourghe the harde stele  full hertly dynnttis;

Sonne hotchen in holle  the hethene knyghtes–         flinch

Hurte thourghe the harde stele,  hele they neuer!

Than they fall to the fyghte,  foynes with sperys,         thrust

All the frekkeste one frownte  that to the fyghte langes; boldest, front, are

                                                                                 engaged in

And ilkon frechely  fraystez theire strenghes,       violently, test

Were to fyghte in the flete  with theire dubbide knyghtes,

Till all the Danes ware dede  and in the depe throwen.

Than Bretouns brothely  with brondis they hewen;       fiercely

Lepys in vpone lofte  lordeliche berynes.

When ledys of owt-lonndys  leppyn in waters,           foreign lands

All oure lordes one lowde  laughen at ones.

Be thane sper[r]is whare spronngen, spalddyd chippys;     split, broken up,

                                                                                          ships

Spanyolis spedily  sprentyde ouer burdez!

All the kene men of kampe,  knyghtes and other,           battle

Killyd are colde dede  and castyn ouer burdez,

Theire swyers sweyftely  has the swete leuyde;     esquires, died

Hethen heuande on hatche  in ther hawe ryses, heaving up, dark enclosure

 

Synkande in the salte see  seuen hundrethe at ones!

Morte Arthure, 3680-3705

In order to illustrate the special descriptive qualities and concreteness that can be attained by alliterative verse, I will present a number of comparisons between passages written in the high-alliterative style and passages from metrical poets and prose writers who deal with closely similar subjects. An example of two passages which deal with a very similar situation involving the court, but which involve two separate and unrelated stories, is provided by the opening section of Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and the first Fit of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.[v] In both cases the setting is of an exemplary court which is half way through a feast when it is interrupted by a strange mounted knight. The structure of the two passages is remarkably similar, but the way in which the events are described illustrates well the difference between the style of the alliterative poets and the literary courtly style introduced by Chaucer. Chaucer, characteristically, uses a very rhetorical method, always reminding the audience that this is a literary text by references to his own ability to tell the tale. For instance, when it comes to describing the beauty of Canacee, he tells us nothing of what she actually looks like, but rather implies that she must be beautiful because of his narrator’s inability to express her appearance in words:

But for to telle yow hir beaute,

It lyth not in my tonge, nyn my konnyng;

I dar nat undertake so heigh a thyng.     34-6

However, in the corresponding section of the alliterative poem Guenevere is described in a different manner:

The comlokest to discrye

Ther glent with yȝen gray,

A semlokerthat euer he syȝe          more beautiful

Soth mo3t no mon say.

81-4

Here, in contrast, although we are not presented with a full description, the perfection of her beauty is related to the actual gaze of the characters in the text rather than to the poet or narrator. Although description is rhetorically avoided, we are provided with at least some detail in the description of her eyes. Rather than leaving the description as practically meaningless by obscuring the possibility of description, the Gawain-Poet encourages us to judge Guenevere through encouraging the focusing of a gaze upon her by using phrases suggesting value, ‘comlokest’, ‘semloker’, and vision, ‘syȝe’. The poet thus encourages the audience to visualise her appearance.

Similarly in his portrayal of the feast, Chaucer, or his narrator at least, is loath to say what they actually ate but rather provides more rhetoric about the impossibility of reporting it:

I wol nat tellen of hir strange sewes,              sauces

Ne of hir swannes, nor of hire heronsewes.         young herons

67-8

Ther nys no man that may reporten al.

I wol not taryen yow, for it is pryme;

And for it is no fruyt, but los of tyme,   72-4

Of course, what Chaucer is probably doing is engaging in a rhetorical joke at the expense of his narrator, as he does, in fact, tell us something of what they ate, ‘heronsewes’, and instead of saving time by not reporting all, he lengthens the description through rhetorical elaboration which tells us nothing of the reality of the scene but only serves a self-referential purpose. Arthur’s feast is described without such devices and as a result the alliterative poem contains much more concrete detail in a similar number of lines.

Dayntes dryuen therwyth of ful dere metes,                  poured

Foysoun of the fresche, and on so fele disches                Abundance

That pine to fynde the place the peple biforne

For to sette the sylueren that there sewes halden

on clothe.

Iche lede as he loued hymselue

Ther laght withouten lothe;                               took, ungrudged

Ay two had disches twelue,

Good ber and bryȝt wyn bothe.

121-9

Later in the narrative, when the strange knight enters the hall, Chaucer does not engage in rhetorical avoidance of description, but this time provides just a brief factual list of the main characteristics of the knight. As with the entrance of the Green Knight, in the Squire’s Tale the harmony of the feast is broken:

And so bifel that after the thridde cours,

Whil that this kyng sit thus in his nobleye,

Herknynge hise mynstrales hir thynges pleye

Biforn him at the bord deliciously,

In at the halle dore al sodeynly

Ther cam a knyght upon a steede of bras;

And in his hand a brood mirour of glas;

Upon his thombe he hadde of gold a ryng,

And by his syde a naked swerd hangyng;

And up he rideth to the heighe bord.

80-5

The knight’s features are quickly summarised and the narrative continues without developing much interest in the significance of the knight’s equipment, except for mild curiosity. Tension is not developed as thoroughly as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the Green Knight is described at length for about ninety lines, beginning with his dramatic entrance, thus emphasising with greater force than Chaucer the disharmony of the new noise:

Now wyl I of hor seruise say yow no more,

For vch wyȝe may wel wit no wont that ther were.

An other noyse ful newe neȝed biliue,                    near

That the lude myȝt haf leue liflode to cach;                food

For vnethe watz the noyce not a whyle sesed,

And the fyrst cource in the court kyndely served,

Ther hales in at the halle dor an aghlich mayster,           fearsome

On the most on the molde on mesure hyghe;              earth

130-7

There follows a vivid portrayal of the Green Knight which sticks to rhetorical rules of head-to-toe description but is done with great realism, and presents a focalised image by giving an impression of spatial organisation:

Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale,

And alle his fetures folȝande, in forme that he hade,        in proportion

ful clene;

144-6

Rather than just stating that he was ‘richely’ dressed, the poet actually expands the image by listing for the audience what he wore. By presenting a description in such specific detail, the poet/narrator encourages the audience to interpret the symbolic meaning of what he wears, and he also provides yet another example of the kind of courtly dress which should be aspired to, although on this occasion he is playing somewhat with the expectations of his audience:

Ande al graythed in grene this gome and his wedes:    clothes

A straytecote ful streȝt, that stek on his sides,         close fitting

A mere mantile abof, mensked withinne               noble, adorned

With pelure pured apert, the pane ful clene        fur, trimmed, fur edging

With blythe blaunnerful bryȝt, and his hod bothe,    lovely, ermine

That watz laȝt fro his lokkez and layde on his schulderes;     drawn back

151-6

The description steadily builds up to the focal point of the two symbolic objects which the knight holds in his hand, objects corresponding to ones which provide nearly the whole description of the knight in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale, though here in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight they form the subject of the climax of the description:

         in his hande he hade a holyn bobbe,

That is grettest in grene when greuez ar bare,

And an ax in his other, a hoge and vnmete,

A spetos sparthe to expoun in spelle, quoso myȝt.    cruel, battle-axe,

                                                                                 describe, words

206-9

This is followed by a detailed description of the axe, an object of great significance for the narrative, which emphasises its deadliness: ‘As wel scharpen to schere as scharp rasores’ (213), as well as its beauty: ‘And al bigrauen with grene in gracios werkes’ (216).

Perhaps the clearest way of showing the special qualities of alliterative description is to compare English translations directly with their Latin originals. The two Middle English versions of the Historia de Preliis are both quite faithful to their original. However, the expansion made by the poet of the Wars of Alexander in descriptive passages is quite noticeable. I will provide the versions of a whole descriptive passage from both texts to illustrate this tendency, firstly that from The Prose Life of Alexander:

Alexander than went in-to the kynges Palace, and as he went thare-in he merueyled hym gretly of the biggyng thare-off. For Cirus the kyng of Perse gert bigg it ryally. And the pament thareoff was made of stanes of dyuerse colours, and the walles all enuerouned wit fyne golde and precyous stanes and sternes lyke to the firmament, and pelurs of golde that bare vp the werke. When Alexander saw all this curious werke, he meruailed hym gretly. And than he went to the chambre thare Darius laye halfe dede.

7-15, p.54

 

Than gase he vp be degrece the grecen maister,

Passis in-to the palais a paradyce semed

Was on the make of that motenoȝt mervalled a litill,    palace

That compast was of Cusys that kynge was of Persy.

The flore vndire the fote fynely was paued,

Couerd all of cristall and othire clere stanes.

Ȝit ware the wawes of the waneswroȝt, as I rede,       walls, palace

Polischid all of pure gold and of plate werkis.

And that was streken full of sternys and of sere gemmys,      stars,

                                                                                          various

With briȝt blasynaund bees as bemes of the son.   shining, jewels

The hathill hedis vp-on he3e and hogely he wondirs,

That euire suld emperoure in erth slike ane herde wild.   place, hold

Quen he had ferlyd his fill apon that faire hame,           marvelled

Thurȝe-out the sale than he soȝt in-to the selfe chambre,

Thare quare the lord in lay with laythely woundis,         horrible

Girdid out as gutars in grete gill-stremes,         Poured, rivers, gorge

                                                                      streams

Ȝit was thare lyfe in his lyke litill if it semed,

At ilk blast of his breth the blode fra him glidis,

Sire Alexander him avysis and authly him thynke;   considers, sadly

3216-3234

In the alliterative passage we are constantly reminded of Alexander’s physical relation to the scene around him and see through his eyes as he acts, to use Renoir’s term again, as a textual observer. For example, the floor, which is so marvellously described, is ‘vndire the fote’. His actions of vision are described in terms of wonder matching the opulence which has just been described by the narrator: he ‘hedis vp-on heȝe and hogely he wondirs’. The prose passage mentions his amazement too but it does not stress the action of looking upwards in awe. The most expanded section is the description of the dying Darius whose life we see actually flowing out of him in streams of blood. The importance of the effect of this sight is again significant for the reaction of the textual observer and also, therefore, for the audience. It provokes the Christian virtue of pity while also aiding reflection upon the fate of Darius, comparing the huge and awe-inspiring sight of his palace with the image of him brought low, his blood flowing over the floor which ‘fynely was paued’.

Finally, I would like to compare the treatments of Helen in the alliterative poem the Gest Historiale of the Destruction of Troy and in Lydgate’s Troy Book. The conservatism of the alliterative text is clearly shown in its faithful rendering of a full head-to-toe description of Helen as Paris first sees her (3019-3084). Following the Latin original the body is described in detail, the alliterative poet emphasising Helen’s proportions and describing her as if she were a concrete object made by artifice: ‘coruyn by crafte’ (3052), ‘Proporcionet pertly with painters deuyse’ (3053). Lydgate, however, departs from the medieval traditions of description and, like Chaucer, denies his ability to portray her in the comparable section of his work (Troy Book, II, 3642-3691). He ironically uses rhetorical devices to deny his ability to write poetry which would do justice to her: ‘I want[e] flouris also of rethorik,’. Lydgate also adds classical allusions of his own to the text, for instance he compares Helen’s hair to the streams of Phebus. Despite these additions to the text, Lydgate humbly submits that only Guido’s account is adequate and places himself in relation to Guido as inferior in talent: ‘To take on me it were presumcion.’ (3691). We can see quite clearly in this instance how the new literary trend was to refer more to the art of writing than to the subject itself, a trend which was resisted by the conservative alliterative poets who aimed for descriptive veracity.

On occasion Chaucer uses alliteration to provide vividness and an illusion of realism through crowding of visual imagery. His use of Italian Trecento models of literature, and imitation of the French dits amoureux, were leading English literature away from attempts at exact depictions of nature and man’s surroundings, and towards a self-conscious literary style concerned with the very practice of writing itself and the position of the writer in relation to the story and his use of rhetorical figures to embellish it. Such a development can be seen in the fifteenth-century imitations of Chaucer and especially in the work of Lydgate, whose aureate terms became fashionable and made him one of the most popular and admired writers during the English Renaissance.

In effect what the alliterative style of detailed description achieves is to turn the material object into an object of desire. The specific listing of items of clothing, architecture and food makes these items desirable to the audience. With the rise in luxury trade, stimulated by the growth of courts, and the necessity to fulfil the required aspects of a material culture, such descriptions become vital for an aspirant class. To be part of the courtly world they must acquire the correct material possessions.

In contrast to the flourishing of a new English poetics we can see the dying out of alliterative verse because of its conservative language and use of a style which was now seen as archaic; even by Chaucer’s time the descriptive list such as the head-to-toe descriptio feminae had become hackneyed.[vii] We can see how, as shown above, Lydgate avoids it altogether through the use of rhetorical language. The new literary sophistication, which was born at the royal court and around London, formed the beginnings of the emergence of humanist values in England. These were to gather force in the fifteenth century especially through the influence of writers such as Lydgate and humanist patrons such as Humphrey of Gloucester. However, in the provinces literature which was reflective of old medieval values and style was still in favour. This may indicate that the literary sophistication of the court had not reached as far as had awareness of the material lifestyle of the court emulated by the provincial careerist gentry and nobility. However, during the fifteenth century the new literary style became popular outside the court and reached a larger audience around the country.

 


[i]Larry D. Benson, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (New York, 1965), p. 176.

[ii]Derek Pearsall and Elizabeth Salter, Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World (Toronto, 1973),  p. 177; see also L. D. Benson, ‘The Style of Sir Gawain’, Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, eds. Donald R. Howard and Christian Zacher (Notre Dame, 1968), pp. 109-124; and also Marie Borrof, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study (London, 1968) and ‘Criticism of Style: The Narrator in the Challenge Episode’, Critical Studies of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, pp. 125-143.    

[iii]Claes Schaar, The Golden Mirror: Studies in Chaucer’s Descriptive Technique and its Literary Background (Lund, 1955), pp. 2-3.

[iv]Alain Renoir, ‘Descriptive Technique in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Orbis Litterarum 13 (1958), pp. 126-132 and also ‘The Progressive Magnification: An instance of Psychological Description in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Moderna Språk 54 (1960), pp. 245-253; Sarah Stanbury looks at the Gawain-poets works in a similar way in Seeing the Gawain-Poet (Philadelphia, 1991).

[v]See B. J. Whiting, ‘Gawain: His Reputation, his Courtesy and his Appearance in Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale’, Medieval Studies 9 (1947), which suggests a direct influence between the two texts.

[vi]D. A. Pearsall, ‘Rhetorical Descriptio in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Modern Language Review 50 (1955), p. 131.

2 thoughts on “The Style of Middle English Alliterative Verse”

  1. Awesome! Your article has cleared up a lot of things for me about this topic. Of course, Chaucer does not utterly dispense with intentional accentual alliteration, just as the Gawain poet is not allergic to end of line rhyme. Both styles of poetry are accentual, and I think this aspect of them keeps them closer to each other than say either one versus Latin or Greek hexameters. I continue to be struck by the quantity of alliteration in Spencer and Chapman, besides more than might be expected in Chaucer. Are we certain, by the way, that alliterative poetry was not in vogue in London in Chaucer’s day? Also, it was assumed for centuries that the alliterative (right?) Piers Ploughman was written by Chaucer and was often included among his works in print.

    Alliteration remains a strong binding force, apparently, in a lot of modern free-verse.

    But indeed, once the concept of alliteration as a binding force to the poem ceases, the whole style changes significantly. I’m in a mood for an alliterative revival. Ironically perhaps, end of line rhyme seems to have started to sound a bit old fashioned and quaint to our modern ears! Several translations of Old and Middle English alliterative poems have been published and well received recently.

    I never thought of the style of poetry affecting so much the imagery and content, not just the sound and feel! Excellent insight! 🙂

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