Tag Archives: Alliterative verse

Does Chaucer’s descriptive style illustrate the sophistication of his audience?

Geoffrey_Chaucer (1343-1400)
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At the end of the fourteenth century in England there were two distinct schools of poetry. One based on rhymed metre and located around London and the royal courts, with Chaucer as its main poet, and the other using alliterative verse based in the northern counties, taking its style from Anglo-Saxon.

Alliterative poetry’s  structure of two half lines each containing two stressed syllables made it appropriate for listing of detail, for instance this description of Guinevere from the Awntyrs off Arthure:

In a gleterand gide that glemed full gay-                     gown
With riche ribaynes reuersset, ho so right redes,      turned back, considers
Rayled with rybees of riall aray;                 arrayed, rubies
Her hode of a hawe huwe, ho that here hede hedesgreenish-blue, head, observes
Of pillour, of palwerk, of perre to pay;   fur, garments of rich cloth, jewels, pleasantly
Schurde in a short cloke that the rayne shedes;   Clothed, throws off
Set ouer with saffres sothely to say,     sapphires
With saffres and seladynes sercled on the sides;  celidonies, set in a circular pattern

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 such as in the above description of Guinevere.

The style of description in alliterative verse is more concrete and direct than the rhymed metre of Chaucer. Chaucer tends to imply with a wink and a nudge his narrator’s opinion of something without actually describing them, often implying that his audience can and should imagine for themselves what something looks like. For instance compare these two descriptions of feasts, one from Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale:

I wol nat tellen of hir strange sewes,              sauces
Ne of hir swannes, nor of hire heronsewes.         young herons


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

With this much more detailed account from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

Dayntes dryuen therwyth of ful dere metes,                  poured
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 bry3t wyn bothe.


Does this tell us something about the different audience of Chaucer’s poems and the alliterative poetry composed for a regional gentry/aristocratic audience? Possibly I think. In my book The Court in English Alliterative Poetry, 1350-1450 I suggest that alliterative poetry often portrayed the court and its trappings as something to aspire to – thus the lavish description. While perhaps Chaucer’s audience at the Royal and Ducal courts of London were more interested in ideas and how these were illustrated by the story. I think that Chaucer knew his audience well; they didn’t want to dwell on lengthy descriptions, but were instead more interested in the inner motivation of the story’s characters rather than their outer depiction.

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Kindle Edition now available for The Court in English Alliterative Poetry

The Court in English Alliterative Poetry, 1350-1450

Unfortunately no preview available for the Kindle version!

Here’s the synopsis though in case you’re interested:

My thesis aims to explore certain links between literature and society in the portrayal of courtly society in a group of alliterative texts: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Awntyrs off Arthure at the Terne Wathelyn, Morte Arthure, Wars of Alexander and the Gest Historiale of the Destruction of Troy. The thesis will look at the social function of the texts and how they affect their audience. I will suggest that the particular style and content of the poems encourages aspiration to a material courtly culture and that they also give moral instruction on how to live nobly. I will suggest that the audience for these poems consists of provincial gentry and lower nobility, not overly familiar with the ways of the royal court, and so in need of instruction into the ways of courtly culture. Therefore these poems have been written in a way which is specially adapted to the social needs of their audience.

In the introduction I will outline the development of the court in the late Middle Ages, the possible audience for the poems and the descriptive style of alliterative verse. In chapter one I will look at descriptions of personal appearance and clothes in the poems and how these descriptions are both materially aspirational and morally instructive. In chapter two I will examine how the different types of court buildings in the poems convey particular ideas about the nature of the court. Chapter three consists of a discussion of the ideal feast which was bacsed on opulence, but also moderation. In chapter four I will look at how the poems conveyed the political aspirations of the gentry and provincial nobility in regard to their king.

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