Here’s an excerpt from the first section of the translation:
After the siege and the assault of Troy, when that burg was destroyed and burnt to ashes, and the traitor tried for his treason, the noble Æneas and his kin sailed forth to become princes and patrons of well-nigh all the Western Isles. Thus Romulus built Rome (and gave to the city his own name, which it bears even to this day); and Ticius turned him to Tuscany; and Langobard raised him up dwellings in Lombardy; and Felix Brutus sailed far over the French flood, and founded the kingdom of Britain, wherein have been war and waste and wonder, and bliss and bale, ofttimes since.
And in that kingdom of Britain have been wrought more gallant deeds than in any other; but of all British kings Arthur was the most valiant, as I have heard tell, therefore will I set forth a wondrous adventure that fell out in his time. And if ye will listen to me, but for a little while, I will tell it even as it stands in story stiff and strong, fixed in the letter, as it hath long been known in the land.
Weston’s translation is clear for the modern reader, but retains the power of the original poem (although in prose format).
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 hedehedes; greenish-blue, head, observes Of pillour, of palwerk, of perreto 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 seladynessercled 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 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 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.
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.