This glossary entry tells the tale of a ghost, a pseudo technical term of Middle English poetics, conjured into being (well, so I would argue) by well-meaning lexicographers. The Middle English Dictionary defines raf as ‘crude, worthless verse; a pejorative term for alliterative poetry’. The Oxford English Dictionary goes a little further, glossing raff as ‘Alliteration; verse, esp. alliterative verse, of a crude kind, or in which sound is more prominent than sense; an instance of such verse.’
This post is written in honour of the Third Annual Hoccleve Recovery Day. As the International Hoccleve Society’s website explains, this day celebrates all sorts of academic and personal recoveries and returns (just as Thomas Hoccleve’s wits returned to him on November 1st). The book I am writing aims to recover ‘lost’ technical terms and reconstruct ideas about poetics that were current in Britain in the later Middle Ages. Potential loss and possible recovery play an important part in the way fifteenth- and sixteenth-century poets think about metre. As a sixteenth-century printer put it, if you print a poem in the author’s original spelling you recover ‘the native grace and first mynd of the wryter’. This is because the author’s spelling encodes the rhythms and metrical patterns as first intended, which later transmission can unwittingly remove.
Three terms for the price of one in this blog post. An abece (or an abc) is a poem where each line or each stanza (or even each word in a stanza, in one particularly jazzy Latin example) begins with each letter of the alphabet in turn. Chaucer’s translation of Deguileville’s prayer to the Virgin Mary is usually called his ABC because each stanza of the poem begins with each letter in turn. Another Middle English poem, often called ‘The ABC of Devotion’, models itself on a child’s alphabet, beginning with a cross and ending with puns on the ‘tittle’ and ‘point’, the punctuation marks that sometimes followed the alphabet in a primer text.
This technical term provides a good example of the mis-named, the loosely-defined, the nameless and the only-belatedly-named in Middle English poetics. It’s a word sometimes flung about by my students when close-reading: any syntactical break (i.e. anywhere a line of poetry has a division between grammatical phrases or clauses, and especially if it’s near the middle of the line) gets called a caesura without too much thought. It’s one of those technical terms that gives you faux expertise: you can spot something easy (i.e. a syntactic break) and label it with a word which makes it seem as if you are analysing the metre. Joseph A Dane is usefully strict about how relevant the word is for Chaucer’s metre in this article (the answer is not very!).
A sneak preview of part of a work in progress, though I promise you that other blog posts will be very soon on their way (including all you might ever want to know about the caesura in Middle English poetry). I’ve been enjoying the school holidays with my daughter and this blog has therefore been a little neglected. I have, though, been working on a side project: a translation into Modern English prose of The Kingis Quair, an early fifteenth-century dream vision written by James I of Scotland.
geste (n), gesten (vb.)
This noun and verb are derived from Latin gesta and French geste, referring both to heroic deeds and to the recounting of such deeds. In Middle English, the noun has more expanded meanings too, referring to any kind of writing, whether narrative, prose, poetry or song.
The MED defines the verb gesten as ‘to recite metrical romances, recite alliterative verse’. There are indeed usages which suggest that some particular verse technique is intended, often in contrast to other formal categories. The Parson famously tells his fellow pilgrilms in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that ‘I am a Southren man; I kan nat geste “rom, ram, ruf” by lettre / Ne, god woot, rym holde I but litel bettre’ [I’m from the south of Britain: I can’t alliterate by letters, like rom, ram, ruf, and, God knows, I can’t keep rhyme going much better]. Harry Baily, when he puts a stop to Chaucer’s parody romance, Sir Thopas, tells Chaucer the pilgrim that ‘thou shalt no lenger ryme. / Lat se wher thou kanst tellen aught in geeste, / Or telle in prose somwhat’ [you must no longer rhyme – let’s see whether you can tell something in alliterative verse, or tell something in prose]. Continue reading
Just a quick post to say that my article on a group of fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century lyrics which in the past were misidentified as Middle English virelais has been published in Medium Ævum 85.1 (2016). The poems in question are in fact English versions of various French complainte forms. The article explains how they came to be misidentified, and discusses the imitation of French forms in English. It argues that this form was recognisable and had distinctive connotations, meaning that it could be used parodically or ironically in some instances. You can download a copy of the article here:
Here’s the text of the short talk I’m giving as part of a Roundtable discussion (Session 5D) on ‘After Chaucer’ at the New Chaucer Society Congress on Tuesday afternoon.
I’m pleased to say that my article on ‘Margaret of Anjou as Patron of English Verse?: The Liber Proverbiorum and the Romans of Partenay’, which will be published in Review of English Studies later this year, is now available via advance access. You can read the article online here or download a pdf here.
I’m off to the University of Sussex tomorrow to take part in a workshop on Middle English Literary Theory: Keywords and Methodologies, organised by Katie Walter and James Wade. I’m giving a short talk on two words of Middle English literary theory, poesie and poetrie. This talk builds on an earlier blog post on the same subject.