Why do we call a line of poetry a line in English when it is a vers in French (though we do use verse and verses to mean ‘poetry’)? What did Middle English poets call their lines of poetry? In their (at least) trilingual world, they had plenty of words for the basic units of poetry. A metrical line is a versus in Latin (and by extension versus means a set of verses, i.e. a poem). Continental and Insular French usage follows this: a vers is a metrical line. Vers signifies the core unit of poetry, marked out by repeating segments of metre and rhyme. Poetry was in verses whether it was copied as prose (with its units marked by metrical punctuation) or lineated as verse.
My last post explored stanza-linking or concatenation, the chaining of one stanza to another by the repetition of a word or phrase. This post is about linking within the stanza, which I would prefer to call iteration to keep the two things separate. Iteration means doing something over again, repeating or renewing something. The poet repeats a word or a phrase at the same point within each stanza (meaning that the iteration is part of the verse-form rather than incidental repetition), and this repetition of the same word or phrase produces a point of linkage within the stanza. Sometimes the link is not exact but rather a repetition of the same root word in a different tense or form, or a punning link where the same word appears in two different senses. Here you can find iteration in lines 73 and 74 of Three Dead Kings:
Researching rhyme and repetition has taken me far into early and mid-fourteenth-century poetry, the stuff that was in fashion before Langland, Gower and Chaucer remodelled poetics, what you might call ‘middle Middle English’. The Gawain-poet, often seen as the fourth member of the Ricardian gang, has many formal affiliations with the poetry of the 1330s, 1340s and 1350s. Here a hat tip is very much in order: I couldn’t have got to grips with this in the last few weeks without the scholarship of Thorlac Turville-Petre, Susanna Fein and Ad Putter.
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.’
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!).
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 geste (n), gesten (vb.)
My last post looked at Chaucer’s experiments with internal rhyme in Anelida’s Complaint. Though we think of it as an unfinished minor work, Anelida and Arcite survives in plenty of manuscripts and was printed by Caxton in 1477. Poets could thus easily borrow Chaucer’s technique of subdividing a pentameter into three units of 4, 4 and 2 syllables, with the first two units of four rhyming (i.e. ‘My swete foo, why do ye so, for shame?’).
This is the first of two or three posts on internal rhyme in later medieval English and Scottish verse. There is a small craze for internal rhyming in later Middle English and Middle Scots poetry. In the last few weeks (well, when not swamped by teaching and revision), I’ve been trying to untangle the various threads and traditions involved.
Exploring the nine-line stanza in Middle English is a good lesson in what sort of identities stanza-forms can have. If you search for nine-line stanzas in the Digital Index of Middle English Verse, you find 60 odd entries. About a third of the poems in this form are written by Charles d’Orleans, some of the many lyrics which make up his Fortunes Stabilnes. In French lyric verse, ballades are written in stanzas of various different lengths. Charles’s nine-line stanza ballades are merely one variation amongst a number of different stanza-forms which he uses for his ballades.