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.
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!).
One of poetry’s special qualities is that it can be language made metrical, structured with repeating units and patterns of rhythm. Like music, it has a regular beat, though as with music you can temporarily step away from this repeating pattern, knowing that the beat can be re-found. Poems written in Middle English are written in lots of different types of metrical systems (for example octosyllabics, alliterative long lines or decasyllabics, amongst several other types and mixtures), some unique to each author or work. So your first job, if you’re analysing a Middle English poem, is to turn to the introduction of your edition and find out about the specific metrical practice of the particular poem you are reading. For a great introduction to the metre of Middle English alliterative verse, see this website. Much of what I say in the post below only really works for Chaucer’s Troilus.
I think that the book I am working on will become more and more focused on lesser-known poetic experiments in Middle English. Because these curious creatures don’t often fit into standard accounts, they have often been unduly overlooked. Scroll down for an extract (with a translation) of a real hidden gem, describing a lover’s thoughts on a cold winter’s night. This is from a poem often attributed to Lydgate (though it seems very unlike anything else he wrote) and is often called A Lover’s New Year’s Gift.
When is a poem not a poem? This week sees the final of a national poetry recitation competition, Poetry By Heart, for 14 to 18 year olds. Encouragingly, given that medieval literature is these days not so often taught in schools, Middle English poetry is featured on the competition’s timeline of pieces from which to choose. Indeed, last year’s winner, Kaiti Soultana, chose the extract from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in the original Middle English, as one of her recitations. Here‘s her winning performance.