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.
Middle English poetry relies on repetition to create its rhythms and artfulness. Metre and rhyme-schemes are in themselves patterns of repetition, patterns of alternate stress and of repeated rhyme-sounds. Repetitions can be consciously planned by poets, built into their poetry even as they juggle the demands of meaning, metre and rhyme. Or they can be found in poems by readers who can find meaning and coherence in something a poet has not consciously planned. As well as the repetition of words and phrases, grammatical structures can be repeated (i.e. the same syntactical pattern repeated with different words in each instance).
A little while ago (before my blogging got derailed by the marking of a great number of Finals scripts), I read this talk by Laura Saetveit Miles, and before that this article by Diane Watt. Reading them, I was ruefully aware that my current research on poetic experimentation in Middle English would fail an academic ‘Bechdel test’. It’s not that women didn’t write in Britain in the Middle Ages: see Alexandra Barratt’s anthology of Women’s Writing in Middle English and the collection of essays edited by Carol Meale as just a starting point. But it does seem to be the case that only a very few women are named as composers of Middle English verse.
Here’s another love poem, this time a short lover’s lament (DIMEV 3269) from London, British Library MS Harley 913. Scroll down for a text and translation. MS Harley 913 is a trilingual mid-fourteenth-century anthology of poetry and prose, copied by a Franciscan friar living in Waterford in the south of Ireland. The poem narrates how love has brought the speaker into sinful thought, then to the absence of reason and reflection (which nonetheless proves futile as a means of escaping love), then into grief and anxiety, and then to despair. It ends with his resolution to continue even without hope of his lady’s favour until death and the grave.
After the sounds of old age come the sounds and signs of death. These derive from medical lists of symptoms given in Hippocrates and Galen (see Rosemary Woolf, The English Religious Lyric in the Middle Ages (1968), pp. 79–82). Some medieval poets, whether for mnemonic, rhetorical or other purposes, transformed them into verse. In the early fourteenth-century Fascisculus Morum (a handbook for preachers written by a Franciscan friar), three Latin couplets listing the signs of death attributed (apocryphally) to St Jerome are cited, as well as a Middle English poem beginning ‘When the hede quakyth / And the lyppis blakyth’ which gives eight different signs of death before a brief conclusion. Other versions, medical and moral, are recorded by R H Robbins, ‘Signs of Death in Middle English’, Mediaeval Studies, 32 (1970), 282–98.