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.
The other thing the DIMEV search reminds me of is that not all forms which might be superficially similar derive from the same context or have the same associations. As well as nine-line ballade stanzas with various rhyme-schemes, the search returns many other nine-line stanzas used for carols or songs (rhyming aaaabcccb, ababcdddc, aaabaaaabb), often with varying line lengths. So, some nine-line stanzas have a more general identity, whether it be ‘ballade stanza’ or ‘song form’.
That being said, some of the verse in nine-line stanza does very definitely gain and sustain an identity, a set of associations and meanings. In the case of the nine-line stanza, the story of its identity starts with Chaucer. Chaucer uses nine-line stanzas for the majority of Anelida’s Complaint (rhyming aabaabbab) and for the complaint section of the Complaint of Mars (rhyming aabaabbcc). In both poems this more elaborate form for the complaint contrasts with the rhyme royal used for the narrative. Both complaints associate this nine-line form with a noble and/or mythological speaker, a speaker who laments, who speaks directly to us and to the absent lover via apostrophe and anaphora.
The idea of a nine-line stanza caught Hoccleve’s eye in the decades after Chaucer’s death. He writes a lenvoy poem to the Duke and Duchess of York in this nine-line stanza (aabaabbab), a poem which accompanied a collection of Hoccleve’s ballades which the duke had requested. Hoccleve’s short poems are in seven and eight-line stanzas, so a nine-line presentation poem is the cherry on the cake, an unprecedented form for a noble patron. He uses a similar strategy in a nine-line presentation poem (rhyming ababbcbbc, a kind of expanded octave) which accompanies a copy of his Regiment of Princes for John, third son of Henry IV. Prince Henry, John’s older brother, had a dedication poem in eight-line stanzas, so Hoccleve’s dedication to Prince John offers him a stanza-form yet more special than his older brother.
Though they are both relegated to Chaucer’s minor works now, Anelida and Arcite (of which Anelida’s Complaint is one part) and the Complaint of Mars were popular in the fifteenth century, surviving in a fair number of manuscripts. Caxton printed Anelida and Arcite in 1477. These nine-line-stanza complaints were particularly influential in Scotland. The question of which Scottish text used this form first hinges on the respective dating of Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid and Blind Hary’s Wallace (a romance biography of the Scottish hero, Sir William Wallace). The Wallace was written in the 1470s, while the Testament could have been written before or after the Wallace.
The wonderfully named and rather enigmatic Blind Hary (as he is called in treasurer’s accounts from the Scottish royal court) was, despite his disability, a well-read man who knew quite a lot of Chaucer’s poetry. The bulk of the Wallace is written in couplets, but Blind Hary also switches forms. In Book II, he approaches a scene in which Wallace laments his early misfortune. Even before Wallace begins his lament, Blind Harry shifts from couplets into the nine-line stanza. This shift tells us readers to expect complaint, apostrophe and direct address. Hary uses the nine-line stanza for Wallace’s prayer, and then the narrator’s apostrophe to Wallace and also his comments to his audience. He carries on in this form for Wallace’s supposed meeting with Thomas the Rymer and Thomas’s prophecy of victory over the English. He concludes this section with another address to ‘all worthi men’ – he doesn’t swap back to couplets until all of his various forms of address are completed. Using this form associates Wallace with noble complaint made by a blameless speaker who has been betrayed by others.
Robert Henryson also uses the nine-line form, perhaps inspired by Blind Hary’s Wallace and/or by his reading of Anelida’s Complaint. The narrative of his Testament of Cresseid (the story of ‘what happened next’ after the end of Chaucer’s Troilus) is written in rhyme royal, but Henryson switches to the nine-line aabaabbab stanza for the lament that she utters about her fall in fortune from a noble lady of Troy to a leper in a leper house. Henryson has Criseyde describe her own voice as ‘rawk as ruik, full hiddeous, hoir and hace’ [raw as a rook’s, very hideous, rough and hoarse’], exactly as leprosy does often drastically alter the voice of its sufferers. Elsewhere this complaint is described as crying, sighing and moaning: it is the stuff of pure emotion and despair, spoken in the roughest of voices. But the verse-form of the complaint demonstrates precisely the opposite, painstaking artistry and harmonious repetition of rhyme and metre. I’m not sure what to do with that paradox. Is Henryson happy to divorce form from content and voice? Is this form ironic, Anelida the betrayed but Criseyde the betrayer? Is it simple signalling, i.e. this is a complaint, its speaker is a noble female? Is it that poetry can make her eloquent even in this situation?
Henryson’s spectacular complaint popularised the nine-line stanza in Scotland, alongside the influence of Chaucer’s Anelida. Both versions of the nine-line stanzas are used in three short poems in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Arch. Selden. B. 24: the Lay of Sorrow, the Lufaris Compaynt, and for parts of the Quare of Jelusy. As their titles suggest, they each concern sorrow in love in some way, using the nine-line stanza for exclamation, apostrophe and lament in a way that makes its identity clear.
Then, perhaps, the nine-line stanza loses its identity again, though keeping an association with writing about love. William Dunbar uses it as a stanza for narrative rather than lyric in his spectacular dream vision, The Golden Targe. Perhaps he uses it just to show off: the poem as a whole is a celebration of rhetoric, rhyme, aureate diction and allegory. Yet (and I hadn’t really thought of this till I thought about its form), the Golden Targe does describe the process of falling in love until the narrator arrives at ‘Hevyness’, that is, Depression. The narrator arrives at the very place, despair in love, that the associations of the stanza form have hinted at all along.
But it may be that it simply takes over from rhyme royal, by now pretty ubiquitous, as a stanza for courtly narrative. Gavin Douglas uses this stanza-form for narrative in the Palis of Honoure, as does John Rolland in his Court of Venus. Like many stanza forms, it gains identity and loses it again over time.