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.
Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is written in lines whose underlying structure is five weaker and five stronger stresses per line, usually arranged x / x / x / x / x / (x) (with x = weaker stress and / = stronger stress). (The extra weaker stress in brackets at the end of the line indicates a weakly-stressed syllable occurring after the rhyming sound falling on the last strongly-stressed syllable in the line, which doesn’t ‘count’ towards the syllable total of the line.) This is the basic rhythm of the line, giving the poem its beat, but there are lots of variations (as there should be, because if every line was in this pattern the poem would trot along in too monotonous a fashion).
You might find a headless line, so-called because the line ‘lacks’ the first weakly stressed syllable and starts with a stronger stress (see line 2 in the example at the foot of the post). You might find lines where the best-fit way to read them is to over-ride the usual pattern of weaker then stronger stress in part of the line, putting two strongly-stressed syllables or two weakly-stressed syllables next to each other or reversing the pattern (e.g. / x / x ). You might also find groups of monosyllabic words where three or four words seem to be about equally stressed, and need to be given a metrical pulse when you read (see the passages in red in the example below). If you are tempted to label a pause in a line a caesura, read this post first!
How do you work it out? When I was an undergraduate, I thought, stupidly, that you just examined each word in turn, ‘listening for’ or deciding its stress from how it sounded in isolation (and marking its syllables neatly with a / or an x, and that was it). My dear tutor at Magdalen, John Fuller, was (I realise in retrospect) very patient with an undergraduate who was rather deaf to poetry’s rhythms. Now I realise that metre works at the level of the whole line, a rhythm or pulse, a way of articulating words metrically, as poetry.
It’s NOT that each and every word has a fixed, discoverable pattern or quantity of stress. Some words do have a pattern which it would sound too odd to ‘over-ride’ (for example y-bounden from the example below, which could hardly be y-bounden). Thus they give you clue about how the pattern either side of them must work. Some words can be stressed in different ways (either Criseyde or Criseyde) and so you need to consider the pattern of the line as a whole. Some one-syllable words are usually lightly stressed, but can take a stronger stress if the beat of the line needs it.
Another necessary flexibility concerns how many syllables are pronounced. The number of syllables you can see on the page may need to be adjusted as you read metrically. Generally in Chaucer’s verse you have to pronounce inflectional endings (i.e. leves in the example below, which is two syllables rather than one) and pronounce the –e at the end of a word following a consonant unless the next word starts with a vowel or with h- or w-.
In the example below, pronounced endings and final –e’s are in italics and not-pronounced ones are underlined. In some cases, you need to ‘lose’ syllables as you articulate the line out loud. A vowel at the end of one word can run together with the vowel at the beginning of the next word (this is called elision). An unstressed syllable can be slurred over within a word (i.e. deliv’ren rather than deliveren).
Bearing these two types of flexibility in mind, try out the basic pattern on a line, hearing if this pattern ‘works’ or whether some sort of variant would make more sense. Try out different possible variations, by pronouncing or slurring over syllables. Remember that reading a line metrically always involves a negotiation between metrical, rhythmic reading and the ‘normal’ articulation of words. If you understand the metre of a line, you have a better idea about why Chaucer may have chosen certain words and not others, and how he was juggling the simultaneous demands of form and meaning.
Lots of regular lines without variations might give a sense of the verse flowing along (and perhaps, if triggered by the content of the lines, iconically embody movement, fluidity, inevitability). A headless line, because it breaks the expected pattern, might emphasise the word or phrase at the start of the line. Metrical reading may put a stronger stress on a grammar word. Here in line 4 the metre picks out the determiner ech, highlighting ever so faintly that every one of Troilus’s joys is gone.
And as in winter leves been biraft,
Eche after other, til the tree be bare,
So that ther nis but bark and braunche y-laft,
Lyth Troilus, biraft of ech wel-fare,
Y-bounden in the blake bark of care,
Disposed wood out of his wit to breyde,
So sore him sat the chaunginge of Criseyde.
[And as in winter leaves are lost, one after another, until the tree is bare, so that there is nothing but bark and branches left, [so] Troilus lies, bereft of every source of happiness, enclosed within the black bark of sorrow, intending to go mad out of his wits, so painfully did the exchange of Criseyde rest upon him.]
Paull F Baum, Chaucer’s Verse (Duke University Press, 1961)
Essays on the Art of Chaucer’s Verse, ed. Alan T Gaylord (Routledge, 2001)