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?’).
As well as Chaucer’s example, there were other sources of inspiration for fifteenth-century poets. Many poems of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries are noted for their use of aureate diction, the coining and using of polysyllabic words from French or Latin analogues. But aureate versification, i.e. the bringing of Latin techniques into English, was also a possible source for experimentation in Middle English and Middle Scots. Writers of Latin hymns and prayers in the later Middle Ages experimented with elaborate forms of the dactylic hexameter with internal rhyme. The most well-known of these forms is Leonine verse. Leonine verse divides the hexameter into three, with internal rhyme linking the first and second units.
Some later medieval grammatical and poetic treatises give lists of lots of other types of internally rhymed hexameters. There were versus salii mediati in which there are adjacent internal rhymes towards the beginning of the line: ‘Cum sentis, mentis sit pax; mala fare reatus / Ad matrem, patrem matris fuge, flere paratus.’ Or Adonici triformes with three rhymes all the same in a line: ‘Optima rerum, lux mulierum, dirige clerum.’ There are all sorts of variations on this theme and some with four or five internal rhymes per line. Often these experiments in internal rhyme occur in hymns praising the Lord or the Virgin Mary.
Middle Scottish poets, perhaps encouraged by Chaucer’s experiments in Anelida’s Complaint, imitated these Latin hymns. The first such imitation might be a prayer-poem by the Scottish poet Robert Henryson. It’s often edited as the final three stanzas of ‘Ane Prayer for the Pest’ (with the refrain ‘Preserve us fra this perrelus pestilens’), but it is more likely that it is a separate three-stanza ballade with the refrain ‘Lat nocht be tint that thow sa deir hes bocht’. This separate poem is also a prayer to God to preserve Scotland from the plague. To convey the gravity and desperation of his plea, Henryson fills his poem with poetic labour of an unprecedented type. Each stanza uses different types of internal rhyme, vernacular versions of various late medieval hexameter patterns.
The lines in the first stanza have internal rhyme in this pattern of syllables and rhymes: x a x a x x x x R (the capital R being the rhyme-scheme at the end of the line in these eight-line ababbcbc stanzas). The lines in the second stanza have internal rhyme in this pattern of syllables and rhymes: x x x a x a x x x R. The lines in the third stanza mix up these two patterns. The first line of the poem, and the penultimate line before the final refrain, have three internal rhymes: x a x a x a x x x R. Henryson’s lines sing out with rhyme like the most sonically decorated Latin hymnody.
William Dunbar goes even further in his ‘Ballat to our Lady’. It’s as if he’s thrown everything bar the kitchen sink at the poem in technical terms. The rhyme scheme is ababababLbab. The L stands for a Latin refrain-cum-bob line, Ave Maria, gracia plena. The a-rhyme lines try out internal rhyme in an octosyllabic line (x a x a x x x R), whilst the six-syllable b-rhyme lines don’t have internal rhyme but often have alliteration. This is aureate versification at its most spectacular, replicating in English many of the techniques that decorated Latin hymns.
Gavin Douglas would likely have known these poems or similar ones by Henryson and Dunbar. His dream-vision, The Palis of Honoure, ends with three stanzas in praise of Honour itself. The first stanza follows the Anelida and Arcite pattern with two internal rhymes: x x x a x x x a x R. The second stanza adds another internal rhyme to make three in total: x a x a x x x a x R. The third stanza has internal rhyme in every pair of syllables: x a x a x a x a x R. The modern edition hides the internal rhyme somewhat by using syntactical punctuation, but, as with the prints of Anelida’s Complaint, the printer recognised this internal pattern and marked it carefully for readers to appreciate.
These Scottish examples show the ambition of vernacular versification at the very end of the Middle Ages. The pentameter line could approximate to the Latin dactylic hexameter. Latin versification, most especially the various types of internally rhymed hexameter, could be reproduced (as far as possible) in English. English poetry could praise a divine being or plead with them for help on equal terms with Latin verse.