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.
As I’ll explain in a moment, that particular printer was talking about returning a work printed in England with English spelling to its original Scottish spelling. But English scribes could obfuscate the metre of English poems in similar fashion. Both alliterative and accentual-syllabic Middle English metre rely, in part, on small variations in language to achieve their metre. Amongst many other tactics, poets choose between one variant and other to get the right syllable count, to produce the alternating rhythms we call ‘iambic’, or, in the case of classic alliterative metre, to avoid regular iambic rhythms. The use of final –e is one famous variation required by Chaucer’s metre (i.e. the inflectional ending –e on certain classes of words which could be sounded if the metre required it or deleted if not), but Ad Putter (in a great article in Poetica, 67 (2007)) gives other examples of potential variation: for example different forms of verbs (lyen, liggen); different past tenses (shon, shynede); adding adverbial –es to prepositions and adverbs (agayne, agaynes). Ralph Hanna (in his edition of Speculum Vitae) gives the example of the word commandments which could have three, four or five syllables in Middle English (commaundments, commaundements, commaundementes).
This subtle use of linguistic variants is very easy to lose when texts are copied by hand and where spelling is not standardised (though paradoxically it is that very same potential variation which makes this metrical sophistication possible). If a scribe changes spelling, switches variants, edits, rewrites or miscopies a poem, that poem’s metre may cease to function in some lines. So in their metre poets are creating something which could so so easily get lost, a precious and fragile creation.
As a result, poets often wrote warnings about potential losses into their poems. Chaucer, at the end of Troilus, very famously acknowledges that there is ‘so greet diversitee / In English and in wryting of our tonge’. This potential variety provides him with the linguistic resources to write in decasyllables, but the self-same variation may also damage the metre of the poem. He prays on behalf of his poem ‘that noon miswryte thee, / Ne thee mismetre for defaute of tonge’ [that no one miswrite you nor mismetre you for deficiency/error/fault in language].
Poets coming after Chaucer imitated this injunction, often specifying very precisely what scribes should do. The final stanza of Knyghthode and Bataile talks to the text’s future scribe: ‘Thi writer eek, pray him to taken hede / Of thi cadence and kepe Ortographie, / That neither he take of ner multiplye.’ Cadence, as I’ve argued in my glossary entry, refers to patterns of rhythms in the text, i.e. the text’s metre. The scribe must pay attention to rhythm and preserve the author’s spelling (its orthography), so that he does not subtract or add syllables which are necessary to the author’s metre. This translation of Vegetius’s De re militari is noted for its exceptionally regular decasyllables, so the poet here warns any scribe to preserve the poem’s original spelling so as to preserve its metre.
Gilbert Hay, a fifteenth-century Scottish poet and translator, ends his Buik of King Alexander the Conquerour asking for forgiveness from his future readers: ‘all that sould the readeris be, / For thair gentrice thay sould assonȝe me / Gife ony falt be fundit in this dyit, / Or in the maner of spelling that I wreit,’ [all who might be readers, for their gentility that they should excuse me, if any fault be found in this poem, or in the manner of spelling that I write]. Hay fears his own spelling (perhaps of Chaucerian diction borrowed into English) will be perceived as a fault. It may also be that he fears his own spelling will not convey his metre accurately, or that the manner of spelling necessary for his metre may be disapproved of by his readers.
Just as Scottish poets drawing on English vocabulary might affect the ability of readers to recover a poem’s metre, so could the printing of Scottish works by English printers in predominantly English orthography. As quoted above, the printer Henry Charteris, in his preface to his 1568 edition of Sir David Lyndsay’s works, complains that English printers ‘haif gane about to bring thame [i.e. Lyndsay’s poems] to the southerne language, alterand the vers and collouris thairof, in sic placis, as thai culd admit na alteratioun: quhairfoir the native grace and first mynd of the wryter is oftentymes pervertit’ [they have endeavoured to convert them into the southern language, altering the verse and the rhythms thereof, in such places where such alteration could not be accommodated: wherefore the native grace and initial thoughts of the writer are often times perverted]. He promises that their version in Scots spelling will recover Lyndsay’s initial intentions, a comment which reveals how intimately a poet’s metre was imagined to connect to a poet’s thoughts.
As well as worrying about what might be lost, poets also encouraged their readers to recover the poem’s metre if it had gone astray. Daniel Wakelin has recently surveyed the various discussions of correction in his brilliant book on Scribal Correction. Among the examples Dan collects is Hoccleve asking the duke of York to ensure that his servant, Picard, will correct his poetry if Picard finds ‘Meetrynge amis’. Lydgate too asks readers of the Fall of Princes that they ‘Favoure the metre and do correccyoun’ and asks readers of the Troy Book ‘wher any word myssit [i.e. is misplaced], / Causyng þe metre to be halte or lame, / For to correcte, to save me fro blame’.
Dan’s book focuses for the most part on scribes correcting their own copying on the page, but I wonder if Hoccleve and Lydgate were also imagining correction whilst reading out loud. Just as we sometimes instinctively pronounce poetry in ways that will help it scan (eliding a vowel in the middle of a word, or contracting a word like over into o’er, or sounding an extra syllable: like on Only Connect when the teams ask for the hornED viper), medieval readers were invited to help recover rhythms which had got lost. Once they recognised the poem’s underlying metrical pattern (or knew in theory what its pattern could be), they could reconstruct lost metrical rhythms.
James I of Scotland at the end of his Kingis Quair tells his poem to rely on his reader’s willingness to improve the metre if necessary: ‘thy brukilnese to knytt, / And his tong for to reule and to stere, / That thy defautis helit may ben here’ [to mend your frailty, and to rule and govern his language/tongue so that your defaults may be here healed]. A skilful reader can so control his language in the reading of the verse that he can heal metrical flaws (which may have occurred through authorial ineptitude or scribal variation).
Gilbert Hay’s Buik of King Alexander was, later in its history, revised by a redactor who claims to have tried to improve and correct the version of Hay’s text that he had found in manuscript. This later redactor spells out even more clearly how readers can help recover a text’s metre: ‘3e worthe readeris, richt hartlie I 3ow pray, / Quhen 3e it reid, 3e help it þar 3e may, / Sillabis or wordis heir suppois þat I / Throw negligence I haue lattin pas by’ [you worthy readers, I beg you very earnestly, when you read it, you help it where you can, assume syllables or words here which I through negligence have overlooked]. The redactor has corrected Hay’s text to restore its metre, but he may have missed a few places, and readers will need to play their part in recovering what is lost.
Poems often help us, but they need our help too. We need to understand metre and teach it to students so that they can recover it too, whether it is lost by scribes or by editors. That way the poet’s first mind will return to its first home, the poem.