Stanza-linking

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.

One ‘middle Middle English’ fashion is for stanza-linking or concatenation, the linking of one stanza to another by the repetition of words from the last line of one stanza in the first line of the next.  This joins the poem together stanza by stanza as if it were a chain, a catena. This is different from the repetition which links one part of a stanza to another part of that same stanza (which I’d call iteration for the sake of having a different term and separating the two things out – more on iteration in my next post).  Stanza-linking is probably what Robert Mannyng calls enterlace when he explains that he will not use the complex poetics used by professional minstrels but instead will choose simpler forms for his Story of England (trans. 1327 to 1338).

I haven’t quite worked out where stanza-linking comes from yet.  French chansons de geste often link the end of one laisse (a verse paragraph in which all of the lines end on the same assonance) to another by repeating words or phrases from the last line of one and the first of the next.  This repetition does the job of marking that something has altered (one assonance giving way to another) but also tying the narrative together at the point of change.  The same technique (called cyrch-gymeriad) appears in early Welsh poetry to link together individual englynion into a longer sequence.

In ‘middle Middle English’, stanza-linking poetry isn’t restricted to specific form or subject.  It appears in lyrics (religious, satiric and political, especially in some of the Harley 2253 lyrics and the poems associated with Laurence Minot) and in narrative in both tail-rhyme and stanzaic-alliterative verse.  If it just appeared in narrative verse, you might think that its job was mainly functional, assisting reciters and scribes by giving them a noticeable feature with which to check that they hadn’t skipped over a stanza.  But that explanation doesn’t hold water, as it doesn’t appear very consistently in tail-rhyme narratives, except in Sir Perceval of Galles, a romance with comic and parodic elements written in an intricate sixteen-line tail-rhyme stanza.  I wonder, a bit like Chaucer’s Sir Thopas, whether the Perceval author sticks strictly to stanza-linking as part of the parodic effect: hyping up as many formal elements as possible.

Stanza-linking is used most consistently in short lyrics, where you’d think a scribe would be much less likely to misplace stanzas.  It often appears in combination with alliteration, rhyme or something which Ad Putter calls ‘total consonance’. (Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? I’ll get to this in a later blog.)  So, stanza-linking is not so much functional but aesthetic and conceptual, adding internal ties in poetry which finds as many ways as possible to fill its verse with echoes.

Stanza-linking does the job taken on by the refrain in later poetry (that is, having whole or part of the last line the same in each stanza).  Something (whether stanza-linking or refrain) must keep one stanza in explicit relation to the next (or, in the case of the refrain, relate the individual stanza to the whole).  Stanza-linking preemptively reacts against the possible separation which might occur when the set of rhymes in one stanza gives way to another.  Without stanza-linking or a refrain, nothing (beyond repeated structure) links the two, and they could fly apart.  It’s as if these poets feel that a poem needs gravitational force to keep it from subdividing.  If rhymes change, there needs to be something which repeats and joins.

All this brings us to Pearl, that most notable example of concatenation.  ‘The poem joins its stanzas together by concatenation like beads in a necklace or links on a chain’, an observation I’ve trotted out when teaching a fair number of times, very pleased with my connection of content and form.  Except that it doesn’t do that, not exactly.  It does use stanza-linking, but in groups of five (or, in one case, six), which is not quite the same.  Instead of each stanza being a link in the chain, the stanza-linking repetion, in combination with the repeated C-rhymes which it necessitates (ababababbcbC), holds five stanzas together, creating an inertia which resists the usual impulse to move on.

Because the link words don’t move on but repeat for five stanzas, in Pearl stanza-linking is simultaneously a refrain, five stanzas whose last lines are either the same, or who share a number of repeated words, or merely share the final rhyme word.  The poem finds a way to unite the earlier fashion for stanza-linking and the later trend for refrain poems.

So stanza-linking in Pearl produces not so much individual stanza-beads, but twenty ‘lyrics’ which work to keep the reader’s mind in one place until the poem moves on to its next group.  When the refrain is just a word or a phrase, often in passages of description or debate or argument, the effect is pretty muted – we concentrate more on the developing narrative.  When the refrain repeats one word but changes another, we pay more attention to the progression of ideas around one key image: ‘joyles jueler’, ‘gentyl jueler’, ‘joyfol jueler’.  In some sections, the whole last line is repeated, creating an isolable refrained lyric.  The dreamer and maiden share a ‘lyric’ with the refrain ‘grounde of alle my blysse’, while the maiden has a ‘lyric’ of praise and illumination at the centre of the poem, with the refrain ‘For the grace of God is gret innoghe.’

Rethinking the concatenation in Pearl (and working out what I’m sure many readers have realised already) takes me back to the question of what to call these twenty groups of stanzas.  They are usually called passus in Latin, equivalent to the Middle English pas, a step, a section, a passage (both a movement and a division on the page).  This term is used for the divisions of Langland’s Piers Plowman, and possibly (I’m still working on this!) for alliterative narrative.  But I am not quite so sure that the Pearl-poet would have given the subdivisions of Pearl that name.  What they are, if nameless, is an ingenious combination of stanza-linking and refrain, creating lyric equipoise in narrative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


4 + = eight

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>