Being mother to a five year old, I am only too aware of the delights of toilet humour. Small children, like poets, can’t resist the urge to see if they can shock you with new words they have learned at school. The beginning lines of The Owl and the Nightingale have a rather scatological fixation too. This opening, the initial argument which unfolds before the birds agree to ask Nicholas of Guildford to arbitrate, works as a prologue for what follows. Nicolette Zeeman, in an essay on ‘Imaginative Theory’ in Middle English: Oxford Twenty-First Century Approaches to Literature, argues that we can only recognize the full extent of medieval writers’ ‘literary self-theorization’, that is their self-reflexive analysis of their own literary practice and perhaps also of literature itself, when we realise that some of this theorization appears in texts in figurative or metaphorical form.
Setting about a guide to poetics throws up some simple, central and yet terrifyingly big questions. When, for example, does enjambment (re-)start in English verse? Enjambed lines of verse are frequent in Old English, but much less common in pre-1350 poetry. Donka Minkova’s excellent introduction to ‘The Forms of Verse’ in Peter Brown’s A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c. 1350-c.1500 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007) asserts that before Chaucer ‘Middle English verse was end-stopped, meaning that each line-ending coincided with a major syntactic break – the end of a clause or phrase’ (p. 187). Chaucer is claimed as the re-originator of a ‘new and unexpected’ (p. 188) verse innovation, namely enjambed or run-on lines ‘in which a syntactic […] unit straddles two lines’. She gives as examples House of Fame 349–50 and 582–83.