Category Archives: alliteration

Dangerous form

The early sixteenth-century poem presented and translated at the foot of this blog probably needs a trigger warning, at least for those of us who’ve had such dark moments in life that we’ve thought of ending it all.  This ballade (if you use that term pretty loosely) describes a night-time vision of a murdered man who encourages the narrator, perhaps a despairing lover, to kill himself. The final stanza revamps the familiar ending of a dream vision in which an authority figure urges some action and/or some startling event occurs, the violence of which awakens the dreamer.  Here it is the speaker’s suicide which ends the dream.  The last line, flinging us into the present tense, gives a vivid picture of the speaker’s heart thumping as he wakes.

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This glossary entry tells the tale of a ghost, a pseudo technical term of Middle English poetics, conjured into being (well, so I would argue) by well-meaning lexicographers.  The Middle English Dictionary defines raf  as ‘crude, worthless verse; a pejorative term for alliterative poetry’.  The Oxford English Dictionary goes a little further, glossing raff as ‘Alliteration; verse, esp. alliterative verse, of a crude kind, or in which sound is more prominent than sense; an instance of such verse.’

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acrostic, abece, poyse

Three terms for the price of one in this blog post.  An abece (or an abc) is a poem where each line or each stanza (or even each word in a stanza, in one particularly jazzy Latin example) begins with each letter of the alphabet in turn.  Chaucer’s translation of Deguileville’s prayer to the Virgin Mary is usually called his ABC because each stanza of the poem begins with each letter in turn.  Another Middle English poem, often called ‘The ABC of Devotion’, models itself on a child’s alphabet, beginning with a cross and ending with puns on the ‘tittle’ and ‘point’, the punctuation marks that sometimes followed the alphabet in a primer text.

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geste (n), gesten (vb.)

geste (n), gesten (vb.)

This noun and verb are derived from Latin gesta and French geste, referring both to heroic deeds and to the recounting of such deeds.  In Middle English, the noun has more expanded meanings too, referring to any kind of writing, whether narrative, prose, poetry or song.

The MED defines the verb gesten as ‘to recite metrical romances, recite alliterative verse’.  There are indeed usages which suggest that some particular verse technique is intended, often in contrast to other formal categories.  The Parson famously tells his fellow pilgrilms in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that ‘I am a Southren man; I kan nat geste “rom, ram, ruf” by lettre / Ne, god woot, rym holde I but litel bettre’ [I’m from the south of Britain: I can’t alliterate by letters, like rom, ram, ruf, and, God knows, I can’t keep rhyme going much better].  Harry Baily, when he puts a stop to Chaucer’s parody romance, Sir Thopas, tells Chaucer the pilgrim that ‘thou shalt no lenger ryme. / Lat se wher thou kanst tellen aught in geeste, / Or telle in prose somwhat’ [you must no longer rhyme – let’s see whether you can tell something in alliterative verse, or tell something in prose]. Continue reading geste (n), gesten (vb.)

How to talk about… alliteration

Alliteration is the repetition of the same or similar sounds at the beginning of a word.  In modern definitions, alliteration usually refers to the repetition of consonants or consonant clusters (i.e. str, th).  Some Middle English poetry uses alliteration in every single line as part of its metre and form.  This is structural alliteration, alliteration which is part of the structure of every line.  This post is NOT discussing how to talk about structural alliteration in alliterative verse, but rather how to talk about sporadic, ornamental alliteration in Middle English non-alliterative verse.

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Pearl: Tiny-Justments

As we change over to the new syllabus, this is the last year in which our Finalists might write a exam commentary on an extract from the Middle English poem Pearl.  In the next couple of weeks I’m therefore saying farewell to Pearl as a commentary text, but at the same time looking at it yet once more, having done a bit more reading and thinking about form, metre and versification.  Embarrassingly, several things on my old Pearl handout for Finalists now need what in our house is called a ‘tiny-justment’ (in honour of our daughter’s toddlerish repetition of Mr Stylisticienne the Engineer saying that such and such toy needed ‘a tiny adjustment’ in order to work).  This post is really a collection of tiny-justments, for this last year of Pearl commentators (hello Teddy Hall Finalists!), and for me, and for anyone else who’s interested, of ideas about how one might approach Pearl’s metre and stanza-form for Finals commentary.

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Mixed-Up Death

One of the ever-present temptations when writing about poetics is the urge to classify and produce taxonomies, to label different types of versification as different traditions, opposite categories, or mutually exclusive praxis. This approach tends to value conformity, whilst it implies that poems that don’t ‘fit’ or ‘behave’ are in some way inadequate or failing. This week’s extract (scroll down for text and translation) is part of an apostrophe to Death written by an anonymous fifteenth-century poet. It’s a good example of the poetic mixture that defies categorisation or allocation to a particular tradition.

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Frozen and Free

This week’s poem (scroll down for text and translation) is a medieval version of constraint writing, in which a writer constrains themselves to comply with an arbitrary rule or pattern.  In this tiny poem, almost every word begins with the letter f.  It seems likely that the poet was inspired by similar experiments in medieval Latin poetry.  For example, eighteen lines on Saint Peter the Martyr (d. 1252) with each word beginning, fittingly, with p, or Hucbald of St Amand’s tenth-century Ecloga de clavis, a poem in praise of bald men, dedicated to the emperor Charles the Bald, 146 lines in which all words begin with c, a letter choice which, perhaps, represents the ring of hair remaining around a bald pate.

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