Making happy stanzas

My last post looked at characters sharing lines and stanzas in Middle English cycle plays.  These shared lines and stanzas were sometimes ominous or implicative, showing how characters are drawn into evil or collaborate in cruelty.  But joining together in the construction of a stanza can also signal joy and celebration in these plays. This post shows you some of these spectacular collaborative stanzas in Middle English drama.

In the Entry to Jerusalem episode in the N-town cycle, the disciples John and Peter preach to the inhabitants of the Holy City.  Their preaching is presented in octave stanzas, rhyming ababbcbc.  When Christ arrives at the city gates, the dramatist has four citizens join together to create a stanza describing their excitement at His arrival.  They agree that they should welcome Christ: they would prepare diligently for the arrival of an earthly ruler, so they should do much much more for the Heavenly King.  It is a spontaneous version of an English royal entry, which often featured stanzaic verse spoken by characters or presented on placards.  The four citizens between them create one of the octave stanzas used by John and Peter.


In the N-town Purification of the Virgin, the prophets Simeon and Anna welcome Mary and Joseph with a similar stanza when they enter the temple.  The play as a whole is mostly written in a 10-line stanza aabaabbcbc, with most characters taking their turns in the dialogue in whole stanzas.  There is a little bit of stanza-sharing elsewhere in this pageant, but this collaborative stanza really stands out.  Just as the prophets spontaneously herald Mary, so too the form of the stanza itself celebrates this special moment.  This stanza brings together anaphoric repetition (often found in medieval devotional lyrics which begin each line with ‘hail’ or ‘welcome’) with alternating speakers who jointly weave together the crossing rhyme of this stanza pattern.

symeon stanza

There are similar effects in some of the York cycle pageants.  In the York cycle Assumption of the Virgin, the apostle Thomas, sitting down to rest, overhears angels urging Mary to join them in heaven.   First they sing and then they collaborate in a thirteen-line stanza which combines anaphora with heavy alliteration.  There are twelve angels rather than thirteen, so one of the angels gets an extra line:


Finally, and most spectacularly, there is the stanza that begins the Pentecost play in the N-town cycle.  It combines line-sharing with the collaborative stanza.  The apostles praise God collaboratively, twelve of them sharing four lines, before a group of them complete the thirteen-line stanza.  It’s like a turn-taking playground game and must have demanded great timing on the part of the actors.  The Holy Spirit here not only brings the gift of speaking in tongues, but also the gift of speaking in the most complex of shared stanzas.


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