alliterative verse: an approach to teaching meter

In this brief essay I set out a plan for teaching the form of Middle English alliterative poetry in an advanced undergraduate seminar. The lesson is grounded in a few lines from the Prologue of William Langland’s Piers Plowman and in another short passage from the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We develop a series of comparative observations about the construction of lines in these two poems, and thus gradually uncover the basic metrical properties of Langland’s poem. Medieval alliterative poetry has always, and necessarily, appeared to modern readers as something strange and different. I aim to make that difference meaningful, offering a fresh a perspective on Piers Plowman itself and on the broader history of English literature. The essay is forthcoming in the MLA’s Approaches to Teaching Piers Plowman, ed. Thomas Goodmann. Here I reproduce the essay’s bibliographical note:

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: Research on the meter of Middle English alliterative poetry is a currently a “growth industry.” For a lucid and accessible review of recent scholarship, see Thomas Cable, “Progress in Middle English Alliterative Metrics,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 23 (2009): 243–64. Cable’s article also provides an initial orientation within many uncertainties and intricacies which I don’t attempt to present in the lesson above. As one expects from a research field in a state of active development, practitioners disagree about both local details and the meaning of the emerging picture. As a consequence, my presentation of Langland’s verse form cannot claim to be a consensus position; it is instead an effort to adjudicate between divergent views and synthesize the most plausible statements into a system that seems to me both broadly accurate and plausibly communicable.

To move from the abstract to the concrete – that is, to scan Langland’s poetry – one must make frequent recourse to other books: handbooks of Middle English, etymological notes in the OED, George Kane’s Piers Plowman Glossary (London: Continuum, 2005), Joseph Wittig’s Piers Plowman Concordance (London: Athlone, 2001), and – crucially – the metrical scholarship on Late Middle English alliterative verse (for which, see Cable’s review cited above). Two important recent studies of Langland’s versification are Stephen Barney, “A Revised Edition of the C Text,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 23 (2009): 265–88 (at pp. 277-88); and J.A. Burrow, “The Endings of Lines in Piers Plowman B,” Notes and Queries 59.3 (2012): 316–320. For Langland’s use of alliteration, see especially Burrow, “An Alliterative Pattern in Piers Plowman B,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 25 (2011): 117–129. For review of some outstanding problems in study of Langland’s meter, see Hoyt N. Duggan, “Langland’s Dialect and Final -e,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 12 (1990): 157–191 (at 184–191). When the location of the boundary between half-lines seems doubtful (examples are Prol.51, 62, 70, 143, 182) the best course of action is to consult with the poem’s scribes, who consistently marked the boundary between a-verse and b-verse. Record of scribal punctuation is conveniently accessible in the transcriptions published on-line by the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive.

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