Alliterative Revival: Retrospect and Prospect

An excerpt from my review essay, “Alliterative Revival: Retrospect and Prospect.” In this review of Randy Schiff’s Revivalist Fantasy: Alliterative Verse and Nationalist Literary History (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011), I attempted to sketch out the main lines of scholarship on Middle English alliterative verse during the past one hundred years. Here I reproduce the final two paragraphs:

[T]here is ample work to be done with and on the category of alliterative poetry. By way of conclusion, I wish to suggest two difficult problems that future studies might address. First, there is the problem of the metre’s meanings. In the previous paragraph’s discussion of the prologue to Wynnere and Wastoure, I attempted to disentangle the question of formal self-consciousness from the fact of alliteration. We should not allow either Chaucer’s ‘rum ram ruf’ or a naive modern reading of alliterative poetry to lure us into assuming that alliteration was the sole or even primary channel by which alliterative poets could express consciousness of their metrical form. […] [T]he metre’s meaning was probably various, context-dependent, and did not in every case serve as a ‘marker of antiquity’. David Lawton’s studies are an essential point of reference for future work on this problem.

Secondly, there is the notion of ‘alliterative revival’ itself. The name has been in use for over a century and a source of embarrassment and apologies for the last forty years. Schiff’s book reminds us that we still need a more adequate way of telling the history of English alliterative verse. Solutions to the problem must be sought from scholarship that attends as closely to Old English and Early Middle English verse as to Late Middle English, and as closely to the poetry’s metrical form as to its cultural articulation. Derek Pearsall approached the topic of late medieval alliterative poetry by making a schematic distinction between a ‘nucleus’ of unrhymed aa/ax poems and a ‘penumbra shading off on every side into other forms of writing’. This continues to be a good first approximation. At issue is not only how we characterize the nuclear tradition over its full duration – a problem receiving a fresh and lucid treatment in metrical scholarship – but also the way we imagine the nuclear tradition’s periphery, ramification, and dispersion. It is, as Israel Gollancz might have said, a difficult problem. Addressing it will demand a combination of abstract ‘theoretical’ thought and intense attention to what Gollancz rather idiosyncratically termed the ‘more than spiritual.’

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