[Dream Gate] [Poet Glas]

Patterns of Prosody in Middle English Narratives

This odd little essay is about poetic rhythms and styles. I must admit, I fell in love with "bob and wheel" type poems.

When recreating and reciting narrative medieval poetry for an audience with the modern ear, I have found that style makes the difference between smiles and snores. However well I have captured my listeners' attention with character descriptions and beautiful depictions, my listeners soon find me a boor if my phrasings are trite and my rhymings foolish. England's tongues during the age of high chivalry offer wide varieties of narrative style beyond such staples as the quatrains of the common meter or measure and the balladic stanza (alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, rhymed or assonanced abab or abxb), of the short measure (iambic trimeter with a tetrametric third line, rhymed abab or abxb), or of the long measure (iambic tetrameter, rhymed the same) (Holman 47, 102, 281, and 467). Narration needs variety; here are a few styles amenable to the modern audience[1].

War-tales of battles and Beowulf and religious runes like The Wanderer show that Anglo-Saxon poetry did not utilize stanzas or strophes. Rhyme or assonance was likewise absent, and poetry relied upon alliteration and tropes such as the kenning. In contrast to syllabic Romance poetry, which merely counted syllables, or quantitative Greek and Latin Classical prosody, which counted combinations of long and short syllables, Old English counted stresses in each line and marked the half- line with a caesura, or pause. This style faded away when Godwinson's huscarls died on the spears of the Bastard's Normans, and French became the language of court. In place of Old English, Middle English arose, and poetry took two different paths from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. No longer did all poetry rely on stress; in the late fourteenth century Chaucer popularized a form of metrics that combined the Anglo-Saxon accentual style with Romance syllabics, giving rise to modern English accentual-syllabic metrics and popularizing iambic pentameter as well. Geoffrey's device was not the only form of craft, though, for the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries marked the recurrence of stressed alliteration, climaxing during the alliterative revival of the fourteenth century with such tales as "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight."

Performing before television-trained audiences, my interest lies in ways of creating a periodic change of rhythm and avoiding "sing-song" rhymes or assonances, to better capture the fancy of my fellows without lulling them to sleep. Of Chaucer, I note that he used several rhyme schemes ranging from iambic tetrameter or heroic (iambic pentameter) couplets to the Rhyme Royal (iambic pentameter stanzas, rhyming ababbcc); for my purposes, the latter suits best. Encompassing Chaucer's works lies beyond this prose's perimeter; here are only a few samples of his style:

  • Iambic Tetrameter Couplets: "The Romaunt of the Rose."
  • Iambic Pentameter Couplets ("Heroic Verse"): "The Wife of Bath," "The Squieres Tale," "The Legend of Good Women."
  • Rhyme Royal: "Clerkes Tale," "Man of Laws Tale," "Parlement of Foules," "Sir Thopas," "Troilus and Criseyde."
These styles, especially the last, are well suited for narration; unfortunately, Chaucer is so well known that I must seek elsewhere for novelty. Romances from his time and before do provide me a useful vein of accentual poetry to mine, fortunately. Youthful and mature romances, gestes, and fabliaux of the Middle English years abound.

English accentual narratives from those years come in both assonanced/rhymed and unrhymed forms, and in verse both with stanzas/strophes, and without. Narrative styles that would suit me most fully were typically with rhyme/assonance and stanzas. Just a glance reveals the following:

  • "Brut," by Layamon, circa 1200: Over 16000 continuous lines of six- stress lines, with well-defined caesura.
  • "King Horn," circa 1250: Three-stress couplets.
  • "Havelok the Dane," circa 1285: Four-stress couplets.
  • "Sir Launfal," by Thomas Chestre, circa 1400: stanza of six four- stress lines, rhymed aabccb.
  • "The Pearl," circa 1360: stanzas of twelve four-stress lines, alternately rhymed; stanzas are grouped into fives by repeating a chorusing common phrase in the final line of each stanza; the same phrase is repeated in the first line of the first stanza in the next group.
  • "Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight," probably by the same author as "Pearl," "Patience," and "Purity," circa 1260: strophes of ten to seventeen four-stress lines, ending in a one stress "bob" followed by four four-stress lines forming a "wheel," with the bob and wheel rhyming ababa. The four-stress lines often carry the narration, the bob and wheel, the color.
  • "The Second Shepherd's Play," by the anonymous Wakefield Master in the Towneley MSS, circa early 1400s: stanzas of four six-stress lines all rhyming, followed by a one-stress bob, followed by three three-stress lines, rhyming, followed by a two-stress line rhyming with the bob; the overall rhyme-scheme is aaabcccb.
Overall, these pieces show that the later the Middle English poetry, the more likely the poet would use stanzas and complex rhyming. Yoked to these intricacies are changes in the stress-pattern.

The intricate stanzaic patterns of the later works are what I seek as a performing poet; the structure gives my audience something to grasp while avoiding the "sing-song" effect of rhymed couplets. Hijacking these forms for my own use, I can put them to work for myself; I could even use meter with these styles, as the difference between accentual and accentual-syllabic poetry were blurred should the metrical poet use catalexis, headless lines, and extensive substitution of one type of foot for another. English poetry was and is protean and mutable, giving me a malleable medium to mold and shape to the desires of my Muse and myself.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and "The Second Shepherd's Play" provide me my most useful tale-telling tool: a strong and distinct change in rhythm to mark the end of each stanza, and to wake my audience up; it becomes my "chorus," as it were. Part of the advantage to their particular styles is that the final wheel of each is a short three to four line three-stress ditty, somewhat similar to a modern limerick or nursery rhyme[2]. Once an audience has heard a joke or pun ensconced in the tail-ditty, they will listen more closely to the narrative as well, awaiting the next turn of the wheel. Relegating the humor to the wheel also allows me to use the body for narration. This style gives me what I seek: a re-creation of a Middle-English form to which I can join a narration in modern English for an audience with modern tastes.

When searching for a form for modern entertainment using a medieval style, I considered the poetry of Anglo-Norman England from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. English poetry of that period included both accentual poetry and Chaucer's accentual-syllabic poetry; the latter I considered too familiar. Looking at the available works, I noted that the styles of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" and "The Second Shepherd's Play" include an easily heard yet intricate rhyme-scheme coupled with a distinct change in rhythm at the end of each stanza or strophe. Last of the major works in the alliterative revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, these poetical narratives are relevant to my needs of today.

NOTES FOR Patterns of Prosody

  1. I used the following collections or translations: Garbaty, Thomas J., ed., Medieval English Literature (Heath: Lexington, 1984); Skeat, Walter W., ed., The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: London, 1931); de Ford, Sara, and others, trans. & ed., The Pearl (Harlan Davidson: Arlington Heights, 1967); and Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. and ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo (Boston: Houghton Mifflin,1978).
    Return to Note 1 .
  2. The nursery rhyme "Hickory-Dickory Dock" shares the same pattern as a limerick and is found in 1790 collection as "Dimety Dimity Dock", according to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1951). The name "limerick" is usually dated to a constellation of Irish folk-songs of the early nineteenth century (circa 1820), featuring impromptu verses and the fixed chorus of "Will you come up to Limerick," according to pages 15-16 of Langford Reed's The Complete Limerick Book (Putnam: New York, 1925). A similar song with impromptu verses is "Lilliburlero," which I am told dates to fourteenth century Ireland, and which is still sung today.
    Return to Note 2 .


  1. Holman, C. Hugh and Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 5 ed. New York: MacMillan, 1986.

copyright 9 May 1991 (AS XXVI) by Earle B. 'Glas' Durboraw

A later note...

A note by Jeff Verona (HL Rosario de Palermo)...
>I read your essay on Middle English prosody. One quibble: the text
>you refer to as "Purity" is generally now referred to by its original
>title of "Clenesse" or "Cleanness". A small point, but then again,
>those kinds of points pay my salary.

My response was 'Well, it was yclept 'Purity' once upon a time; I shall try to emend my future references. ;)

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