Mediaeval English Alliterative Poetry

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      The entire body of Old English poetry was written in the alliterative metre; that is, each verse is divided into two parts by a strong caesura (stop) in the middle and each of these parts carries two stresses or accents and at least there must be three alliterative syllables in a verse. This is the norm of the Old English verse. After the conquest under French influence rhymed verse gained an ascendency, although alliteration still remained in numerous phrases. English displaced French in schools and law-courts and in 1362 Parliament was opened in the English language. This led to the revival of the Alliterative verse and it is continued in many of the romances till it reaches its climax in Langland's Piers Ploughman.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Mediaeval Alliterative verse)
Alliterative verse

      Some of the romances in Alliterative verse are only in fragments, for example, those on the Holy Grail, Joseph of Arimathea and on Alexander. There is the romance of William and Werewolf preserved in a unique manuscript in the library of King's College, Cambridge. Its portrayal of tender and pathetic themes is masterly. The author offers an excuse for adopting the native alliterative verse, because he has no skill in the handling of short couplets.

      In a unique manuscript, preserved in the British Museum, there are four remarkably fine poems written in Alliterative verse. These are Pearl, Purity, Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. These are supposed to be the works of the same poet but nothing is known about him. He is cultured, experienced in the ways of the court and of knightly breeding. The date of the poems, too, is uncertain and today it is generally dated in the third quarter of the fourteenth century. The first three poems are religious in theme and the best of them is of course Pearl. It is an allegory in which the author tells of a vision in which he seeks a pearl which he had lost in an arbour. In his vision he sees the pearl, which appears under the image of his own lost daughter (Margaret) and he obtains a glimpse of the New Jerusalem (of Heaven), There is a long discussion between the poet and the pearl (the allegorised daughter), who tells of the joy and honour in the heavenly kingdom. She solves his doubts and difficulties and finally he beholds her in the throng that gather round the Lamb in the New Jerusalem. His grief is gone and he submits to the divine will. The poem has "passages of real, moving beauty, of deep sincerity and of passion". It is a beautiful work of art and had been called "Vita Nuova of our language". Purity and Patience are inferior works. The former is a collection of Biblical stories in which the writer enforces the purity of life and submission to divine laws. Patience is a mere poetical paraphrase of the story of Jonah and the Gourd in the Bible.

      Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance par excellence. It shows the chivalry of the medieval age. Sir Gawain, a Knight in the Arthurian Court takes up the challenge of the Green Knight and goes out in quest of him through the difficult paths of mountains, forests and marshes and at last arrives at the castle of an old man and his tair wife. Everyday when the old man goes out hunting, his fair wife tempts him, but he resists the temptation. On the third day, he accepts the green girdle. The old man turns out to be the Green Knight but his axe cuts only his skin. He is a model ot virtue and chivalry. It contains 2530 lines which are arranged in stanzas of unequal length each of which contains number of long alliterative lines followed by fine short lines rhyming alternately (abba). It throws a flood of light on the courtly life of the age and as such has a great historical value. The poet's deep and tender love of nature is displayed in the delightful passages that describe the scenes of nature. The handling of the plot is masterly; monotony has been avoided with skill and the story moves on with a lilt. In characterisation, too, the poem is remarkable.

      The alliterative metre is deftly handled and is often combined with lyrical elements. "At times the poet achieves real heights in his poetry which can stand comparison with that of any period (Albert). The narrative is told in a succession of colourful scenes. Action moves forward with grace and continuity. The work is perhaps the greatest Arthurian poem in English. Layamon's Brut was written in Alliterative verse and rhymed couplets, The national self-consciousness is accompanied by the revival of alliterative verse form. Roughly between the years 1350 and 1400 there appeared a number of poems in a metre which had clearly evolved in an unbroken development from the old Alliterative measure of Beowulf and Cyneulf.

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