Long-line Poetry’s Lurking Likeness

If you have read a single thing in Middle English, it was probably Chaucer. And it was probably Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…” You may know that Chaucer wrote in a specific pattern of stresses—iambs—and you may know that these patterns recurred in a line a specific number of times per line—in the case of the General Prologue, five times. I am not here to talk about this kind of poetry.

If you’re on your toes you may know of a slightly less commonly read set of poems, which date from approximately the same period, but with heritage stretching back to Beowulf. The poems of the Alliterative Revival, or the older alliterative poems that preceded the possibility of needing to be revived, include many other famous poems of English, such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Piers Plowman. You can recognize this poetry by its pairing of two half-lines of long irregular syllable count, or by its heavy use of alliteration. I am only sort of here to talk about this kind of poetry.

Mostly, I am addressing the poetry that kind of follows the rules of one of these and kind of follows the rules of the other. Scholars variously class poetry such as Pearl as ‘iambic tetrameter’ or ‘irregular alliterative longline’ or ‘rhymed alliterative poetry’ although it truly is concerned with its own structure and intent more than with following abstract, unspecified, and formal rules of style. Moreover, some of these irregularly classified poems have specific commonalities that neither Chaucer nor the author of Piers Plowman would have recognized.

This is the context of the research that I, Vincent Peebles, am pursuing under the guidance of Prof. Ryan McDermott, possibly with an eye towards the completion of a Bachelor’s of Philosophy thesis. The existence of the division I enumerated here is itself indicative of a specific paradigm for thinking about this period of history. These categories’ conventionality within literary studies makes casual the production of, for example, a narrative about a native longline versus a foreign syllabic poetry. It’s my aim to instead point out variegations of English poetry in the 14th and 15th centuries, outside of the most common ways to think about the works and world of that timeframe. The interdisciplinary environment of a Brackenridge is amenable to that mindset.

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Me with my first page of the stress contours of the poem Pearl: patterns emerge if you stare at streams of x (unstressed) and S (stressed) long enough. Unusual lines receive special notation; alliteration and metrical caesura are marked as well.

I am a literature major with a Medieval & Renaissance Studies certificate and my project is, naturally, about the study of medieval literature, but I am also not limited to that wheelhouse. In the midst of pilfering the local bird flocks for feathers to make quill pens as a teen, I developed enough of an interest in the local rock formations to have a history as a once-geology major. My current ‘leisure’ reading material is Spivak’s Calculus.

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