alliterative verse: an approach to teaching meter

This brief essay sets out a plan for teaching the form of Middle English alliterative poetry in an advanced undergraduate seminar. The lesson is grounded in the opening lines of the B Version Prologue of William Langland’s Piers Plowman and in another short passage from the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We compare the construction of lines in the sample passages from these two poems. The initial aim is just to perceive that the forms are different. Step-by-step, I then identify some of the basic features of Langland’s verse: its half-line structure, the metrical function of grammatical word class, the rhythmical contours of the ‘b-verse’, and the significance of alliteration. The end goal is to support literary reading of Langland’s poem: alliteration often identifies the most important words in a line; an awareness of line structure can help students to construe syntax; the rhythmical templates of the b-verse can guide pronunciation.

Yet efforts to teach this material will tend to raise more questions than they answer. Alliterative verse is more intricate and varied than Chaucer’s form. This is a challenge for teachers, but also an opportunity: Langland’s versification stages an encounter with difficulties at the intersection of language history, literary history, and literary form. Medieval alliterative poetry has always, and necessarily, appeared to modern readers as something strange and different. This short essay aims to make that difference meaningful, offering a fresh perspective on Piers Plowman itself and on the broader history of English literature.

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