Middle English Alliterative Poetry: ENGL 402

[a course description, updated for the F14 iteration. In the previous iteration we read part of Cleanness and The Siege of Jerusalem (combined with Patience to form a unit on the destruction of cities) in place of Pearl. The F14 course website is now live, here.]

At the end of the Middle Ages there were two basic ways of writing English verse. One tradition employed end-rhyme and regularly alternating rhythms. Chaucer was its greatest medieval practitioner; Major English Poets (ENGL 125/26) traces its illustrious later history. However, in Chaucer’s day and for some time afterwards, there was another, older way of writing poetry in English. Rather than employing end-rhyme and alternating rhythm, this other practice of versification employed alliteration in combination with accentual rhythms at once irregular and intricately patterned. Descendant from the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, Middle English alliterative poetry includes several literary masterpieces, among them the Arthurian romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the surrealistic allegorical dream-vision Piers Plowman. We read both in this course.

As an introduction to this poetry, we read St. Erkenwald, a recounting of how, soon after the conversion of English people to Christianity, laborers working to expand and renovate St. Paul’s Cathedral in London unearthed the miraculously preserved corpse of an ancient pagan dignitary. A post-mortem baptism releases the pagan’s soul into heaven; his corpse and clothing promptly disintegrate, but the script on his massive coffin is never deciphered. From this story of miracle and mystery, we turn to another exemplary life, that of the prophet Jonah, as recounted in the Middle English poem we moderns have decided to call Patience. It includes an extended description of the inside of the whale (which is spacious, but smells bad). Jonah never learns, but the poet hopes that we will.

Following these episodes of biblical and salvation history, we turn to another narrative world, that of Arthurian Romance. We read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, probably the most artful of poems in this meter. The story begins during Christmas revels at Camelot. A mysterious green knight bursts into Arthur’s hall on horseback, carrying a great battle-axe. The knight has a proposition: he asks one of the Round Table knights to step forward, take his axe, and chop off his head. The knight who welds the axe on this day must present himself for a return blow in one year’s time. Gawain steps forward. The poem recounts his eventful journey to the chopping block the following winter.

Our final genre is dream vision. The poem Pearl takes us away from alliterative meter, though not away from its intricate language. Despite its differences in form and subject, this poem was probably written by the same poet who wrote Patience and Gawain. It recounts the speaker’s vision of and conversation with his recently deceased baby daughter.

We devote the balance of the semester to Piers Plowman, a deeply idiosyncratic sequence of allegorical dream-visions. If Gawain is the most artful of the Middle English alliterative poems, Piers Plowman is the most restless and the most demanding at the level of concept and narrative.


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