listening to syntax

At Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference in Madison, CT, I participated in a critical seminar called “Listening to the Line.” My gratitude to Natalie Gerber for the invitation, and for organizing and leading the seminar. What follows is a modified version of the opening frame and closing paragraphs of my paper, “Listening to the Syntax of Alliterative Poetry.” This paper is not a fully developed critical argument but an attempt at an exposition, for a non-medievalist audience, of a historical perplexity from my area of specialization:

Historical background

The term ‘alliterative meter’ denotes the unrhymed meter used in Old English poetry, as in Beowulf (?eighth/tenth century); in Early Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Lawman’s Brut (c. 1200); and in Middle English alliterative poetry, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century). This verse form does not survive to the present day: sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century, the alliterative meter was deselected from the active repertoire of English verse forms.

Modern scholars inevitably approach the alliterative meter with expectations molded by the experience of scanning accentual-syllabic poetry. Such expectations are generally unhelpful for appreciating the historically significant aspects of the alliterative meter, however. A useful opposition for capturing the difference between accentual-syllabic verse forms and the alliterative meter is deductive/inductive. Deductive meters, such as iambic pentameter, consist of the concatenation of perceptually similar metrical units (feet, syllables, etc.). As a result, they have a predictable beat (hence ‘deductive’), even if this beat is only ever notional. Inductive meters, such as the alliterative long line, consist of the juxtaposition of perceptually dissimilar metrical units. As a result, they have no predictable beat, not even a notional one. Instead, the pattern of each metrical unit must be discovered on a case-by-case basis through the application of specialized rules for the assignment of metrical stress (hence ‘inductive’).

Weird syntax

Just as Middle English alliterative meter disrupts many of the expectations that modern readers have learned to bring to modern verse, so too the syntax of Middle English alliterative poetry disrupts the syntactical expectations involved in parsing canonical English poetry from Geoffrey Chaucer to Robert Frost. From a modern perspective, the syntax of Middle English alliterative verse can seem weird, unnecessarily complex, or archaizing. This perception captures something important about the syntax of alliterative verse, but it is also the result of left turns and blind alleys in literary history, which have alienated modern commentators from the alliterative tradition. In this sense, the strange syntax of Middle English alliterative verse measures the historical distance between fourteenth- and twenty-first-century literary cultures.



Readers will have noticed by now that syntactical inversions in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight cluster in the second half of the line, and often at the very end of the line. There is a metrical reason for this asymmetrical distribution. While syntax may seem like its own, independent domain, in alliterative verse meter and syntax are best understood as two expressions of a single internalized metrical grammar. Many of the inversions discussed here occur in part for metrical convenience. So for example, “as I in toun herde” “as I heard in town” (Gawain 31) avoids a pattern with two long dips (*as I herde in toun). Patterns with two long dips were not part of the metrical system of the second half of the line in fourteenth-century alliterative verse. Thus meter and syntax work together to create normative lines. There is an analogy to be made to the way that Donald Wesling describes the interface of meter and syntax in modern accentual-syllabic meters (Wesling, The Scissors of Meter).

Syntax also takes on a life of its own in Middle English alliterative verse as a marker of poetic artifice. Even if they strike modern readers as unnecessarily complex, syntactical inversions in Middle English alliterative poetry seem to have signaled a high and serious poetic style. And alliterative poetry is nothing if not serious: in addition to the gold-and-tinsel Arthurian antiquity of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the corpus includes the apocalyptic/homiletic/satiric masterpiece Piers Plowman, the luridly anti-Semitic Siege of Jerusalem, the high-chivalric Destruction of Troy, and a number of allusive political prophecies inspired by the Prophecies of Merlin embedded in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138). There are no straightforwardly comedic or celebratory alliterative poems, or at least none that have survived. The affect of alliterative narrative is characteristically high-minded and sententious. Encoding and deciphering elaborate syntactical inversions made up an important part of the cultural value of composing and reading (or hearing) this poetry.

Finally, we might inquire why Middle English alliterative verse exhibits the stylized syntactical inversions that it does. To answer this question requires comparing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to earlier alliterative poems. Such a comparison reveals that syntactical inversions had always characterized the alliterative tradition. In the openings of Beowulf and the Brut, we find, e.g., “þrym gefrunon” (prose order “gefrunon (þone) þrym” “heard of the might”) (Beowulf 2) and “at æðelen are chirechen” (prose order “at are æðelen chirechen” “at a splendid church”) (Brut 3). Neither of these arrangements was characteristic of Old English or Early Middle English prose syntax, and thus, inferentially, neither was characteristic of the poets’ normal spoken syntax. The syntax of fourteenth-century alliterative verse, then, shows historical pressure from earlier phases of this metrical tradition. If so, the often contorted syntax of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight expresses a relation of belonging in metrical tradition. Writing “baret þat lofden” instead of “þat lofden baret” “who loved battle” was not only syntactically permissible and metrically expedient; it also amounted to a prise de position in late medieval English literary culture. By contrasting the syntax of Middle English alliterative verse with that of other Middle English literature (where such inversions are rare to non-existent), we can begin to delineate the cultural stakes of alliterative meter and its weird syntax.

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