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Contrapuntal Alliteration in <i>Piers Plowman</i> and Skaldic Poetry

Contrapuntal Alliteration in Piers Plowman and Skaldic Poetry

In this chapter, McTurk compares various forms of alliteration in both PPl and skaldic poetry. “Contrapuntal alliteration,” the most prominent form detected by the author and itself a term borrowed from A.V.C Schmidt, refers to when a “spare” alliterative syllable creates an “interweaving effect” (113). L’s normal metrical pattern is aa/ax (where “a” refers to an alliterating stressed syllable and where “x” signifies a non-alliterating stressed syllable). Contrapuntal alliteration, by contrast, creates either an aab/ab pattern or, alternatively, an aba/ab one, in which two different alliterating sounds are combined to produce a contrasting, interwoven effect. Schmidt calls the former form “standard” and the latter one “inverse.” McTurk, explaining these insights and then drawing upon them, shows that similar patterns may be found in a variety of Old Norse, skaldic poetry. Although these are organized into couplets, and thus are essentially different from L’s single-line alliterative units, he fruitfully demonstrates that understanding how skalds created patterns may help us improve our understanding of meter and alliteration in PPl. McTurk further investigates “liaisonal alliteration,” a process by which an alliterating consonant occurs not at the beginning of a word, but rather at its end, resulting in its elision into the vowel that follows it. For example, he cites B.III.303 to this end: That Moyses or Messie // be come into this erthe” (116). While evidence for this form of alliteration is scarcer in PPl, McTurk adeptly demonstrates that these poetic approaches help to shed new light on L’s poem, suggesting that, should another scholar wish to take such comparisons up, much could be learned about the ins-and-outs of alliteration and line-building in this seminal work of medieval poetry. (CP)


Crossing Borders in the Insular Middle Ages, ed. by Aisling Byrne and Victoria Flood (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019), pp. 113–32


McTurk, Rory