Defining Middle English Alliterative Poetry
Three criteria define ME alliterative poetry: (1) a fundamentally four-stress verse line with a medial caesura (allowing the possibility of three heavily stressed syllables in the first half line and perhaps three such syllables in the second half-line); (2) a heteromorphic verse form, in which the number of syllables within half-lines and full lines varies; and (3) a specification of the second criterion which would exclude poems in verse forms that do not require heteromorphic lines in alliterative b-verses, such as Pearl, which employs many homomorphic lines. Alliteration as well as the absence of end-rhyme prove to be the most evanescent of those features identifying alliterative verse. Early alliterative poems defined by these criteria emphasize contemporary conditions and English politics and history. The two generative provincial cultures of the pre-1350 poems are the dioceses of Worcester and Hereford, and north Yorkshire (and not, as alleged, Cheshire). Appendices present an incipit list of poems, mostly ca. 1250-1375, which meet the author’s criteria; also alliterative poems listed by Lawton and Turville-Petre in their footnotes but omitted from their formal lists; and the scansion of lines 12,346-91 of La3amon’s Brut (Caligula text).