Title Background

Langland’s Alliterative Line(s)

Langland’s Alliterative Line(s)

The ‘alliterative’ in ‘alliterative long-line’, although descriptively accurate, conveys something of its inordinate authority in the field of ‘alliterative metrics’. Editors and other metrists have perforce depended on standards of authentic alliterative patterning in the line to distinguish authorial from scribal readings, and have treated the placement of alliterated stresses in relation to the caesura as the primary factor in their taxonomies of acceptable line types. Meanwhile the rhetorical and thematic functions of alliteration have been underestimated—at least in PPl. L evidently deployed alliteration with extraordinary versatility, both as a normative marker of metrically realized stress and as an optional prosodic feature. Within the line, he might alliterate two, three, or four metrical stresses, as well as extra stresses or non-stresses, and might insert a second alliterative grouping, arranging dual collocations an adjunctive, chiastic, or interlaced configurations. Beyond this, he might link adjacent lines in manifold ways, often coordinating their intralinear and interlinear collocations so as to mark expansive thematic associations. Much of this alliteration does not have a primarily metrical function. Taking Schmidt’s taxonomy of alliterative line types as an initial framework but disputing some of its assumptions, this study addresses the poetic utilities of Langland’s normative, enriched, ‘extended’, clustered, reduced, and mute-stave lines, as well as those with double alliteration. It argues for the inclusion of xaa a-verses within the prosodic field, identifying the chiastic abb|ba line as a particular variant. And it proposes a new taxonomy of interlinear alliteration: along with the well-recognized phenomena of running and translinear alliteration, eight other interlinear patterns enable discrete varieties of repetition, anticipation, and echo between and among lines. Alliteration in PPl, then, while certainly a line-based metrical marker, serves broader and more complex ends. (MS)


YLS, 23 (2009), 163-216


Smith, Macklin