Title Background

Langland’s Unruly Caesura’

Langland’s Unruly Caesura’

Our current theories of alliterative metrics, whether offered as rules for the rhythm of lifts and dips or for the coincidence of stress and alliteration, all posit the medial caesura as an axiomatic fixture. It may be understood as the line’s dominant syntactic break, whose function is to articulate and bridge coordinated, metrically based stress groupings and alliterative patterns, themselves following certain syllabic rules. L, however, was not only willing to forego the caesural role of bridging alliteration in lines whose medial pauses either isolate (aaa|xx) or segregate (aaa|bb) alliterated stresses; he also wrote otherwise regularly stressed and- alliterating lines whose phrasing glides through the metrically expected pause, whose syntax breaks do not conform to metrical expectations, or whose logic allows more than one possible break. The cumulative effect of these variously nonbridging, soft, out-of-sync, or uncertain caesuras is that of layered rhythmic complexity, inviting clerical reading, in lieu of the normal rhythmic coordination heard in most alliterative verse.

This essay attempts two interlaced demonstrations: it categorizes types of lines whose syntax works in tension with metrical expectations, and it describes scribal punctuation(s) characteristic of these types. Although we may never recover the authorial punctuation of PPl, examination of MSS W, M, O, L, Hm, R, and F suggests that some B-version scribes, possibly favourably impressed by L’s learned, rhetorically flexible style, took pains to preserve it, while others tended to revise and rectify occurrences of anomalous syntax, including unruly caesuras. The dominant manuscript punctuation enables metrical performance, not study, but the coexistence of alternative punctuation traditions suggests that L probably wrote lines whose abnormal or ambiguous syntax welcomed — even demanded — more than one performance, more than one interpretation. (MS)


YLS, 22 (2008), 57–101


Smith, Macklin