Title Background

Notes toward a Theory of Langland’s Meter.

Notes toward a Theory of Langland’s Meter.

Although WL’s alliterative style shows some distinctive features (e.g., a line with more syllables and often more words per half-line, more frequent rhythmically and semantically “heavy” b-verses than other poets, the occasional employment of short runs of alliteration on the same letter or of complex patterns of verses with interlocked alliteration), he in general wrote to the metrical constraints that governed other ME alliterative poets. The poets wrote exclusively in a limited number of combinations of alliterative patterns in which the minimum requirement is that two full staves (syllables bearing linguistic and metrical stress) must appear in the a-verse and the first stave in the b-verse must be full. The alliteration always falls on a stressed syllable, and the ictus (or lift, i.e., metrically stressed syllable) usually coincides with normal prose phrasal stress. A hierarchy of word classes generally determines which words may appear in ictus. The caesura, which divides the line into two distinct verses, almost always corresponds to a major syntactic disjuncture. Each verse consists usually of two lifts separated by dips, and the b-verse consists of two lifts and from one to three dips, with the verse consisting of from four to eight syllables. With respect to WL’s practice, finds that a qualification of the general rule is necessary: when the alliterative staves are established clearly in the first half-line, a word in the first or second dip of a b-verse from a closed class (i.e., prepositions, conjunctions, some verbs, auxiliaries, pronouns, monosyllabic adverbs) may carry alliteration without bearing metrical stress. Finds 185 b-verses that appear to have two dips with two or more syllables. Of these, eighty-five are metrically regular when considered in light of the phonology of Chaucerian final -e’s, fifty-two others show metrical variants in the MSS., and the degree of conformity to the general rule may in fact approach 98 per cent in the archetype.


YLS 1 (1987): 41-70.


Duggan, Hoyt N.