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Progress in Middle English Alliterative Metrics

Progress in Middle English Alliterative Metrics

The prevailing view of the metres of English poetry composed during the past eight centuries—both ‘accentual’ and ‘accentual syllabic’—is that relative stress is the most important feature. By ‘relative’ is meant a comparison of adjacent syllables to determine only ‘more’ or ‘less’. In simultaneous, transforming discoveries Ad Putter, Judith Jefferson and Myra Stokes, and Nicolay Yakovlev, complicate this neat, binary picture by showing that the poems grouped as the ‘Alliterative Revival’ incorporate an additional metrical feature. Whether designated as ‘secondary stress’ or as a ‘non-schwa vowel’, a phonological element is avoided in certain positions in the verse. The demonstration of this systematic avoidance leads to a new understanding of the metre of PPl and other alliterative poems. Along the way, both studies establish the regular presence of historical –e, but they come to different conclusions about ‘extended’, or three-beat, verses. In addition to pointing the way for future research on extended verses, the combined effect of the two studies is to lay out the question of the asymmetry, or ‘heteromorphicity’, of the long line—the extent to which the patterns of the two halves of the line belong to mutually exclusive sets. With the inclusion of the features ‘heavy final dip’ and ‘extra-long dip’ (both disallowed in the b-verse), Putter, Jefferson, and Stokes find the asymmetry of a-verses and b-verses to be categorical, while Yakovlev concludes from the ‘non-schwa’ principle that the mutually exclusive sets are more pervasive than previously thought but are best described as ‘rhythmical preferences’. (TC)


YLS, 23 (2009), 243-64


Cable, Thomas