Title Background

Restrictions on Dip Length in the Alliterative Line: the A-Verse and the B-Verse

Restrictions on Dip Length in the Alliterative Line: the A-Verse and the B-Verse

This article examines long-dip length in the unrhymed alliterative long lines, and demonstrates the following two restrictions: (1) in the b-verse, the metrically required long dip must not exceed three syllables: a b-verse with a four-syllable dip is unmetrical; (2) in the a-verse, a dip of four or more syllables is permitted when this dip consists only of closed-class words that do not normally receive beat, but it seems regularly to be avoided in crowded a-verses when it would include a possibly beat-bearing word, such avoidance tending to confirm the theory that the a-verse never has more than two beats and that three-beat a-verses do not exist.

That a four-syllable dip was prohibited in the b-verse can be confirmed by the evidence available from The Parlement of the Thre Ages, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness, Patience, Alexander B and The Siege of Jerusalem. Our findings show that: (a) each poem presents only a very small number of b-verses with a potential four-syllable dip, almost all of which could be reduced to a three-syllable dip by referring, simply, to such standard phenomena as elision, loss of inflectional schwa or common alternative monosyllabic forms; (b) in The Siege, where a four-syllable dip appears to occur, the preponderance of manuscript evidence supports a metrically regular reading with a disyllabic or trisyllabic dip. The authors then argue that the length of long dip is also an important factor in determining the rhythmic shape of the a-verse. One of the major objections raised against the theory that all a-verses have only two beats is that demotion of one of the (normally three) possible beat positions will create a long dip that is extra long (i.e. a dip of four or more syllables) and heavy (because it contains a word that is a candidate for beat). But the authors argue that demotion was in fact rule-bound, and that the dip length was carefully controlled to ensure that such an extra long and heavy dip will never result. By this syllabic rule, three potential beat positions in crowded a-verses (which contain more than two words that could bear stress) can always be reduced to two, accompanied normally by two long dips of either two or three syllables occurring at the line-initial and the medial positions. The two-beat a-verses resulting from the absorption are thus naturally integrated into the same pattern as dominates non-crowded a-verses where, similarly, medial and initial long dips are the norm. This pattern, which the authors argue has emerged from their analysis, provides strong evidence that three beats were not intended. The authors conclude that the restriction on dip length in each verse played a fundamental part in the composition of unrhymed alliterative long lines. (NI, MS)


YLS, 26 (2012), 231-61.


Inoue, Noriko and Myra Stokes