How To Read Middle English Poetry

By Daniel Sawyer

[Workers rebuild Troy, in a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book: Manchester, John Rylands Library, MS Eng 1, f. 31v. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence, CC-BY-NC 4.0.]

For most people, poetry in Middle English—roughly 1100 to 1500—is a world unknown. I’d long thought this a shame, but it was only through shaping How to Read Middle English Poetry as an accessible guide for students that I grasped just how innovative and thrilling the period in truth is.

Did you know, for instance, that someone unwittingly wrote a Shakespearean sonnet more than a century before Shakespeare’s birth? Or that the first poem we can attribute to a named woman displays a unique and startlingly intricate form? And while we think of English blank verse—metrically-regular poetry without regular rhyme or alliteration—as the mainstay of things like early-modern drama and Paradise Lost, the idea occurred to poets at least twice, independently, before the third (re)invention that started its sixteenth-century flourishing. Such facts lurk in the Middle English centuries, making these in some ways the most exciting spell in English poetry’s history.

What made this period so experimental?

For centuries after the Norman conquest of England in 1066, French stuck around as another spoken language alongside English—and a spoken language with more cachet. Latin, meanwhile, filled the role of the normative written language, often coming baked-in with literacy: those who learned to read learned to read in Latin, other literacies coming as a kind of by-product. 

Consequently, English lacked the reach of a prestigious tongue, but it also lacked prestige’s pressures. Several poetic traditions coexisted in English, without a clear hierarchy of prestige sorting them: it would, after all, always seem more elevated to write in Latin or French. As a result, this was the great age of experiment in English poetry.

It is in this period that we first see English poetry in alternating metres descended from post-classical Latin and early French. These metres are the ancestors of most regular verse of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. This was the metrical family in which Chaucer worked; within it, he invented the five-beat line that would one day propel poetry from Thomas Wyatt to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, not to mention the plays of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Jonson.

At the same time, Middle English sustained a separate metrical family of poems descended from Old English verse habits: alliterative verse. Though somewhat changed from the Old English model, the verse of Piers Plowman, (most of) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and of the Alliterative Morte Arthure recognisably sits within English’s original and longest-lasting verse tradition. Such poems have a formal lineage which runs back before English was English. Also in this bucket lurks Layamon or Lawman, whose curious early Middle English Brut provokes expert debate over its classification, and offers the earliest known tales in English of King Arthur and King Lear.

Neither alternating verse nor alliterative verse held a place of straightforward prestige, distinguished from other poetry. The Gawain stanza switches between the two, showing us a poet comfortable shuttling across metrical lineages. Moreover, mixing traditions brought forth a third body of work, alliterative-stanzaic poetry, which married alliterating half-lines in alliterative metre to end-rhyme, often together with a fireworks display of other effects. One example, today known as ‘Three Dead Kings’ and preserved uniquely in the Bodleian, has a claim to the title of the most complex stanza-form in English at any time.

[The start of ‘Three Dead Kings’, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 302, f. 34r.]

In the sixteenth century and after, rising five-beat alternating lines—‘iambic pentameter’—would ascend to prestige as a standard form for art poetry. Through the same centuries, English slowly took over from Latin and French in the worlds of academia, government, religion, and the law. Today, English is a global language, and is the world’s most frequently learned tongue. For some contexts, it has come to hold the kind of roles that French and Latin once held in England: a prestige language, a source of loanwords and models.

In the twenty-first century, then, we might learn a few things by delving into the middle of English’s history, the language’s time of least social importance: Middle English teaches us to see how English is not a transparent default, but a tongue alongside others; it teaches us to appreciate the quirks in English, and in the other languages we meet. And often it is Middle English poetry that offers this lesson most clearly, while also forming a wildly creative and varied body of work in its own right.

Daniel’s book is due out in May 2024 from Oxford University Press. Readers can use the code AAFLYG6 to get 30% off either the hardback or the paperback when ordering How to Read Middle English Poetry direct from OUP.

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