In this section, as before, I will not be directly describing the structure of the older alliterative form, in this case the form deployed in such works as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Instead, I will be describing how I personally believe that the Middle English form works, but focusing as before on describing how to produce similar verse in Modern English.
Here, as before, I will not be presenting current scholarly theories of Middle English alliterative meter (though the account I will present has been heavily influenced, among others, by the work of Thomas Cable, Hoyt Duggan, and R.D. Fulk. The hypothesis I am going to present may be defensible with respect to Middle English, though I am not in a position to justify the argument technically in terms of the historical evidence of Middle English sound patterns, but it works extremely well in producing alliterative verse similar in sound and feel to the Middle English text, and was developed in large part to give me a rigorous metric during my ongoing work translating Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
I would contend that there is, essentially, one difference, and one difference only, between the Middle English and the Old English alliterative meters. In my view, in the Old English meter, double alliteration on the first half-line is purely optional, whereas in the Middle English meter, it is the metrical norm. Everything else follows from this one difference.
In the terminology I developed in the previous sections of this discussion, we could put the difference like this: all Old English half-lines contain one pivot, even if there is incidental alliteration on the second major stress in the first half line. In the Middle English form, the norm is two pivots in the first half-line, and one in the second. Consider, for instance, the first several lines of Beowulf. I have highlighted the pivots:
Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,Þeodcyninga, Þrym gefrunon, hu ða æÞelingas ellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaÞena Þreatum,
Only the fourth line has double alliteration in the first half-line. Of course, there are many, many, many lines in Beowulf where double alliteration is present, but the norm is that only one alliterating syllable is necessarily present, and thus that there is only one pivot. A consequence is that the rhythmic patterns of the Old-English half-line are very strongly constrained, for every other syllable in the half-line must be rhythmically subordinate to the pivot.
Now contrast the first four lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Once more the pivots (as I would analyse them) are highlighted:
SIÞEN þe sege and þe assaut
watz sesed at Troye, Þe bor3 brittened and brent
to bronde3 and askez, Þe tulk Þat Þe trammes
of tresoun Þer wro3t Watz tried for his tricherie,
Þe trewest on erÞe;
All four lines have double alliteration in the first half-line, and while exceptions occur, the overall feel is very different. And it corresponds to a profound rhythmic difference, which can be measured simply by counting syllables. Only one of the first four initial half-lines of Beowulf has six syllables, and that is a line with resolution, whereas none of the first four initial half-lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has less than six syllables, no matter how one resolves various questions about the pronunciation of the Middle English. In the account I have developed on this website, there is a very simple explanation: if the Middle English form follows the norm that there are two pivots in the first half-line, there is considerably more room for rhythmic variation. Extra syllables can be included in the first half-line, as long as they are subordinate rhythmically to one or the other of the pivots, and as a result there is a considerably greater freedom of rhythms in the first half-line, whereas the second half-line, with only one pivot, much more closely resembles the Old English rhythm.
There is one other feature of Middle English alliterative verse that is very important in modern accounts of its metrics. That is the rule that the second half-line must contain a strong dip (that is, a dip with secondary stress or which contains more than one syllable). In my theory, there is a very simple explanation for this rule, and that is the fact that traditional alliterative verse does not allow the final lift to alliterate. That rule applies to every form of traditional alliterative verse, from Beowulf to 16th Century poems like Scottish Field. It’s an easy and natural rule to follow in Old English, which has falling rhythm. The last stress in a line is not likely to be stronger than the one that came before it. But Middle English was moving toward the Modern English pattern of rising rhythm. In Middle English, and even more so in Modern English, the last stress of a line is very likely to take the stronges stress. To follow the rule that forbids alliterating on the final strong-stress syllable, the rhythm has to be structured to make the third strong stress more prominent. The easy way to do that is to include a strong dip in the second half-line.
To illustrate, consider a line like the following (cribbing a bit on a little poem by George Johnston:
To skin a skunk, you need some skill!
This version breaks the rules for traditional alliterative verse because it puts the alliteration on the final stress of the line. But this way of expressing the idea is completely in line with normal Modern English syntax and rhythm. To get alliteration on the third instead of the fourth stress, George Johnston changed the syntax, and wrote:
To skin a skunk, skill is needed.
But by the normal rules for modern English intonation, there’s still a problem. You have to read the sentence as having special emphasis on the word “skill”. Without special emphasis, the strongest stress would still fall at the end – on “needed”. There’s only one way to guarantee that the strongest stress in the second half-line naturally falls on “skill”, and that’s to include a longdip. Something like this:
To skin a skunk, great skill is needed.
Now the metrical pattern is:
x x x x x x x x x x x skill is required
Now “skill” dominates the weak emphasis on is (which is stronger than re-), which which makes it, rather than needed the naturally strongest stress in the second half-line. Of couse, in modern English, there’s another easy way to get the same effect, which is to arrange for clashing stress, producing a strong one-syllable dip, like this:
To skin a skunk, great skill is needed.
All of this boils down to saying that Middle English alliterative poets were arranging the rhythmic structure of their verse to guarantee that there would be two alliterating pivots in the first half line, and only one – the first, not the final stress – in the second half line. Following these rules has worked well in my Sir Gawain translation, and also works well in various other poems I have tried to write in the Gawain form. For instance, in the draft fantasy novel I am collaborated on with my late friend Kimbr Wilder Gish, there is an embedded bit of alliterative verse, in which the following lines appear:
Disease, plague and pestilence
are perils that fall like mist in the morning.
As the mourners dream, dawn creeps uncalled-for
over clammy cheeks, over face and forehead
freckled with sweat. Neither courage nor cowardice
count when such foes batter at bone
or at burning flesh.
Notice how the first half-line can contain rather more than the second. For instance, the half-line disease, plague and pestilence has the rhythmic structure shown below:
x x x x x x x x x x x x x disease, plague and pestilence
This line contains two heavy dips, which could never work in an Old English half-line, nor in the second half of a Middle English line, but is quite consistent with the very free metrical patterns of Middle English, which I would argue do not particularly care what arrangement of stresses occur in the first half-line as long as the two alliterated pivot syllables are metrically more prominent than everything else.
Note, by the way, one rather interesting implication: That it is somewhat artificial for modern English alliterative verse to forbid alliteration on the final lift. And in fact, a lot of people who write alliterative verse in modern English don’t follow that rule. I would argue that that is no accident. Modern English, with its rising stresses, often puts strongest stress on the last lift of a line, unless you work very hard to avoid it.