Alliterative Revival

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The Alliterative Revival is a term adopted by academics to refer to the resurgence of poetry using the alliterative verse form in Middle English between c. 1350 and 1500. Alliterative verse was the traditional versification of Old English poetry; the last known alliterative poem known before the revival was Layamon's Brut, which dates from around 1190.

Opinion is divided as to whether the reappearance of such poems represents a conscious revival of an old artistic tradition, or merely signifies that despite the tradition continuing in some form between 1200 and 1350, no poems have survived in written form. Major works of the Alliterative Revival include William Langland's Piers Plowman, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, and the works of the Pearl Poet: Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Cleanness, and Patience.


Alliterative "long line"[edit]

The verse of the Alliterative Revival broadly adheres to the same pattern shown in Old English poetry; a four-stress line, with a rhythmic pause (or caesura) in the middle, in which three of the stresses alliterate, i.e. aa / ax. Amongst the features differentiating the Middle English alliterative style from its predecessor is that the lines are longer and looser in rhythm, and the medial pause is less strictly observed, or often absent entirely; hundreds of rhythmic variations seem to have been permitted.[1] An example of this style is shown by a few lines from Wynnere and Wastoure:

Whylome were lordes in londe    that loved in thaire hertis
To here makers of myrthes    that matirs couthe fynde,
And now es no frenchipe in fere    bot fayntnesse of hert,
Wyse wordes withinn    that wroghte were never,
Ne redde in no romance   that ever renke herde.(19-23)

Stanzaic poems[edit]

A second type of verse combining rhymed stanzas, usually of thirteen or fourteen lines, with the basic four-stress line also appeared during the Revival. Here the alliteration may often follow the pattern aa / aa, ax / aa, or even aa / bb. It is still uncertain as to whether this tradition developed from the unrhymed alliterative template or from rhymed verse forms on which the traditional alliterative stave was superimposed. The surviving stanzaic alliterative poems are generally of northern English provenance; some, such as The Three Dead Kings, are of incredibly complex form.

Development of the Revival[edit]

The dialects shown in the surviving poems often point towards a northern and western provenance, and the conventional interpretation of the Revival states that such verse first began to be produced in the south-west Midlands, perhaps towards the start of the 14th century, and spread gradually northwards and eastwards, eventually becoming limited to the far north and Scotland by the close of the 15th century. It was a largely self-contained movement, and its "contacts with the metropolitan, Chaucerian tradition were slight".[2]

In recent years medievalists have begun to challenge the idea that alliterative verse and its "revival" was an exclusively regional phenomenon, limited to the north and west of England. Although, as academic Ralph Hanna observes, the records of early alliterative poetry cluster overwhelmingly around the literary communities of Worcester, in the west, and York, in the north, alliterative poetry at least subsequently developed "as one competing form of a national, not regional, literature".[3] In this interpretation, alliterative verse would have been part of the common literary culture of the time, albeit most appreciated in northern and western circles. Indeed, a few poems seem to have a definitely eastern (and in the case of The Blacksmiths, possibly urban) origin. The apparent flowering of the alliterative style in the period may have been due to social changes occurring in the wake of the Black Death, which would have thrown vernacular literary styles into greater prominence.

Ultimately, changing literary fashions, along with its perhaps old-fashioned and provincial associations, led to the abandonment of the alliterative form. Its use persisted in Scotland long after it had become a curiosity in an English literary culture totally dominated by the Chaucerian tradition: from 1450 until the following century, every major Scots court poet composed at least one alliterative poem.[4]

Audience and authors[edit]

Gawain tempted by Sir Bertilak's wife: an illustration from the manuscript of Gawain and the Green Knight. Several authors of the Alliterative Revival chose to rework Arthurian stories

The cultural milieu of the alliterative poets is often described as one more provincial and backward-looking than that of Chaucerian, courtly poetry of the time, with the poems being appreciated by an audience drawn from the landed gentry of the shires rather than the urban sophisticates of the court. Most of the authors self-consciously associate their work with vernacular, informal language, and structure their work as if to be read aloud to a mixed group of listeners.[5]

It has also been suggested that they could have had a more noble audience, perhaps as part of a conscious policy of regionalism encouraged by powerful northern and western magnates - the Mortimer Earls of March, the Bohun Earls of Hereford and the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick - as a political counterweight to the court.[6] However, as Richard II of England and John of Gaunt both had substantial support and connections in the north-west, it is also possible to argue that the alliterative poets of this period could easily have had courtly connections.

In comparison to some of the authors of syllabic rhymed verse during this period, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and John Lydgate, almost nothing is known about the authors of alliterative poetry. The greatest of them, the Pearl poet, author of Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and that of Alliterative Morte Arthure are both completely anonymous, though the former has been tentatively identified as a John Massey, member of a Cheshire landowning family. Even William Langland, the author of the hugely influential Piers Plowman, has been identified largely through conjecture. The longest poem of the Revival (over 14,000 lines), The Destruction of Troy, is ascribed to a John Clerk from Lancashire, but little else is known about him. A notable exception to this lack of information is Scottish court poet William Dunbar; Dunbar generally wrote in syllabic metres, but displays a masterful use of the alliterative line in one poem at the very end of the period.

One man known to have appreciated alliterative verse during the time it was still being composed was Robert Thornton, a 15th-century landowner from North Yorkshire. Thornton's efforts in copying these poems, for the use of himself and his family, resulted in the preservation of several valuable works.


The first alliterative poem after the Brut for which a date can be established is Wynnere and Wastoure, which from internal evidence is usually dated to around 1352. The last, Scottish Ffielde, was composed in c. 1515. From in between these dates, a number of examples of verse have survived, of which some are listed below:

Some elements of the alliterative technique survived in Scotland until the late 16th century, appearing in The Flyting Betwixt Montgomerie and Polwart dated around 1580.[7]


  1. ^ See Duggan, H. N. 'The Shape of the B-Verse in Middle English Alliterative Poetry', Speculum, 61 (1986), 564
  2. ^ Turville-Petre, T. The Alliterative Revival Boydell & Brewer, 1977, pp.34-35
  3. ^ Hanna, R. 'Alliterative poetry', in Wallace (ed.) The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, Cambridge: CUP, 2002, p.509
  4. ^ Hanna, p.497
  5. ^ Hanna, p. 502
  6. ^ Wurster, J. 'The Audience' in Göller (ed.) The Alliterative Morte Arthure, Boydell & Brewer, 1981, p.45
  7. ^ Turville-Petre, p.118