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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Functions of Alliteration in Thirteenth Century English Lyrics

Effects like those detailed here resemble most of our psychic activity in that they are ordinarily largely subconscious.


The continuity of the alliterative tradition in English poetry between the Old English period and the time of the so-called revival in the fourteenth century has been ably documented, [1] and the presence of the same tradition in lyric genres has also been noted and studied. [2] The precise function of alliterating phrases, however, has received little attention, apart from critical discussion of individual poems. Alliteration, like rhyme, is an extremely common way of making language literary and of directing special attention to certain words of the text. The most general function -- that of identifying the aesthetic text -- may be regarded either as an example of a learned cultural sign or as a natural outgrowth of the cultivation of melody. [3] By creating a set pattern, the author sets the bounds of his aesthetic text, reinforces its unity and marks its difference from other discourse.
Examination of thirteenth century English lyrics suggests at least two sorts of functions beyond this primary one of marking off poetry from the non-literary. Once the pattern of recurrence is established, variations on it may appear, including its meaningful absence. Alliteration may also work as a sort of thematic pointer indicating which terms and phrases are particularly significant in the poem. I shall further specify and illustrate each of these uses with texts chosen from Brown's English Lyrics of the Xlllth Century. [4]
The poems “Ichot a burde in a bour ase beryl so bryht” (76) and “Ichot a burde in boure bryht” (83) are similar not only in their opening lines. Both use alliteration as a central structuring device and a primary sign of the poetic character of the language (though both use rhyme as well). In each the alliteration binds the whole into a verbal texture of enough homogeneity to make the text discernibly “poetic” and unified. In the inexorable economy of art, however, the alliteration serves, as do rhyme and image-patterns, as a flexible tool that may shape and direct the poem in many ways.
In “Ichot a burde in a bour ase beryl so bryht” the alliteration is quite regular. Every line exhibits an alliterative series. Only two sub-patterns are evident. For one thing, the alliteration is constantly varied such that no initial sound is repeated from one line to the next with the exception of the eighth and ninth lines of each stanza which are — in every instance through five stanzas -- bound to each other by the same alliterating sound. This trans-stanzaic alliteration obviously provides a bridge between the extraordinarily sustained rhyme ending of lines one through eight in each stanza and the concluding couplet in the pattern XAAAAAAABB. The second sub-pattern is the occurrence of lines with two different alliterating sounds. This phenomenon appears nine times in the poem and in seven of the nine cases it is in the center of the stanza, in lines two through six. In this poem the central lines of each stanza are catalogues of the objects to which the beloved may be compared and it seems reasonable to treat the “breaking” of some of these lines as increasing the sense of plenitude of the lists. The objects named virtually tumble over each other, and their very multiplicity heightens the praise of the lady since neither any single object nor their aggregation is capable of truly corresponding to the qualities of Annot. [5] Thus the alliteration lends unity and coherence to the poem as a whole while also programming a very particular effect that enacts the poet’s love and generates an answering warmth on the reader or listener.
The same sorts of uses of alliteration are observable in “Ichot a burde in Boure bryht.” The entire poem is bound regularly by alliteration. One notes, however, that an unusual number of stanzas either begin or end with alliteration in “1.” This happens in four beginning lines and four concluding lines in the ten-stanza poem. Though by no means as clearly intentional as the foregoing poem’s alliterative bridge, this proportion seems sufficiently high to indicate that some aural effect is possible with the letter “l” as a sort of leit-motif in sound. Indeed, Brown may have been guided by this effect (consciously or unconsciously) when he titled the piece “The Loveliest Lady in Land.” While the “1”s may well remind the reader of the focus of the poem's interest there is a further suggestive possibility. When one examines the total figures for alliterative uses for each letter of the alphabet, the distribution is as follows.

A 4
b 11
c 2
d 3
e 0
f 5
g 1
h 5
i 1
j 1
k 1
l 11
m 8
n 2
o 0
p 3
q 0
r 1
s 8
t 2
u 0
v 0
w 4
x 0
y 0
z 0

Though it does not appear at beginnings and endings of stanzas, “b” is as common as “1” in total occurrences. Together the two sounds account for 3l%, nearly a third of the alliterating sounds. In the poem’s non-alliterating refrain “Blow northerne wynd,” the word “blow” is repeated five times, indicating the urgency and passion of the lover's emotion. [6] The frequency with which “b” and “1” appear, far beyond what one would expect in a random distribution, is surely some sort of subtext pointing back toward the refrain. [7]
The regularity of the alliteration is interrupted in certain places in the poem. In some of these cases (such as the last two lines of stanza four or the fourth line of stanza seven) the non-alliterating line actually has a stressed word with an initial letter identical to that highlighted in the previous alliterating line. It is noteworthy that there is an unusual concentration of non-alliterating lines in stanza four where half the lines do not alliterate. Once the pattern has been established, its violation or absence is a device present to the same extent as the alliteration itself. Without categorically claiming that the fact is explained by this observation, I will merely note that the stanza in question is that portion of the blazon which describes the middle and lower portions of the lady's body. The peculiarity of the lines may be due to the fact that conventions had not instituted equally common phrases to use for this passage or that the lack of alliteration may constitute a sort of negative subtle halo about this stanza suggesting either a self-conscious interruption of the rhetorical flow or a placid calm about which the rest of the description bubbles in turbulence.
In poem 52 editorially titled “The Thrush and the Nightingale,” alliteration is not structural in the sense of dominating the formal composition, nor is it aesthetic in the sense of being the primary indicator of the poetic quality of the text. It occurs frequently but irregularly through the poem, in very nearly exactly one-third of the lines. The poem is strongly influenced by other alliterative verse, [8] but it is basically organized around patterns of stress and rhyme. Thus in this poem, where the author is at liberty to include and exclude alliteration from any particular line, its uses should be especially revealing.
A catalogue of the location of the alliterating phrases shows quite convincingly that they occur randomly in different parts of the stanza.

first line 12_
second line 12
third line 10
fourth line 10
fifth line 13
sixth line 11

It is impossible to posit any manipulation of expectations here. It is true that alliteration tends to cluster at certain points in the text, with nine and ten line passages free from alliteration being succeeded by four or five lines each of which has it, but I have no explanation for this fact. They do not seem especially to collect about climactic passages or thoroughly conventional ones.
It is true that certain letters, as in “Ichot a burde in boure bryht,” have far more than a random share of alliterative phrases. In this poem the most commonly alliterating letters each account for about one fifth of the total. These are “n” (with 14 occurrences which amounts to 21%), “s” (13 lines or 19%), and “w” (12 lines or 18%). The next most common letter is “m” with 7 occurrences (almost half the figure for the top three) and after it “f” with 5. In this case there is no ingenious subtext like that I claim for the previous poem. However, the concentration of sounds is not arbitrary either.
The most easily analyzed letter of the three is “n.” Virtually all the lines alliterating in “n” do so simply because of multiple negatives. The repeated use of “nis,” “ne,” “nohut,” etc. is a formula of alliterative poetry. Such a line tends toward an insistent no-no-no, echoing perhaps the heat of the poem’s debate.
The second most frequently occurring sound is “s.” The collocations with this sound constitute a continuous pattern within the poem, what one might call a micro-convention. From the first “s”-line, number 14 “þat wol shilden hem from shome,” which defines the crux of the argument as the sense of shame in women, the theme is repeatedly restated and developed as the “s” sound recurs as an alliterating word at distant intervals. In line 56, for instance, the very same words carry the alliteration as the nightingale maintains that women “hem-self” “from shome shilde” just as the bird had demonstrated his similar virtue by shielding them. The same theme is restated in lines 132, 175, and 188.
This last example “ne shal I neuere suggen shame” connects this thematic series to another, also in “s,” which exemplifies a virtuous use of language in the telling of the story itself or with that fictive projection of the same act, the singing of birds. This theme appears in lines 15, 99, 122, 134, and 168. Thus the reader or listener accumulates a collection of instances in his mind in which the connections between parts of the work and the continuity of the whole are rendered more obvious by aural means.
A similar rationale underlies the repetition of “w” in the text. From its first appearance in line 8 “þat on of wele, þat oþer of wo” the choice available to the reader is clear. The entire poem is the working out of a dialectic in which not only two ideas of the nature of women compete, but also two eschatological possibilities. The danger of being one who “werche wo” (line 23) even if one be rich in “worldes wele” (line 47) becomes by the end of the poem an absolute one as the religious theme concludes the poem. Other lines beginning with “w” which develop the woe-wealth dichotomy state a problem which is solved by the mention in line 170 of Mary and Christ.
Looking at the list of all words in the text which alliterate (see list on page 8) one finds several distinct types. There are those in which the two words are similar or identical in meaning. These are very commonly those which are traditional — some indeed, like the “might and main” of line 89 have remained for centuries part of everyday speech. Others are different or opposite in meaning such as the “wele” and “wo” already discussed. This type is especially appropriate for figuring the basic conflict of a poem or situation. In many of the phrases, the two or three words that alliterate are simply items in a series such as noun and verb of a single thought. These are less likely than either pairs of likes or of contraries to be traditional or to be significant topoi which define set themes or values in a crystallized, immediately recognizable way.
One finds then, two sorts of alliterating lyrics. Those in which alliteration is used as a generative principle illustrate regularly recurring patterns which constitute the Gestalt of the poem, though even here the systematic repetition through most of the body of a poem does not preclude the development of specific patterns as well. In poetry which is not regularly alliterative, alliteration defines the central themes of the poem (in some instances, at any rate) and links specific passages in the individual text, through the repetition of lines or phrases common to other texts as well, with the tradition out of which it arises. The individual alliterating word pairs or triplets are often either norm-validating (when both are of like meaning and that meaning is culturally significant, such as "meek and mild") or norm-violating or problematic (when they contend in meaning and pose a sort of riddle which the poem seeks to investigate).





1. In J. P. Oakden, Alliterative Poetry in Middle English (Cambridge, 1935).

2. See Merle Fifield, "Thirteenth Century lyrics and the Alliterative Tradition," JEGP LXII (1962), 111-118.

3. Of course, alliteration is often used in non-literary contexts, but always with an “aesthetic aim” in view. Even vulgarisms like “He don't know shit from Shinola” convey attitude as well as information.

4. Carleton Brown, English Lyrics of the XIIIth Century (Oxford, 1932). I shall subsequently use Brown's numbers in referring to poems.

5. The implication is that she embodies nature while transcending it, a very widespread and ancient theme. See the excursus on “Flos florum” in Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric (Oxford, 1968).

6. Does the fact that the northern wind is to bring the beloved suggest something of the paradoxe amoureuse (to use Spitzer's phrase)? Surely much more normal would be the Zephyr as in the “Westron winde, when will thou blow.”

7. In terms of fancy, these suggestions hardly compare to the subtexts read by Saussure in Latin poetry.

8. Note Brown number 81 where alliteration is structural. The opening line declares the likeness and the difference by being the same except for the first word alliterating “Lenten ys come wip loue to toune.”

9. One recalls the conclusion's crescendo in the cuckoo song “Ne swik þu naver nu!”



Alliterating Words in “The Thrush and the Nightingale”

line
2 blostme brides
4 dewes darkneþ dale
8 wele wo
10 here hoe hende
13 nightingale none
14 shulden shome
15 skaþe skere
18 fendes I-fere
22 fikele fals find
23 werche wo
33 gome grete
34 nere nout nere
35 maked mones
36 nis no
37 ne nohut
44 nes non
45 ne non
47 weren worldes wele
53 nis non
55 meke milde
56 shame shild
62 boure I-be
65 derne dede
66 soule spille
77 counnen curteisie
78 nis nothing
79 mest murþe mon
88 witness wawain
89 might main
92 nevere non
99 songes singe
100 nevere no
103 muchele murþe
105 livie longinge
108 word wide
109 wide wel wot
111 nout newe
114 kepest I-knowe
115 constantines quene
116 foul fow
120 war wimmen
122 sugge songe
123 wite wide
124 be briʒttere
125 day daw
129 þer þou
130 þat þou
131 þer þou
132 shome shal
134 seist spille
135 wo wolde
137 moni mon
139 saunsum stronge
148 laste longe
151 nis non
155 ne nohut
156 ne nammore
163 werche wo
166 sitten striven
168 so seist
170 wam wes I-wend
171 maide milde meke
173 boren bedlehem
178 fowel for false
180 fare filde
181 wes woed
188 suggen shame
191 ne nevere

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