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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XVIII. The Prosody of Old and Middle English

§ 1. Old English Verse

OF Old English poetry, anterior to the twelfth century and, perhaps, in a few cases of that century itself, it has been calculated that we have nearly thirty thousand lines. But all save a very few reduce themselves, in point of prosody, to an elastic but tolerably isonomous form, closely resembling that which is found in the poetry of other early Teutonic and Scandinavian languages. This form may be specified, either as a pretty long line rigidly divided into two halves, or as a couplet of mostly short lines rhythmically connected together by a system of alliteration and stress. Normally, there should be four stressed syllables in the line, or two in each of the half couplets; and at least three of these syllables should be alliterated, beginning with the same consonant or any vowel, as in this line (29) of The Wanderer:

  • Wenian mid wynnum. Wat se [char]e cunna[char].
  • Around or between the pillar or anchor stresses, unstressed syllables are grouped in a manner which has sometimes been regarded as almost entirely licentious, and sometimes reduced, as by Sievers, to more or less definite laws or types. Probably, as usual, the truth lies between the two extremes.

    To any one, however, who, without previous knowledge of the matter, turns over a fair number of pages of Old English verse, a singular phenomenon will present itself. For many of these pages the line-lengths, though not rigidly equated, will present a coast-line not very much more irregular than that of a page of modern blank verse. And then, suddenly, he will come to pages or passages where the lines seem to telescope themselves out to double their former length. The mere statistical process of enumeration, and of subsequent digestion into classes of more or less resembling type, finds no difficulty in this, and merely regards it as an instance of “stretched” or “swollen” verses, with three or four accents in each half instead of two. Curiosity of a different kind may, perhaps, pine for a little explanation of a more real nature—may wish to know whether this lengthening was parallel, say, to Tennyson’s at the close of The Lotos Eaters—a definitely concerted thing—or whether it was a mere haphazard licence. But there are no means of satisfying this curiosity except by conjecture. Further, our means of deciding whether, as is usually said, the stressed syllables were bound to be “long” beforehand or not, are very scanty. It seems admitted that more than one short syllable may do the duty of one long; and this is of the highest importance. What, however, is certain is that, in spite of this great variation of length, and in spite of considerable differences, not merely in syllabic volume, between the members of the “stretched” and unstretched groups respectively, there is a certain community of rhythmical tone, sometimes full, sometimes muffled, which not only distinguishes the whole body of this ancient poetry but is distinguishable, with some alteration, in the later revived alliterative verse of Middle English up to the beginning of the sixteenth century. In order to detect and check this, the student should take the Corpus Poeticum of Old English and read pages of different poems steadily, letting his voice accommodate itself to the rhythm which will certainly emerge if he has any ear. Different ears will, perhaps, standardise this rhythm differently, and it certainly admits of very wide variation and substitution. The simplest and most normal formula—not necessarily the one which mere statistics will show to be commonest as such, but that which, in itself, or in slight variations from it, predominates—appears to the present writer to be

  • [Figure]
  • These are almost the lowest terms of a fully resonant line. They are sometimes further truncated; they are often enlarged by the addition of unstressed syllables; but they are never far off except in the obvious and admitted “magnums.”

    Long or short, these lines, in all but an infinitesimal Proportion of the total, are arranged in mere consecution. A kind of paragraph arrangement—which is, in fact, a necessity—may be often noticed; but there are, save in one famous exception, no “stanzas.” This exception is the extremely interesting and, to all appearance, extremely early poem Deor. Here, things which are undoubtedly like stanzas (though the number of lines in them is variable) are formed by a refrain:

  • [char]aes ofereode, [char]isses swa mae[char].
  • With some rashness, it has been assumed that this semi-lyrical arrangement was the earlier, and that it broke down into the continuous form. It may be so; but, in Old English, at any rate, we have no evidence to show it.

    Further, in the main range of this poetry, though not to such an exclusive extent, rime is absent. Attempts have been made to discover it in some of the mainly rimeless poems of later dates; but the instances adduced are probably accidental. In fact, the majority of them, alleged chiefly by German critics, are not properly rimes at all, and are often mere similarities of inflection. The real exceptions are (1) the famous piece in the Exeter Book called, significantly, The Riming Poem, which exhibits a system, probably imitated from the Norse, of internal, and sometimes frequently repeated, consonance at the ends of lines and half-lines; and (2) a few fragments, especially the inset in the Chronicle about the imprisonment and death of the “guiltless aetheling” Alfred. They are exceptions which eminently prove the rule. A quest for assonance had also been made, and a few instances of something like it have been pointed out. But they are very few. Assonance, in fact, has never held any important place in English prosody; and, where it exists in unsophisticated times and instances, it is always, most probably, the result either of inattention or of an attempt to rime. On the whole, the body of old English verse, as we have it, is one of the most homogeneous to be found in any literature. Alliteration, accent and strict separation of lines or half-lines for its positive laws; rimelessness for its negative: these nearly sum up its commandments, and its result is dominated by an irregular quasi-trochaic rhythm which will retreat, but always comes back again.