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

§ 2. The Transition

When, after the lapse of some two centuries, which furnish only scraps of verse, we meet, at, or before, the end of the twelfth century, with a fresh crop of English poetry, the results of prosodic scrutiny are strikingly different. Instead of the just summarised regularity—not in the least cast-iron, but playing freely round two or three recognised principles, which are never absolutely deserted, and attempting nothing beyond their range—we find what may, at first, look like chaos; what has sometimes been taken for the same dispensation a little obsolescent and broken down, but, when examined fully and fairly, is seen to be a true period of transition. The old order finds itself in face of a new, which does not by any means merely replace it or destroy it; but, after an inevitable stage of confusion, blends with it and produces something different from either, something destined to be permanent as far as we can yet see. In all the pieces usually dated a little before or a little after 1200—the fragments of St. Godric, Paternoster, The Moral Ode and others, as well as the two long compositions of Layamon and Orm—this process and its results are observable. The new agency is the syllabic prosody (accentual, also, in general character, but strictly syllabic) of French and of contemporary Latin, with its almost invariable accompaniment of rime, and its tendency, invariable also in French, though by no means so in Latin, to iambic rhythm. It must be sufficient here to examine the working out of this clash in the two long poems just referred to, the Ormulum and the Brut, with slighter remarks on the others. In both poems it is possible to trace the older principle of a rimeless line of more or less length, divided sharply in the middle, or a rimeless couplet of two halves, in which, though not invariably, there is a certain tendency to shorten the second. But the two writers have been affected by the opposite and newer system in ways curiously different, but quite intelligible as results of the clash. Orm has unflinchingly kept to the old principle of rimelessness; but he has as unflinchingly adopted the new principles of uniformity in syllabic volume and of regular iambic metrical beat. His lines are invariably of fifteen syllables, or his couplets of eight and seven. That he achieves—as any example, however selected, must show—nothing but the most exasperating and wooden monotony, does not matter to him, and it ought not to matter to us. He has sacrificed everything to regularity in number and cadence, and he has achieved this.

Layamon’s result, if not more actually important, is much more complicated, much more interesting, with much more future in it; but, for these very reasons, it is much less easy to summarise. In fact, to summarise it in uncontroversial terms is very nearly impossible. At first sight, if we can suppose an eye familiar with Old English poetry and not familiar at all with Middle English, it may seem to present no great difference from the former; and there are still some who think that it does not present any that is vital. But, when it is examined a little more carefully, differences the most vital, if as yet sometimes not more than embryonically vital, emerge. Regarded as alliterative verse of the old pattern, it can only be called very bad verse—verse which turns the already abundant liberties of the original into mere chaotic licence, for the most part, and which very seldom conforms at all successfully. But, in addition to this, it succumbs, constantly though irregularly, to the temptation which, except in late and few instances, the old verse had rigidly resisted, and which Orm was resisting absolutely—the temptation of rime. And this rime seems to be forcing on it a new regularisation, that of equal-halved distichs rimed together in the exact fashion of the French octosyllabic couplet.