Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Metrical Romances, 1200–1500 > Forms of Verse
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

XIII. Metrical Romances, 1200–1500.

§ 8. Forms of Verse.


As regards verse, there are the two great orders, riming and blank alliterative. Of riming measures the most usual are the short couplet of octosyllabic lines and the stanza called rime couèe, rithmus caudatus.   22
  King Horn is singular in its verse, an example of one stage in the development of modern English metres. It is closely related in prosody to Layamon’s Brut, and might be described as carrying through consistently the riming couplet, which Layamon interchanges with blank lines. The verse is not governed by the octosyllabic law; it is not of Latin origin; it has a strange resemblance to the verse of Otfried in Old High German and to the accidental riming passages in Old English, especially in the more decrepit Old English verse:
       
Thanne him spac the god&etilde; king:
Wel bruc thu thi nevening;
Horn thu go wel schüllé
Bi dal&etilde;s and bi hüllé;
Horn thu lud&etilde; suné
Bi dal&etilde;s and bi duné;
So schal thi nam&etilde; springé
Fram kyngé to kyngé,
And thi fairnessé
Abut&etilde; Westernessé,
The strengthe of thine hondé
In to evrech londé. 6 
  23
  There is no other romance in this antique sort of verse. In the ordinary couplets just such differences may be found as in modern usage of the same measure. Havelok and Orfeo, King Alisaunder and Ywain have not exactly the same effect.   24
  Havelok, though sometimes a little rough, is not unsound; the poem of Ywain and Gawain is nearly as correct as Chaucer; The Squire of Low Degree is one of the pleasantest and most fluent examples of this verse in English. There is a pause at the end of every line, and the effect is like that of some ballads:
       
The squyer her hente in armes two,
And kyssed her an hundreth tymes and mo.
There was myrth and melody,
With harpe, gytron and sautry,
With rote, ribible and colkarde,
With pypes, organs and bombarde,
With other mynstrelles them amonge,
With sytolphe and with sautry songe,
With fydle, recorde and dowcemere,
With trompette and with claryon clere,
With dulcet pipes of many cordes,
In chambre revelyng all the lordes,
Unto morne that it was daye. 7 
  25
  Besides the short couplet different types of common metre are used; very vigorously, with full rimes, in Sir Ferumbras
Now bygynt a strong batayl between this knyghtes twayne, Ayther gan other hard assayle bothe wyth myght and mayne; They hewe togadre wyth swerdes dent, faste with bothen hondes, Of helmes and sheldes that fyr outwent, so sparkes doth of brondes: 8 
and without the internal rime, in The Tale of Gamelyn, the verse of which has been so rightly praised. 9 
  26
  Sir Thopas might be taken as the standard of the rithmus caudatus, but Sir Thopas itself shows that variations are admitted and there are several kinds besides, which Chaucer does not introduce.   27
  In later usage this stanza is merely twofold, as in Drayton’s Nymphidia or in The Baby’s Dèbut. In early days it was commonly fourfold, i.e. there are four caudae with the same rime:
       
And so it fell upon a daye
The palmare went to the wode to playe,
His mirthes for to mene;
       
The knightes brake up his chamber dore
And fand the gold right in the flore
And bare it unto the quene;
And als sone als scho saw it with sighte,
In swoning than fell that swete wighte
For scho had are it sene!
Scho kissed it and said, “Allas!
This gold aughte Sir Isambras,
My lord was wont to bene.” 10 
  28
  Sometimes there are three lines together before each cauda, as in Sir Perceval and Sir Degrevant and others:
       
Lef, lythes to me
Two wordes or thre
Off one that was fair and fre,
And felle in his fighte;
His righte name was Percyvelle,
He was fosterde in the felle,
He dranke water of the welle,
And yitte was he wyghte!
His fadir was a noble mane
Fro the tyme that he begane;
Miche worchippe he wane
When he was made knyghte;
In Kyng Arthures haulle,
Beste by-luffede of alle,
Percyvelle they gane hym calle,
Who so redis ryghte.
  29
  While as this example shows, there are different lengths of line, they are not all in eights and sixes. Sir Libeaus, particularly, makes very pretty play with a kind of short metre and a peculiar sequence of the rimes:
       
That maide knelde in halle
Before the knightes alle
And seide: My lord Arthour!
A cas ther is befalle,
Worse withinne walle
Was never non of dolour!
My lady of Sinadoune
Is brought in strong prisoun
That was of greet valour;
Sche praith the sende her a knight
With harte good and light
To winne her with honour, 11 
  30
  The cauda is usually of six syllables; but there is a variety with four, found in part of Sir Beves:
       
That erl is hors began to stride
His scheld he hang upon is side
Gert with swerd;
Moste non armur on him come
Himself was boute the ferthe some
Toward that ferd.
Allas that he nadde be war
Of is fomen that weren thar
Him forte schende;
With tresoun worth he ther islawe
And i-brought of is lif-daw
Er he hom wende. 12 
  31
  The rime couèe is a lyrical stanza, and there are other lyrical forms. One of the romances of Octavian is in the old Provençal and old French measure which, by roundabout ways, came to Scotland, and was used in the seventeenth century in honour of Habbie Simson, the piper of Kilbarchan, and, thereafter, by Allan Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns, not to speak of later poets.
       
The knyght was glad to skape so,
As every man is from hys foo;
The mayster lette ten men and moo
That ylke day,
To wende and selle that chyld hem fro
And that palfray. 13 
  32
  The riming Mort Arthur is in a favourite eight-line stanza. Sir Tristrem, in most ways exceptional, uses a lyrical stave, like one of those in the collection of Laurence Minot, and very unlike anything that was permissible in the French schools of narrative at that time. It may be remembered, however, that the Italian romances of the fourteenth century and later used a form of verse that, at first, was lyrical, the ottava rima; there are other affinities in Italian and English popular literature, as compared with the French, common qualities which it would be interesting to study further. 14    33
  The French originals of these English romances are almost universally in short couplets, the ordinary verse for all subjects, after the chansons de geste had grown old-fashioned. 15  On the whole, and considering how well understood the short couplet was in England even in the thirteenth century, e.g. in The Owl and Nightingale, it is rather surprising that there should be such a large discrepancy between the French and the English forms. There are many anomalies; thus, the fuller version of Ipomedon, by a man who really dealt fairly and made a brave effort to get the French spirit into English rime, is in rime couèe while the shorter Ipomedon, scamped work by some poor hack of a minstrel, is in the regular French couplet. It should be noted here that rime couèe is later than couplets, though the couplets last better, finally coming to the front again and winning easily in Confessio Amantis and in The Romaunt of the Rose. There are many examples of rewriting: tales in couplets are rewritten in stanzas; Sir Beves, in the earlier part, is one, Sir Launfal is another. Horn Childe is in the Thopas verse; it is the same story as King Horn, though with other sources, and different names and incidents.   34
  In later times, the octosyllabic verse recovers its place, and, though new forms are employed at the close of the Middle Ages, such as rime royal (e.g. in Generydes) and the heroic couplet (in Clariodus and Sir Gilbert Hay’s Alexander), still, for simple popular use, the short verse is the most convenient, as is proved by the chap-book romances, Sir Eger and Roswall and Lilian–also, one may say, Sir David Lyndsay’s Squire Meldrum. The curious riming alliterative verse of the Awntyrs of Arthure and Rauf Coilyear lasts well in Scotland; but it had never been thoroughly established as a narrative measure, and, though it is one of the forms recognised and exemplified in King James VI’s Art of Poesie, its “tumbling verse” is there regarded as most fit for “flytings,” which was indeed its usual function in the end of its days.   35
  Alliterative blank verse came up in the middle of the fourteenth century and was chiefly used for romance, Piers Plowman being the only considerable long poem to be compared in weight with The Troy Book or The Wars of Alexander, though there are others of less compass which are still remarkable enough. Where the verse came from is not known clearly to anyone and can only be guessed. The facts are that, whereas the old verse begins to show many signs of decay before the Conquest, and reappears after the Conquest in very battered shapes, in Layamon and The Bestiary and The Proverbs of Alfred, the new order, of which William of Palerne is the earliest, has clearly ascertained some of the main principles of the ancient Teutonic line, and adheres to them without any excessive difficulty. The verse of these alliterative romances and of Langland, and of all the rest down to Dunbar and the author of Scotish Feilde, is regular, with rules of its own; not wholly the same as those of old English epic, but partly so, and never at all like the helpless medley of Layamon. It must have been hidden away somewhere underground—continuing in a purer tradition than happens to have found its way into extant manuscripts—till, at last, there is a striking revival in the reign of Edward III. There are some hints and indications in the meantime. Giraldus the untiring, the untamed, with his quick wit and his lively interest in all manner of things, has a note comparing the Welsh and the English love of alliteration—as he compares the partsinging of Wales with that of the north country. He gives English examples:
       
Good is togedere gamen and wisdom,
a regular line, like those of the fourteenth century and unlike the practice of Layamon. Plainly, many things went on besides what is recorded in the surviving manuscripts. At any rate, the result in the fourteenth century alliterative poems is a noble one.
  36

Note 6. L1. 205 sqq. [ back ]
Note 7. L1 n067 sqq. [ back ]
Note 8. L1. 602 sqq. [ back ]
Note 9. L1 Saintsbury, English Prosody, I, p. 195. [ back ]
Note 10Sir Isumbras, 11 641 sqq. [ back ]
Note 11. L1. 145 sqq. [ back ]
Note 12. L1. 199 sqq. [ back ]
Note 13. L1. 379 sqq. [ back ]
Note 14. Gaston Paris, opp. citt. [ back ]
Note 15. There are exceptions; thus the French—or Anglo-Norman—Beves is in an epic measure; and, of course, some of the English romances are borrowed from French epics, like Roland, and Sir Ferumbras, and the alliterative poem of the Swan-Knight (Chevelere Assigne) which, though romantic enough in subject, belongs technically, in the original French, to the cycle of Godfrey of Bouillon. [ back ]

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