[PDF Notes] How did the revival of old English alliterative verse take place?

In the fourteenth century England, the various dialects had been undergoing a process of simplification. Inflections had been disappearing; the language was tending towards forms which could become universal. It is not strange, therefore, that this revival should be accompanied by a reaction on the part of the poets to earlier and more truly national forms of verse.

Under French influence, rhymed verse had gained the ascendancy in English poetry, although alliteration still remained in numerous phrases and conventional formulas. Alliterative poetry never entirely disappears, and in Laurence Minot, lyric or courtly verse joined forces with the more popular forms.

Features of revived literature:

The metrical romances were in most cases meant to supply amusement and entertainment to the listeners. They performed the part of picture palaces in the middle Ages. With the return of alliterative verse a more serious view was give to the romance.

Among the many heroes of British romance, Gawayne holds the place of honour, for attractiveness of personality. To those who know of him only from Tennyson’s unpleasing picture of a false irreverent knight, it comes as a surprise to find that the Gawayne of mediaeval romance is “gay, gracious, and good.” He was the best beloved of Arthur’s comrades. In the work of Malory, for the first time these characteristics are presented in a less favorable light.

In Sir Gawayne, the poet holds up a “mirror of knighthood.” The story is borrowed from the Perceval (Roman de, Perceval, by Chretien de Troyes), with interpolated passages that are original and throw light on the customs and manners of the ancestors.

1. Written with the alliterative measure of the epic, and combined with a lyrical element (cf. Pearl).

2. This romance shows close acquaintance with the courtly life of the age, and the writer was evidently a lover of the chase; it has therefore an historical value.

3. It is remarkable also for the deep and tender love of nature displayed throughout the poem, and some of its most delightful passages describe the charms of wild scenery.

4. It displays an intimate knowledge, of mediaeval craftsmanship and art.

5. It shows literary power in its, treatment of the story, avoiding monotony and repetition with great skill.

6. It is, in essence, didactic, being a study of chastity. Gawayne, beset by St. Anthony’s temptations, triumphs over them.

In the romance of Gawayne and the Green Knight, the poet for the first time breaks away from tradition, and while using a romantic tale he tells it with force and individuality, so that the attention of the reader is held throughout.

The incidents in the story are subordinated to the main purpose a work of art dominated by a high ethical ideal; and as a piece of literary craftsmanship the romance occupies a place in the front rank. This same earnest moral purpose expresses itself in Pearl, and in the two less considerable poems, Cleanness, and Patience.

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