A Brief Survey of Middle English Metrical and Alliterative Romance

 Simply speaking, romances are fantasies in which the authors make the fullest use of their imagination and fancy and create an ideal world, which bears little or no semblance with real life. In the middle of the fourteenth century a revival of the old English alliterative verse occurs through romances, which develops – side by side with religions literature. This literature is inspired by French romantic poems and centers around Chivalry. There is an absence of originality but the fervour of nationalism is present in the literature of this period. Heroes and subjects connected with Britain are given reference in the romantic cycles of chivalry. British stories are valued most and the native poets get material for their original works.

Thus a series of romances appear with the Old English epic versification and French romance invested with dignity and stately splendor. In the Middle English period literature of the 14th and 15th centuries is much more diversified than the previous Old English literature and a very great number of romances can be classified according to subject, through it should be noted that they are both alliterative and rhyming in metre. A variety of French and even Italian elements influenced Middle English literature, especially in southern England. In addition, different regional styles were maintained, in literature and learning had not yet been centralized. For these reasons, as well as because of the vigorous and uneven growth of national life, the Middle English period contains a wealth of literary monuments not easily classified. However, the romances of that period are grouped in three categories. The romances which deal with English history are known as ‘The matter of England’; romances dealing with king Arthur is called ‘The Matter of Britain’; romances dealing with classical theme is called The matter of ‘Rome the Great’; with the French legends is called ‘The Matter of France’. The Middle English literature of the 14th and 15th centuries is much more diversified than the previous Old English literature.

          Among the English historical romances king Horn, Havelock The Dane, Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton are the best. In Bevis of Hampton has lively characterization of Josiane the heroine and Ascapart the giant, but the theme is well-worn – of a faithless wife, a murdered husband and father, a disinherited son, and an intruding tyrant. There is some interest in Bevis’s vengeance on his father’s murderer and his own wrongdoex, appropriately named Sir Murdour; and his horse Arundel and sword Morglay rank well among those favourite properties of Romance.

          In ‘the matter of Britain the Arthurian cycle covers a lot of romances. Tristrem, Arthur and Merlin Ywain and Gawain, Morte d’ Arthure are notable. The best of this group of Sir Gawayne and The Grene Knyght is a secular work based on all the earlier Arthurain romances specially perceval of Chrestien de Troyes. This is one of the four alliterative poems contained in a single manuscript MSS – the other poems being Pearl, Purity, and patience. The author of these poems M.S.S. is unknown but surely he would have known courtly society, been familiar with castles, banquetings and hunts and tournaments. Sir Gawayne and Grene knight (late 1300s), has the central character Sir Gawayne who holds the place of honour, for attractiveness of personality. He is the best beloved comrade of Arthur. He is the mirror of knighthood, truest of speech and fairest of farm, very perfect and gentle. In the story we find that the giant like Green knight enters into the great Hall of Camelot on a giant horse, when king Arthur is celebrating Christmas among the knights of the Round Tables. His aim is to challenge Arthur’s knight. He is ready to allow his head struck off if the same thing is agreed to by any knight within a year and a day. Gawain takes the axe and cuts the head of the knight. The giant collects his head coolly and asking Gawain to keep his word turns back. After a year Gawain leaves in search of the green knight. On Christmas ever he reaches a castle and is well received there. After a maze course a Green Knight is found, but by the magic of green silk Gawain resists his own death. Later he returns to the court with triumph. Thus the tale is told of the knight's resistance to the blandishments of another man's beautiful wife.

          The shorter alliterative vision poem, The Pearl, written in northwest England in about 1370, is a discussion between the poet and the pearl. It is doctrinal, but its tone is ecstatic, and it is far more deliberately artistic. Here is sincerity, passion, love and beauty. Here the pearl is of hope, beauty and Christianity. Apparently an elegy for the death of a small girl (although widely varying religious allegorical interpretations have been suggested for it), the poem describes the exalted state of childlike innocence in heaven and the need for all souls to become as children to enter the pearly gates of the New Jerusalem. The work ends with an impressive vision of heaven, from which the dreamer awakes. The other two poems Patience and Purity are didactic and of lesser importance than the Pearl.

          Apart from above poems Coilzear and Sir Ferumbras are the French romances grouped under ‘The Matter of France’. Again, William of Palerne and Floris and Blauchefleur have two interesting subjects – of missing heir and of the love of a king’s son for a captive maid. Amisand Amiloun is the superior for pathos and beauty. In the Roman stories, king Alisaunder and The Destruction of Troy are long alliterating with popular classical theme.

          The Middle English romances are in most cases meant to supply amusement and entertainment to the listeners. They perform the part of picture palaces in the Middle English England. Yet with the popularity of alliterative verse a more serious view is given to the romance. They bear historical value, charm of nature and wild scenery, high ethical ideal and a great literary craftsmanship.

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