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A thing about verse

December 13, 2011

Here is a thing I have been thinking about today:

It seems to me that there is less verse around than there used to be.

Partly this must be accounted for by the gradual prevalence of writing, rather than memorisation, as the preferred way to preserve literature. The patterning of formal verse, be it alliterative, rhyming, metrical or some combination, can be a tremendous help in memorising long chunks of text; such mnemonic strategies are less crucial when you have a written-down crib available. (See also, the possibility that people memorise less general knowledge now that the Internet, repository of everything, is readily accessible.) But writing has been around for an entirely ridiculous length of time; verse continued in use. Literacy rates got higher and higher; verse continued in use. Printing happened, cheap printing, which relied on a large, literate customer base; verse continued in use. The Internet happened, and suddenly it seems that there’s more verse around than ever, because now everyone with two words to string together and a blog to put them on can put their efforts out there for the world to inspect.

Verse has never gone out of use, of course. Poetry is still a thriving art today. But at some point in that trajectory, the scope of writing-in-verse – in English, at least; I cannot speak for any other culture, and am only really speculating in any case – seems to have narrowed. There seems to be, now, a relatively narrow conception of verse-writing that is closely tied to the concept of Poetry with a capital P, as it were. Poetry, the impression seeps in, is for profound reflections. An exception is allowed for light verse, exploiting the patternings of verse for comic effect; likewise, verse set to music is exempted, because songwriting is (rightly or wrongly) considered a separate form with separate rules. But there does not seem to be, currently, a concept of the middle ground – non-musical verse works that are neither avowedly comic nor deep and serious. It’s as if prose consisted of P.G. Wodehouse on one end and Serious Literary Fiction at the other, and very little else.

Let me digress for a moment. In fact, let me digress all the way back to the High Middle Ages, when there was an extraordinary flowering of verse in English. Some products of this period have been better acknowledged than others. Works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the other religious poems attributed to the same hand, and Langland’s Piers Plowman have long been held up – rightly – as extraordinary achievements. Ditto Chaucer. Certain other poets from broadly the same period also get acknowledged: Gower, for example, and Lydgate. But these works are, to simplify somewhat, the Serious Literary Fiction of their day: dense and sometimes difficult, dealing with weighty issues of life and death and love and faith, in gorgeously turned verse. Comedy of the period is under-represented, but it is there: Chaucer (again), the Mystery Plays, any number of small (usually dirty) songs and lyrics and riddles.

But there’s also a rich and fascinating vein of verse that was popular and unashamedly non-Literary without being comedy per se. Around the middle of the Middle Ages, there was a burgeoning of verse romances in English. “Romance” then didn’t mean what it does now: while the modern use of “romance” to describe a literary genre is descended from the medieval one, the focus of the term has shifted. The medieval usage of “romance” is remarkably broad, and refers generally to a longish poem describing the adventures of A Hero, which usually but not always includes a very idealised love story (hence the modern usage). In spirit, popular medieval romances are often closer to action movies: hero goes to exotic locations, kills the bad guys, gets the girl, the end. To judge from the number of surviving romances (several dozen) and the number of manuscript copies of some of them that have been preserved (double figures, in some cases), it was a very popular genre.* “Genre” is an important word there: I cannot overstate that the romances were genre fiction. They tend to display a subset of a very particular set of conventions, they tend to proceed in a familiar and formulaic way with just enough variations to be interesting, they tended to be cheap and relatively easy to get one’s hands on (insofar as any text was readily accessible before mass production), and – like modern genre fiction – for all these reasons, they are often remarkably revealing of social mores. You’re going to learn a lot more about a culture from what its people actually read than from what a small elite think they should be reading.

To return out of that morass of generalisations to something approaching my original point: as well as being a cheap and cheerful and popular form of literature, the medieval romance was a verse form of literature. Different types of verse, yes – most are in couplets, some are in short stanzas, a few alliterate – but verse. (Prose romance existed alongside, but seems to have been less of a thing, and commoner in the French tradition than the English.) Arguments about whether romance was a primarily oral or written form are still ongoing, but the number of manuscripts is pretty conclusively proof that people did write them down, and did read them as opposed to hearing them.

So when did verse as a legitimate medium for popular but non-comedic writing go out of fashion? It still persists, undoubtedly, but it’s no longer a mainstream thing. You can’t walk into a bookshop and find dodgily versified treatments of the Cold War nestling next to the Tom Clancy. There is no rhyming equivalent of Ruth Rendell, no alliterative Asimov, no Stephen King in couplets. (I wish there was. Also: franchise spin-offs. I believe I would actually pay money for a Torchwood novel or one of the endless succession of Drizzt books in verse.)

I can’t quite think why. I doubt there’s a single cause; these kinds of literary trends never have them. I have a vague feeling that partial responsibility may lie with the Romantics, who helped to create the image of Poetry as a serious and profound pursuit; but there’s probably something in there about mass-production, the relative speed at which people produce prose and verse,** hell, even publishing conventions. (Medieval poetry often isn’t lineated, which saves on space; modern practice, while making verse way easier to follow, also makes it much more space-inefficient, and hence proportionately expensive to publish, than prose.) The increasing tendency to regard poetry and songwriting as separate media (and respond with contempt or confusion when people analyse song lyrics the way you analyse non-musical verse). Anti-verse sentiment as a general manifestation of anti-intellectualism. EDIT: Rhiannon identified another major one: the broader trend in literature towards naturalism – the attempt to represent how people actually talk, or to give that impression – tends to exclude the artificiality of formal verse. You can do naturalistic speech in formal verse (see for example Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”) but it’s harder.

Any number of things. Theories?

*

*For comparison, Beowulf survives in only one manuscript. So too does Gawain and the Green Knight. But those two poems are now well accepted as capital-L Literature, and there is probably more scholarship on either one than on all the popular romances put together. On the subject of manuscript survivals, consider a modern parallel: if the archaeologists of the year 50000 were trying to construct a history of twentieth-century film from a random sample of accidentally fossilised DVD collections, they’d be likely to find a lot more copies of Star Wars than they would of Citizen Kane. Popularity ups a work’s chances of physical survival way more than abstract artistic merit does. At this point we get into an argument about what constitutes artistic merit: I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather watch Star Wars than Citizen Kane.

**I don’t know if there’s a difference, or what it is. I know I can produce workaday, un-stellar blank verse at about the same speed as workaday, un-stellar prose once I’ve got into my stride. Rhyming takes a bit longer. Anyone else have data to contribute on this head?

*

Irrelevant To The Main Post: A Note About Medieval Romances

Much to the joy of romance specialists everywhere (all six of them – I kid, I kid), many of the most popular romances have now been digitised and are available for free on the Interwebs. There is a small hitch, however, in that most of them have been digitised with their original Middle English spelling and grammar intact, which is great for academics studying textual minutiae but less great for non-academics who just want to read the story. Reading aloud can often help, and the Rochester editions – a few of which I have linked below – have moderately thorough in-line glossaries. Links go to the introductions, to give people a chance to read a summary of the stories before going to the actual text. (I will hold it against nobody if they decide to give the whole genre a miss: it tends to be full of gratuitous violence, staggering amounts of racism, misogyny and religious bigotry, and individual romances add in bonus episodes of threatened or committed rape, threatened or committed incest, child abandonment, and many other assortedly nasty things.)

Sir Eglamour of Artois

Sir Bevis of Hampton

Lybeaus Desconus (The Fair Unknown)

Sir Gowther

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