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Old English Gawain Knight

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It can be misleading to speak of the Middle English of the Gawain poet as a "language" in the contemporary sense, since neither written nor oral communication was standardized. There were, of course, conventions. If anything, the grammar of Middle English was more complicated than that of modern English. There was, however, no correct or incorrect usage. Spelling and pronunciation were subject to considerable local and individual variations.

This meant that the language was more personal and probably, in some respects, more vivid than our own. There are similar qualities in dialects and in languages such as Yiddish which still are not fully standardized today. It also meant, however, that verse forms, involving such matters as syllable counts, had to be used with less precision than in modern times.

The Gawain poet is part of a movement known as the "alliterative revival" of the thirteenth century. Together with some of his contemporaries, he departed from the forms adopted from Latin languages which were based on rhyme and meter. Instead, he followed Anglo-Saxon poetic traditions, which used heavily stressed words at irregular intervals and alliteration.

Some scholars dispute that this constituted a "revival," since, they maintain, the Anglo-Saxon tradition was never actually eclipsed. We do not have a sufficient number or range of texts to judge with confidence. But such a revival would certainly be consistent with the way in which poetry has developed throughout history. When their immediate predecessors begin to seem either mannered or overly intimidating, poets often react by turning to models in the more distant past.

A similar "alliterative revival" may be found, for example, in the poems of Gerard Manely Hopkins (1844-1889), who used what he called "sprung meter." This involved, like the Anglo-Saxon poems, strongly stressed words at varied intervals, linked together through repetition of sounds.



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