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  • Alliterative Patterning in the Morte Arthure
  • Judith A.Ad JeffersonPutter

From the point of view of studying the author's poetic practice, the fact that the Morte Arthure is extant in only one manuscript presents an obvious difficulty. Using single witnesses to provide evidence for the practice of alliterative poets has been the object of a certain amount of recent criticism. Hoyt N. Duggan, in his discussion of Old English metrics (where conclusions are necessarily drawn from single witnesses), declares it unsatisfactory to assume that the extant copies of Old English poems are "texts" in the sense of documents marked with the graphs, words, and punctuational features that the poet intended. Instead, they are simply, he points out, flawed copies.1 Thorlac Turville-Petre observes that any statement about the alliterative patterns in the existing manuscript of the Morte Arthure is true only of the text as it stands in this unique manuscript and is likely to misrepresent the practices of the poet himself.2 One of the things we would like to do in this essay is to explore the types of evidence which might nevertheless enable us to make judgments about the poet's metrical practice, judgments based not only on the readings of the manuscript itself but also on material drawn from the sources, from Malory, and from Thornton's scribal practice elsewhere. [End Page 415]

The evidence suggests that the single extant manuscript of the alliterative Morte (Lincoln Cathedral MS 91, the Thornton MS) stands at some considerable distance from the poet's original. The stemma suggested by Mary Hamel in her 1984 edition, for instance, postulates four stages between the Thornton copy and what she terms the author's prototype.3 This offers plenty of opportunities for scribal corruption, and it would therefore not be surprising if the metrical patterns found in the Thornton MS failed to offer an accurate reflection of the author's original. However, scholars disagree about the appropriateness of emendation metri causa in the Morte (and other alliterative poems). Since there has been very little discussion until recently about the syllabics of the alliterative long line, such disagreement has often focused on alliterative patterning, and this is the aspect of the meter on which we intend to focus: to what extent do non-aa/ax lines represent a legitimate variation introduced by the poet himself, and to what extent are they scribal? O'Loughlin, writing in 1935, observes that up to and including Mary Banks's 1900 edition the handling of the text was conservative but that a new attitude became evident with the publication in the same year of Mennicken's essay on the Morte's versification.4 Mennicken in his essay, Holthausen writing in Englische Studien in 1902, and Bjorkmann in his 1915 edition, which draws on both, all emend heavily for the sake of alliteration.5 The following examples show the reading of the manuscript, with emendations found in Bjorkmann's edition supplied in brackets:6 [End Page 416]

Schelde vs fro schamesdede    and synfull werkes. [schend- Hh]


Sweys in-to Swaldye    with his snell houndes. [swifte Me]


This ilke kyde conquerour   and helde hym for lorde. [kende Me]


Þou sall be feched with force    and ouersette fore euer. [forfette Me]


His scoulders ware schalyde    all in clene syluere. [schire Me]


So may þe wynde weile turnne    I quytte hym or ewyn. [rewarde Hh]


O'Loughlin strongly disapproves of this practice, which he describes as assuming that a text which hitherto had been regarded as fairly representative of its original is "nothing more than a product of minstrel tradition of the sort that bequeathed to us the Cambridge fragments of Havelok." "If there is one thing," he says, "of which we can be certain in the mysteries of Middle English prosody it is, that at no time was aa/ax the exclusively correct mode of alliteration."7 He believes, on the contrary, that he has discovered a rule that will account for much of the Morte's alliterative variation: where two lines are linked by the same alliterating letter, only one of them need have perfect alliteration.8 The implications of this...


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