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19.12.09 Turville-Petre, Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry

19.12.09 Turville-Petre, Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry

Anyone working on Middle English alliterative poetry knows the work of Thorlac Turville-Petre. His editions of some of the key texts have enabled the work of other scholars, and his many contributions of the field have helped shape the study of alliterative verse for decades. His new study, Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry, is a welcome addition to his considerable body of work.

The study is organized in three sections. The parameters of the topic are outlined in Chapters 1 and 2 ("The Corpus" and "The Vocabulary of Description"). Here, Turville-Petre describes alliterative texts and the geographic and cultural range of the language they use, and lays out the central thesis of the book, that "set-piece descriptions, however lively, interrupt the story, and their function needs to be considered in terms of the structure of the narrative" (13). He also hints that a "leitmotif of this book will be that the influence of classical writers has been underrated" by contemporary scholarship on alliterative verse (18).

The other two sections make up the core of the book as they explore the narratological purposes of extended passages of description. Chapters 3 through 6 examine specific texts (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Morte Arthure, The Wars of Alexander, and St. Erkenwald) while Chapters 7 through 9 adopt a thematic approach and look at conventional topics of set descriptions (landscapes and gardens, siege warfare and storms and floods). The final Chapter 10 offers concluding thoughts.

The discussions of individual poems touch on numerous descriptive passages, but they tend to concentrate on a specific example: the green chapel, the dream of Fortune's wheel, or the corpse of a Trojan judge. These moments are examined as turning points in the development of both the narrative and meaning of the poem. Chapter 5, on The Wars of Alexander, however, focuses on Alexander's entry into Jerusalem almost to the exclusion of the rest of the text. By examining alterations the poet makes to his source (the Historia de preliis), Turville-Petre argues that the entry "establishes Alexander as a hero worthy of our admiration at this point, merciful to those who submit to his rule and ready to respect and acknowledge Yahweh" (94). The anachronistic image of Alexander honouring the Jewish God, along with a general tendency to "minimise the differences between the religious practices of his audience and those of Jews of the Old Covenant" (94-5), allows the poet to begin a series of episodes in which Alexander's quest for ever greater glory is placed in apposition to a variety of competing world views. While Alexander argues against the fatality of Darius and the asceticism of the Brahmans, the reader is "forced to assess the moral compromises of the heroic life" (96). Throughout all the discussions of individual poems, a set piece of description is seen as such a turning point.

The examination of conventional topics begins with the allegorical gardens of Pearl and A Pistell of Susan. Turville-Petre explores these private and enclosed spaces and their relationship to a broader tradition which includes depictions of Eden, the Song of Songs and The Romance of the Rose. As the Pearl dreamer moves from the reality of the cultivated garden to the natural landscape of his dream, Turville-Petre also moves to a discussion of descriptions of the countryside, particularly the English geography of Mum and the Sothsegger. These more natural vistas are again placed within a broader literary context which includes the apiary lore found in Bartholomeus Anglicus's De proprietatibus rerum and Virgil's Georgics. The conventions of alliterative verse are thus placed within two spheres of intertextuality: the alliterative tradition itself and a pan-European tradition which stretches back to scripture and the classics.

While maintaining the focus on conventional tropes, the final studies in the book turn from descriptions of static scenes, which interrupt the flow of narrative, to descriptions of actions, which forward the narrative itself. Chapter 8, on siege warfare, begins with a discussion of the rhetorical possibilities inherent in the alliterative long line. The roominess and flexibility of the line, Turville-Petre suggests, is well suited to narration (141) and, when coupled with the potentially onomatopoeic effect of alliteration, can produce truly striking scenes of dense action. Sieges are particularly prominent in alliterative verse, and Turville-Petre examines the graphic depictions of violence and suffering in The Siege of Jerusalem. Chapter 9, on storm and flood, continues the rhetorical analysis of the long line to show the dynamism of extended passages of described action. Chapter 9 also foregrounds the influence of classical texts, particularly the storms at the beginning of the Aeneid and during Ovid's Ceyx and Alcyone story. These (and other) storms are laid out as models of stormy seas in John Clerk's Destruction of Troy, The Siege of Jerusalem and Patience. Cleanness also draws on these models for descriptions of storms, but also on Ovid's depiction of the flood for its own Noah story. In many ways, Chapter 9 is the most satisfying in the book. The opening chapters' promise of close rhetorical analysis is most fully realized here, as is the promised study of classical influence.

The integration of rhetorical analysis and source study leads into the Conclusion, where the argument of the book is most fully articulated. Introducing the work of Wace and Chretien de Troyes, and noting the paucity of description in earlier alliterative poems (such as Laʒamon's Brut), Turville-Petre argues that continental authors such as Wace and Chretien, along with their classical antecedents, "were models for the alliterative poets" of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (202).

The book as a whole is the work of a scholar immersed in the corpus of late-medieval alliterative verse. Turville-Petre's command of the material is impressive and the texts are lovingly described in clear and crisp prose. That alliterative poets excel at descriptio is a commonplace of criticism, and this study will provoke further analysis of their context and rhetoric.