Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry

BookDescription and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry

Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry

Exeter Medieval Texts and Studies


September 21st, 2018



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The characteristic alliterative poem of the 14th and 15th centuries tells a story of incident and adventure: it is pre-eminently the poetry of narrative. Yet it is also, more than any other kind of medieval verse, remarkable for passages of vivid description, taking advantage of the extraordinary rich verbal resources of the alliterative poets and the characteristic strengths of the alliterative line. Memorable examples are the green chapel in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the storm at sea in Patience, the dream-landscape in Pearl, and the mysterious tomb in St Erkenwald; there are violent battle-scenes, descriptions of hunting and hawking, beautiful meadows and terrifying mountains, purling streams and wild rivers. Here is a seeming contradiction, or at least a tension that needs to be explored. The descriptive passages are digressions that interrupt the narrative; the story must pause to take in a visual effect. In Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry, Thorlac Turville-Petre explores this relationship between description and narrative, and the contribution of description to the narrative. Passages from all the major alliterative poems are analysed, and translated as necessary, so that the book may meet the needs of students as well as scholars familiar with the language and the topics discussed.


'These essays cap Thorlac Turville-Petre's nearly half-century career devoted to the alliterative poetic tradition. They ably explore a variety of paradoxes, most notably the tensions between narrative progress and descriptive stasis, and between the perceived 'otherness' of alliterative language and style and various forms of familiarisation (appeals to lived experience, manifold connections with other Middle English writing, as well as with previously unnoted inspirations outwith English). Above all, the essays testify to the power of skills almost forgotten in today's academy, for Turville-Petre's careful unpacking of the poets' capacity to visualise rests always upon an impressive readerly attentiveness.'
Ralph Hanna, Professor of Palaeography (Emeritus) and Emeritus Fellow at Keble College, Oxford.

‘This book can be approached as a treasury of close readings of the Gawain group and related Middle English alliterative romances, with attention to sources, representation, and locality. On that basis, the book deserves praise, indeed gratitude, for its interpretive precision.’

Eric Weiskott, Modern Philology

‘[Offers] an informative summary of Turville-Petre’s body of work and provides a critical anthology of vivid passages of alliterative description […] Elegantly written and intellectually engaging.’

Alex Mueller, The Review of English Studies

'Thorlac Turville-Petre has produced a vade mecum for readers of Middle English alliterative poetry. The most important poems all receive attention. Two preliminary chapters define the corpus and introduce readers to its language and form. The bibliography lists preferred editions. Yet this is not a companion in the sense popularized by Cambridge University Press and Boydell & Brewer. A new “companion to Middle English alliterative poetry” would be welcome, but Turville-Petre offers something more interesting: he reads the poems. His subject is poetic technique, especially descriptive technique and the way that descriptions sit within the flow of narrative.'
Ian Cornelius, Anglia

'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.'
Richard J. Moll, The Medieval Review

Author Information

Thorlac Turville-Petre is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham. His many authored works include Reading Middle English Literature (Blackwell, 2007); (with Ralph Hanna) The Wollaton Medieval Manuscripts: Texts, Owners and Readers (Boydell, 2010); Poems from BL MS Harley 913: ‘The Kildare Manuscript’ EETS OS 345 (OUP, 2015); Description and Narrative in Middle English Alliterative Poetry (LUP, 2018); (with J. A. Burrow) A Book of Middle English, 4th edn. (Blackwell, 2021).

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
1. The Corpus11
2. The Vocabulary of Description29
3. Narrative and Description in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight47
4. Morte Arthure: A Hero for our Time67
5. Alexander’s Entry into Jerusalem in the Wars of Alexander89
6. Authenticity and Interpretation in St Erkenwald107
7. Landscapes and Gardens125
8. Siege Warfare149
9. Storm and Flood177
10. Conclusion203