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The Principal's Research Seminar: Unveiling the Transformative Impact of Middle English Poetry

27 May 2024

Research Seminar, Dr Daniel Sawyer, How to read Middle English

22nd May 2024: Dr Daniel Sawyer, an alumnus of St Hilda’s and present Associate Research Fellow gave the Trinity Term Principal's Research Seminar, an enlightening discussion of the oft-overlooked vibrancy and significance of Middle English poetry. His talk, based on his current research for his third book, delved into the profound changes in English verse-craft from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, shedding light on an era rich in innovation and experimentation.

Here’s a summary of the seminar.

Middle English
Old EnglishUp to the twelfth centuryCharacterised by a prestige form of poetry with specific metrical rules, prominently featuring alliteration rather than rhyme.
Middle EnglishTwelfth to fifteenth centuriesMarked by significant changes and diversification in verse forms.
Modern EnglishFrom the fifteenth century onwardsDominated by the iambic pentameter and a more standardised approach to rhyme.

Research Seminar, Dr Daniel Sawyer, How to read Middle English

The Overlooked Vitality of Middle English Poetry

Dr. Sawyer began by acknowledging an oversight that even specialists fall into: the tendency to downplay the significance of Middle English poetry. While working on his second book, How to Read Middle English Poetry he discovered a newfound appreciation for the period, realising that many pivotal changes in English verse-craft occurred during these centuries. In fact, the Middle English period stands out due to the sheer number and weight of the changes that happened. This era saw the transition from alliterative verse to the introduction of obligatory rhyme, the emergence of stanzas, and the visual separation of lines on the page—developments that laid the groundwork for modern English poetry.

Key Innovations in Middle English Poetry

Dr. Sawyer highlighted several transformative innovations:

  • Regular, Obligatory Rhyme Unlike Old English poetry, which primarily used alliteration, some Middle English poetry began to incorporate regular end-rhyme. This shift was a significant departure and a foundational change for future English verse.
  • Introduction of Stanzas The period witnessed the birth of both long stanzaic narratives and short stanzaic lyrics, paving the way for diverse poetic forms.
  • Visual Formatting Poetry started to look like poetry on the page, with lines and stanzas visibly separated, enhancing readability and structure.

He also observed that these changes were not straightforwardly linear, and so different forms of poetry coexisted with roughly equal prestige. Comparing Middle English poetry to other traditions, and also to Old and modern English verse, this looks unusual.

Research Seminar, Dr Daniel Sawyer, How to read Middle English

Opening and Beginnings

Drawing concepts from the work of scholars such as Patricia Clare Ingham and Sarah Kay, Dr Sawyer explored the concepts of ’openings’ and ‘beginnings’. He suggested that many innovations in Middle English poetry might be seen as openings—moments when new possibilities were explored. Some of these openings became beginnings, gaining traction and influencing subsequent literary traditions.


Rhyme and Its Origins

In the latter part of his seminar, Dr Sawyer focused on the origins of regular rhyme in English poetry. He presented examples from the late twelfth century, such as Poema Morale and Ure Feder, highlighting their sophisticated use of rhyme, which suggests French influence. He argued that these early examples demonstrate a blend of translingual literary culture and the unique affordances of English prosody.


Concluding thoughts

Dr Sawyer concluded with reflections on the broader implications of his research. He questioned literary history's focus on ’firsts’ and emphasised the importance of understanding the adoption and adaptation of poetic forms across cultures. His findings suggest that a feature of English verse that many general readers now instinctively link to poetry—regular rhyme—was an innovation borrowed from another language, reshaping our understanding of English poetic history.

Dr Sawyer’s seminar was at once a compelling case for the significance of Middle English poetry, and a call to appreciate the rich, experimental nature of this period.


About the book

How to Read Middle English Poetry guides readers through poetry between 1150 and 1500, for study and pleasure. Chapters give down-to-earth advice on enjoying and analysing each aspect of verse, from the choice of single words, through syntax, metre, rhyme, and stanza-design, up to the play of larger forms across whole poems.

How to Read Middle English Poetry covers major figures—such as Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, and Robert Henryson—but also delves into exciting anonymous lyrics, romances, and drama. It shows, too, how some modern poets have drawn on earlier poems, and how Middle English and early Scots provide crucial standpoints from which to think through present-day writing. References to accessible editions and electronic resources mean that the book needs no accompanying anthology.

At once thorough, wide-ranging, and practical, How to Read Middle English Poetry is indispensable for students exploring Middle English or early Scots, and for anyone curious about the heart of poetry's history. Readers can get 30% off the paperback or the hardback if they order direct through Oxford University Press with the code AAFLYG6.

Dr Daniel Sawyer