Rime and metre, what else is there?

An examination of Middle English poetic terminology


K. L. Hainer

Ó 2005


During the Middle English period, roughly 1100 to 1500, English was only one of the three languages commonly used in England—and was considered substandard to both Latin and French.  The principal language for literary writing was Latin, “the only respectable language for serious literature” and rhetoric, which was followed closely by French, “the language of the upper classes” (Millward 216).  English was regarded as inferior to both of these because it was the language of the vernacular, used by the masses.  Despite—or perhaps in spite of—this ‘inferiority’ there was an increase in the use of English as a literary language in the fourteenth century, quite viably “part of a natural resurgence of the language of the people” (Wogan-Browne 3).  However, to establish itself as a literary language, English had to justify and define itself apart from the Latin and the French literary traditions, while simultaneously proving itself capable of performing within the constructs of those very traditions.  More bluntly, English had to show itself capable of rhetorical discussion in order to displace the Latin and the French scholarly tradition in England.


In 1992 Norman Blake wrote that “the Middle English period…contained almost no discussion in English about the type of language and style which might be appropriate for writings in English…[so] there is no foundation upon which one might build a theoretical approach to the literary language of the time” (qtd. in Wogan-Browne xiv).  However, as medieval scholarship of the last fifteen years has shown, writers in the Middle Ages did reflect on writing in English, inherently revealing certain facets of the medieval understanding of literature1. As Latin was the primary language of scholarly writing2, it provided the majority of the terminology necessary for literary discussion thus many of the terms used to discuss rhetoric and literature in Middle English were adapted from the Latin.  A consideration of Middle English words used in regard to literary composition, particularly poetry (as verse was the widely preferred literary medium), reveals how medieval writers reflected on their craft which, in turn, provides something of a literary theory from the Middle Ages3.  As medieval poetry was primarily driven by rhyme, rhythm, and metre, techniques that came from the Anglo-Norman poetic tradition brought over during the Norman Conquest in 10664, Middle English words used to discuss these techniques will be the primary focus of this paper.


Alliteration, the dominant stylistic technique of Anglo-Saxon poetry, was no longer the primary feature of English poetry by the fourteenth century:  the influence of French poetry and its emphasis on rhyme, rhythm, and metre had relegated alliteration to an ornamental technique rather than one that dictated structure and form (Lester 107).  Subsequently there is no explicit Middle English term for alliteration despite the “Alliterative Revival” of the fourteenth century which used the technique of alliteration, not as a mere decorative feature, but as the structural foundation—as it had been used in Old English poems before the Conquest (111).  Since, “any area of practical and cultural importance or prestige tends to bequeath to a language a rich vocabulary in that particular field,” this lack of vocabulary for the discussion of alliteration, especially in light of the prevalence of vocabulary for other poetic techniques, indicates that despite the revival, alliteration was not considered a fundamental aspect of Middle English poetry to medieval writers (Burnley 206).  When alliteration was alluded to in the vernacular—which was not often—the word raf (or raffe) was used, seen here with a quotation from John Page’s Siege Rouen, circa 1418-1420:  “Thys procesce made John Page, Alle in raffe and not in ryme; By cause of space, he hadde no tyme” (MED “raf” n. 1).  The term raf was a “pejorative term for alliterative poetry,” as the word was primarily used to denote any worthless or crude object or person, thus further emphasizing the diminished status of alliterative verse in the Middle English period (MED “raf” n. 1).  


However, rhyme, rhythm, and metre are terms that were used by Middle English writers, frequently and without negative connotation, inherently signifying their importance to the medieval poetic tradition.  Originating from the Latin rhythmus, the Middle English term rime (or ryme) was used to indicate the present day English definitions of both ‘rhythm’ and ‘rhyme’.  The specific definitions of the modern words were not clearly disentangled until the Early Modern period, around the beginning of the seventeenth century, most likely “from a desire to distinguish between [them]” (OED “rime,” n. 1).  Thus, when rime was introduced into Middle English at the beginning of the thirteenth century, it meant “metre [and] measure,” which is similar to the present day definition of ‘rhythm,’ as well as “agreement in the terminal sounds of a line of poetry,” which is like the present day definition of ‘rhyme’ (OED, “rime,” n. 1).  It is not always clear which definition rime is being used for in the Middle English literary context and, quite often, it seems to simultaneously indicate both meanings by refusing to distinguish between them.  An excerpt from the epilogue to John Metham’s fifteenth-century poem, Amoryus and Cleopes (c 1448/1449), provides a nice example of the dual meaning often encapsulated in the term rime:  “For alle this wrytyng ys sayd undyr correcion, / Bothe off thi rymyng and eke off thi translacion” (ln. 121-2 qtd. in Wogan-Browne 54).  In this excerpt rymyng could indicate either the rhythmical versification of the story or the end-rhymes utilized for the versification so, by not clarifying which definition is being called upon, Metham invokes both meanings. 


Despite being used to indicate both ‘rhyme’ and ‘rhythm’, rime was more often associated with present day rhyme.  This affiliation comes from the medieval Latin use of the phrase rithmi versus (rithmi is linguistically related to rhythmus) to denote ‘accentual’ verse in which end-rhyme was a common feature, it follows that “rithmus naturally came to have the sense of ‘rime’”. (OED “rime” n. 1).  The predominance of this understanding of rime is seen in quotations from various Middle English poems:  for example in the Cursor Mundi, an anonymous work from the beginning of the fourteenth century, “Of suche an sulde men mater tak / Ye crafty that con rimes make, / Of hir to make bath rime and sange / And love hir squete sone amange” (ln. 49-52 qtd. in Wogan-Browne 269); and in Chaucer’s Dethe Blaunche (c 1369), “He made of ryme ten verses or twelue” (OED “rime,” n. 1, def. 2a).  These, as well as many other Middle English writings, use rime as present-day ‘rhyme’, or terminal consonance.   


As rime was more closely associated with ‘rhyme’ than ‘rhythm’, the contemporary definition of rhythm—poetic cadence determined by the character and number of reoccurring stress within the verse—was, in Middle English, more distinctly conveyed with the term metre.  In classical Latin the term metrum indicated a vessel (or other object) used to measure and was later used for ‘poetic metre’ or a ‘line of measured verse’.  This meaning was adopted into the Middle English, seen in an excerpt from John Walton’s preface to his translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (c 1410):  “As fro the text thast Y ne varye noght / But kepe the sentence in his trewe entent, / And wordes eke as nyhe as may be brought / Where lawe of metre is not resistant” (ln. 17-20 qtd. in Wogan-Browne 36).  Here Walton claims he will be as true to Boethius as he can while conforming his translation to fit the ‘lawe of metre’ of poetic rhythm or measure.


All of these Middle English terms are discussed above with regard to their most specific sense, however all were used with the far more general connotation of ‘poems’ or ‘verses’. In Middle English rime was understood to be indicative of poetry in general, not only the techniques of rhyme and rhythm, and was often used to simply indicate that something was in verse form.  For instance, in the circa 1400 poem Laud Troy, rime is used in contrast to prose, to indicate poetical form:  “I ffynde In prose and ryme, / Was non so strong In that tyme” (OED “rime” n. 1 def. 2a).  Metre acted in much the same manner and was frequently used to allude to a metrical composition (i.e. a poem).  In the prologue of Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (c 1386) metre refers to the poetry Chaucer is writing:  “Have hem now in thy legende al in mynde…Make the metres of hem as the lest” (OED “metre,” n. 1 def. 4).  These broader definitions of the Middle English terms rime and metre come from the Medieval Latin use of rithmi versus and metra to indicate ‘accentual verse’ (rhyming poetry) and ‘quantitative verse’ (metred poetry), respectfully (OED ‘rime’ n. 1).  Not to be neglected, there were also other Middle English terms for ‘poetry’, like verse and poetrie, however, that rime and metre were also used for ‘poem’ and ‘verse’ reveals just how intrinsic the specific techniques they named were considered to be to Middle English poetry.                                  


1 See especially David Burnley, Rita Copeland, and M. J Toswell who have shown how “an array if medieval writers reflected on their activities” in English (Wogan-Browne xiv).


2 Latin was felt to be the most suitable language for communication because it was the established language of scholarly writing.  Also, unlike Old English, “Latin was a relatively static language, being a dead language, and it was not subject to dialectal variations” thus it was more accessible to a far wider audience than Old English (The English Language in Medieval Literature 13-4).


3 This thesis is discussed with great detail in The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory 1280-1520.


4 See Blake’s discussion of Anglo-Norman poetry in The Cambridge History of the English Language, especially pages 508-517.



For Further Reading


Blake, Norman, Ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. II (1066-1476). Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.


----. The English Language in Medieval Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1977.


Burnley, David. “Chaucer’s Literary Terms.” ANGLIA Zeitschrift Fur Englische Philologie. Ed. Moritz Trautmann and Richard P. Wulker. 114:2 (1996). 202-235.


Burrow, J. A. and Thorlac Turville-Petre. A Book of Middle English. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.


Lester, G. A. The Language of Old and Middle English Poetry. London: Macmillan, 1996.


Millward, C. M. A Biography of the English Language. 2nd ed. Toronto: Harcourt Brace College, 1996.


Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. The Routledge History of English Poetry, Vol. 1. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.


Toswell, M. J. ed. Prosody and Poetics in the Early Middle Ages. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 1995.


Vickers, Brian. Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry. London: Macmillan, 1970.


Wogan-Browne, Jocelyn et al., ed. The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory 1280-1520. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999.