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I can’t imagine that it’s easy

March 14, 2007

In a review of two new translations of Sir Gawain, Frank Kermode discusses the challenges of the poem’s form:

The first decision the translator must take is whether or not to alliterate. We are accustomed by centuries of poetry to think the normal English verse line is the iambic pentameter, as in Chaucer. Old English preferred alliteration to rhyme, as in Beowulf, and much 14th-century verse also uses it, though less strictly. It is rarely used in modern poetry, though there is an extended example in Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, but it was the norm until replaced as a structural principle by rhyme. Alliterative verse is a complicated affair, governed by quite firm rules, and Gawain offers a sophisticated model. Its four sections are divided into stanzas or ‘fits’, each ending with a device known as the bob-and-wheel: a short line, normally two words with one stress, followed by a three-stressed quatrain whose second and fourth lines rhyme with the bob.

Kermode’s review is very nice, but I am partial to his byline:

Frank Kermode is trying to write about E.M. Forster.

I wish him nothing but the best.

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