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Review: Tony Harrison: Plays, 1: The Mysteries

The Mystery Plays of medieval England represent possibly one of the last flowerings of alliterative verse. Town guilds put together plays on religious themes -- the creation, the passion, etc. -- and competed to put on the best show; and for that purpose, alliterative verse (oftne married to rhyme) worked very well, only to be replaced by blank verse in the flowering of the Elizabethan theatre.

As a matter of civic pride, various English towns have revived their history of putting on mystery plays. Many of the city cycles have survived, most notably those of York and Chester, and it is from this inspiration that English poet Tony Harrison has compiled his mystery plays -- the Creation, the Nativity, the Passion, and Doomsday. Harrison's plays occupy a strange middle ground between original poetry (for so much of this is!) and translation (for so much of this is that too, except that the language of the plays is often rather more modern-sounding, at least to my ear, than Chaucer).

We can get a sense of what Harrison is up to by looking at the opening of his first play, the Nativity:

    I am gracious and great, God withouten beginning;
    I am maker unmade, all might is in me.
    I am life and way unto wealth winning,
    I am foremost and first, als I bid shall it be.
    My blessing in bliss shall be blending,
    And harbored in harm, shall be hidden;
    My body in bliss aye abiding,
    enduring without any ending.

The effect is clear and comprehensible in modern English, but retaining language idiomatic in northern England. It represents a self-conscious reclaiming of dialectal poetry and poetic traditions on the part of a major modern poet.

I find myself impressed with how well he's pulled it off -- it's always been technically feasible, but he demonstrates that there is poetic power to be had in the tradition that he champions. Anyone who wants to revive alliterative verse in modern English would do well to take a look.

Copyright ©2011, Paul Deane