Speaking of Reading and Reading the Evidence: Allusions to Literacy in the Oral Tradition of the Middle English Verse Romances

  • John Ford


Most modern readers from literate societies have little difficulty in equating verse with literacy. The very presentation of poetry on the page - with line breaks, stanza divisions, the occasional caesura - shows poetry to be informed by visualization of language as much as by any quality of sound. The traditional fourteen-line sonnet of Shakespeare, Donne, Milton or Spenser, with each line ending after its tenth syllable, provides such a tidy little box that Thomas Foster advises students: ‘if it’s square, it’s a sonnet’.1 Some modern sonneteers have even provided spacing or indentation to delineate their quatrains, sextets or couplets. While the bases of such poetic compositions founded on rhyme, rhythm, metre, assonance and alliteration do indeed exploit the oral qualities of a language, their final form is almost always arranged in such a way that the visual presentation serves an important function in allowing the reader to perceive the oral/aural elements manipulated by the poet. Poetry is also meant to be read, and this visualization is an essentially literate means of digesting the poem.


Oral Tradition Fourteenth Century Prototype Theory Literate Society Canterbury Tale 
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© John Ford 2011

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  • John Ford

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