The Diuers at Milton Island: Foreword

Here’s the foreword to the project that I’m about to post. It was written for my English 261 class in place of a final essay. I don’t know how useful the foreword will be to anyone, but I’ll be posting the text also.



This project is an attempt to use the alliterative bob and wheel form coupled with Middle English nouns, adjectives, expressions and spelling conventions in order to tell a modern story about scuba divers. The alliterative bob and wheel is not a form that there are many surviving examples of, the most famous of which being “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a romance commonly accepted to have been written by the Pearl Poet. The bob and wheel refers to a short portion at the end of each section that transitions with a very short phrase about two words long (the bob) into a four-line explanation or comment on the preceding passage (the wheel). The lines in the wheel are usually about half the length of the lines before the bob. The alliterative part of the form is that, within each line, there are usually at least two significant words that alliterate.

One of the major difficulties in writing alliterative poetry and sustaining it lies in the potential difficulty of retaining meaning or making meaningful statements. This is especially difficult for the modern writer because of standardized spelling, whereas in Middle English, some letters are interchangeable, such as ‘g’ and ‘w.’ There are many alternative ways of making the same sounds that are extremely useful in building alliteration. It was challenging to break out of the standardized spelling mode, since it is something that is a part of modern education – with the exception of a few ‘u’s or an ‘s’ in place of a ‘c’ – the types of variations that occur between American and British spelling. I found it very rewarding to be able to play with the sounds of language rather than how it looks on a page.

Another obstacle in writing in this mode was a matter of modern sensibility. There is no quicker way to make a work appear parodic than to alliterate every word. It is a tool that is used sparingly in modern poetry. Similarly, modern writing seems to be aimed at creating concise meaning with as few words as possible, whereas Middle English poetry makes use of elaboration and repetition. The reason for this difference is likely because poetry is at its core a performative art, especially the further one goes back in the poetic tradition. Oral storytelling means that the listener cannot go back and re-read in order to parse meaning. By repeating key ideas and motifs, the poet is ensuring that his or her listeners won’t miss important information that would get in the way of their understanding and enjoying a performance. The elaborate style popular in Middle and Old English poetry is one that modern readers must acclimatize themselves to, or they simply get bored in a too-rich banquet of words that their palates are not ready for. It was similarly difficult to write for these same reasons – I am marked by the trends of my time. Similarly, it was very difficult to resist the temptation to rhyme lines, and in some cases I have left these rhymes in.

I was very surprised to discover that, since I chose not to learn Middle English verb conjugations, most of my phrases looked a lot like Modern English except for small differences of spelling. Many “Modern” words are a lot older than I thought, and I actually ended up choosing alternate spellings of words just for the sake of variation, or trying to make the work appear more authentic. In some cases, I opted to use Middle English verbs anyway, when the conjugation was easy or I had a model to follow. Speaking of models, I am deeply indebted to “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” as it appears glossed in Garbáty’s Medieval English Literature and to the University of Michigan’s Middle English Compendium, which were both indispensable in my word choice and phrasing decisions. It seems to me that there are fewer differences between Middle and Modern English than any glossed copy of a Middle English text would suggest – and indeed an investigation of the glosses reveals that much of the explained words are verbs or actions.

I opted to tell a story about scuba divers because the Romantic quest model of “travel-task-travel” is similar to the structure of dive planning. First, divers travel to a dive site. The general rule for planning a dive is to use one third of the air in a tank to get to the destination, one third at the destination, and the last third upon one’s return and in case of emergency. This is similar to the structure of a story like “Gawain,” where the story is divided into three sections of travel, questing in one place, and then travel to return to Arthur’s court. Another similarity lies in the potential for an arming scene due to the elaborate equipment involved in scuba diving.

Another question that arose when I was planning this piece was how many characters I should follow, and how closely. I felt that a third-person narrator that would occasionally comment on the events directly could help build some characterization for the divers very quickly. I also decided to follow only two divers due to time constraints and the almost solitary nature of diving. It is a social sport when one is above the water, but it is possible to go to a dive site and never see another dive team, even knowing that there are several there with you. Diving is an individual experience because it can be impossible to communicate what one is seeing to one’s buddy – the limitations of communication are too great. For example, I once spent a good 0five minutes underwater trying to communicate something as simple as “captain fish” to my dive buddy in order to point out a fish that was sitting in a wheelhouse. The truth is that it isn’t worth the time, so often experiences are only shared afterwards unless they are truly easy to point out or difficult to miss. Dive slates have similar limitations because one must take the time to write, and it can be difficult to pay attention to one’s surroundings while doing so. This means that one is missing out on part of the dive, and likely to communicate things that can just be said afterwards. The same goes for trying to communicate displeasure under water – it simply better to wait and mention to your buddy later that he or she has hit you in the nose. This is why I chose to follow the individual experiences of a team of two divers only, in order to communicate this feeling of solitude and difference of perspective that can occur even with someone who is at your elbow constantly.

A note about the physical formatting of the text: the story is broken up into fragments by various ellipses throughout the text to create the impression of potential missing sections or places where I felt there was room for elaboration at a later date. The opening section itself is the start of a fragment, and the ending would also likely not end there. These excerpts would encompass most of one book in a series of books about other dives and divers.

Having said all that, please enjoy your read.

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