Did the Wakefield Master Write a Nine-Line Stanza?


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Surprisingly, with all the critical attention that has been given to the work of the dramatist commonly known as the Wakefield Master, few have inquired into the basic structural unit of his poetry, the famous so-called nine-line stanza which is the hallmark of that poetry and perhaps the only measurable criterion by which his contributions can be identified. The tendency has always been there to assign to him everything in the Towneley cycle that is realistically comic, racy, vital, and dramatically exciting, and thus, for example, the best edition of his work, that by A. C. Cawley entitled the Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1958), includes the entire Mactacio Abel as one of his six plays, even though it contains but one true Wakefield stanza.1 Some years ago, Arnold Williams commented on this tendency: "Either the Master wrote the well-known nine-line stanza, with easily recognizable variations, or he wrote a number of stanzaic forms. If the latter, then we had better abandon altogether the task of fixing his canon on the basis of stanzaic form, for qualities so incapable of objective measurement as tone, style, raciness, vividness, proverbiality can never afford adequate criteria for attribution."2 I want, in this paper, to reexamine the Williams premise first by inquiring into the form of the so-called nine-line stanza and then to see whether, in fact, "objective measurement" is possible in fixing the Wakefield Master's canon. In the process, I hope also to examine the Master's stanza from a critical point of view and to question its relationship to other stanza in the extant corpus of Middle English literature.

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