Alliteration and Symmetry in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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Note on poetic meter: Gawain is typical of Middle English alliterative poems in that it is written in alliterative long lines, following the basic metrical principles of Old English verse. Each long line consists of two half-lines, each half with two stressed syllables and a varying number of unstressed syllables. Most importantly, the two half lines are connected by alliteration ? that is, repetition of the same consonant sound on at least two, often three, of the stressed syllables. For example, the poem begins: "Sithen the sege and the assaut was sesed at Troye" (line 1), with the "s" sound recurring five times within the single long line. The long lines do not rhyme with each other. However, they are organized in stanzas of fifteen to twenty-five lines, and each stanza concludes with a construction known as a "bob and wheel." This term refers to a group of five short lines, which do rhyme, to the pattern of ababa. If you are not reading Gawain in the original Middle English, the poetic structure may not be maintained in the translation. Some modern English translations keep the rhyme and meter strictly; others are only prose translations.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has a symmetrical structure. Everywhere in the poem is balance, contrast and antithesis. The poet highlights number symbolism to add symmetry and meaning to the poem. For example, three kisses are exchanged between Gawain and Bertilak's wife; Gawain is tempted by her on three separate days; Bertilak goes hunting three times, and the Green Knight swings at Gawain three times with his axe. The number two also appears repeatedly, as in the two beheading scenes, two confession scenes, and two castles.[55] The five points of the pentangle, the poet adds, represent Gawain's virtues, for he is "faithful five ways and five times each".[56] The poet goes on to list the ways in which Gawain is virtuous: all five of his senses are...
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