This article examines Chaucer’s use of headless lines and initial inversion in both his short-line verse and his long-line verse, and compares Chaucer’s use of these metrical licences with that of earlier and later English poets. It shows that in Chaucer’s short-line verse headless lines are much more common than is initial inversion, while the exact opposite is true for Chaucer’s iambic pentameter. Analysing the contexts in which these metrical licences occur, I argue that Chaucer (and his predecessors) used them very deliberately, not only for emphasis and rhetorical effect but also to clarify narrative and syntactical organization. Of particular interest is the use of these devices in the context of non-indicative moods, lists and catalogues, direct speeches and changes of addressee, transitions between narrative sections, and enjambement.
Ad Putter teaches at the University of Bristol, where he is Professor of Medieval English Literature. He has written extensively on English and European literature of the Middle Ages, and on metre. His books include Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and French Arthurian Romance (Oxford University Press, 1996), An Introduction to the Gawain Poet (Longman, 1997) and Studies in the Metre of Alliterative Verse (Medium Aevum, 2007). He has also edited, with Elizabeth Archibald, The Cambridge Companion to the Arthurian Legend (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and, with Myra Stokes, The Works of the Gawain Poet (Penguin 2014).