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A Few Notes on Poetic Style
(This essay was original published on the web when my poems set in Tolkien's world were posted on the Tolkien Fan Poetry website. Since that site is no longer operational, I am posting it here in hopes that those who take a look at my poetry posted on the Imladris poetry site will find the information helpful.)
The following notes are necessary because my poetry is written in a style J.R.R. Tolkien would have recognized at once. The style itself is a tribute to him, and works to "naturalize" the tales it tells and make them more a part of the world he created. But to understand why, it is important to understand a few things about Tolkien, and about the poetry that he loved.
J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist, an expert on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. As a result he was intimately familiar with older English poems like "Beowulf" and "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." These poems were written in a style practically unknown in modern English literature, a style equally distant from modern free verse and the metrical, rhymed poetry that dominated English literature from Chaucer's time until the early 20th century.
The 'Beowulf' style has deep roots. When ancient German, Norse, and Anglo-Saxon bards sat by the hearthfire of a night-dark hall, holding their harps and singing of heroes, monsters, and gods mastered by fate, this is the style that they used. And just as Tolkien loved the ancient Germanic tales, so also the world he created echoes them: Tolkien's Middle Earth, like Norse Midgard, is a realm ruled by fate, a world of Elves and dwarves and men (though Middle Earth, the creation not of pagans but of a Catholic Christian, has more room in it for ultimate hope.) Not surprisingly, the 'Beowulf' style has its place in that world. It is the style of the singers of Rohan, the style of the Entish list of living things. It is the mode in which Tolkien first attempted to tell the tale of Turin Turambar at length.
What is that style?
The technical name for it is "alliterative accentual verse."
It is not rhyming poetry, though it may contain rhymes. But it is meant, like rhyming poetry, to be read aloud, and it is best appreciated when its interwoven sounds resonate in the ear. Instead of using rhymes, it users 'alliteration' - repetition of the initial consonants of words - as one of its most basic building blocks. The repeated consonants tie the poetic lines together, and create an effect which can seem majestic, inevitable, savage - many different things. These lines from Tolkien's "song of the Mounds of Mundberg" could have come straight out of Beowulf:
We heard of the horns in the hills ringing,
the swords shining in the South-kingdom.
Steeds went striding to the Stoningland
as wind in the morning. War was kindled.
Nor is it metrical poetry - poetry written in a strict rhythm. It has a rhythm of its own, but that rhythm is based not on the arrangement of the syllables, but the regular repetition of the strong beats in each line. The difference is simple. A classical English poem has a regular rhythm, like the insistent lines of Blake's poem:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In alliterative, accentual verse, the rhythm is much freer, for what really matters is the number of strong beats per line: in Beowulf, four beats per line. The weak syllables can be arranged as sense and art dictate.
Thus in the first line of the Song of the Mounds of Mundberg the rhythm goes like this:
we HEARD of the HORNS in the HILLS RINGing
and the very next line uses a different rhythm:
the SWORDS SHINing in the SOUTH-KINGdom
But it does not matter: the same number of strong beats repeat in line after line, no matter how they vary in rhythm. Accentual poetry is like the sea: the waves vary endlessly, yet they crash against the coast with unfailing rhythm.
Alliterative accentual verse ties alliteration and rhythm together. It is the strong beats that alliterate. In Beowulf, the first and third beats almost always repeat the same consonant, tying the first and second halves of the line together. Often the first three beats alliterate.
The result can sound strange to ears used to rhyme and meter, and even stranger to ears used to free verse. Like free verse, the rhythm is (relatively) free, and there is no need for a rigid rhyme scheme. There is freedom to arrange the words in natural rhythms. But alliterative accentual verse is not free verse. It imposes a discipline on the mind (and by its rhythms and repetitions, an enchantment on the ears) as strong as Homer's hexameters.
Not everyone will find that to their taste. But within Tolkien's world, it fits perfectly, and it is easy to imagine an elf, harp in hand, standing in the Hall of Fire, using alliterative accentual verse to tell a tale of great matters happening at the ends of the earth in the distant past.
But I think the style is of value for more than atmosphere. I have found it has a power that is otherwise hard to achieve. Its harmonies of sound are subtle, and allow great naturalness of phrasing. Its varieties of rhythm allow widely varying effects, yet the strictness of the form maintains their unity. Alliterative poetry hasn't seen a revival in English since the 14th Century. In my book, another revival is long overdue.
Postscript: the "Daeron" stanza form
For those interested in such matters, I should note that the stanza form I use in my long poems, "Song of Shadows" and "Redemption of Daeron" is one of my own invention. It is firmly rooted in the English alliterative tradition, but it differs from the traditional forms in several ways.
The form we find in "Beowulf" has the following characteristics:
(I) Line structure:
(a) four beat lines;
(b) a natural division of the line into two half-lines, tied together by alliteration.
Lines constructed in this way were traditionally called the "long line."
(II) Stanza structure:
No breaks into stanzas.
The story or poem simply flowed on and on, one "long line" after another, as in Tolkien's "Song of the Mounds of Mundberg," or his alliterative "Children of Hurin."
Alliterative poems written in the fourteen century introduce stanza structure. They maintain the basic Anglo-Saxon long line, but add a rhyming "coda" at the end. For example, the basic rule in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is: a block of long lines, followed by a "bob" (a single word finishing the last long line) and a "wheel" (four rhyming lines). The rhyme scheme is:
A (the bob) followed by a stanza of the form BABA (the wheel)
The following extract from a modern translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight illustrates this structure:
In the faint light before dawn folk were stirring;
Guests who had to go gave orders to their grooms,
Who busied themselves briskly with the beasts, saddling,
Trimming their tackle and tying on their luggage.
Arrayed for riding in the richest style,
Guests leaped on their mounts lightly, laid hold of their bridles,
And each rider rode out on his chosen way.
The beloved lord of the land was not the last up,
Being arrayed for riding with his retinue in force.
He ate a sop hastily when he had heard mass,
And hurried with horn to the hunting field;
Before the sun's first rays had fallen to the earth,
On their high steeds were he and his knights.
Then these cunning hunters came to couple their hounds,
Cast open the kennel doors and called them out,
And blew on their bugles three bold notes.
The hounds broke out barking, baying fiercely,
And when they went chasing, they were whipped back.
There were a hundred choice huntsmen there, whose fame
To their stations keepers strode,
Huntsmen unleashed hounds;
The forest overflowed
With the strident bugle sounds.
When I began writing poems set in Tolkien's world, I worked out a form which worked for my purposes. It has different principles both of line and stanza structure. I believe, personally, that it introduces a flexibility that works well in modern English, and avoids some of the limitations of the traditional long line. Here are the basic rules:
I will occasionally throw in lines that alliterate ABAB or even true "long lines," but the norm is SPLIT alliteration, not linking alliteration.
A block of alliterating lines, usually three to five, followed by three half lines. The first and third half line rhyme.
Sometimes the first rhyming half line is merged with the last alliterating line. Optionally, for effect, one can throw in rhymes within the block of alliterating lines (or even internal rhyme linking the end of one line with the third beat of the next), but I do that only sparingly.
I don't really know what to call this form, except perhaps the "Daeron" stanza, since it is used to fullest extent in "the Redemption of Daeron." The following stanzas from that poem exemplify the Daeron stanza deployed in its pristine form:
So strange a smile, so fixed to his face!
'The name I am known by,' he softly said,
I have found this form extremely effective as a vehicle for long narrative poetry especially. The rhyming codas break up the heavier alliterating lines, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while the split alliteration provides greater flexibility in phrasing than a traditional long line. And done right, it can carry passion with extraordinary conviction. It is my personal opinion that alliterative accentual poetry is one of the few unexploited possibilities in modern English literature, and that there is great poetry to be written using it. I just wish that more poets were willing to try it. Examples are few and far between: some of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though not as the fundamental organizing principle, places in Robinson Jeffers, in some of Auden's work (though I find him strangely lacking in passion,) and little else. Though if you haven't read John Myers Myers novel "Silverlock," do so. His poem "The Fall of Bowie Gizzardsbane," which retells the fall of the Alamo within the conventions of Norse epic, is but one gem from a treasure trove.
Copyright ©1999, Paul Deane