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Linking Letters:
A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse

Part XI: Being Like Beowulf: the Sievers Types

    When people talk about alliterative verse, they usually mean Beowulf. It is the most familiar piece of alliterative poetry, at least for speakers of English, who often encounter it in school (at least for a week or so during a quick survey of British literature.) So that is what we will start with.

    A 19th Century scholar, Eduard Sievers, came up with the classical description of the rhythm of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon poems. He observed that the half-lines of Old English poetry come in five basic rhythms.

    The following proverb-like little poem illustrates the five types:

      Pride and anger     brought pain and loss,
      and hate festered.     Hell's masterpiece
      overwhelmed all.

    • Type A: Lift-Dip, Lift-Dip
        For example: pride and anger

    • Type B: Dip-Lift, Dip-Lift
        For example: brought pain and loss,

    • Type C: Dip-Lift, Lift-Dip
        For example: and hate festered.

    • Type D: Lift, Lift-Dip (with a secondary stress in the dip)
        For example: Hell's masterpiece

    • Type E: Lift-Dip-Lift (with a secondary stress in the dip)
        For example: overwhelmed all

    These are the basic rhythms; there are variations on them, but nearly every line of Beowulf fits into these five types and a small set of normal variations.

    Back: Alliterative Meters: Historical and Modern
    Next: The Meter of Beowulf: Variants of the Five Types

    Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane