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Linking Letters:
A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse

Part XIII: The meter of Beowulf: A Framework

    By this time you may be thinking that all of this is hopelessly complicated. Yet, like many other things, the complications are superficial, and there is a clear pattern underneath.

    There is hardly space here to go through all the philological theories, and many of them are of little use to the practicing poet, so I will present a framework partly derived from scholarly views, partly based upon theories I have developed to guide my own composition. If you want to explore the academic literature, some of the best-known modern accounts are those of Thomas Cable and Geoffrey Russom.

    It should be fairly obvious that Anglo-Saxon poets did not learn complicated scholarly theories when they learned to produce alliterative verse. They must have learned a few simple rules, then picked up the details the way poets do today: by example, by ear, by learning what works and what does not. That means, in turn, that most of the complications in alliterative verse have to be complications in the way rhythm works, and not complications in the rules that poets consciously followed when they put their verses together.

    It is easy to imagine someone learning the following rules:

    A line of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse is metrically correct if it meets the following constraints:

    1. Each line contains two half-lines. Each half line must be a prosodic phrase containing one or more strong stresses (as defined in an earlier section of this manual.)
    2. Only strong stresses can bear (metrically relevant) alliteration.
    3. The first strong stress in the first half-line must alliterate with the first strong stress in the second half-line.
    4. Let us use the word pivot for one of the strong stresses that satisfy the metrical requirements for alliteration. The pivots must be more prominent rhythmically than any non-pivot syllables in the line.
    5. The final foot of the line cannot contain an alliterating strong stress.

    Almost any theory of alliterative verse will contain something very close to this list of rules.

    But in my view, they tell us practically everything that an Anglo-Saxon poet needed to know. All the details, such as Sievers' Five Types and their variations, follow directly from the natural rhythms of Old English

    To see how, we need to take an excursion into the theory of speech rhythm.

    Back: The Meter of Beowulf: Variants of the Five Types
    Next: A Prosodic Primer

    Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane