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Linking Letters:
A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse

Part XV: Mimicking Old English Alliterative Verse

         I am not going to take the time in this section to provide a detailed application of the concepts I have just sketched to Old English verse proper. To do that, I would have to provide an exhaustive tour through rather complex facts about Old English as a language, and there is an ample scholarly literature on the subject (see the Bibliography of Germanic Alliterative Metrics for details.)

         Instead, I am going to sketch how the concepts I have outlined thus far can be used to mimick Old English verse forms in Modern English. While it is impossible to capture exactly the Old English form, one can manage a very close approximation. The key is to capture the rhythmic essentials of the form while keeping the close connection between alliteration and rhythm on which that form depends.

         So then, taking the rules already outlined above, let us take a quick look at what it takes to write alliterative verse in modern English. But first, a couple of caveats and general suggestions.

    Excess Alliteration. The classic form only has one pivot (obligatorily alliterated syllable) per half-line. In the Anglo-Saxon form, an extra alliteration can be put into first half-line, but is not necessary; and if it is overdone the effect can be far too strong.

    End-Stopping. People used to rhyming verse of the usual English type will be strongly tempted to end clauses and sentences at the end of an alliterative line. That's actually to be avoided. The Anglo-Saxon form works better if sentences do NOT line up neatly with the ends of lines.

    Rhythmic Ambiguities. One of the difficulties of imitating the Anglo-Saxon meter in modern English is that modern English typically involves rising rhythm in which the second of two nearby stresses is stronger than the first. Old English typically illustrates a falling rhythm in which the first of two adjacent stresses is stronger. This can cause problems, especially in half-lines with iambic rhythm: it is natural to read the second stress as stronger, but since the form requires alliteration on the first stress, the metrical rhythm indicates that the first beat is the stronger. Either way of stressing the phrase is possible, but the falling stress suggests emphasis. This can lead to unnatural-sounding phrases unless care is taken to structure the sentence so that the emphasis suggested by the alliteration is natural.

    Kennings. Kennings are cunning little metaphors in which little phrases like "The Whale Road" is used to mean the sea. Classical Anglo-Saxon verse is full of kennings. Imitating this has its pitfalls, however, as modern audiences do not expect them and a high concentration of kennings can make for dense, almost unreadable verse. I tend to use them sparingly.

    With these caveats, let us take a quick look at one example in which poetry adhering very closely to the Anglo-Saxon style has succeeded in English: J.R.R. Tolkien's alliterative verse play, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. Consider the following lines:

            To the left yonder.
      There's a shade creeping, a shadow darker
      than the western sky, there walking crouched!
      Two now together! Troll-shapes, I guess,
      or hell-walkers. They've a halting gait,
      groping groundwards with grisly arms.

    The metrical rhythm can be diagrammed as follows; the alliterating pivot syllables are marked in all caps, and stress is marked both in terms of the grid (with x-marks) and in terms of the S s W w notation.

                                             x      x    x
                                             x   x  x    x  x
                                            To the LEFT yonder.
                                             W   w  S    W  w
                                x                 x
                      x         x     x           x     x
                      x     x   x     x  x    x   x x   x  x
                    There's a SHADE creeping, a SHADow darker
                      W     w   S     S   w   w   S w   S  w
                              x                  x
                      x       x        x         x         x
                      x    x  x  x     x    x    x  x      x
                    than the WESTern sky, there WALKing crouched!
                      W    w  S  w     S    w    S   w     S
                      x                 x
                      x        x        x               x
                      x  x     x        x     x         x
                      x  x   x x  x     x     x     x   x
                    TWO now together! TROLL-shapes, I guess,
                      S  W   w W  w     S     s     w   S
                        x                       x
                        x    x         x        x       x
                    x   x    x  x      x     x  x  x    x
                    or HELL-walkers. They've a HALTing gait,
                    w   S    s  w      W     w  S  w    S
                      x                        x
                      x        x               x    x
                      x x      x   x     x     x  x x
                    GROPing groundwards with GRISly arms.
                      S w      S   w     w     S  w S

    Notice what Tolkien has done with these lines:

    1. He has been sparing with the alliteration, allowing double alliteration only in the last line quoted.
    2. He mixes end-stopped lines with lines where the sentence break is in the middle of the line.
    3. In iambic half-lines (a shadow darker, there walking crouched, with grisly arms) the emphasis implied by alliteration on the first stress makes sense in terms of the overall rhythm of the sentence.
    4. We do not have the Anglo-Saxon tendency toward filling the verse as full of kennings as a fruitcake.

    One note, however. Tolkien's usage tends strongly towards two strong stresses per half-line. While this is common in Anglo-Saxon verse, it is not strictly necessary. A single four-syllable word, with one strong stress and one secondary stress, makes a perfectly good Anglo-Saxon half-line. Comparably, in modern English, words like half-heartedly or unworthiness are also entirely acceptable as half-lines, creating potential for much more rhythmic lightness and flexibility than is typically allowed for the form. Thus, lines like the following are perfectly metrical:

             x   x      x
             x   x   x  x
             S   s   w  W
                        x        x
                     x  x    x   x
                    he HELD his tongue,
                     w  S    w   S
              x       x
            x x   x   x
            aWARE of his
            w S   w   W
                       x      x
                    x  x   x  x
                    w  S   w  W

    In general, the key to making alliterative verse work well is keeping the rhythm natural and unforced, and making sure that the alliterating words which function metrically as pivots can bear the natural emphasis

    Back: A Prosodic Primer
    Next: Alliterative Meter Versus Accentual Tetrameter

    Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane