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Linking Letters:
A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse

Part XVI: Alliterative Meter versus Accentual Tetrameter

    This is a good point to deal with a common opinion about alliterative verse, one which is repeated quite a lot, but is not truly accurate in my opinion. This is the idea that the defining characteristic of alliterative verse is that it contains four strong stresses, and that the placement of unaccented syllables is pretty much free. It is possible to write such accentual verse, and to use alliteration in it frequently, but it is not true -- as is sometimes argued -- that THAT is the definition of alliterative verse. I do not think it is, for reasons that the preceding pages of this guide should make clear. It is an entirely different form of poetry, with separate strengths and weaknesses.

    The Sullivan and Murphy translation of Beowulf on this site is an excellent example of accentual tetrameter. And if we try to analyse it using the tools developed thus far we get a fundamentally different picture than we get from the verses by Tolkien. Consider the following lines from their translation:

    1> Fingers fractured.     The fiend spun round;
    2> the soldier stepped closer.     Grendel sought
    3> somehow to slip     that grasp and escape,
    4> flee to the fens;     but his fingers were caught
    5> in too fierce a grip.     His foray had failed;

    Here is what the analysis would look like, using all-caps to mark syllables alliterating within the same line:

                   x             x
          x        x             x      x
          x  x     x  x       x  x      x    x
     1>  FINGers FRACtured. The FIEND spun round
          S  w     S  w       w   S     S   w
             x                x           x
             x        x       x           x       x
          x  x   x    x       x x         x  x    x
     2> the SOLdier stepped closer.     Grendel SOUGHT
          w  S   w    S       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
     3> SOMEhow to SLIP     that grasp and escape,
         S   W   w   S        w    S    W  w  S
          x                            x
          x          x         x       x             x
          x   x   x  x         x   x   x  x    x     x
     4> FLEE to the FENS;     but his FINGers were caught
          S   w   w  S         W   w   S  w    w     S
                x                      x
                x                      x          x
            x   x         x            x x        x
        x   x   x     x   x        x   x x   x    x
     5> in too FIERCE a grip.     His FORay had FAILED;
        w   W   S     w  S         w   S W   w    S

    The striking thing to note is that there is no consistent connection between the peak stresses in each half-line and the placement of alliteration. Some lines (i.e., 1, and 4) fit the rhythmic pattern of alliterative verse. But lines 2 and 3 fail to match up: in (2), the alliterating stresses are not those most naturally used as pivots; in (3) there is no alliteration on the second half-line, unless the sc- of escape is counted; but if so, alliteration on the last stress, like the alliteration on the last stress of (5), runs against the basic Anglo-Saxon pattern.

    In short, the translation does not consistently link rhythm to alliteration, nor is it intended to. The correct way to analyse such verse is in terms of poetic feet (trochees, iambs, anapests, dactyls, etc.) and not in terms of half-lines. In those terms, this verse is utterly regular: four feet per line, but accentual as there is no consistent choice of type of foot. Using / for the main beat in each foot, x for unaccented syllables, and | to separate feet, the analysis looks something like the following:

        /   x  |   /  x      |    x   /   |   /    x
    1> Fingers | fractured.  |  The fiend | spun round;
         x  /   x  |   x       / x    |     /  x  |   /
    2> the soldier | stepped closer.  |   Grendel | sought
        /   x  |  x   /   |     x    /   | x   x  /
    3> somehow | to slip  |   that grasp | and escape,
         /   x |   x  /     |    x   x   /   | x    x     /
    4> flee to | the fens;  |   but his fing | ers were caught
        x  x    /    | x   /    |    x   / x  |  x    /
    5> in too fierce | a grip.  |   His foray | had failed;

    In this analysis, alliteration plays no structural role, and indeed the placement of alliteration in these lines is not dictated by rhythm. Four-stress accentual verse and Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse are very similar, in that the rhythm is not consistent with a single choice of foot; but there are key differences. In accentual verse, the number of strong stresses is critical and cannot be varied under any circumstances, as the stress-count is the only indicator of rhythm. Not all Anglo-Saxon half-lines clearly have two and only two stresses, as the number of stresses is not what governs the meter. In accentual verse, the placement of alliteration is fairly free; in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse by contrast, it is strongly constrained by the rhythmic structure of the line and half-line.

    Both meters can be used to powerful effect. But they are not the same.

    Back: Mimicking Old English Alliterative Verse
    Next: Mimicking Middle English Alliterative Verse

    Copyright ©2003, Paul Deane