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Linking Letters:
A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse

Part VI: Lifts and Dips:

    So far we have not talked about rhythm. But alliterative verse has its own characteristic rhythm, perhaps even (depending how you define such terms) its own meter.

    In traditional formal poetry, we analyse the rhythm and meter by marking accented and unaccented syllables, like this:

           /   x  /  x   x   /  x    /    x    /  
          let me not to the marriage of  true minds
           x /   x / x  /      /   x  x   /
          admit impediments. Love is not love
           x    /  x   /   x   / x /  x   /
          that alters when it alteration finds ...

    What matters in traditional formal verse is the alternation between (relatively) weak and (relatively) strong syllables. These famous lines of Shakespeare's illustrate how it works:

    1. Accent is purely relative. Syllables like "let", "not", and "of" are very weak, but they count as accents when the syllables around them are even weaker. Conversely, "true" is a strongly stressed syllable, but it counts as unaccented because the next syllable, "minds", is even stronger.
    2. The arrangement of accented and unaccented syllables falls into a regular pattern, with only occasional exceptions. In this case the pattern is what in traditional poetry is called iambic: an even alternation of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable.
    3. The number of accents stays the same from line to line: in this case, there are five accents per line, so that the meter is what is traditionally called iambic pentameter.

    The usual way of analysing traditional metrical poetry is to divide the line into feet which mark the regular alternation of accented and unaccented syllables. For example, the first line of the quote from Shakespeare can be divided into five feet, like this:

             /   x      /   x      x   /       x   /       x   /
            let me  |  not to  |  the mar- | riage of |  true minds

    Alliterative verse has rhythmic patterns too, but they are fundamentally different in nature.

    Consider the following (hypothetical) line of alliterative verse:

           He was hard-hearted, hateful and cruel.

    We have here two half lines:

           he was hard-hearted
           hateful and cruel

    Moreover, we can identify strong and weak portions of each half line:

           (weak) (strong) (strong) (weak)
           he was  HARD     HEART -   ed
           (strong)   (weak)  (strong)
            HATE -   ful and    CRUEL.

    Notice at once several things which distinguish alliterative verse from traditional metrical verse:

    1. We do not have a regular alternation between accented and unaccented syllables. The strong syllables can appear back to back, or separated by one, two or (potentially) even more weak syllables. The number and arrangement of weak syllables is variable (though not arbitrary, as we shall see.)
    2. The strong syllables are naturally strong syllables; the weak syllables are naturally weak syllables. We do not as a general rule see weak words like "of" or "to" treated as if they bore emphasis.
    3. The number of strong syllables per half line is strictly regulated: in general, as in this case, there are two.
    4. The pattern of alliteration only applies to the strong syllables.

    We need terms for the strong and weak elements in alliterative verse so we will not confuse them with the accented and unaccented elements in traditional metrical verse. So let us adopt the following terms (traditionally used in some scholarly circles) --

    a lift is one of the strongly stressed parts of an alliterative line, while
    a dip is one of the weak parts of an alliterative line.

    So we can divide each half line into lifts and dips; for example:

            (dip)   (lift)   (lift)  (dip)
           he was |  hard  | heart | -ed
            (lift)    (dip)     (lift)
            hate  |  -ful and | cruel

    All the rules for alliterative verse are rules for lifts, dips, and how they can be arranged. In sections to follow we will explore some of these rules.

    Note: Some scholars use "thesis" instead of "lift" and "arsis" instead of "dip", especially when talking about Anglo-Saxon poems like Beowulf. I will restrict myself to "lift" and "dip" except when discussing Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, which has its own special rules.

    Back: Rules for Alliteration
    Next: What Makes a Strong Stress

    Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane