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
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.)
- 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
- The number of strong syllables per half line is strictly regulated: in general, as in this case,
there are two.
- 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