A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse
Part VII: What Makes a Strong Stress?
I said in the last section that the lifts and dips of alliterative verse consisted
of syllables that were naturally strong or weak. Now we need to explain what that
First, and most important, we need to consider three sources of emphasis:
- Word-internal Prominence
- Grammatical prominence
- Rhythmic prominence
Every English word of two or more syllables has what is called a primary lexical stress -
a syllable that is naturally the loudest and most prominent within the word. For example, the
capitalized syllables in the following words all bear primary lexical stress:
The first rule is obvious enough:
- Prefer to make a syllable a lift if it is either a single syllable word, like "man" or "dog", or else bears primary lexical stress.
However, other degrees of stress within a word play a role.
At least four distinguishable levels of stress can
be identified within a word. Take, for example, a word like faintheartedness. The strongest stress is on
faint, the next strongest, is on heart, then there is very weak stress on ness, while -ed
is completely unstressed. The strongest stress is traditionally called primary stress, the second level is
generally called secondary stress, while the weakest degree of stressing is sometimes called tertiary stress (or else lumped together with secondary stress.)
Secondary stress is the stress you get on the second word of a compound,
e.g., the stress on bird in blackbird, or on heart in fainthearted. For some purposes we can
group together primary and secondary stress as root stress -- the basic stress that goes on root words, in contrast
to the lighter stresses that go on prefixes and suffixes. In other words, fainthearted has two root stresses,
while polysyllabicity has but one.
While the primary stress is usually the one that becomes a lift, other stresses cannot be ignored.
While many monosyllables can be lifts, not all can. Some of them, such as "of" or "the" can never be lifts. They are always part of a dip. That is because the following rule applies:
- Prefer to make a syllable a lift if the word that contains it is grammatically important.
Grammatical importance only really attaches to the stresses that attach to the roots of grammatically
important words. These root stresses are in many ways the anchor around which alliterative meter is organized.
In practice, this means that we have to pay attention to the parts of speech. The grammatically important
words are the content words. Nouns and adjectives tend to be the most important; verbs and adverbs can also
play a key role. On the other hand, the least important words are the little ones, the so-called function words, such as articles (a, the) -- conjunctions (and, or) -- and prepositions (of, on, for).
Function words are almost never used alone; they function to introduce or modify the main content words of the sentence,
and have little force or emphasis by themselves. The following pattern results:
- The primary lexical stress of nouns and adjectives almost always count as lifts (the same with
one-syllable nouns and adjectives; in Old English the adjectivals include participles and infinitive forms of verbs).
- The primary lexical stress (or the single stressed syllable) of verbs and adverbs will count as lifts if there is no
stronger stress right next to them.
- Some function words -- primarily pronouns - can be stressed for special emphasis, and are lifts
when so stressed.
- Other function words, including articles, possessive adjectives, auxiliary verbs, and most prepositions, can hardly
ever be lifts, but must be part of a dip (except for a few special patterns where nothing else is available with stronger stress.)
Finally, the actual rhythm is important. Words and syllables fall naturally into rhythms in which
some elements are stronger, or more prominent, than others. Poetry organizes the rhythms, but the
rhythms themselves are based on the natural flow of speech.
At the lowest level, we can observe a rise and fall of accent every few syllables, and we can group
the syllables based on that alternation. We call the rises accents or on-beats; the weaker syllables
are the off-beats. The first sentence in this paragraph illustrates this natural rhythm:
Even though this isn't poetry, we can easily hear the on-beats and the off-beats, and it is
almost as easy to group the syllables into feet (an on-beat paired with one or two off-beats.)
BASED on that
But the organization of rhythm doesn't end there. All of the syllables in a sentence tend to group
into small phrases, about the length of a long word. Some of them are words, others are a cluster of words
that can be pronounced together as if they were a single word. Linguists term these prosodic words.
Each prosodic word has a single strong stress, plus weaker accents and unaccented syllables grouped around it.
We can divide a sentence into prosodic words like this:
at the LOWest
we can ob SERVE
every few SYLlables
and we can GROUP
The strongest stress in a prosodic word is sometimes called the head stress.
Prosodic words can be grouped in turn into larger units, prosodic phrases defined by rhythm not strictly by grammar. Prosodic phrases generally contain two or three prosodic words, like this:
at the lowest level
we can observe
a rise and fall of accent
every few syllables
and we can group the syllables
based on that alternation
Alliterative verse is based very closely on the prosodic word and the prosodic phrase. The basic
relationship is fairly obvious:
- A half-line of alliterative verse must be a prosodic phrase.
- The strong, alliterating stresses of alliterative verse must be the strong, central stress around
which a prosodic word is built.
Putting the various constraints together, we can define strong stresses as used in alliterative verse
in the following way:
A strong stress is a syllable which meets the following description:
- It is the primary stress of a polysyllable, or a stressed monosyllable.
- It is the root stress of a content word, typically a noun or adjective.
- It is the head stress of a prosodic word.
Strong stresses have to be lifts, and typically alliterate.
Not all lifts in a line of alliterative verse will be strong stresses, but the strong
stresses are critical -- they are like the pivots around which the line is built.
We shall see shortly how these rules are applied. But some other subjects must be addressed first,
in particular the concept of resolution
Back: Lifts and Dips
Next: Syllable Weight and Resolution
Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane