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Linking Letters:
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 means.

First, and most important, we need to consider three sources of emphasis:

  1. Word-internal Prominence
  2. Grammatical prominence
  3. Rhythmic prominence

Word-internal 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:

deSTROY
CAPtain
CAPital
recapITulate
STANDardize

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.

Grammatical Prominence

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. Some function words -- primarily pronouns - can be stressed for special emphasis, and are lifts when so stressed.
  4. 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.)

Rhythmic prominence

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:

    AT the
    LOWest
    LEvel,
    WE can
    obSERVE
    a RISE
    and FALL
    of AC-
    cent EV-
    ery FEW
    SYLlables,
    and WE
    can GROUP
    the SYL-
    lables
    BASED on that
    ALter-
    NAtion.
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.)

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
    LEvel
    we can ob SERVE
    a RISE
    and FALL
    of ACcent
    every few SYLlables
    and we can GROUP
    the SYLlables
    BASED on
    that ALternation

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