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Linking Letters:
A Poet's Guide to Alliterative Verse

Part IX: Secondary Stress; Strong and Weak Dips

    At this point we have almost finished pulling together a list of the major elements of alliterative poetry - the pieces out of which patterns are built. We have a fairly clear idea of what makes a lift; it now remains to draw some distinctions among dips

    There is a widespread impression that in alliterative poetry the dips do not matter, that any number and arrangement of unaccented syllables may be placed between the strong stresses in the line. That does not appear to have been true at all -- there are rules about the content and placement of unaccented syllables.

    Or to put it another way: not all dips are created equal. The following hypothetical pairs of half-lines will help make my point clearer:

           harm followed horror;
                      after heartbreak, war;
           for the king was killed
                      and his crown broken

    The half-lines may be analysed as follows:

           (lift)  (dip)      (lift)
           HARM  | followed  | HORRor,
                (dip)    (lift)    (dip)   (lift)
                after  |  HEART | break, |  WAR;
           (dip)     (lift)      (dip)   (lift)
           for the | KING     |  was     KILLED
                 (dip)     (lift)      (lift)   (dip)
                and his  | CROWN    |  BROK-   |  en
    The difference between the dips should be almost palpable. The one-syllable dips are hardly audible. The two-syllable dips give the rhythm a swing; and the presence of secondary stress, as in "followed" and "break", has a slowing, retarding effect.

    Let us adopt the following terms:

    1. a weak dip -- a dip containing exactly one unstressed syllable
      (was in was killed, -en in broken)
    2. a strong dip -- a dip containing two or more syllables
      (for the, and his, followed, after)
    3. a heavy dip (which can be either strong or weak) --
      a dip containing a potential lift (i.e., a heavy syllable or else a lighter syllable with primary lexical stress.)
      (followed, break)

    The concepts of strong and weak dip are common in scholarly discussions of alliterative poetry. Dips that are both strong and heavy (i.e., multiple-syllable dips containing a secondary stress) are important in Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. What is not so clear is whether one syllable heavy dips have any independent role. I think they do, and will explain how in later installments.

    In any case, though, we now have all the tools we need to analyse the rhythm and sound structure of alliterative verse. Alliterative poems are not all alike: different rhythms are possible, and different ways to measure out the rhythm. So let us now examine some of the ways that verse can be built around strong stresses.

    Back: Syllable Weight and Resolution
    Next: Alliterative Meters: Historical and Modern

    Copyright ©2000, Paul Deane