At this point, I have given you about as complete a picture of how alliterative verse works as is possible without going to book length. I have just one more thing to add before we wrap things up: and that is to highlight how closely this analysis links alliterative verse to free verse. Roughly, I would argue, alliterative verse has much the same relationship to free verse (at least, to the most common forms of free verse) that stanzaic, rhyming poetry has to blank verse. Blank verse is organized into feet, following a specific meter. Stanzaic, rhyming poety uses rhymes to impose an additional layer of organization on that basic rhythmic structure. Much free verse (I will not say all, since free verse poets choose to vary) is organized in terms of prosodic phrases. That is, in a typical free verse composition, the line breaks divide the words of the poem up into natural units of thought and breath (or rhythm). Alliterative verse imposes an organization on that basic structure, using alliteration to link the half-lines (read: lines in a free verse sense) together.
One of the implications of this analysis is that there are alliterative free verse poems – that is, poems that are punctuated as free verse, and which use alliteration to link ideas within and across lines, but which do not rigidly follow the patterns of traditional alliterative verse, which constrains alliteration only to link the two halves of the same line. Consider, for instance, the following lines from Anne Carson’s translation of Book 23 of Nonnus’ Tales of Dionysus:
Bloody naiad, bloody water, in she dove!Aeacus was beating the barbarians down the banks,while they kept thrashing their arms and legs to mimic swimmers,making the river a pudding of panic,flailing away at their fate, but down they went,fellow upon waterblown fellow afloat on a river-gritty grave.
It’s easier to see what is going on if we put secondary line breaks at phrase boundaries and highlight the alliterating words:
Bloody naiad, bloody water, in she dove!Aeacus was beating the barbarians down the banks,while they kept thrashing their arms and legs to mimic swimmers,making the river a pudding of panic,flailingaway at their fate, but down they went,fellow upon waterblown fellow afloat on a river-gritty grave.
Carson is definitely using strong-stress alliteration to link adjacent phrases and lines (bloody … bloody, in .. Aeacus, beating/barbarians .. banks, mimic … making, away … went … waterblown, fellow/fellow … afloat). She is also using alliteration within the prosodic phrase for emphatic effect (beating the barbarians, a pudding of panic, flailing away at their fate, a river-gritty grave). What she ISN’T doing is regimenting the alliteration to create the steady rhythmic flow characteristic of the alliterative long line. Breaks in the alliteration slow the rhyth and have the rather ironic effect of creating a sinking sensation in the reader (while they kept thrashing their arms and legs, but down they went.) In some cases the alliterative links overlap (for instance, the f/w alliterations in the last few lines), creating even tighter links between ideas.
Is this Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse? No. Definitely not.
Is it alliterative verse? Most definitely.
A lot of modern poets do things like this, and when they do it as rigorously and systematically as Carson does, it is a different kind of alliterative verse, but one that produces its effects on exactly the same principles.
In short: there truly is a modern alliterative revival, not only because poets have self-consciously imitated the ancient form, but because free verse poets, looking for ways to connect and drive forward the rhythms of their poems, often end up reinventing it.