A Field Guide to Alliterative Verse
What Happens When a Literary Tradition Dies?
Sometimes it is forgotten. Sometimes it survives as a kind of ghost studied by scholars. When that happens, people will pay it a fugitive respect. Perhaps some will read works written within the tradition because they are classics. Perhaps others will imitate the style for effect. But it's no longer a living part of anyone's lives.
That is what has happened to the original, native style of English poetry, the alliterative style of the great epic Beowulf, and of other great (but lesser-known) poems, such as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Beowulf has a place in the high school literature curriculum, so it is not totally forgotten by the public at large, though far too many of them may have read it in lamentably poor translations that treat the poem as a kind of embalmed museum-piece, a relic of a lost and half-forgotten age. The other alliterative poems are beloved mostly of scholars, and languish as the subject of articles in obscure journals, little known and less-read.
The alliterative style died out in the fourteen century, and was forgotten for the next four hundred years. In the last century and a half, poets have occasionally imitated alliterative forms: some quite famous, such as Tennyson, Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden. Others have claimed to be inspired by it (without imitating it exactly.) But what is the occasional imitation but a tour de force to demonstrate the poet's ingenuity? It does nothing to make the style a living force.
So? What does it matter?
So what does poetry matter, to most people these days?
And yet those who care about poetry care about it passionately, because poetry is the precision tool for those who work on the human heart. The greatest poetry has the driving force of music, the raw emotional power of an incantation, the luminescence of cinematic imagery, the clarity and truth of a mirror.
Though I have to admit many of the works published under the name of poetry these days leave me cold. The best poems written in traditional forms often substitute formal elegance for passion: while too much free verse seems intent upon combining the rhythmic triumphs of a software manual with the coherence and unity of an hour of MTV.
Overstatement? Perhaps. There is lots of wonderful poetry out there. But I wonder how many people share with me the (far too often repeated) experience of opening a book or journal of modern poetry, flipping the page, then flipping the page again, then finally giving up on it as a lost cause.
It's time for an alternative.
I would like to suggest that the old, native English style is the best place to look.
About four years ago I started writing alliterative poetry almost by accident. It was an adjunct to a roleplaying game I was playing, and the alliterative form fit my purpose at the time - alien to the world my character found himself in, with an air of the ancient past about it. That was how I got started. But before long, I was hooked.
It's a simple form, really. There is a regular strongly stressed beat, reinforced by alliteration; but the alliteration frees the poet to vary the rhythm without losing the unity of the line. If you don't care to read poetry out loud, that may mean little to you. But the effect, done well, enchants the ear, while leaving plenty of room for creative artistry.
It can be done badly, of course. There are quite a few attempts to imitate the old alliterative style which achieve choppy, grating rhythms at the cost of fractured, unnatural syntax, and of course, there's always the temptation to throw in archaic language just because it somehow sounds more Anglo-Saxon. I'm not interested in that sort of "poetry." And the best alliterative forms for modern English may not - in my experience, do not - line up exactly with the technical rules for Anglo-Saxon verse. But once past those barriers, it's a new world. I hope others will join me in it.
I am looking for original alliterative poetry to publish on this site. I am looking for more than mere imitations of the past: more than anything else, I would appreciate poetry that deploys alliterative verse in fresh, original ways appropriate to the twentieth Century without being allergic to the past.
Copyright © Paul Deane, 1999. All rights reserved.