alliterative verse

alliterative verse
   All poetry written in Old Germanic languages uses a system of alliterative verse, the best examples of which can be found in the OLD ENGLISH poetic corpus. This form of meter doubtlessly originates among oral poets or SCOPS, who would have recited or sung the verse with the accompaniment of a harp. In Old English poetry, each line is divided by a strong caesura into two half-lines or hemistichs. Each hemistich contains two stressed words or syllables and a varying number of unstressed syllables. Thus each line of Anglo-Saxon poetry contains four stressed syllables. The two half-lines are united by alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds.
   The key to the alliteration in each line is the first accented syllable of the second hemistich. The second stressed syllable of the second hemistich never alliterated with the first. But at least one and sometimes both of the stressed syllables in the first halfline always alliterated with that initial sound of the second half line. Thus there were three chief types of line in Old English poetry,which might be illustrated by these lines from Beowulf:
   geongum ond ealdum, swylc him God sealde
   (his God-given goods
   to young and old)
   (Heaney 2000, 6–7; l. 72)
   Here the first stressed syllable (of geongum) alliterates with the first stressed syllable of the second hemistich (God)—a line that might be diagrammed as ab:ac. Two lines later in Beowulf occurs the line
   wuldres Wealdend, woroldre forgeaf
   (the glorious Almighty,
   made this man
   (Heaney 2000, 2–3; l. 17)
   This time, both accented syllables in the first halfline alliterate, so that the line could be diagrammed aa:ac. The third common type of line can be seen in another line from Beowulf:
   Ne hyrde ic cymlīcorcēol gegyrwan
   (I never heard before
   of a ship so well
   (Heaney 2000, 4–5; l. 38)
   Here the line follows a ba:ac pattern, where only the second stressed syllable of the first hemistich alliterates.
   Poetic lines could use vowels for alliterative purposes as well as consonants, and when that occurred, any vowel could alliterate with any other vowel. Old English verse was virtually never rhymed, nor were poems arranged into stanzas. The accents in Old English lines were grammatical— that is, there were no artificially stressed syllables used for the sake of alliteration; rather, the stresses fell on the syllables that would naturally be accented in a word or phrase.
   There are significantly more complex rules for classical Old English poetry, but there is a good deal of scholarly controversy about them. The strict rules of Anglo-Saxon poetry seem to have remained relatively unchanged from the earliest written poetry until the Norman Conquest. Very late in the Old English period, however, there seems to have been a relaxing of the rules with some poets, so that in a very late composition like The BATTLE OFMALDON, some of the strict rules are broken—for example, on some occasions the final stressed syllable of the second hemistich alliterates. The alliterative tradition disappeared in written verse after 1066, but the tradition was revived— though with much looser rules—in some late 14th-century MIDDLE ENGLISH poetry during a movement called the ALLITERATIVE REVIVAL.
   ■ Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Translated by Seamus Heaney.New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
   ■ Cable, Thomas. The Meter and Melody of Beowulf. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974.
   ■ Fulk, Robert Dennis. A History of Old English Meter. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
   ■ Hoover, David L. A New Theory of Old English Meter. New York: P. Lang, 1985.
   ■ Pope, John Collins. The Rhythm of Beowulf: An Interpretation of the Normal and Hypermetric Verse-Forms in Old English Poetry. Rev. ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.
   ■ Russom, Geoffrey. Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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