The alliterative verse had been traditionally used prior to this period, dating back to the 7th century. For a time, it fell out of favor (and eventually did for good), with syllabic verse taking precedence in the minds of poets of the day.
Explore Alliterative Revival
Definition of Alliterative Revival
Alliterative verse was a style of verse that originated in Old English during the 7th century and was revived during the 1300s. It depends on alliteration to create a feeling of unity in a poem. One line of poetry usually included a set number of accented or stressed syllables. These used the same consonant sounds. Prior to the revival, the last alliterative poem written dates to 1190. It was ‘Brut,’ a poem by Layamon that narrates the history of Britain. It was more than 16,000 lines long.
During the alliterative revival, scholars believe there were distinctly northern and western versions of alliterative poems. The trend may have spread from their locations, moving north and south and eventually reaching Scotland. However, some scholars have challenged this opinion. Another interesting suggestion that’s been made in regard to the prevalence of alliterative verse is that those writing is usually used more direct, vernacular language. This suggests that the poems were not aimed at the more elite members of society. They were perhaps enjoyed by a wider audience.
Some scholars have speculated that the alliterative revival may not be what it seems. Perhaps, the works written in alliterative verse between 1190 and 1350 have simply been lost to time. Writers may have been using alliterative verse, although perhaps with decreased frequency, between these years.
Features of Alliterative Meter
Alliterative meter, including the poems written during the revival, included some or all of the following features:
- Lines are divided in half, with a caesura in the middle.
- Each verse has two stressed syllables.
- The first sound in the stressed syllables is alliterative.
- Use stresses that vary to degrees (most, less, and even less stressed).
- Vowels alliterate with one another, sometimes all of them.
- Consonant clusters are treated differently and won’t always alliterate.
- In Old English, lines were usually unrhymed and not divided into stanzas.
It should be noted that the exact rules of what made an alliterative poem have been lost to time. Scholars are unsure what exactly qualifies and what doesn’t, as writers seem to make different choices. Plus, with the revival, more shifts in alliterative techniques took place.
The End of the Alliterative Revival
Despite this brief period of revival, alliterative verse did eventually fall out of favor for good. It lasted longer in Scotland than in England, lasting till around 1550. Some cite the move of James VI, and I court to London as the final measure that broke the tradition of writing alliterative verse.
Examples of Alliterative Revival Verse
Piers Plowman by William Langland
‘Piers Plowman’ is a Middle English narrative poem. It’s written in alliterative verse and divided into “passus” or steps. Throughout the poem, the poet’s use of alliterative verse creates a feeling of rhyme, despite the fact the lines are unrhymed. It can also make the poem feel more playful and entertaining. The lines are all fairly long and sometimes include quotes from the Bible and other sources. Here are the first lines:
In a somer seson,
Whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes
As I a sheep weere,
In habite as an heremite
Unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world
Wondres to here;
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ is a 101-stanza poem. It is written in the alliterative revival style. It uses paired stressed syllables at the beginning and end of lines. The lines also use pauses, one of the many features of the original alliterative poems. (Such as in ‘Beowulf.’) This poem is a great example of one in which the writer took some liberties with the formatting. His work is looser than other writers composing alliterative poems in the 14th-century. Here are the first lines from Part I, as translated by J.R.R. Tolkien:
When the siege and the assault had ceased at Troy,
and the fortress fell in flame to firebrands and ashes,
the traitor who the contrivance of treason there fashioned
was tried for his treachery, the most true upon earth –
it was Æneas the noble and his renowned kindred
who then laid under them lands, and lords became
of well-nigh all the wealth in the Western Isles.
Here are the same lines from the beginning of ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in Middle English:
Sithen the sege and the assut was sesed at Troye,
The borgh brittened and brent to brondes and askes,
The tulk that the trammes of tresoun ther wroght
Was tried for his tricherie, the trewest on erthe–
Hit was Ennias the athel and highe kynde,
That sithen depreced provinces and patrounes bicome
Welneghe of al the wele in the west iles
In the original verse, readers might notice the use of what’s known as a “bob and wheel” at the end of each line. A “wheel” is a type of rhyme used in gyms at the time. It occurs when the poem returns to a specific rhyme. A “bob” is a short line with two assertive syllables. It’s used to mark the beginning of the wheel. When used together, they’re often compared to a cadenza in music. This technique is found most commonly in Middle English.
The alliterative revival was an important period of time during which poets returned to alliterative verse, the meter in which the first English-language poems were written. It provides scholars with insights into how poetry was changing during the 13th-15th centuries. It also resulted in some of the most famous Middle English poems.
One of the best-known poems from the period of the alliterative revival is ‘Cleanness,’ written by the same poet who penned ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’ It was written during the late 14th century and is a description of virtues of cleanliness and sex after marriage.
‘Beowulf’ is written in alliterative meter. It is one of the best-known examples of Old English alliterative verse. It was penned sometime between 700 and 1,000 A.D. Each line is divided in half by a caesura and linked through a similarity in sound.
Between the first examples of alliterative verse, like ‘Beowulf,’ and the revival rules loosened, and poet started experimenting with new techniques. The rules during the first period of alliterative meter are thought to have been stricter in comparison to the alliterative verse written in the 14th century.
Alliterative meter creates a feeling of unity through the repetition of sounds. It’s a way of creating structure and making a line feel song-like, without relying on rhyme or solely on syllables.
Related Literary Terms
- Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
- Blank Verse: poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.
- Sprung Rhythm: a rhythmic pattern used in poetry that mimics natural speech.
- Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
- Iambic Pentameter: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. The most popular metrical pattern.
- Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
- Spondee: an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.
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