Alliterative meter is most common in Old English poetry and literature stemming from the Germanic languages. Often, the term “alliterative poetry” is used rather than alliterative meter. Some of the most famous Old English poems use alliterative verse, see the examples below.
Explore Alliterative Meter
Alliterative Meter Definition
Alliterative meter is the metrical structure used in Old English poetry. It depends on the use of alliteration to create unity. Alliteration occurs when the same consonant sounds are used at the beginning of words. In one line of alliterative meter, the same sounds will be found multiple times.
Most alliterative poetry was originally shared through the oral tradition. This means that much was never written down and has since been lost to time. Some scholars argue that the poems that were written down lost some of their original alliterative qualities. Alliterative meter declined with the rise of French syllabic verse.
Features of Alliterative Meter
- Alliterative meter 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.
Examples of Alliterative Meter
Beowulf is perhaps the best-known English iteration of alliterative meter. Many scholars use this epic poem as a starting point for reconstructing the original meter of other poems. In this piece, there is no fixed number of beats per line. But, the lines are divided into two sections with a pause, or caesura in the middle. Here are a few lines in the original Old English:
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
Here are the same lines in modern English:
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
Depending on the translation (this one was completed by Frances B. Grummere) the lines may retain their alliterative qualities.
Readers might also take note of the use of kennings in ‘Beowulf.’ They are figures of speech in which two words are combined to form a new expression. Sometimes, the ‘Beowulf’ author would formulate new kennings in order to create the needed alliteration in a line. This is not unlike authors in the 17th-18th centuries using techniques like syncope to fulfill metrical requirements.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ is a 2,530-line poem. It’s separated into 101 stanzas and written in the alliterative revival style. It uses paired stressed syllables at the beginning and end of lines. The lines also use pauses, as do those in ‘Beowulf.’ Scholars have noted that the poet, whose identity has been lost to time, was less strict with the formatting than other 14th-century writers. 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.
Modern Alliterative Meter
Although most examples of an alliterative meter are found in Old English verse, there are more contemporary examples. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien used alliterative verse when composing The Legend of Sigurd and Gundrun, The Lay of the Children of Húrin, and The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son. As a scholar of Middle and Old English, he was well aware of the tradition he was tapping into. This is only one of the ways that Old English, Norse, and Germanic poetry and myth inspired Tolkien’s works. C.S. Lewis and W. H. Auden are also remembered for their occasional use of an alliterative meter. The latter used a modified version in his poem, ‘The Age of Anxiety.’ Lewis used the form in a long narrative poem, ‘The Nameless Isle.’
Alliterative verse is different from syllabic verse or accentual- syllabic verse due to its reliance on consonant sounds. These are used at the beginning of stressed syllables, usually stationed at the beginning and end of lines.
Five examples of alliteration are: “Slowly she slipped outside,” “He caught Cathy catching a cold,” “They ran really quickly around the rink,” “Beans are the best winter food,” and “Don’t drive so dangerously.”
It’s important because the oldest surviving English-language poetry was written in the form. Although it’s rarely used today, it is of great historical importance.
Old English poetry, also known as Anglo-Saxon poetry, was written in Old English and composed from the 7th century onward. That is, until after the Norma Conquest. Poetry written during this period is mostly unrecognizable for contemporary English speakers.
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.