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Alliterative verse

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Alliterative verse

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse.

In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal ornamental device to help indicate the underlying metrical structure, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme. The most commonly studied traditions of alliterative verse are those found in the oldest literature of the Germanic languages, where scholars use the term 'alliterative poetry' rather broadly to indicate a tradition which not only shares alliteration as its primary ornament but also certain metrical characteristics. The Old English epic Beowulf, as well as most other Old English poetry, the Old High German Muspilli, the Old Saxon Heliand, the Old Norse Poetic Edda, and many Middle English poems such as Piers Plowman, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Alliterative Morte Arthur all use alliterative verse.[1]

Alliterative verse can be found in many other languages as well. The Finnish Kalevala and the Estonian Kalevipoeg both use alliterative forms derived from folk tradition. Traditional Turkic verse, for example that of the Uyghur, is also alliterative.

Common Germanic origins and features

The copies of the Golden Horns of Gallehus exhibited at the National Museum of Denmark.

The poetic forms found in the various Germanic languages are not identical, but there is sufficient similarity to make it clear that they are closely related traditions, stemming from a common Germanic source. Our knowledge about that common tradition, however, is based almost entirely on inference from later poetry.

One statement we have about the nature of alliterative verse from a practicing alliterative poet is that of Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda. He describes metrical patterns and poetic devices used by skaldic poets around the year 1200. Snorri's description has served as the starting point for scholars to reconstruct alliterative meters beyond those of Old Norse. There have been many different metrical theories proposed, all of them attended with controversy. Looked at broadly, however, certain basic features are common from the earliest to the latest poetry.

Alliterative verse has been found in some of the earliest monuments of Germanic literature. The Golden horns of Gallehus, discovered in Denmark and likely dating to the 4th century, bear this Runic inscription in Proto-Norse:

x  /  x x  x   /  x x      /  x  / x x
ek hlewagastiʀ holtijaʀ || horna tawidō
(I, Hlewagastiʀ [son?] of Holt, made the horn.)

This inscription contains four strongly stressed syllables, the first three of which alliterate on /x/ and the last of which does not alliterate, essentially the same pattern found in much later verse.

Originally all alliterative poetry was composed and transmitted orally, and much went unrecorded. The degree to which writing may have altered this oral art form remains much in dispute. Nevertheless, there is a broad consensus among scholars that the written verse retains many (and some would argue almost all) of the features of the spoken language.

Metrical form

The core metrical features of traditional Germanic alliterative verse are as follows; they can be seen in the Gallehus inscription above:[2]

  • A long line is divided into two half-lines. Half-lines are also known as 'verses', 'hemistichs', or 'distichs'; the first is called the 'a-verse' (or 'on-verse'), the second the 'b-verse' (or 'off-verse').[3] The rhythm of the b-verse is generally more regular than that of the a-verse, helping listeners to perceive where the end of the line falls.
  • A heavy pause, or 'cæsura', separates the verses.
  • Each verse usually has two heavily stressed syllables, referred to as 'lifts' or 'beats' (other, less heavily stressed syllables, are called 'dips').
  • The first (and, if there is one, sometimes the second) lift in the a-verse alliterates with the first lift in the b-verse.
  • The second lift in the b-verse does not alliterate with the first lifts.

Some of these fundamental rules varied in certain traditions over time.

Unlike in post-medieval English accentual verse, in which a syllable is either stressed or unstressed, Germanic poets were sensitive to degrees of stress. These can be thought of at three levels:[2]

  1. most stressed ('stress-words'): root syllables of nouns, adjectives, participles, infinitives
  2. less stressed ('particles'): root syllables most finite verbs (i.e. verbs which are not infinitives) and adverbs
  3. even less stressed ('proclitics'): most pronouns, weakly stressed adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, parts of the verb to be, word-endings

If a half-line contains one or more stress-words, their root syllables will be the lifts. (This is the case in the Gallehus Horn inscription above, where all the lifts are nouns.) If it contains no stress-words, the root syllables of any particles will be the lift. Rarely, even a proclitic can be the lift, either because there are no more heavily stressed syllables or because it is given extra stress for some particular reason.

If a lift was occupied by word with a short root vowel followed by only one consonant followed by an unstressed vowel (i.e. '(-)CVCV(-)) these two syllables were in most circumstances counted as only one syllable. This is called resolution.[4]

The patterns of unstressed syllables vary significantly in the alliterative traditions of different Germanic languages. The rules for these patterns remain imperfectly understood and subject to debate.

Rules for alliteration

Alliteration fits naturally with the prosodic patterns of early Germanic languages. Alliteration essentially involves matching the left edges of stressed syllables. Early Germanic languages share a left-prominent prosodic pattern. In other words, stress falls on the root syllable of a word, which is normally the initial syllable (except where the root is preceded by an unstressed prefix, as in past participles, for example). This means that the first sound of a word was particularly salient to listeners.

Traditional Germanic verse also had two particular rules about alliteration:

  • All vowels alliterate with each other.[5]
  • The consonant clusters st-, sp- and sc- are treated as separate sounds (so st- only alliterates with st-, not with s- or sp-).[6]

The precise reasons for this are debated. The most common, but not uniformly accepted, theory for vowel-alliteration is that words beginning with vowels all actually began with a glottal stop (as is still the case in some Germanic languages).[5]


The need to find an appropriate alliterating word gave certain other distinctive features to alliterative verse as well. Alliterative poets drew on a specialized vocabulary of poetic synonyms rarely used in prose texts and used standard images and metaphors called kennings.

English alliterative verse

Old English poetic forms

Old English classical poetry, epitomised by Beowulf, follows the rules of traditional Germanic poetry outlined above, and is indeed a major source for reconstructing them. J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Translating Beowulf" analyses the rules as used in the poem.[7] Some patterns of classical Old English verse begin to break down at the end of the Old English period; moreover Thomas Bredehoft has argued that an alternative system of non-classical Old English poetry, with looser constraints, existed alongside this classical verse. In Bredehoft's reading, this poetry is epitomised by those of Ælfric of Eynsham's homilies traditionally described as being in 'rhythmical prose'.[8] This section, however, focuses on the classical form.

Metrical form

As described above for the Germanic tradition as a whole, each line of poetry in Old English consists of two half-lines or verses, with a pause or caesura in the middle of the line. Each half-line usually has two accented syllables (though the first may have only one). The following example from the poem The Battle of Maldon, spoken by the warrior Beorhtwold, shows the usual pattern:

Hige sceal þe heardra, || heorte þe cēnre,
mōd sceal þe māre, || swā ūre mægen lȳtlað

("Will must be the harder, courage the bolder,
spirit must be the more, as our might lessens.")

For readers unfamiliar with Old English, clear indications of Modern English meanings can be heard in the original, using phonetic approximations of the Old English sound-letter system: [Hige] shall the harder, || heart the keener, mood shall the more, || as our main [might] littleth

In addition to the rules outlined above, Old English poetry had constraints limiting the lengths of verses and the number and distribution of lifts and dips. However, there is still no consensus on what precisely the constraints were; these must also have varied slightly from one poem to another. The most widely used system for classifying Old English prosodic patterns is based on that developed by Eduard Sievers and extended by A. J. Bliss.[9] Sievers' system is a method of categorization rather than a full theory of meter. It does not, in other words, purport to describe the system the scops actually used to compose their verse, nor does it explain why certain patterns are favored or avoided. Sievers divided verses into five basic types, labeled A-E. The system is founded upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. Another popular system is that of Geoffrey Russom, which is predicated on a theory of metre involving two metrical feet per verse.[10] Another again is that of Thomas Cable, which is based on the idea that each verse contains four syllables, with specific rules for the addition of extra unstressed syllables.[11]

Rules for alliteration

Alliteration is the principal ornamental feature of Old English poetry. Two stressed syllables alliterate when they begin with the same sound. In addition to the general rules for alliteration in Germanic poetry listed above, there are some further complications due to sound-changes in Old English:

  • Unpalatized c (pronounced /k/) alliterated with palatized c (pronounced /tʃ/ in late Old English), apparently because the sounds were once just one sound (/k/).[12]
  • Unpalatized g (pronounced /ɡ/) likewise alliterated with palatized g (pronounced like y in yet, /j/, in late Old English) and with the g inherited from Common Germanic /j/. There is not yet a consensus on why these alliterated, but must be partly because the first two gs /ɡ/ were once just one sound.[12]

The first stressed syllable of the off-verse, or second half-line, usually alliterates with one or both of the stressed syllables of the on-verse, or first half-line. The second stressed syllable of the off-verse does not usually alliterate with the others.

The Middle English 'alliterative revival'

Just as rhyme was seen in some Anglo-Saxon poems (e.g. The Rhyming Poem, and, to some degree, The Proverbs of Alfred), the use of alliterative verse continued into Middle English. Layamon's Brut, written in about 1215, uses a loose alliterative scheme. Starting in the mid-14th century, alliterative verse became popular in the English North, the West Midlands, and a little later in Scotland. The Pearl Poet uses a complex scheme of alliteration, rhyme, and iambic metre in his Pearl; a more conventional alliterative metre in Cleanness and Patience, and alliterative verse alternating with rhymed quatrains in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. William Langland's Piers Plowman is an important English alliterative poem; it was written between 1360 and 1399. Though a thousand years have passed between this work and the Golden Horn of Gallehus, the poetic form remains much the same:

A feir feld full of folk || fond I þer bitwene,
Of alle maner of men, || þe mene and þe riche,
Worchinge and wandringe || as þe world askeþ.

In modern spelling:

A fair field full of folk || found I there between,
Of all manner of men || the mean and the rich,
Working and wandering || as the world asketh.

In modern translation:

Among them I found a fair field full of people
All manner of men, the poor and the rich
Working and wandering as the world requires.

Alliteration was sometimes used together with rhyme in Middle English work, as in Pearl and in the densely structured poem

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a well-known alliterative poem in Middle English (from original manuscript, artist unknown).

After the fifteenth century, alliterative verse became fairly uncommon; possibly the last major poem in the tradition is William Dunbar's superb Tretis of the Tua Marriit Wemen and the Wedo (c. 1500). by the middle of the sixteenth century, the four-beat alliterative line had completely vanished, at least from the written tradition: the last poem using the form that has survived, Scotish Feilde, was written in or soon after 1515 for the circle of Thomas Stanley, 2nd Earl of Derby in commemoration of the Battle of Flodden.

Modern revival


J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), a scholar of Old and Middle English and of Old Norse, used alliterative verse extensively in both translations and original poetry. Most of his alliterative verse is in modern English, in a variety of styles, but he also composed Old English alliterative verses.

Examples of Tolkien's alliterative verses include:

  • Those related to his Middle-earth mythos:
    • The Lay of the Children of Húrin (c. 1918-1925), an unfinished poetic version of the story of Túrin, going as far as Túrin's sojourn in Nargothrond. It exists in two versions, both incomplete; the first being 2276 lines long, the second containing only 745 alliterating lines, corresponding to the first 435 lines of the first version. Short parts of the Lay were remodelled into self-standing alliterative poems, Winter Comes to Nargothrond (27 lines) and an untitled poem on the waters of Sirion (26 lines). All are published in The Lays of Beleriand (1985).
    • The Flight of the Noldoli (146 lines), an unfinished poem (c. 1925?) describing Fëanor's speech urging the Noldor to return to Middle-earth, and another unfinished poem (37 lines) describing the aftermath of the Fall of Gondolin. Both are published in The Lays of Beleriand.
    • The Nameless Land (60 lines), a poem in the meter of Pearl, first published 1927; subsequent revisions (dropping one 12-line stanza) were given the title The Song of Ælfwine on Seeing the Uprising of Earendil. Three versions are published in The Lost Road and Other Writings (1987).
    • Numerous short verses in The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955): At Théoden's Death (3 lines), Burial Song of Théoden (5 lines), Call-to-Arms of the Rohirrim (3 lines), Éomer's Song (4 lines), Lament for Théoden (21 lines), The Long List of the Ents (17 lines), Malbeth the Seer's Words (12 lines), Song of the Mounds of Mundburg (27 lines), Théoden's Battle Cry (5 lines). Most of these are attributed to the Rohirrim, a nation in The Lord of the Rings whose language and nomenclature are portrayed as Old English, though all of these verses are in Modern English.
    • A verse version of the oath of Fëanor and his sons (16 lines), incorporated into the text of the Annals of Aman for the year 1495, published in Unfinished Tales (1980).
  • Related to other legends and histories:
    • Völsungakviða en nýja (1360 lines) and Guðrúnarkviða en nýja (668 lines). These two Modern English narrative poems of the 1930s, in the Old Norse fornyrðislag stanza, are based largely on the Völsungasaga and Atlakviða, retelling the Norse legend of Sigurd and the fall of the Niflungs. These poems are published together under the title The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (2009), edited by Christopher Tolkien.[13]
    • King Sheave, a poem describing the arrival of Sheave (Sceaf), a postulated Germanic culture hero, in 154 lines. It was originally an incomplete portion of a longer projected poem written in the late 1930s, but was treated as a complete poem for its insertion into Tolkien's unfinished novel The Notion Club Papers, published in Sauron Defeated (1992). Nearly identical versions appear in The Lost Road and Other Writings and in Sauron Defeated. It was loosely integrated into Tolkien's writings on Númenor, but contains no material specific to Tolkien's mythos.
    • The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished poem on the betrayal of Mordred and Arthur's last battles, 954 lines, published 2013.
    • The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm's Son, 354 lines, an alliterative verse drama describing the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon, first published in 1953.
  • Written in Gothic
    • Bagme Bloma ("Flower of the Trees"), an 18-line poem in Gothic in a trochaic metre, with irregular end-rhymes and irregular alliteration in each line. Published in Songs for the Philologists (1936).
  • Written in Old English
    • Enigmata Saxonica Nuper Inventa Duo ("Two Recently Discovered Saxon Riddles"), two riddles written in Old English, describing an egg and a candle respectively. The first (of 10 lines) is written in normal alliterative metre, while the second (6 lines) includes internal rhyme in each line. First published in a poetry collection called A Northern Venture (1923).
    • An unfinished Old English poem based on the Atlakviða (68 lines in two separate sections), published in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.
    • Four lines in Old English describing the repulse of the dragon Glómund (later renamed Glaurung) by the Elf-king Fingon, appearing in The Shaping of Middle-earth (1986).
    • Five lines in Old English attributed to the mariner Ælfwine, the fictional translator of various Elvish works. These appear in the story of The Lost Road, attached to a poem called The Song of Ælfwine, and as part of a preamble to the text called Quenta Silmarillion, all published in The Lost Road and Other Writings; and again in The Notion Club Papers.
    • Seven lines in Old English that are part of an Anglo-Saxon episode written for the story of The Lost Road; these are an alteration and expansion of ll. 36-38 and 44-46 of The Seafarer. A revision of the same, together with a Modern English translation in 7 verse lines, appears in The Notion Club Papers.
    • Six Old English lines translating the first four lines of King Sheave, appearing in The Notion Club Papers.
    • Four lines of Old English heroic verse, celebrating King Edward the Elder's victory over a Viking army at Archenfield; these are a parody of lines 1-4 of The Battle of Brunanburh. They appear in The Notion Club Papers.
  • Translations:
    • A verse translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 2532 lines, of which 2027 are alliterative.
    • A verse translation of Pearl in 1212 lines of rhymed verse. Both were published posthumously in 1975.
    • A verse translation of some nine lines from the Old English Battle of Brunanburh, forming part of an essay on "Anglo-Saxon verse" and published together with The Fall of Arthur.
    • Remaining unpublished is an incomplete verse translation of Beowulf of about 600 lines.


Alliterative verse is occasionally written by other modern authors. C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) wrote a narrative poem of 742 lines called The Nameless Isle, published posthumously in Narrative Poems (1972). Lines 562-567:

The marble maid,   under mask of stone
shook and shuddered.   As a shadow streams
Over the wheat waving,   over the woman's face
Life came lingering.   Nor was it long after
Down its blue pathways,   blood returning
Moved, and mounted   to her maiden cheek.


W. H. Auden (1907–1973) also wrote a number of poems, including The Age of Anxiety, in a type of alliterative verse modified for modern English. The noun-laden style of the headlines makes the style of alliterative verse particularly apt for Auden's poem:

Now the news.   Night raids on
Five cities.   Fires started.
Pressure applied   by pincer movement
In threatening thrust.   Third Division
Enlarges beachhead.   Lucky charm
Saves sniper.   Sabotage hinted
In steel-mill stoppage. . . .


Richard Wilbur's Junk opens with the lines:

An axe angles   from my neighbor's ashcan;
It is hell's handiwork,   the wood not hickory.
The flow of the grain   not faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft   rises from a shellheap
Of plastic playthings,   paper plates.

Other poets who have experimented with modern alliterative English verse include Ezra Pound in his version of "The Seafarer". Many translations of Beowulf use alliterative techniques. Among recent ones that of Seamus Heaney loosely follows the rules of modern alliterative verse while the translations of Alan Sullivan and Timothy Murphy follow those rules more closely.

Old Norse poetic forms

The inherited form of alliterative verse was modified somewhat in Old Norse poetry. In Old Norse, as a result of phonetic changes from the original common Germanic language, many unstressed syllables were lost. This lent Old Norse verse a characteristic terseness; the lifts tended to be crowded together at the expense of the weak syllables. In some lines, the weak syllables have been entirely suppressed. From the Hávamál:

Deyr fé   deyja frændr
Cattle die;   kinsmen die...

The various names of the Old Norse verse forms are given in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. The Háttatal, or "list of verse forms", contains the names and characteristics of each of the fixed forms of Norse poetry.


The Fyrby Runestone tells in fornyrðislag that two brothers were "the most rune-skilled brothers in Middle Earth."

A verse form close to that of Beowulf existed in runestones and in the Old Norse Eddas; in Norse, it was called fornyrðislag, which means "past-words-law" or "way of ancient words". The Norse poets tended to break up their verses into stanzas of from two to eight lines (or more), rather than writing continuous verse after the Old English model.[14] The loss of unstressed syllables made these verses seem denser and more emphatic. The Norse poets, unlike the Old English poets, tended to make each line a complete syntactic unit, avoiding enjambment where a thought begun on one line continues through the following lines; only seldom do they begin a new sentence in the second half-line. This example is from the Waking of Angantyr:

Vaki, Angantýr!   vekr þik Hervǫr,
eingadóttir   ykkr Tófu!
Selðu ór haugi   hvassan mæki
þann's Svafrlama   slógu dvergar.
Awaken, Angantyr! It is Hervor who awakens you,
your only daughter by Tófa!
Yield up from your grave the mighty sword
that the dwarves forged for Svafrlami.

Fornyrðislag has two lifts per half line, with two or three (sometimes one) unstressed syllables. At least two lifts, usually three, alliterate, always including the main stave (the first lift of the second half-line). It had a variant form called málaháttr ("speech meter"), which adds an unstressed syllable to each half-line, making six to eight (sometimes up to ten) unstressed syllables per line.


Change in form came with the development of ljóðaháttr, which means "song" or "ballad metre", a stanzaic verse form that created four line stanzas. The odd numbered lines were almost standard lines of alliterative verse with four lifts and two or three alliterations, with cæsura; the even numbered lines had three lifts and two alliterations, and no cæsura. This example is from Freyr's lament in Skírnismál:

Lǫng es nótt,   lǫng es ǫnnur,
hvé mega ek þreyja þrjár?
Opt mér mánaðr   minni þótti
en sjá halfa hýnótt.
Long is one night, long is the next;
how can I bear three?
A month has often seemed less to me
than this half night of longing.

A number of variants occurred in ljóðaháttr, including galdraháttr or kviðuháttr ("incantation meter"), which adds a fifth short (three-lift) line to the end of the stanza; in this form, usually the fifth line echoes the fourth one.


The copper Sigtuna box with a dróttkvætt verse written with the runic alphabet
The Karlevi Runestone contains a dróttkvætt poem in memory of a chieftain.

These verse forms were elaborated even more into the skaldic poetic form called the dróttkvætt, meaning "lordly verse", which added internal rhymes and other forms of assonance that go well beyond the requirements of Germanic alliterative verse and greatly resemble the Celtic forms (Irish and Welsh). The dróttkvætt stanza had eight lines, each having usually three lifts and almost invariably six syllables. Although other stress patterns appear, the verse is predominantly trochaic.

In the odd-numbered lines (equivalent to the a-verse of the traditional alliterative line):

  • Two of the stressed syllables alliterate with one another.
  • Two of the stressed syllables share partial rhyme of consonants (which was called skothending) with dissimilar vowels (e.g. hat and bet), not necessarily at the beginning of the word (e.g. touching and orchard).

In the even lines (equivalent to the b-verse of the traditional alliterative line):

  • The first stressed syllable must alliterate with the alliterative stressed syllables of the previous line.
  • Two of the stressed syllables rhyme (aðalhending, e.g. hat and cat), not necessarily at the end of the word (e.g. torching and orchard).
  • The last two syllables form a trochee (there are a few specific forms which utilize a stressed word at line-end, such as in some docked forms).[15]

The requirements of this verse form were so demanding that occasionally the text of the poems had to run parallel, with one thread of syntax running through the on-side of the half-lines, and another running through the off-side. According to the Fagrskinna collection of sagas, King Harald III of Norway uttered these lines of dróttkvætt at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; the internal assonances and the alliteration are emboldened:

Krjúpum vér fyr vápna,
(valteigs), brǫkun eigi,
(svá bauð Hildr), at hjaldri,
(haldorð), í bug skjaldar.
(Hátt bað mik), þar's mœttusk,
(menskorð bera forðum),
hlakkar íss ok hausar,
(hjalmstall í gný malma).
In battle, we do not creep behind a shield before the din of weapons [so said the goddess of hawk-land {a valkyrja} true of words.] She who wore the necklace bade me to bear my head high in battle, when the battle-ice [a gleaming sword] seeks to shatter skulls.

The bracketed words in the poem ("so said the goddess of hawk-land, true of words") are syntactically separate, but interspersed within the text of the rest of the verse. The elaborate kennings manifested here are also practically necessary in this complex and demanding form, as much to solve metrical difficulties as for the sake of vivid imagery. Intriguingly, the saga claims that Harald improvised these lines after he gave a lesser performance (in fornyrðislag); Harald judged that verse bad, and then offered this one in the more demanding form. While the exchange may be fictionalized, the scene illustrates the regard in which the form was held.

Most dróttkvætt poems that survive appear in one or another of the Norse Sagas; several of the sagas are biographies of skaldic poets.


Hrynhenda is a later development of dróttkvætt with eight syllables per line instead of six, with the similar rules of rhyme and alliteration, although each hrynhent-variant shows particular subtleties. It is first attested around 985 in the so-called Hafgerðingadrápa of which four lines survive (alliterants and rhymes bolded):

Mínar biðk at munka reyni
meinalausan farar beina;
heiðis haldi hárar foldar
hallar dróttinn of mér stalli.
I ask the tester of monks (God) for a safe journey; the lord of the palace of the high ground (God — here we have a kenning in four parts) keep the seat of the falcon (hand) over me.

The author was said to be a Christian from the Hebrides, who composed the poem asking God to keep him safe at sea. (Note: The third line is, in fact, over-alliterated. There should be exactly two alliterants in the odd-numbered lines.) The metre gained some popularity in courtly poetry, as the rhythm may sound more majestic than dróttkvætt.

We learn much about these in the Hattatal:[16] Snorri gives for certain at least three different variant-forms of hryniandi. These long-syllabled lines are explained by Snorri as being extra-metrical in most cases: the "main" form never has alliteration or rhyme in the first 2 syllables of the odd-lines (i.e., rimes always coming at the fourth-syllable), and the even-lines never have rhyme on the fifth/sixth syllables (i.e.: they cannot harbor rime in these places because they extra-metrical), the following couplet shows the paradigm:

Tiggi snýr á ógnar áru

(Undgagl veit þat) sóknar hagli.

[Note the juxtaposition of alliteration and rhyme of the even-line]

Then, the variant-forms show unsurprising dróttkvætt patterns overall; the main difference being that the first trochee of the odd-lines are technically not reckoned as extrametrical since they harbor alliteration, but the even-lines' extra-metrical feature is more or less as the same. The 2nd form is the "troll-hryniandi": in the odd-lines the alliteration is moved to the first metrical position (no longer "extra-metrical") while the rhyme remains the same (Snorri seems to imply that frumhending, which is placing a rhyme on the first syllable of any line, is preferably avoided in all these forms: the rhymes are always preferred as oddhending, "middle-of-the-line rhymes") — in the even-lines the rhyme and alliteration are not juxtaposed, and this is a key feature of its distinction (the significant features only are marked in bold below):

Stála kendi steykvilundum

Styriar valdi raudu falda....

The next form, which Snorri calls "ordinary/standard hrynhenda", is almost like a "combination" of the previous — alliteration always on the first metrical-position, and the rimes in the odd-lines juxtaposed (all features in bold in this example):

Vafdi lítt er virdum mætti

Vígrækiandi fram at sækia.'

There is one more form which is a bit different though seemed to be counted among the previous group by Snorri, called draughent. The syllable-count changes to seven (and, whether relevant to us or not, the second-syllable seems to be counted as the extra-metrical):

Vápna hríd velta nádi

Vægdarlaus feigum hausi.

Hilmir lét höggum mæta

Herda klett bana verdant.

As one can see, there is very often clashing stress in the middle of the line (Vápna hríd velta....//..Vægdarlaus feigum...., etc.), and oddhending seems preferred (as well as keeping alliterative and rhyming syllables separated, which likely has to do with the syllabic-makeup of the line).

Post-medieval Scandinavian alliterative verse

Alliterative poetry is still practiced in Iceland in an unbroken tradition since the settlement, most commonly in the form of rímur.[17]

German and Saxon forms

The Old High German and Old Saxon corpus of Stabreim or alliterative verse is small. Fewer than 200 Old High German lines survive, in four works: the Hildebrandslied, Muspilli, the Merseburg Charms and the Wessobrunn Prayer. All four are preserved in forms that are clearly to some extent corrupt, suggesting that the scribes may themselves not have been entirely familiar with the poetic tradition. The two Old Saxon alliterative poems, the fragmentary Heliand (nearly 6000 lines) and the even more fragmentary Genesis (337 lines in 3 unconnected fragments) are both Christian poems, created as written works of Biblical content based on Latin sources, and not derived from oral tradition.

However, both German traditions show one common feature which is much less common elsewhere: a proliferation of unaccented syllables. Generally these are parts of speech which would naturally be unstressed - pronouns, prepositions, articles, modal auxiliaries - but in the Old Saxon works there are also adjectives and lexical verbs. The unaccented syllables typically occur before the first stress in the half-line, and most often in the b-verse.

The Hildebrandslied, lines 4–5:

Garutun se iro guðhamun, gurtun sih iro suert ana,
helidos, ubar hringa, do sie to dero hiltiu ritun.
They prepared their fighting outfits, girded their swords on,
the heroes, over ringmail when they to that fight rode.

The Heliand, line 3062:

Sâlig bist thu Sîmon, quað he, sunu Ionases; ni mahtes thu that selbo gehuggean
Blessed are you Simon, he said, son of Jonah; for you did not see that yourself (Matthew 16, 17)

This leads to a less dense style, no doubt closer to everyday language, which has been interpreted both as a sign of decadent technique from ill-tutored poets and as an artistic innovation giving scope for additional poetic effects. Either way, it signifies a break with the strict Sievers typology.

In more recent times, Richard Wagner sought to evoke old German models and what he considered a more natural and less over-civilised style by writing his Ring poems in Stabreim.


  1. ^ The Poetic Edda is just an example. The entire Old Norse poetic corpus is alliterative, and alliterative poetry is alive in Modern Icelandic: e.g., Disneyrímur by Þórarinn Eldjárn. Many people compose stanzas and poems for their amusement using the rímur meters, an example being Unndórs rímur by an anonymous author.
  2. ^ a b Jun Terasawa, Old English Meter: An Introduction (Totonto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), pp. 3-26.
  3. ^ Old Norse poetry is not, traditionally, written in this manner. A half line as described above is written as a whole line in (for example) the Edda, though scholars such as Andreas Heusler and Eduard Sievers have applied the half-line structure to Eddaic poetry.
  4. ^ Jun Terasawa, Old English Meter: An Introduction (Totonto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), pp. 31-33.
  5. ^ a b Donka Minkova, Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 101 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), ch. 4.
  6. ^ Donka Minkova, Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 101 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), chs 5-7.
  7. ^ Tolkien, 1983.
  8. ^ Thomas A. Bredehoft, ‘Ælfric and Late Old English Verse’, ''Anglo-Saxon England'', 33 (2004), 77–107; Thomas A. Bredehoft, Early English Metre (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
  9. ^ Eduard Sievers, Altgermanische Metrik, Sammlung kurzer Grammatiken germanischer Dialekte. Ergänzungsreihe. 2 (Halle: Niemeyer, 1893); Alan Joseph Bliss, The metre of 'Beowulf' (Oxford: Blackwell, 1958); Jun Terasawa, Old English Meter: An Introduction (Totonto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), pp. 34-48.
  10. ^ Geoffrey Russom, Old English Meter and Linguistic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre, Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 23 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Cf. Thomas A. Bredehoft, Early English Metre (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
  11. ^ Thomas Cable, The English Alliterative Tradition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991); Alaric Hall and Sheryl McDonald, A Beginner’s Guide (Hopefully) to Old English Metre (version 1.4, January 28th 2011)
  12. ^ a b Donka Minkova, Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, 101 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 116-18.
  13. ^ In a 1967 letter to Elder Edda, written in the old eight-line fornyrðislag stanza." (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 295, 29 March 1967.)
  14. ^ It must be kept in mind, that the Norse poets didn't write, they composed, as did all poets ancient enough for that matter. This "breaking up of lines" was dictated by ear, not pen.
  15. ^ Dick Ringler (ed. and trans.), Jónas Hallgrímsson: Selected Poetry and Prose (1998), ch. III.1.B 'Skaldic Strophes',
  16. ^ Hattatal, Snorri Sturluson
  17. ^ Cf.


  • Bostock, J.K., revised by K.C.King & D.R.McLintock (1976). "Appendix on Old Saxon and Old High German Metre". A Handbook on Old High German Literature. Oxford University Press. 
  • Cable, Thomas (1991). The English Alliterative Tradition. University of Pennsylvania Press. 
  • Fulk, Robert D. (1992). A History of Old English Meter. University of Pennsylvania Press. 
  • Godden, Malcolm R. (1992). "Literary Language". In Hogg, Richard M. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 490–535. 
  • Russom, Geoffrey (1998). Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre. Cambridge University Press. 
  • Sievers, Eduard (1893). Altgermanische Metrik. Niemeyer. 
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. (1983) [1940].  

External links

  • Carmina Scaldica a selection of Norse and Icelandic skaldic poetry, ed. Finnur Jónsson, 1929
  • Jörmungrund An extensive resource for Old Norse poetry
  • , ed. and trans. by Dick Ringler (1998), ch. 3Jónas Hallgrímsson: Selected Poetry and Prose Probably the most accessible discussion in English of alliterant placement in modern Icelandic (also mostly applicable to Old Norse).
  • Forgotten ground regained A site dedicated to alliterative and accentual poetry.
  • An interactive guide to Old and Middle English alliterative verse by Alaric Hall.
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