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In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal structuring device to unify lines of poetry, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme or syllables. The most commonly studied traditions of alliterative verse are those found in the oldest literature of many Germanic languages. 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, although rarely with the systematic rigor of Germanic forms. 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

Further information: Germanic Heroic Age

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 surviving 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, bears this Runic inscription in Proto-Norse:

x    / x x x   /  x x      /  x  / x x
ek hlewagastir holtijar || horna tawidô
(I, Hlewagastir [son?] of Holt, made the horn.)

This inscription contains four strongly stressed syllables, the first three of which alliterate on /x/, essentially the same pattern found in much later verse.

Originally all alliterative poetry was composed and transmitted orally, and much has been lost through time since it 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.

Alliteration fits naturally with the prosodic patterns of 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. This is normally the initial syllable, except where the root is preceded by an unstressed prefix (as in past participles, for example).

The core metrical features of traditional Germanic alliterative verse are as follows:

  • A long line is divided into two half-lines. Half-lines are also known as verses or hemistichs; the first is called the a-verse (or on-verse), the second the b-verse (or off-verse).[2]
  • A heavy pause, or cæsura, separates the verses.
  • Each verse usually has two strongly stressed syllables, or "lifts".
  • The first lift in the b-verse nearly always alliterated with either or both lifts in the a-verse.
  • The second lift in the b-verse does not alliterate with the first lifts.

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

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

Main article: Old English poetry

Old English poetry appears to be based upon one system of verse construction, a system which remained remarkably consistent for centuries, although some patterns of classical Old English verse begin to break down at the end of the Old English period.

The most widely used system of classification is based on that developed by Eduard Sievers. 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.


Main article: Accentual verse

A line of poetry in Old English consists of two half-lines or verses, distichs, with a pause or caesura in the middle of the line. Each half-line has two accented syllables. The following example from the poem The Battle of Maldon, spoken by the warrior Beorhtwold, shows this:

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.")


Alliteration is the principal binding agent of Old English poetry. Two syllables alliterate when they begin with the same sound; all vowels alliterate together, but the consonant clusters st-, sp- and sc- are treated as separate sounds (so st- does not alliterate with s- or sp-). On the other hand, in Old English unpalatized c (pronounced /k/) alliterated with palatized c (pronounced /tʃ/), and unpalatized g (pronounced /ɡ/) likewise alliterated with palatized g (pronounced , /j/). (This is because the poetic form was inherited from a time before /k/ and /ɡ/ had split into palatized and unpalatized variants.) (English transliteration is in , the IPA in /slashes/.)

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.

Middle English alliterative revival

Main article: 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 The Three Dead Kings. Middle English alliterative poets invented some innovative structures; the Pearl Poet, for instance, often adds a third alliterating word to the first half-line (e.g. Sir Gawain l.2, "the borgh brittened and brent || to brondez and askez"), and the medial pause is not always strictly maintained.

After the 15th century, alliterative verse became fairly uncommon, although some alliterative poems, such as William Dunbar's superb Tretis of the Tua Marriit Wemen and the Wedo (c. 1500) were written in the form in the 15th century. However, by the middle of the 16th 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).
    • 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 Tolkien's unfinished novel The Notion Club Papers, published in Sauron Defeated (1992).
    • 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.
    • 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 Morgoth's Ring (1993). It differs considerably from the comparable verses in The Flight of the Noldoli.
    • A poem about the Istari (16 lines) published in Unfinished Tales (1980).
  • Related to other legends and histories:
    • 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).
    • 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).
    • 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.[3]
    • An unfinished Old English poem based on the Atlakviða (68 lines in two separate sections), also published in The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.
    • 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 The Notion Club Papers, where its first 4 lines are translated into 6 Old English lines, under the pretense that the poem is a translation of an Old English original. 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
  • 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.


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-made" 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. 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.


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. The dróttkvætt stanza had eight lines, each having 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 or three 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 syllable 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.[4]

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, but with the same rules for rhyme and alliteration. 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.

Alliterative poetry is still practiced in Iceland in an unbroken tradition since the settlement, most commonly in the form of rímur.[5]

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.



External links

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  • Finnur Jónsson, 1929
  • Jörmungrund An extensive resource for Old Norse poetry
  • , ed. and trans. by Dick Ringler (1998), ch. 3 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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