Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Alliterative verse


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In prosody, alliterative verse is a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal stylistic device to unify lines of poetry, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme.

The most intensively studied traditions of alliterative verse are those found in the oldest literature of many Germanic languages. Alliterative verse, in various forms, is found widely in the literary traditions of the early Germanic languages. The Old English epic Beowulf, as well as most other Old English poetry, the Bavarian Muspillo, the Old Saxon Heliand, and the Old Norse Poetic Edda all use alliterative verse.

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

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 fourth century, bears this Runic inscription in Proto-Norse:

x    / x x  x   /  x x      /  x  / x x
ek hlewagastiʀ holtijaʀ || horna tawidō
(I, Hlewagastir son of Holti, made the horn.)

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

Most 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 artform 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 patterns. In other words, stress generally falls on the initial syllables of words, apart from some prefixes.

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; the first is called the a-verse (or on-verse), the second the b-verse (or off-verse).
  • A heavy pause, or cęsura, separates the verses.
  • Each verse usually has two strongly stressed syllables, or "lifts".
  • The first lift in the a- and b-verse must alliterate with each other.
  • The second lift in the a-verse often alliterates, but is not required to do so.
  • 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.

Old English poetic forms

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. It should be emphasized that Sievers' system is fundamentally a method of categorization rather than an 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.


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 Battle of Maldon, spoken by the warrior Byrthnoth, shows this:

Hige sceal že heardra, || heorte že cenre,
mod sceal že mare, || že ure męgen lytlaš
("Courage must be the greater, heart the bolder, spirit the greater, the more our strength is diminished.")


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 /ch/), and unpalatized g (pronounced /g/) likewise alliterated with palatized g (pronounced /y/). (This is because the poetic form was inherited from a time when these letters always sounded the same.)

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.


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. The Pearl Poet uses one of the most sophisticated alliterative schemes extant in Pearl, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Even later, William Langland's Piers Plowman is a major work in English that is written in alliterative verse; 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 žer bitwene,
Of alle maner of men, || že mene and že riche,
Worchinge and wandringe || as že world askež.
(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 often used together with rhyme in Middle English work, as in Pearl. In general, Middle English poets were somewhat loose about the number of stresses; in Sir Gawain, for instance, there are many lines with additional alliterating stresses (e.g. l.2, "the borgh brittened and brent to brondez and askez"), and the medial pause is not always strictly maintained.

After Chaucer, alliterative verse became fairly uncommon, although some alliterative poems, such as Pierce the Ploughman's Crede (ca. 1400) and William Dunbar's superb Tretis of the Tua Marriit Women and the Wedo (ca. 1500) were written in the form in the 15th century. However, by 1600, the four-beat alliterative line had completely vanished, at least from the written tradition.

Alliterative verse is occasionally written by modern authors. J. R. R. Tolkien composed several poems about Middle-earth in Old English alliterative verse; these poems were found among his papers and published posthumously. W. H. Auden also wrote a number of his poems, including The Age of Anxiety , in alliterative verse, modified only slightly to fit the phonetic patterns of 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. . . .

Other poets who have experimented with modern alliterative English verse include Ezra Pound, and Richard Wilbur, whose 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.

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 Hįvamįl:

Deyr fé || deyja fręndr
("Cattle die; friends die. . .")

The various names of the Old Norse verse forms are given in the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. The Hįttatal, 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 fornyršislag, 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 enjambement 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, Angantżr! || vekr žik Hervǫr,
eingadóttir || ykkr Tófu!
Selšu ór haugi || hvassan męki
žann'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.")

Fornyršislag 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).

Fornyršislag had a variant form called mįlahįttr ("speech meter"), which adds an unstressed syllable to each half-line, making sixto eight unstressed syllables per line.


Change in form came with the development of ljóšahįttr, 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 cęsura; the even numbered lines had three lifts and two alliterations, and no cęsura. This example is from Freyr's lament in Skķrnismįl:

Lǫng es nótt, || lǫng es ǫnnur,
hvé mega ek žreyja žrjįr?
Opt mér mįnašr || minni žótti
en sjį halfa hżnótt.
(Long is one night, long is the next; how can I bear three? A month has often seemed less to me than this half "hynott" (word of unclear meaning)).

A number of variants occurred in ljóšahįttr, including galdrahįttr or kvišuhįttr ("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.


Box of copper from Sigtuna with a Dróttkvętt verse written with the Runic alphabet Box of copper from Sigtuna with a Dróttkvętt verse written with the Runic alphabet

These verse forms were elaborated even more into the skaldic poetic form called the dróttkvętt, meaning "lordly verse", which added internal rhymes and other forms of assonance that go well beyond the requirements of Germanic alliterative verse. The dróttkvętt stanza had eight lines, each having three lifts. In addition to two or three alliterations, the odd numbered lines had partial rhyme of consonants (which was called skothending) with dissimilar vowels, not necessarily at the beginning of the word; the even lines contained internal rhyme (ašalhending) in the syllables, not necessarily at the end of the word. The form was subject to further restrictions: each half-line must have exactly six syllables, and each line must always end in a trochee.

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 dróttkvętt at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; the internal assonances and the alliteration are bolded:

Krjśpum vér fyr vįpna,
(valteigs), brǫkun eigi,
(svį bauš Hildr), at hjaldri,
(haldorš), ķ bug skjaldar.
(Hįtt baš mik), žar's mœttusk,
(menskorš bera foršum),
hlakkar ķss ok hausar,
(hjalmstall ķ gnż 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 ljóšahįttr); 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 dróttkvętt 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 dróttkvętt 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 Hafgeršingadrįpa of which four lines survive (alliterants and rhymes bolded):

Mķnar bišk at munka reyni
meinalausan farar beina;
heišis haldi hįrar 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 dróttkvętt.
Alliterative poetry is still practiced in Iceland in an unbroken tradition since the settlement.

German forms

In Old High German and Old Saxon

In Old High German and Old Saxon alliterative verse (e. g. Hildebrandslied and Heliand), phonetic and grammatical changes caused the inherited form of the line to be altered in a direction opposite to the Old Norse development. In verse in these languages, weak syllables tend to proliferate, to accommodate the mandatory articles and particles these languages used. The famous lines 4 and 5 of the Hildebrandslied, where four or five weak syllables seem to be used as a poetic device (mind especially the last half-line!) show that:

Garutun se iro gūdhamun, gurtun sih iro suert ana,
helidos, ubar hringā, dō sie tō dero hiltiu ritun.
(They) prepared / made ready (for them) their fighting outfits / garments / equipments, girded their swords on,
the heroes, over rings (of armour), as / when / before they to that fight rode.

Modern use

In modern times, alliterative verse has been used by Richard Wagner, for instance in his libretto for the opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.

See also

A common problem when researching things Norse is that the spelling of names varies much depending on one's country of origin. In the articles presented here, several common forms of the names will be presented.


  • 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" Hogg, Richard M. (ed.) The Cambridge History of the English Language, pp. 490-535, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Russom, Geoffrey (1998). Beowulf and Old Germanic Metre, Cambridge University Press.
  • Sievers, Eduard (1893). Altgermanische Metrik, Niemeyer.

External links

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