A Beginner's Guide to Prosody:
Part IV (Anglo-Saxon Accentual Meter)
by Tina Blue
November 24, 2000
ALLITERATION--the repetition of sounds in nearby words; usually the term is used to refer to "initial alliteration," the repetition of sounds at the beginnings of words or syllables, but it can also refer to "internal alliteration," also called "hidden alliteration," where the repeated sounds occur within words or syllables. Sometimes "alliteration" is used to refer to either vowel or consonant sounds, but sometimes it is reserved for repeated consonant sounds.
ASSONANCE--a form of alliteration, in which the repeated sounds are vowel sounds rather than consonants.
STRESSED SYLLABLE--a syllable that receives a strong accent.
SLACK SYLLABLE--an unaccented syllable.
CAESURA (CESURA)--from the Latin for "cut,"--a strong break or pause in a line of poetry.
DISTICH--a half-line. In Anglo-Saxon poetry, each line is broken into distichs by a heavy caesura.
ACCENTUAL METER (STRONG-STRESS METER; ALLITERATIVE-STRESS METER)--the metrical pattern used in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poetry.
ACCENTUAL-SYLLABIC METER--The metrical pattern found in most English poetry. Accentual-syllabic meter counts both the number of accents and the number of syllables in a line of poetry, whereas accentual meter counts only the number of strong stresses in a line.
METER--from the Greek for "measure." It describes the regular pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in poetry.
SCOP--the Anglo-Saxon bard. The word comes from the root for "shape" or "make," just as the word "poet" comes from the Greek root for "make."
Because England was conquered by the Norman French at the Battle of Hastings (1066), Anglo-Saxon (Old English) was supplanted by a hybrid language that borrowed heavily from French vocabulary and syntax. Over time, the poetic forms most commonly used by Anglo-Saxon scops (bards) were similarly replaced by forms imported from French poetry.
The oldest metrical system in English poetry, the one used in Anglo-Saxon poetry, is accentual meter (also called strong-stress or alliterative-stress meter). The rhythmic structure of the Anglo-Saxon line is organized by stress and alliteration. Each line is divided into two parts (distichs) by a strong caesura ( or pause), with two heavy stresses in each half-line. One or (more usually) both of the stressed syllables in the first distich will alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the second distich. Although the number of stresses in each line is fixed, the number of slack syllables per line is variable.
The first two lines of the seventh century poem called "Caedmon's Hymn" illustrate the metrical structure of Anglo-Saxon poetry:
He aerest sceop aelda bearnum
Heofon to hrofe Halig Scyppend
[HE AERest sceop // AELda BEarnum]
(He first made // for the children of men)
[HEOfon to HROfe // HALig SCYPpend]
(Heaven as a roof // Holy Creator)
(NOTE: The aspirate consonant h alliterates with the vowel ae. Note also that when analyzing a poem, we usually mark the caesura with a double vertical line, but I must use slant lines here on this site.)
The following lines from "A Ship of Death" (1987), Seamus Heaney's translation of a passage from the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, rather loosely follows the accentual meter of the original, occasionally alliterating only two of the stressed syllables, and sometimes introducing two different alliterated sounds in a single line. (I have indicated stressed syllables in bold caps.):
SCYLD was STILL a STRONG man when his TIME came
and he CROSSED OVer into OUR Lord's KEEPing.
HIS WARrior BAND did WHAT he BADE them
when he LAID DOWN the LAW among the DANES:
the CHIEF they REvered who had LONG RULED them. (1-5)
In "Junk" (1961), Richard Wilbur uses the solemn, stately rhythms of Anglo-Saxon alliterative-stress verse to lend honor and dignity to the essential nature of the things that humans discard as trash. The trashiness of the items, the poem insists, lies in the poor workmanship, not in the material itself. Read out loud these opening lines from "Junk" to see how dignified they sound:
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,
And the sheer shards of shattered tumblers
That were not annealed for the time needful.
At the same curbside, a cast-off cabinet
Of wavily warped unseasoned wood
Waits to be trundled in the trashman's truck.
Haul them off! Hide them! the heart winces
For junk and gimcrack for jerrybuilt things
And the men who make them for a little money,
Bartering pride like the bought boxer
Who pulls his punches, or the paid-off jockey
Who in the home-stretch holds in his horse. (1-12)
So, you may wonder, why should you care about the meter of Anglo-Saxon poetry? Well, Wilbur's "Junk" is a good example of why. Alliterative-stress verse is not much used in English poetry these days, so it offers the freshness of novelty for both poet and reader, as well as the impact of allusion, which draws into the poem--as Wilbur has done--the nuances and implications of Anglo-Saxon verse and the darkly dignified world-view it represents. Besides, when you read those lines aloud, don't you just love the way they sound? Sound effects are really important in poetry, and we cannot help but respond to the impact of this work's powerful rhythm.
A similar impact is created in the opening sequence of Felicia Dorothea Hemans' "Indian Woman's Death Song" (1828):
Down a broad river of the western wilds,
Piercing thick forest-glooms, a light canoe
Swept with the current: fearful was the speed
Of the frail bark, as by a tempest's wing
Borne leaf-like on to where the mist of spray
Rose with the cataract's thunder. Yet within,
Proudly, and dauntlessly, and all alone,
Save that a babe lay sleeping at her breast,
A woman stood! Upon her Indian brow
Sat a strange gladness, and her dark hair waved
As if triumphantly. She pressed her child,
In its bright slumber, to her beating heart,
And lifted her sweet voice, that rose awhile
Above the sound of waters, high and clear,
Wafting a wild proud strain--a song of death. (1-15)
After this introductory sequence, the poem changes to
accentual-syllabic meter (the kind you are used to hearing in English poetry). The woman's death-song itself, which comprises the rest of the poem, is structured in quatrains rhyming aabb ccdd eeff, and so forth. As in "Junk," the opening sequence in "Indian Woman's Death-Song" borrows its solemnity from the heavy stress pattern of Anglo-Saxon meter.
Many of you are already familiar with the alliterated accentual meter of Anglo-Saxon verse, but if you have not considered it as a possible technique for your own poetry, you might want to go back and give it another look. I also hope those of you who have not really seen alliterative-stress meter in action before might already be thinking of trying it out in your next poem.
*The other articles in this series on prosody are "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody"; "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part II (Meter)"; and "A Beginner's Guide to Prosody: Part III (Blank Verse).