Lady Teleri the Well-Prepared (Jamie Lennon)
January 3, 2009
is unrhymed. It relies on alliteration and patterns of stress to give
it a formal structure. The seminal analysis of the poetic corpus that
gives us our understanding of Anglo-Saxon poetic meter is E. Sievers's1. I have not yet gotten a copy of Sievers and have relied instead on the frequently-cited essay by Scragg2, which summarizes it. Except where noted, the following is a summary of Scragg's rules.
Poetic lines in Old English poems are divided into two roughly equal parts. Each half-line is composed of two strongly stressed syllables (known as lifts) and a variable number of lightly stressed syllables (known as falls). These lifts and falls can be arranged into the five "Sievers types," five (actually six) stress patterns.
Type A: The lifts precede the falls. Scagg gives the example (with / indicating a lift and x indicating a fall):
/ x / x / x / x
Ma-ry, Ma-ry, quite con-tra-ry (This is a complete line, made of two Type A half-lines)
Type A is the most common type.
Type B: Type B is the reverse of Type A; the fall precedes the lift.
x / x / x / x /
To be or not to be, that is
Type C: Type C has two lifts one after the other, with falls before and after:
x / / x, "the next morning," "(in a) brief letter" (Examples from Nash.)
Types D and E make use of half-stresses, which occur often in Old English as the second part of a compound word. We can hear the difference in Modern English as well: Scragg recommends listening for the difference between "a blackbird" and "a black bird." In "a black bird," the "black" is strongly stressed, but the other two words are unstressed. In "a blackbird," black is still the most strongly-stressed syllable, but "bird" takes more stress than "a." It is a half-stress. The half-stress is denoted as \.
Type D: There are two variants of Type D, Da and Db. Both start with two lifts and end with a fall and a half-stress; they are differentiated based in where the half-stress goes:
Type Da: / / \ x, "Queen's godchildren," "few firefighters"
Type Db: / / x \, "next market day"
(Examples from Nash)
Type E: Type E begins and ends with lifts, with the half-stress and fall in between:
/ \ x /, "headlong in flight," "God help the poor" (Example from Nash)
Scragg notes that, even in the original Old English, there could be some variations in execution. For example, Type A lines are sometimes preceded by an unstressed syllable or two.
Most poetic lines would be composed of two half-lines of different types, but this was hardly a universal rule. Scragg gives a ten-line example from Beowulf that contains three lines with structure AA.
A single sentence would often run over many poetic lines, and the poet could use these types over the entire poetic idea to create effects. Types A, B and C, for example, containing roughly equal numbers of lifts and falls, move along quickly in recitation and might be suitable for narrative. Types D and E, using the half-stresses, require the speaker to pause a bit (to give the appropriate stress) and can be used to heighten drama.
The lines were bound together by alliteration, or the use of similar sounds. The third lift (the first stress of the second half-line) must alliterate with either the first or second lift in the first half-line3. All three may alliterate. It is important to note that it is the stressed syllables that must alliterate, not necessarily the first letters. So "AtLANtia" alliterates with words starting with "L," not "A".
Sometimes, poets would use the fourth lift to anticipate the next line, so that it alliterated with either the first or second lift. This is not a requirement, but it certainly has the effect of tying the two lines together closely and moving the listener along.
There are also, occasionally, other exceptions to this rule. There are surviving examples of the stresses alliterating in patterns abab and, even less frequently, abba.
Scragg does not give a rule for what constitutes alliteration. Nash gives evidence that all vowels are considered alliterative with each other3. A University of Conneticuit website asserted that consonant combinations also alliterated: that not only did "sick" alliterate with "soap," but also with "start," "snake," and "ship."4
Other Structures and Features
Variation: Old English verse frequently repeats the same noun or verb, calling it by different names: "A rich ring-giver, a bold battler, a good king."
Compund words: Like Modern English and German, a poet could concatenate two words to make a new word, such as "wynleas," "joy-lack."
Kennings: If the compound, or a phrase, is allusive, it can be termed a kenning. They are sometimes described as being mini-riddles. The famous textbook example of a kenning is the "hronrad," "whale-road" as a name for the ocean. "Moncynnes weard," mankind's warder, is God.
Hypermetric verses: Sometimes, the Anglo-Saxon poets preceded one of the five half-line types with extra syllables. If they precede the first half of a line, the extra syllables may contain one alliterative syllable, but not if they precede the second half-line. Some poems, like Judith and the Dream of the Rood, alternate between normal verses and hypermetric lines.
Refrains: Two Old English poems, Deor and Wulf and Eadwacer, make use of a repeated line as a kind of refrain; in Wulf and Eadwacer, it is only a half-line.
1E. Sievers. "Old Germanic and Old English Metrics," trans. G.D. Luster, in Essential Articles, ed. Bessinger and Kahrl, pp. 267-88.
2Donald G. Scragg. "The Nature of Old English Verse." In The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Godden and Lapidge, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1986, pp. 55-70.
3Walter Nash. A Departed Music: Old English Poetry. Anglo-Saxon Books: Norfolk, England, 2006.
4M. Wendy Hennequin. "Building Blocks of Old English Poetry." Formerly at http://www.sp.uconn.edu/~mwh95001/oepoetry.htm, accessed 4 January 2009 at http://cuip.net/~iabrams/OE_Rap_port/oepoetryworksheet.htm