I highly recommend the poet study Beowulf and other Old English poems before attempting work in this form. All of my examples are in Modern English, since that is the language I write in, and I presume it is the language my readers write in as well. I have included resources at the end of the article for those who want to know more about the form and/or hear Old English poetry read aloud. Finally, I should add that I am somewhat new to this form myself, so if any heads wiser than mine find themselves here, I would appreciate comments, corrections and suggestions.
Old English poetry is alliterative, which means that it follows a system of alliteration which binds its verses together and creates a distinctive sound (Baker 119). However, Old English alliteration does not simply make use of the first syllable in each word. Rather, it makes use of the dominant syllable in each word, the syllable most stressed in speaking. In addition, alliteration does not mean the repetition of initial letters in the stressed syllable; it means the repetition of initial sounds.
Here are a few examples of initial syllable alliteration:
· world - wield
· rightly - RA/cing
· just - JEW/el
Here are a few examples of stressed-syllable alliteration:
· voice - a/VOW/ed
· u/PON - PI/ous
· crest - ac/CUSE
Here are a few examples of alliteration by initial sound and not initial letter:
· kite - ac/CRETE
· jest - sug/GEST
· whole - HAL/low
In addition, it should be noted that in Old English poetry, any initial vowel in a syllable would alliterate with any other initial vowel. Here are a few examples of vowel alliteration:
· AP/ple - O/ver
· in/I/tial - EE/rie
· U/lulate - E/gress
Finally, the letter combinations sc, sp & st will only alliterate with themselves. Here are a few examples of this kind of alliteration:
· scad - SCA/lar
· space - spa
· stab - STA/ble
A line of Old English poetry is made of two half-lines separated by a caesura, or break. In modern renderings of Old English poems, that break is represented by a space between the half-lines. However, those half-lines and spaces do not appear in Old English manuscripts. Rather, the poetry is written like prose (Baker 120).
Each half-line contains two stressed syllables, also called lifts, and a number of unstressed syllables, usually between two and five. These unstressed syllables are also called drops. The half-lines must be divided both syllabically and logically so that rhythm and poetic sensibility are preserved.
Here is an example from Mary Alexandra Agner’s poem, "The Eightfold Year":
I yearn this year for yams yanked
Syllabic and Logical Division:
I YEARN this YEAR | for YAMS YANKed
Do you see how the half-lines are divided into syllabic and logical units? The first half-line has two lifts and so does the second. The first half-line expresses half of the poetic thought, and the second line expresses the other half of the poetic thought.
In Old English poetry, the two lifts in the first half-line (also called the on-verse) will usually alliterate with the first lift in the second half-line (also called the off-verse). The second lift in the off-verse does not often alliterate with any other syllable in the line.
Here is an example of this:
I PENned a POem that PREACHed THUSly
Finally, weak words like articles and prepositions almost never carry stress or alliterate with other words in a line of Old English poetry.
The Line Types
There are five basic schemas for lifts and drops employed in half-lines of Old English poetry. These are often referred to as Sievers’ Types for the researcher who first delineated them. It should be noted that skilled poets would not have written on-verses and off-verses of a line in the same type, since this would cause the rhythm of the line to sound monotonous.
Here are the five basic types:
Type A – lift-drop-lift-drop
· HEAven HELP them
Type B – drop-lift-drop-lift
· She WANTS a COF/fee
Type C – drop-lift-lift-drop
· The RED HAWK flew
Type Da – lift-lift-drop (with a half-lift before the drop)
· BRIGHT BE/(lov)/ed
Type Db – lift-lift-drop (with a half-lift after the drop)
· BLACK, SHIN/ing (fea)thers
Type E – lift-drop-lift
· GI/ving them GIFTS
When in doubt about which syllable constitutes a lift, remember that a lift will normally be a long syllable (Baker 122).
It should also be noted that Type A half-lines might be preceded by an initial non-stressed syllable, but this variation only occurs in on-verses (Baker 123).
Old English poetry made extensive use of devices called ‘kennings’. Simply put, kennings are non-standard ways of naming standard things. Here are some examples:
· body - bone house
· king - ring giver
· sea - swan road
Kennings were always more colorful and interesting than the words they replaced, and they often held double entendres or other interesting variations in meaning.
Variations were ways of re-describing an event or thing that had just been described. Peter S. Baker offers this example:
"They had no need to laugh
that they were better at battle-works
on the battlefield, at the clash of banners,
at the meeting of spears, at the gathering of men,
at the exchange of weapons…(135)"
As of the writing of this article, I have been studying Old English poetic style for three weeks. I have a strong background in medieval literature and have studied both Old English poetry and Middle Welsh language, but it still took me a week to come to a place where I felt I could attempt this form. It took another week of daily use to hear the form in my head as I wrote. Here are some things I did to make the process easier:
- I simplified all of the information I read into a rubric for writing that I kept on my desk as I worked.
- I labeled my half-lines as I wrote them, used my word processing program to color code lifts and drops and split my lines with a visible caesura.
(A) lift drop lift drop | (B) drop lift drop lift
- I anchored lines around words that both alliterated and expressed the root ideas I wanted to convey.
- I used the tried and true method of writing first and revising afterward, since it was important to me to get the form right.
- I allowed myself to break a few rules, but I broke them knowing what they were and with an eye toward poetic effect.
I hope this article helps you if you want to utilize this form in your work. I have found it both challenging and rewarding, and I plan to continue using alliterative methodologies in my own poetry.
Baker, Peter S. Introduction to Old English. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.