Alliterative verse

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The Old English epic poem  is written in alliterative verse.
The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse.

In prosody, alliterative verse is any of a number of closely related verse forms that are the common inheritance of the older Germanic languages.

This was the verse form in which the Old English epic Beowulf was written, as well as most of the other Old English poetry; so were the Bavarian Muspillo and the Old Saxon Heliand. A modified form of alliterative verse is found in the Poetic Edda. Alliterative verse exists from the earliest attested monuments of the Germanic languages; extended passages of alliterative verse are attested in Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, and Old Saxon.


Common features and origins

The basic shape of the inherited form of alliterative verse is that:

  • A line of verse is divided into two half-lines by a cæsura.
  • Each half-line has two strongly stressed words, or "lifts".
  • At least two, usually three, of the lifts in a whole line must alliterate with each other.
  • Usually two alliterations occur in the first half-line, so each lift alliterates there;
  • One lift alliterates in the second half-line.
  • The alliterating lift in the second half-line is almost always the first lift.
  • The number of weak syllables between the lifts can vary from zero to three.
  • Weak syllables may appear before the first lift in anacrusis.

Alliterative verse existed from the earliest monuments of Germanic literature to the present. 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
ek hlewagastiʀ holtijaʀ || horna tawidô
(I, Hlewagastir of the Holtings, made the horn.)

which forms a line of alliterative verse, alliterating with /h/.

A number of rules evolved in different languages as to what counted as a proper alliteration. Generally, consonant groups like /sk/ and /st/ only alliterated with identical consonant groups. Any vowel alliterated with any other vowel.

All of these verse forms impacted the texts written in them. As they developed, standard images and metaphors called kennings developed, and one of the purposes of these kennings was to allow the poet to substitute a stock image appropriate for his alliterating line.

Old English poetic forms

Old English poetry is based upon one system of verse construction which was used for all poems. The system consisted of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types could be used in any verse. The system is founded upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation.

It should be borne in mind that poetry of the time was primarily oral, and much has been lost through time since it went unrecorded. The poet, referred to as a scop, a "shaper" of words, was frequently accompanied by a harp in the process of declamation.


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 þe heardra, || heorte þe cenre,
mod sceal þe mare, || þe ure mægen lytlað
("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 þer bitwene,
Of alle maner of men, || þe mene and þe riche,
Worchinge and wandringe || as þe world askeþ.
(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 Piers the Plowman'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 Hávamál:

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

The various names of the Old Norse verse forms are given in the Younger 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 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, 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 had a variant form called málaháttr ("speech meter"), which adds an extra lift to each half-lines, making six lifts 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 "hynott" (word of unclear meaning)).

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.


Missing image
Box of copper from Sigtuna with a DrˇttkvŠtt verse written with the Runic alphabet

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. 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 (aðalhending) 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 dróttkvætt at the Battle of Stamford Bridge; the internal assonances and the alliteration are bolded:

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 ljóðaháttr); 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 drˇttkvŠtt 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 Hafger­ingadrßpa of which four lines survive (alliterants and rhymes bolded):

MÝnar bi­k at munka reyni
meinalausan farar beina;
hei­is haldi hßrar foldar
hallar drˇttinn of mÚr 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 drˇttkvŠtt.

Alliterative poetry is still practiced in Iceland in an unbroken tradition since the settlement.

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 gűdhamun, gurtun sih iro suert ana,
helidos, ubar hringÔ, d˘ sie t˘ 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.

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. For more information see:

External links

  • J÷rmungrund ( A truly great resource for Old Norse poetry
  • Selected Poetry and Prose of Jónas Hallgrímsson ( A good site altogether, but see in particular Appendix B for probably the most accessible discussion in English of alliterant placement in modern Icelandic.
  • [1] ( Forgotten ground regained - dedicated site.

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