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Strange LikenessThe Use of Old English in Twentieth-Century Poetry$

Chris Jones

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199278329

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199278329.001.0001

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(p.245) Appendix on Old English Metre

(p.245) Appendix on Old English Metre

Strange Likeness
Oxford University Press

(p.245) Appendix on Old English Metre

  1. 1. The rhythmical building block of Old English poetry appears to have been a unit of two stressed syllables and a varying number of unstressed syllables (but generally at least two). One of the major differences between Old English metre and traditional accentual-syllabics, therefore, is that the total number of syllables can vary from line to line.

  2. 2. Each of these units is known to modern scholars as a verse (also a ‘half-line’).

  3. 3. Each stressed syllable is known as a lift.

  4. 4. Each group of unstressed syllables (whether one syllable long or several) is known as a dip. A verse therefore consists of two lifts and two dips.

  5. 5. A number of possible arrangements of these lifts and dips can occur in any single verse. Scholars designate the different permutations with an upper-case letter of the alphabet.1 The following summary, in which a lift is represented by the symbol ‘/’ and each unstressed syllable of a dip by ‘x’, illustrates the patterns with examples from Michael Alexander's translation of Beowulf.2

    • Type A or ‘falling rhythm’ / x / x / x x / x
    • e.g.  foes to fear him (l. 6) treasures and trappings (l. 41)
    • Type B or ‘rising rhythm’ x / x /  x xx / x x /
    • e.g.  the son of Scyld (l. 19) and it is said that no boat (l. 38)
    • Type C or ‘clashing rhythm’ x / / x  x x / / x x
    • e.g.  from far countries (l. 37) At the hour shaped for him (l. 26)

  6. 6. Types D and E involve a third level of accent, that of a secondary or half stress. Secondary stress is recorded in scansion with the symbol ‘\’.

    • Type D1 or ‘falling by stages’ / / \ x
    • e.g.  took mead benches (l. 5)
    • Type D2 or ‘broken fall’  / / x \
    • e.g.  night's table-laugh (l. 127)3
    • Type E or ‘fall and rise’  /  \ x /
    • e.g.  boar figures shone (l. 304)
    Note that types C and D permit stressed syllables to fall immediately consecutive to one another. This is not commonly the case in traditional English accentual-syllabics, in which true spondees are comparatively rare, and accented syllables tend to fall together only as the result of ‘inversions’ or ‘substitutions’.4

  7. 7. In Old English poetry a verse of one rhythmical type tended to be juxtaposed with a verse of a different type; there seemed to have been a prejudice against using the same pattern twice.

  8. 8. Modern editors print two verses together on the page as one line (though Old English poetry is never lineated by scribes in the surviving manuscripts, but written continuously, as for prose). The first verse (or ‘half-line’) is known as the a-verse and the second as the b-verse.5

  9. 9. In Old English poetry, the first stressed syllable of the b-verse alliterates with one or other, or both, of the stressed syllables in the a-verse. In this way the two ‘half-lines’ are bound over a notional ‘caesura’ (which may have been felt as a pause when recited) by an alliterative link. The three possible configurations of this linking are again illustrated from Alexander's Beowulf:

    • High over head they hoisted and fixed (l. 46)
    • that leapt into the world, this leader of armies (l. 59)
    • since the Creator cast them out (l. 105).

  10. 10. Any vowel was deemed to ‘alliterate’ with any other:

    • ogres and elves and evil shades—(l. 111)


(1) Following Eduard Sievers's categorization these are known as ‘Sievers's five types’, although type D has since been divided into two subcategories. ‘Zur Rhythmik des germanischen Alliterationsverses’, Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur, 10 (1885), 209–314, 451–545. While not all scholars agree with the ‘five types’ analysis of Old English metre, it nevertheless prevails in the field at present, and was widely subscribed to when the poets considered in this book were studying Old English. For a straightforward introduction to the system, see C. S. Lewis, ‘The Alliterative Metre’, in Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 15–26, or Donald Scragg, ‘The Nature of Old English Verse’ in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 55–70. See also A. J. Bliss, The Metre of Beowulf (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958).

(2) Michael Alexander, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation, 2nd edn. (London: Penguin, 2001).

(3) This line has been doctored from its original ‘night's table-laughter’ in order to represent the exact pattern.

(4) For more detail on these metrical variations, see Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, rev. edn. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 30–61.

(5) There are a number of so-called hypermetric lines, in which each verse consists of three stressed syllables. The reasons for which poets expanded the line in this manner are not fully understood, but it is less common and may have been considered a kind of ‘special effect’.